Thursday 31 October 2019

Another poem from Lennart Sjögren's latest collection

To some extent I think I know humans
and to some extent I think I know animals
we live together after all
can touch and smell each other
have different ways of expressing emotions

Everything outside this is unknown to me
but I am not referring here to monsters
not to angels and not to
so much talked-about demons either

If I were to say that physically speaking
it is smaller than midges
or larger than lions
it would be an insult
both to midges and to lions
I am not even sure it materially exists

But it is there even so
and tells me both day and night
that I must mention it
if at least to a certain degree
I am to speak the truth.

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Poem from Lennart Sjögren's latest book of poems: 'I trädets grenverk'

Amongst the tree’s branches
where the days and nights constantly change places
where the foliated and defoliated
find short-lived respites between the seasons
which sometimes give life
sometimes cause the trunk itself to succumb

What I wrote I wrote as one captured
in the enviable situation
between the heat that is unbearable
and the cold no one has escaped from alive
here there is total joy
and no joy whatsoever

In the gasps of the canopy of branches
where life until now has even so been possible
where you and I change places
in the restless night

We long for what is abiding
but do not know what it is.

Monday 28 October 2019

ALS: Underground


In the 60s of the previous century, I knew a young man who lived under the ground. He was studying biology and was interested in bats. He lived in a cave in South Limburg where great clusters of bats hung.
The student slept on a mattress and worked at a small table, sitting on a wooden kitchen chair. A heavy but portable storage battery provided energy. He had stuck a label with a number on it on the back of each sleeping bat. Whenever they flew in and out they were automatically photographed. The elapsed time was also registered. After a year the sticky labels fell off and back home in Delfzijl he wrote a standard work on bats. I visited him in his cave on one single occasion, after which I had nightmares that took place underground. That’s sixty years ago now, but last night they struck again – a gruesome adventure in the earth. I had been giving a reading in Arnhem at the Hijman Ongerijmd bookshop and had parked my car in an impenetrable parking garage where I found a space in the Dance A section. The bookdealer accompanying me urged me not to forget this code — there were other categories apart from Dance such as Fashion, and you could also end up at B, C and D. It was deathly quiet, there was not a soul to be seen. The cars had been brought to their various places in an unknown dimension of reality without drivers. When I started my hunt for my car towards midnight, it did not surprise me that my worst premonitions had turned into reality. There was not a soul to be seen, all the cars stood waiting there like corpses. I suspected that I would only succeed if I thought intensely of the simplest form of life: running like an innocent child through countryside on the edge of a town. The sun is shining, the fruit trees are in blossom, my mother is calmly watching from a close distance. A man-sized bat lands next to me, I don’t scream, it has a sticky label on its back with the words Dance A. It lifts me up and takes me to my car.

Sunday 20 October 2019

ALS: Nothing personal

nothing personal

In the early daylight the boy walks past the nightspots of the town. Doors stand open, work is in progress, the night is being swept out, some music still hangs around. The boy is terrified, he actually believes (his mother has told him this) that these are the gates of hell. Don’t laugh, stay serious – this is your fellow man. This is the freedom that it is all about: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of dwelling, freedom of holding one’s breath and suddenly gasping. The young man is a boy no longer, he has become a man, erect in life and limb. I got to know him in this borderland area. I understood that I had to leave hell out of consideration. That cost me no trouble – I come from a family where religious belief was never talked about. Just as we never talked about the permafrost in Siberia or the Shah of Persia. We talked about the Kindertotenlieder, because each week my father went to the Concertgebouw. When the boy’s mother had died, I realised that the freedom of religion also applied to him. He was twenty-three years old and, like me, lived in the Rivierenbuurt precinct of Amsterdam. If we happen to talk about freedom, it always has to do with love, that delicate area where the tiniest differences can have the greatest consequences. Since the young man also believed that he here also had a free choice, the reality of the matter was hard.
The girl he wished to approach admittedly belonged to the same church as he did, but after his mother’s death there were rumours buzzing around about his abandoning the faith. The young woman in question had no strong feelings about that, but her parents were implacable. Their daughter got into hot water because of an important characteristic of our culture – being grassed on. She was observed on several occasions with the young man on the edge of the Beatrixpark. They were standing talking to each other, they were not touching each other. When she no longer came, the young man found a letter in the letter-box with just one sentence: It’s nothing personal, I’m not allowed to see you again, my father’s forbidden it. I’ve always remembered the first four words, it’s sixty years ago.

