Saturday 30 November 2019

Hugo Claus: 'Het weer'

The weather

How the weather in the land was without you?
First a fog descended
over the concrete mountains,

Then the sun hung as mist
over the pearly sand.

Then the air stirred
and turned clammy as your armpits.

Sheet lightning set my teeth on edge.

And everywhere there rose the scent
of the great beasts that do not exist

unless in the rushing of your ear,
and the rustling of your hair.

That is how the weather was there without you.
You are the air pressure and the dew
and the snow inside my skull.

The poem exists in different versions. This translation is of the poem found here.

Thursday 28 November 2019

Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer: 'Sonnet voor Unesco'

Sonnet for Unesco

Back in a black and white science fiction age
in Paris once a space ship ended stranded
with astronauts from every clime force-landed
and art which at that time was all the rage.

The ship, illusion-laden, had set out
toward a future vision that enshrined
a set of values for all humankind
when such as yet had not been soured by doubt.

The ideal is of course anachronistic
as is a truly selfless being who
lives on a planet where truth’s cheap at best.

But memories of times so optimistic
give hope. One can cure a myopic view
when panoramic vistas are one’s quest.

To see the original Dutch sonnet and hear the poet reading it, go to the UNESCO Nederlandse Commissie website here.

Andy Fierens: 'De snurkers'


Nothing is more precious to me
than my father’s

My father
like so many others
denied he was a snorer.

Not until I had taped
the rumbling sound
of his nocturne
did he admit the fact.

A couple of years later he died.

One of the few things
I still have of him
is the recording of his
sonorous breathing.

When the human race was still
in its infancy
the snorer was sacred. 
He slept 
on the outside of the circle
and with his chain-saw kept
wild animals
such as the
cave bear
at a distance.

Thus did he protect the tribe.

recognisability makes
the snorer vulnerable.

Whenever in my youth
we went out camping
my father was
strictly forbidden
to enter the tent
before everyone else
was sleeping
like a log.

Is it mere chance that I
who in my whole life
had never snored
one single time
took over 
the torch from him
after his death?

Not infrequently
when we are camping
I am now banished
at night by my own children
to the confined
acoustics of
the car.

Like my father
I am a snorer
whose fugue
is despised
by the tribe
he seeks to protect.

I am a tolerant man.
I can comply with
the whims of the woman
at my side.
There is though one rule
that I observe:
now and then
I ask her to stay awake
until I am asleep
and then softly
close to my ear
play the tape. 

Then we snore together.

Two humming bees
who recognise each other
and in joy and merriment
dance through the night.

While snoring 
harmoniously brought together
our hearts beat as one.

At last father and son.

Monday 25 November 2019

ALS: 'Herinnering'


When I lived in Amsterdam, I habitually used to pay a quick visit to the Stedelijk Museum to have a look at a painting. No more than a minute. I was on my bike. I lived in the southern part of the capital and biked to the city centre. The strange thing is that it never occurred to me to stop at the Stedelijk on my way home. I think I was fifteen or sixteen at the time – in the early 1950s. I can’t recall this habit of mine in all its details. I remember that the painting was an Odalisque by Matisse, an Arab woman lying on a bed, scantily clad. Matisse made a great many such paintings. I can’t remember if I had to pay anything. Perhaps there was an agreement to entice school pupils in free of charge so as to make cultural individuals out of them. Another recollection from that period also has something to do with art. It has to do with a friend of mine, Victor Dorvoets. He studied at the State Academy of Fine Arts on Stadhouderskade, the sculptural department. He lived somewhere in Brabant, but did not have enough money to pay for a room. He had come to Amsterdam in a clapped-out minivan and used it as his bedroom. After a short while he was so familiar with the city that he knew at which hotel he could get a free wash, where he could fetch the surplus food from the market and in which park he could sit in the sun undisturbed. Everything went well as long as he kept out of the reach of the higher echelons of society. Because he was an introvert and bided his time, he was able to live undisturbed for a few years. All this came to an end when a wrong girl fell in love with him. Wrong isn’t the right word – she was a lovely, affectionate and lively girl (I also had my eye on her). She unfortunately lived on Apollolaan, her father had a great deal of money and influence. When he discovered his daughter’s new love after a few months, things moved fast. Not only was she sent to a boarding school in Switzerland, but Victor Dorvoet’s car-life in Amsterdam was made so difficult by the authorities that he had to leave the city – and thereby the academy as well. I have never seen him since, he belongs to my memories. 

