Today, 10th April 2015, in the Dutch city of Gouda, the life and achievements of poet Leo Vroman are being celebrated. The 10th of April would have been Leo’s 100th birthday. For those that do not know, Leo Vroman was a poet, artist, scientist, and owner of one of the more incredible biographies in literature. Leo passed away on 22nd February, 2014, at his home in Fort Worth, Texas.
I discovered Leo and his work, fortuitously, because I have the great fortune to work with one of his daughters, Geri Griffin. We are drug workers in a substance-addiction service in Nottingham city centre. Geri says wonderful things like, “I am grateful to have a job where I get to use my soul.”
Geri told me, of her father, “One of my dad’s favourite lines from (of course) a New Yorker cartoon, showing Mrs. DaVinci with sceptical crossed arms, looking at her husband hunched over his littered work-desk: ‘Leo, aren’t you spreading yourself a little thin?'”
“Leo Vroman lived till the age of 98,” Geri continued, “residing in – going backwards in time – Fort Worth, New York City, New Jersey, Indonesia, and the Netherlands (which he fled when the Nazis invaded, since he was Jewish and pessimistic) – also surviving Japanese Prisoner Of War camps during the war.”
“So,” Geri said, “maybe the answer to the cartoon question, was ‘yes’, or maybe he just spread himself gloriously thick.”
If Time is unable to,
who, dear readers, tell me who?
From House and Yard (Huis en tuin, 1979) – Leo Vroman
Geri told me, “In the Netherlands, Leo has been an established poet for decades, and received many literary accolades and awards there. In the United States he was a research biochemist, particularly examining the actions of proteins (such as those involved in clotting) on surfaces. Someone (not him, though he was happy to repeat it) named one of these phenomena ‘The Vroman Effect’. Not only that, but the war-time love story between himself and his wife of 67 years, Tineke, was so dramatic that it was serialised by Tim Madigan in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, and a book written in the Netherlands, which retells the story, ‘Hoe Mooi Alles’ by Mirjam van Hengel.
The majority of Leo’s poetry was written in Dutch, and published widely in Holland. This means that there are still people who would, undoubtedly, love his work in English-speaking countries, but maybe have yet to be introduced to it. What I have read of Leo’s poetry has been on-line. I loved his writing immediately. A kind of cross between the humanism and social conscience of a Vincent Ferrini, and the surreal probing of another notable poet/scientist, Miroslav Holub. Writing that is always engaging, as lithe as Leo’s bounding mind, five steps ahead of you but never out of reach, and always, always beckoning you onwards, and readable. Oh so readable.
We are cathedrals
dark with hallways
marked with doors
barring the halls
and fallen gargoyles
guarding the floors.
On the walls
are drawings of hallways
hung with coils
of unstrung foils
and always the choir
hides in the height
of its hollow night
its lore unsung
of doors flung wide
to something outside
in the sunlight
From All Godforsaken Night (De godganselijke nacht, 1993) – Leo Vroman
“Leo was prolific in the visual arts,” Geri told me, “with computer art generated by programs he wrote in True Basic, employing chaos maths, did oil paintings in a surrealist or post-impressionist style, representational drawings of objects turned inside-out or otherwise morphing, and cartoons both child-like or ruthlessly political.”
Leo was a fantastic artist, you can see some of his amazing illustrations here
There is, it seems to me, so much to be drawn from the life and work of Leo Vroman. A scientist whose poetry and art reminds us how the long mislaid secret of these rabidly rational times is that the imagination is still the first tool of empiricism – and a poet/artist who utilised his art to withstand and survive the horrors of war.
“Playwright Matty Selman is writing a play in English based on Leo’s unpublished manuscript, Touched by Blood. Matty’s play will share that title and explores both the wonder and the passion for truth characterised by Vroman’s work in all fields,” Geri said.
You can help support the efforts to produce Matty Selman’s play by clicking here
Finally, Geri told me, “Leo’s work was a plea for peace, a testimony of love to all living things, he joked almost constantly, and got angry at injustice. And almost the only advice Leo ever gave was ‘Do what you want.’“
Do what you want, and, go find and read the work of Leo Vroman. Today, the 10th of April, 2015, on what would have been Leo’s one-hundredth birthday, the city of Gouda shall remember the incredible life-story and amazing body of work and achievements of Leo Vroman. So shall I.
Leo Vroman – 1915-2014