Saturday 19 October 2019

Time for a Villon!

Ballade des dames du temps jadis

Dictes moy où, n’en quel pays,
Est Flora, la belle Romaine;
Archipiada, né Thaïs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine;
Echo, parlant quand bruyt on maine
Dessus rivière ou sus estan,
Qui beauté eut trop plus qu'humaine?
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan!

Où est la très sage Heloïs,
Pour qui fut chastré et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart à Sainct-Denys?
Pour son amour eut cest essoyne.
Semblablement, où est la royne
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust jetté en ung sac en Seine?
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan!

La royne Blanche comme ung lys,
Qui chantoit à voix de sereine;
Berthe au grand pied, Bietris, Allys;
Harembourges qui tint le Mayne,
Et Jehanne, la bonne Lorraine,
Qu'Anglois bruslerent à Rouen;
Où sont-ilz, Vierge souveraine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan!

Prince, n'enquerez de sepmaine
Où elles sont, ne de cest an,
Qu'à ce refrain ne vous remaine:
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan!

Ballad of the ladies of former times

Tell me, in what land Flora is,
The fairest Roman on this earth;
Alcibiades, born Thais,
Who her first cousin was by birth;
Echo, who sound from sound did breed
Above the stream or pool, I vow,
Whose beauty humans’ did exceed?
But last year’s snows, where are they now!

Where too is wisest Heloise,
For whom to monk they did castrate
Pierre Abelard of Saint Denise?
Who for his love endured that fate.
And likewise too the queen insane
Who Buridan had flung somehow,
Trussed in a sack into the Seine?
But last year’s snows, where are they now!

Queen Blanche, white as a young lamb’s fleece,
Who sang with siren’s voice amain;
Big-foot Berthe, Beatrix, Alice,
Eremgarde, governess of Maine.
And Joan of Arc, burnt at the stake,
Whose death the English did allow:
Where are they, for the Virgin’s sake?
But last year’s snows, where are they now?

Prince, do not ask for week or year
That I their whereabouts avow,
Lest this refrain should taunt your ear:
But last year’s snows, where are they now!

Sunday 13 October 2019

ALS: 'Middeleeuwen'

Middle Ages

In the afternoon of 11 October I am sitting in the deathly still room, gazing out at the edge of the wood. The weather forecaster has said it will be rainy and blustery, but it is still, grey and dry. I stoke the stove with wood that I have gathered in the wood this summer. Everything is peaceful and tedious and as it should be. I have locked the door to keep out all reports of the world outside. Someone has said that somewhere or other a dangerous war has broken out, but I don’t want to know who and where. As the afternoon is drawing to a close, there is a knock at the door – the milkman’s son. His father is old and stopped being a milkman a long time ago, the trees grow slowly, the landscape is a quite unapproachable woman, the milkman’s son retains his name and is satisfied with it. His coming to my remote house has something to do with the role that I play in his life. For the past twenty years I have been a letter-writer. The first letters I wrote at his request were to a young woman from the village. She wrote back to hm, I answered. We wrote fourteen letters. He got married to her without her suspecting my efforts. He is going through a rough patch, the marriage is in danger, she wants to leave her husband. She’s already moved out for a trial period. He asks me if I will once more write his letters. I do so of course, I’m his letter-writer, I submerge once more into the Middle Ages.