Saturday 23 November 2019

Ilja Pfeijffer: Overstroomd sonnet

Inundated sonnet
in which it is high tide in Venice

While fine young ladies seek to save their trailing
skirts from swirling water that’s ankle-deep,
palazzi have to picturesquely keep
on sinking due to what’s mere human failing.

The house fronts fringed with lace-trimmed porcelain
reflect the thickly made-up vistas cast
from nearby in the water and aghast
they see how many men death can retain.

For pinchbeck gold are waterways on offer.
And underpinning has been filched by greed.
Corruption breaches what are costly dikes.

The irate gods Atlantis once did proffer
to the sea. This city was doomed to bleed
to death from vulgar profit-seeking tykes.

Friday 22 November 2019

Gerrit Komrij: 'The Stones of Venice'



You saw a rowboat coming from the Lido.
The oarsman’s rudder was a stave of glass;
His oars two stockfish; burly of frame he seemed to
You, through sluggish strokes, to hint of tenderness.

His countenance was pearly in its sheen.
His eyes like phantoms gazed towards the mainland,
His lips were trembling wordlessly. He seemed
Entranced, enraptured by what flimsy dreamland?

You studied him from the Campanile through
Opera glasses - caught your breath, when, pale as
Marble, he hauled his bulk up on the near-shore.

You saw him toil. His movements now appeared more
Jerky, till he began to come apart, to
Crumble into blackish, repulsive pieces.


We found out in the Calle delle Case
Nove we could go no further, admitted
We’d lost our way. Oh dear, we were now facing
3am plus. Above, the stars acquitted

Themselves, in quite unmatched magnificence, of
All their accepted, decorative duties.
We could but praise the light they shed - the sense of
Place their beacon gave, alas, was muted.

At quickened pace we hurried back, through all
Those alleys, lanes, those passages and byways -
Meeting no living soul in all the tried ways -

Faster we went, still faster, glimpsing all
At once a bridge we thought we could recall!
Thank God! we cried, collapsing gently sideways.


The quays, I know them all now, the alleyways
And the Palazzos. Makes me feel real warm.
I’ve left my heart behind here, lots of places,
(And on the Academy bridge my arm,

The Rialto my kidney. And my liver -
Left at the Arsenale I recall.)
Oh, Venice as a city can deliver...
Though it’s a peep-show and a magic-hall.

Here you can snuff it in the poshest style
In some old locked-up mansion stuffed with riches,
Even a swindler needn’t feel a heel.

Oh, on my exit, hope you’ll stand awhile
On one of the huge Grand Canal’s fine bridges
And watch me gliding past just like an eel.


On board a ceremonious, decked-out sloop
They passed the rows of undermined old houses.
And from the formerly well-trodden stoop
The one-time water-pipes stuck out like hoses.

They proudly passed through locks in need of pitching.
We’re putting out to sea, they sang aloud.
Their jerkins were embroidered with gold stitching
From the caboose their emerald swelled out.

The smoke still came from the now distant housing
Dead sand was swirling in the gutter-drain.
Upon the water old stoves drifted, drowsing,

Though all was miles behind their craft’s long train.
No sooner did they hear the sea carousing
Than they sank too. Like someone with no brain.


Here dead birds roam, above the towers the grandees
From times so long since flown are gently floating,
The graveyards now are higher than the Andes!
Quiet, laddie, quiet. (Calm down.) This is worth noting.

You can of course remember the first hour
That we were here? The square becoming round,
The footman emperor, the water fire,
The sun a leper and the club-foot sound?

(Keep quiet, calm down: it’s only poetry,
It’s only turns of phrase.) But ow! That roar
Of the dead in the water, listen, more,

Listen how your entire life is in touch
With everything that hankers back to such,
And not with god-knows-what or he-or-she.


