In personal correspondence, Mark van Tongele invariably signs off with the words “hoping for the sun’s blessing”. More than just a mantra, this optimistic phrase expresses both a belief in the sun and a stunning confidence in the power of the word. Van Tongele’s work is a cry of vitality, a dazzling linguistic waterfall. Language is life and for Van Tongele life crystallises as an irrepressible swirl of language. He bears witness to this in poem after stirring, rhythmic poem.
In 1984 Van Tongele wrote the programmatic ‘Open Letter to a Young Poet’, in which he called himself a “hinge poet” – a writer at the point of fracture of two planes, attempting to reconcile past and future, uniting reason and emotion. In his apologetic, he brands poets as “the scouts of a new era” and defends the orientation of his poetry toward the future. He reveals himself as an eclectic, a poet who occupies the meeting point of diverse poetics, striving to combine the best of realism, experimentalism and post-modernism. Van Tongele speaks of “digital poetry”, intended for a computerised future society.
The series with which the poet debuted in the mid 1980s were rich in imagery and consideration of language itself. Built up around a handful of key themes, they revolved around essential concepts like the sun, light and language. These themes continue to structure his work as a whole; they are the lode he has mined to erect his linguistic structures.
Van Tongele is an oeuvre builder, a poet who writes in opuses, the author of an impressive corpus. He skews language to expand the scope of possible interpretation, twisting words to charge those same words with new meanings. He plays with punctuation and hyphenation, neologisms and other linguistic innovations to say more than ordinary words can say. Van Tongele has an eye for the other and wants to evoke it in his language, in the grand, self-legitimising corpus he creates and continues to realise.
In Van Tongele’s second volume, Vaderlatingen, published in 1997, death is omnipresent: the journey from the experience of healing (the coma which overcame the man Van Tongele) to rebirth (the re-opening of his eyes) and ultimately to the reality of language in the light of day. By reconciling life and death, he tries to accommodate opposites and assert the presence of the other. In, with and through language, the poet strives to link past and future, life and death, darkness and light.
While also considering death, Lopend licht (2001) is conceived above all around light and life. Dynamism is ultimately victorious; the poet moves into light. The gloom of the previous volume has been dispelled. With his visceral language, rhythmic riffs and words that cross-fertilise and enrich each other, Van Tongele erects a barrier against death. More than just confronting language with emptiness, Van Tongele aims for a playful, at times ironic exposure of that same emptiness. It is a way of dealing with death, the death that is part of life and not necessarily its opposite.
The following volumes Taalwaterval (2003) and Luchthonger (2004) contain pre-eminently vitalist poems. The language is uninhibited, the rhythm incantatory, enchanting, compelling. Poet and reader are swept along by language. Daring to go so far in linguistic exploration shows energy, inquisitiveness and courage.
The titles of his most recent volumes actually say it all: the poet stands in bright light, under a dazzling waterfall of language, hungry for the air that confers life and is essential to it. Van Tongele’s poetry doesn’t just dynamite conventional language; with its inventive word choice, rich palette of linguistic and stylistic registers, highly conscious deployment of metre and rhyme, accelerations and decelerations, images and formal idiosyncrasies, it dynamises language by continually creating its own highly individual linguistic reality. It really is time – another key word in these poems – for these explorations of language and life to reach and enchant a wider audience. Inviting the reader to plunge into that linguistic universe.
Zij gedichten, Poëziecentrum, Ghent, 1994
Vaderlatingen, Lannoo, Tielt, 1997
Lopend licht, Lannoo, Tielt, 2001
Ochtendrood en co, Lannoo, Tielt, 2002
Taalwaterval, Lannoo, Tielt, 2003
Luchthonger, Lannoo, Tielt, 2004
Gedichten, Lannoo/Atlas , Tielt/Amsterdam, 2005
Met de plezierboot mee, Atlas, Amsterdam, 2007
Lichtspraak, Atlas, Amsterdam, 2008
Young animator Kristof Luyckx made an animation movie based on Van Tongele's poem ‘Breathtaking’ (click ‘movies’ and choose sixth movie).
An interview with Van Tongele on the Dutch National radio
Van Tongele’s publisher, Uitgeverij Atlas