Saturday 12 October 2019

Hölderlin: 'Menschenbeifall'


Ist nicht heilig mein Herz, schöneren Lebens voll,
  Seit ich liebe? Warum achtetet ihr mich nicht mehr,
    Da ich stolzer und wilder,
     Wortereicher und leerer war?

Ach! Der Menge gefällt, was auf dem Marktplatz taugt,
  Und es ehret der Knecht nur den Gewaltsamen;
    An das Göttliche glauben
     Die allein, die es selber sind.

Human acclaim

Is my heart not sacred, full of more beauteous life,
  Now that I love? Why did you hold me in greater esteem
    In my prouder and wilder,
     Verboser and emptier days?

Ah! the masses are pleased by marketplace values,
  And respect servants feel for none but oppressors;
    Belief in what is divine
Have only those who are godlike.

Friday 11 October 2019

Friedrich Hölderlin: 'An die Parzen'


Nur Einen Sommer gönnt, ihr Gewaltigen!
  Und einen Herbst zu reifem Gesange mir,
     Daß williger mein Herz, vom süßen
       Spiele gesättiget, dann mir sterbe.

Die Seele, der im Leben ihr göttlich Recht
  Nicht ward, sie ruht auch drunten im Orkus nicht;
     Doch ist mir einst das Heilge, das am
       Herzen mir liegt, das Gedicht, gelungen,

Willkommen dann, o Stille der Schattenwelt!
  Zufrieden bin ich, wenn auch mein Saitenspiel
     Mich nicht hinab geleitet; Einmal
       Lebt ich, wie Götter, und mehr bedarfs nicht.


But one last summer grant me, you mighty ones!
  And one more autumn for songs of full ripeness,
     So that my heart, by such sweet playing
       Sated, within me will readily die.

The soul whose divine right in life was denied
  Will no rest in Orcus’ dark realm find either;
     Should I the sacred ever attain, 
       That which is dear to my heart, the poem,

You will be welcome, oh shadow-world’s stillness!
  I am content, though I make my way downward
     With no lyre to strum; just once I’ll have
       Lived as do gods, and that will suffice.

Thursday 10 October 2019

Friedrich Hölderlin: 'An die jungen Dichter'


Lieben Brüder! es reift unsere Kunst vielleicht,
  Da, dem Jünglinge gleich, lange sie schon gegärt,
     Bald zur Stille der Schönheit;
     Seid nur fromm, wie der Grieche war!

Liebt die Götter und denkt freundlich der Sterblichen!
  Haßt den Rausch, wie den Frost! lehrt, und beschreibet nicht!
  Wenn der Meister euch ängstigt,
  Fragt die große Natur um Rat.


My dear brothers! Our art perhaps will best ripen
  If, as is with a youth, after time to mature
     It attains beauty’s stillness;
       Just be pious, as were the Greeks!

Love the gods well and of mortals think graciously!
  Frenzy hate, likewise frost! Teach, shun description!
     Should the master dismay you,
       Ask of Nature her wise advice.

Wednesday 9 October 2019


My Grandpa loved large veneered cabinets. One of these had a fan-shaped window on the front, with three knobs underneath. The window of the fan contained a list of radio stations on the medium and long wave, and one of the knobs turned this card of names until the station you wanted reached the zenith of the arc. It was here i saw my first Danish word – Kalundborg. A bulb behind this bakelite card faintly lit the names.
The lid of this crate-like object with rounded corners, could be lifted, revealing a gramophone turntable. The lid itself housed a cavernous loudspeaker. One speed only, 78 rpm, although a lever at the side could slightly increase or decrease the velocity. The heavy pick-up arm was of metal, the type where you lifted over the head itself in a smooth arc and lowered it gently onto the shellac records. The 12-inch records were classical music, the 10-inch popular music from the 1920s and 1930s. For some reason, Grandpa gave it to me when I was about twelve years old.