Today the stench was really twice as bad.
From every chink thick smoke rose to the sky
That almost made you gag. The dregs that had
Come gurgling upwards looked like bile or lye.

And from the rebates percolated gas.
You asked the gondolier to move on faster.
You saw in houses cracks in walls and plaster
And how the paint was peeling off en masse.

‘Hurry, please, hurry!’ You would bear no more
That canal sewer full of slurry, slime,
And sought Palladio’s cathedral door.

But you were stuck there in the leaden sump
At the palace of Peggy Guggenheim,
That old, decrepit, vulgar Yankee frump.


The street musicians on San Marco square
Departed at the signal from the two Moors.
You scarcely heard, borne on the distant air,
Their chorus’ and the clock-tower’s final tremors.

Over the stones there scurried scraps of paper.
In some quiet gallery you sat, unseen.
The lights that first had been the square’s slim tapers
Went out. Only the cobbles softly gleamed.

Then all at once the Sirens were heard singing.
So rare. So high. The setts danced to a samba.
A pinnacle collapsed. The Moors were floored.

The waves slapped round your legs, now gently stinging,
The Sirens shrieked and whistled round the ramparts,
From the basilica a fire-gush roared.

Gerrit Komrij: 'Moeder'


Soms bloeide mijn moeder op
En kon ze als Brugman praten –
Een waterval, kip zonder kop –
Een verleden zonder hiaten –

Meestal zweeg ze. Ik denk aan haar
Als aan een ijzig rustende,
Onbenaderbare pilaar.
Je zou haar niet snel kussen.

Dement. Ze kakelde weer.
‘Jongen, wat ben je groot’
‘Het was fijn, maar nu niet meer’
‘Wanneer ga je weg?’ – en toen dood.


My mother at times came alive
Was granted the gift of the gab –
She gabbled on fixed overdrive –
A seamless past made up of blab –

But most of the time she said nowt.
Reminding me most of a pillar
Unreachable, steely throughout.
To kiss her would not be a thriller.

Quite senile. She cackled away.
‘Good gracious, how well you’ve been fed’
‘What times we once had, not today’
‘And when will you leave?’ – and then dead.

Gerrit Komrij: 'Pepper and Salt'



I had this fright. Is fright the word? Dismay
And adoration, rather, when I sighted
Him in the crowd that filled the street that day.
A fleeting moment. I stood undecided.

I thought: why had I not hurried across?
Too late. He was no longer within view.
And I knew somehow: that one second’s loss
Is crucial for miracles. Yet my two

Feet felt ungainly and leaden. Was such a
Package-bearer as I weighed down, full-stowed?
Oh no. Come on. I had just left the butcher’s.
A quarter of minced veal was all my load.


I’d been too fainthearted to throw away
The mince, with no show of mercy or shying.
I’d have inundated his neck, his face,
His mouth with kisses, kisses there’s no denying,

If only, ardently and with no hint
Of hesitation, I’d cast off my mince,
That quarter of mince at the very moment
Of truth. Oh yes, it would have been a cinch

To grasp and entwine him not with a hundred
But with a thousand liana embraces,
If I had flung away my mince, not blundered.
Now tears left on my cheeks their scalding traces.


I was a spark, yet in that flash alone
Became a sea of fire. My body kindled.
Out of my hand the mince now fell unhindered.
Too late, too late, I thought. (Another groan.)

I rushed around, scorching all things in my way.
No cliff, no obstacle could halt my progress.
I’d lost my head completely in the process.
(If lava does the same, I cannot say.)

I was a ball of fire. I sought the town,
The golden gate behind which he, enthralling,
Sat proudly in a splendid, dazzling gown.
And I, poor slave - my flame was falling, falling.


It seemed to me eternities ago
I’d seen him thus across the street, before
A car - if I remember, a Renault -
Obscured him from my sight, but, to be sure:

How short a time I’d vacillated there.
Now hours last years - time holds me in derision.
I simmer on. I smoulder in despair
I am the lonely martyr of provisions.

Those who see beauty slipping from their grasp
Through their devotion to all everyday things
Deserve no better than, with one last gasp,
To crash from cliffs. Dead. Unlamented playthings.


I still recall it all. His dark-brown tresses.
The coursing blood suffusing his young cheeks.
His ears, of bright-red cartilage recesses.
The light that from his forehead scattered sparks.

His body was so skinny. A small jumper,
An open checkered shirt made up of daft,
Queer aberrations, four or five in number,
Sat tightly wound around his upper half.

The hand he stroked his temple with was quite
Like ivory (and bluish - it was cold),
His neck was long, his lips were almost white,
His eyes, though - pepper and salt! Pepper and salt!


Each day I buy my quarter pound of veal
And hope the miracle will be repeated.
My glimmer’s broken me, though scarcely real.
My eyes are wizened blackish beads, unheated.

And will I sense again his scythe’s soft swathing?
Oh God, I cry, I only wish I might.
My sky has been deprived of his sun’s light.
Without him I am lifeless, a mere nothing.

O save me, save me, I beg with persistence
Of passers-by, on foot or bike deployed,
From this accursed, meandering existence
Between the butcher’s and the bitter void.

Sunday 17 November 2019

ALS: 'Zonder taal'

Without language

‘What shall I say about that house over on the left. That was where that young man used to live who you always had arguments with, wasn’t it? No, it wasn’t that young man. I often spoke to him back then – I would have noticed it, forget the idea. And that bloke who used to live in that house in the thirties, what was his name, he was always concerned about it, wasn’t he? Yes, true, he spoke about it later, but he disappeared too without coming up with a definite answer.’

This is what I heard in my father’s boathouse. Two men were busy working on the engine of the large sloop he often used to go out sea-fishing. It was a dialogue I didn’t understand one little bit of. I can’t remember exactly how old I was, I was probably in class six or seven at junior school. It was the first time I realised that language can be completely hermetic, be perhaps recognisable but meaningless.

Later, on the brink of adulthood you could say, my father told me that he once had met a man who travelled to countries where language offered him no handhold of any sort. It was no game, he stayed there a long time, sometimes a year or so. He had no money, he had to work. Life was completely unglamorous, he was unhappy and lonely. He had had a deaf-mute elder brother who had died in an accident. He never talked about him. He wanted to find out, with no escape route possible, the nature of the silence in which his brother had had to live. He had of course heard about stylites. They caught his attention, but they sat up there with a serious Christian message. That he regarded as a drawback, he was solely interested in the silence within which his brother had lived. My father never met him again after their first meeting. Well, he did actually suddenly run into him thirty years later, unasked and unexpectedly, in the Damrak in Amsterdam. He had returned to the Netherlands and owned a small tobacco shop. He seemed relaxed, my father was surprised at this. I wasn’t – you can’t keep your bow drawn tight for ever.

Friday 15 November 2019

Dèr Mouw again: 'Kortlevend plankton'

Kortlevend plankton van de Brahmanzee,
zal ’k eenmaal naar hun vredebloei verzinken;
zoolang ik niet de koele dood mag drinken,
golf ik en eb met de oppervlakte mee;

zijn geheimzinn’ge stroom volg ik gedwee,
en als ’k uit wolkenschelp, die ’k rood zie blinken,
het ver geruisch van de eeuwigheid hoor klinken,
voel ik mijzelf de wind, zelf de avondvree.

Door golventop laat ik omhoog me tillen,
en ’k zie de verte parelmoerig trillen,
en ’k voel me toekomst, ben, wat eens zal zijn;

en laat de glazige afgrond neer me glijden,
dan zie ’k schemeren langverzonken tijden,
en ’t diepst verleden voel ’k bestendig mijn.

Brief-living plankton of the Brahman sea,
one day to their peace-flowering I’ll be sinking;
as long as I cool death may not be drinking,
with waves I surge and ebb incessantly;

its secret current meekly I observe,
and when I hear from cloud-conch coral flushing
the sound that is eternity’s faint rushing,
I feel myself the wind, and evening’s nerve.

I let the wave-crest lift me with a shiver,
and see the distance in a pearly quiver,
and feel I’m future, am what yet shall be;

and when the glassy abyss has me down-gliding,
a gloam of sunken ages I see hiding,
and feel what’s long since past’s still part of me.