Standing in the bath holding the shower-head, it turns into that pick-up arm and I hear my favourite hit record of the 1920s once again: ‘I’m looking for the Ogo Pogo’. I see an orchestra of neatly shaven, brillianteened young men all in evening dress, sitting in a large arc. There is a touch of the Savoy about them, though the music has a Dixieland feel to it, despite its polished elegance. Doo-wacka-doo-wacka-doo-wah go the trumpets. Bhom-bhom-bhom-bhom goes the sousaphone. ‘His mother was an earwig, his father was a whale. I want to put a little bit of salt on his tail...’ I sing happily, in my poshest voice. ‘I’m looking for the Ogo Pogo, playing on his old banjo. The Lord Mayor of London, The Lord Mayor of London, The Lord Mayor of London wants to put him in the Lord Mayor’s show!’ 

I foxtrot naked out of the shower, search on Google, and hit the jackpot:


Word-picture by Dèr Mouw: 'Op zee en wolkbank...'

Op zee en wolkbank ligt een zelfde tint
van oud lood, dof beslagen, blauwig grauw;
daarboven kalkig wit, waarna het blauw
met langzaam vloeiende overgang begint.

Geen horizon, geen streep van schuim, geen wind:
plotsling lopen er banen, zonder vouw,
vol glans, als op de hals ligt van een pauw,
prachtig-glad lint naast evenwijdig lint.

Ik kijk. ’t Is alles effen. Op eenmaal,
blauwgrijze muur, staat de zee vertikaal
(de wolkbank zet hem voort) niet ver van me af;

en even diep onder de rand van kalk
als hoog boven de voet, ginds, spannen straf
de telefoondraden hun notenbalk.

On sea and cloud bank lies a single hue
of old lead, dully beaten, bluish grey;
above a chalky white, it then gives way
and, flowing slowly, merges into blue.

There’s no horizon, band of foam or wind:
all at once straight lines run, uncreased, unchecked
that strongly gleam, as on a peacock’s neck,
bright, glossy ribbons, parallel and thin.

I gaze. All is quite smooth. Then, suddenly
a blue-grey wall, now vertical, the waves
(joined by the cloud bank) stand not far from me;

and just as deep below the rim of chalk
as high above the yonder foot, quite taut,
the telephone wires stretch their music staves.

Monday 7 October 2019

ALS: 'Duivel'


Earlier I always used to bake my own bread, every day. Flour, yeast, salt, lukewarm water. Suddenly I stopped doing so, I don’t know why. This week, twenty years later, I’ve started again, I hadn’t lost the knack. As I was taking it out of the oven, a man was standing next to me who I hadn’t heard come in. He said: ‘I can smell bread.’ It was a man I vaguely knew, a tramp. I said: ‘You came in without knocking. I’m not at all keen on that.’ He said: ‘I did knock. You didn’t react.’ I said: ‘That’s precisely why you should have stayed outside. I would have talked to you on the doorstep, as I am afraid you are the devil.’ You make me think of Nicolo Paganini.’ The man said: ‘Never heard of him.’ I said: ‘He was a virtuoso violinist and composer. Nobody could play like he did. For that reason people thought he must be a sorcerer. After he died he couldn’t be buried, no town had a licence to bury anyone who had made a pact with the devil. Everyone was afraid of him. His son spent decades hawking his embalmed corpse around with him.’ I was aware that I was offending against the rules of hospitality, but the bread was still too hot and there was nothing else edible in the house either. Fortunately, I was helped by the unexpected arrival of my granddaughter. She was putting her bike down as I let the tramp out. She’s very good at dancing, she’s got a Brazilian mother. I asked her if she could dance a little for the gentleman. She did so, quite unabashed, exceptionally well. The tramp too seemed satisfied.

To hear him read the story in Dutch, go to:

Sunday 6 October 2019

Eddy van Vliet: 'De haas'


Mijn stap was zwaar. Aarde,
grijs en vet, trok mij neerwaarts.
Onrustwekkend mijn gebrek aan bezwaar.

De aardappelen gerooid, koren gedorst.
Tak tot in zijn laatste blad geraakt.
Leven leek de heuvels te hebben verlaten.

Het lag samengebald in de spieren
van de haas. In zijn naderende sprong,
die, eens genomen, als door een windhoos
voortbewogen, steeds aan snelheid won.

Wachtte hem een hinderlaag?
Lot van de eenzelvige nomaad, opgejaagd
tot in het sterrenbeeld dat zijn naam draagt.
Ik bad, zonder te weten tot wie of wat.


My tread was heavy. Earth,
grey and greasy, dragged me downwards.
Disquieting, my lack of objection.

The potatoes lifted, corn threshed.
Branch reached to its final leaf.
Life seemed to have abandoned the hills.

It lay coiled within the muscles
of the hare. In his approaching bound,
which, once taken, propelled as by a
tornado, constantly gained speed.

Did an ambush lie in wait?
Fate of the self-contained nomad, routed
up into the constellation of his name.
I prayed, not knowing to whom or what.

Friday 4 October 2019

Guido Gezelle: "Gij zegt dat ’t vlaamsch te niet zal gaan"


Gij zegt dat ’t vlaamsch te niet zal gaan:
’t en zal!
dat ’t waalsch gezwets zal boven slaan:
’t en zal!
Dat hopen, dat begeren wij:
dat zeggen en dat zweren wij:
zoo lange als wij ons weren, wij:
’t en zal, ’t en zal,
’t en zal!


You say that Flemish soon will die:
Not so!
That dull Walloon it will outvie:
Not so!
This is our hope, our fervent prayer:
This is our claim, ’tis this we swear:
While we have Flemish breath to spare:
Not so, Not so,
Not so!

ALS: 'Nacht'

27.03 night

I don’t like dreams – I always have the feeling that I’m being taken for a ride. Last night I was lying on the sofa, half-asleep, half-awake, Philip Glass supplying the music, as usual. From there I looked down at a garden in the depths of which, and unrecognisable, a group of women were walking (always women). The images turned like a screw, spiralling up towards recognisability. I hoped that it would turn out to be my mother, my wife, my daughters, my granddaughters and my sisters. But I was punished for my scepticism – they were unknown women, I was alone – I wanted to complain, but remained silent. I got up and went outside.
Whenever I go out at night, the cats always appear from various directions. They walk along with me, normally not more than a hundred metres. This time they followed me through the wood to the low-lying wide pool where we could hear water birds in the reeds. After an hour I walked back towards the house, the cats disappeared to their own patch. I lay down on the sofa once more. To get ahead of the dream, I thought of old people doing exercises in a town park. The park was familiar to me, it was the one in the town where I was born. The old people had once been teachers at my primary school. I could hear them talking, I was glad that I was no longer dreaming.

Wednesday 2 October 2019

Poem by the Flemish poet Guido Gezelle (1830-1899): 'Kerkhofblommen'


Zoo daar ooit een blomke groeide
over ’t graf waarin gij ligt,
of het nog zoo schoone bloeide:
zuiver als liet zonnelicht,
blank gelijk een Lelie blank is,
vonklende als een roozenhert,
needrig als de needre rank is
van de winde daar ’m op terdt,
riekend, vol van honing, ende
geren van de bie bezocht,
nog en waar ’t voor die U kende,
geen dat U gelijken mocht!

Churchyard flowers

If some flower ever sought to grow
o’er the grave in which you lie,
though great beauty it might show –
pure as sunlight from on high,
gleaming as the lily’s gleam is,
as the rose-heart sparkling bright,
modest as each humble shoot is
by the wind that seeks to blight,
fragrant, filled with nectar, due to
be consorted by the bee –
even so, to one who knew you,
it like you could never be!