Sunday 31 October 2021



ZKV 102


Departing in peace


Twice a week there were late-evening vespers in the chapel of Gonville and Caius in the early 1960s. Since I was in the choir and sang there several times a week, I got to know the interior well – a long narrow chapel, with the typically dark wooden choir stalls. Vespers were best late on winter evenings, with only the candles in the stalls flickering in their glass holders. No choir, just a handful of students, but the dean, in a wonderfully clear tenor voice, would intone the prayers, closing with the Nunc Dimittis, in the 1662 version of The Book of Common Prayer


Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; to be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.


And the outer world would drop away. The fact that I would have to cycle out to my digs on the Newmarket Road wearing my college gown over my thick coat since the University had its own little police force of a Proctor and two Bull Dogs to catch students disobeying some medieval law became irrelevant, and the beauty of the words chanted by Denys the Dean took over. And then there was silence.


And I departed in peace into what I was increasingly realising was a godless world.

Robin Veen: 'Atelier'



The light reigns in right angles. No whirling or dancing

takes place here. Nothing bends without breaking.


Children of wood stand in a straight line, tell one by one

the same story of the man who balanced under the beams of his house.


The man who at one point shut the door because his towers did 

not reach the heavens, because his stairs led nowhere.


He hacked away at his dreams, created from the fragments

a city in which he wandered around alone until


he knew all the ways to the city gate. Foot by foot he edges

along the wire of his existence in the direction of the door.

To see the original poem, go to here

Wednesday 27 October 2021

ZKV 101: 'Taking the biscuit'

 ZKV 101


Taking the biscuit


To call Kim Larsen (1945-2018) a Danish popsinger would get most Danes’ backs up. For he not only sang songs, he wrote them, he interpreted other people’s songs, he became, what in Danish is called a ‘folkeeje’ (part of its national heritage). In one of his songs he asks: ‘Fik du set det du ville/Fik du hørt din melodi?’ (Did you see what you wanted (to)/Did you hear your melody?). 

As I walked the doggie this evening on a strangely warm but humid autumn evening, I involuntarily misquoted and sang: ‘Did you get what you wanted (to)?’ and thought, it ought to have been ‘Did you do what you wanted (to)?’

This led inevitably to asking ‘Did you get what you deserved?’ and ‘Did you do what you deserved (to)’ . though I’m unsure if the latter means anything at all.

Such philosophical musings take up much of the time Eddie and I spend together. Philosophy, I say to myself, is a tough cookie. But, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.


I am ashamed to admit that American English has the edge on British there. As a translator, I offer a prize (of merit, not money) to anyone who can come up with a British English equivalent. For such an attempt, dear reader, would really take the biscuit.

Tuesday 26 October 2021

John Irons: 'Time for Music' (poem from the PA cycle)




‘something to show you’ said pa

opening a flattish cardboard box

extracting a silver letter m

with curved feet roughly five by two


pulling the right leg forward

he formed a tripod

the third leg topped by

a scooped ellipse


‘ah’ said pa

lifting a long letter l from the box

with a c underneath

a c with a howler monkey’s tail

an l with gradations

and tapering weight

with two metal pins

like fangs

sticking out from its base


‘from beethoven’s time –

beauty, isn’t she?’


she was, pa, she was –

a silent metronome! –

and perfect for you

pa the cautious

who’d ticktock his notes

looking for music held within them

instead of between them,

for time’s displacement

its dislocation

where laws can be broken

and freedom gained


pa kept his beauty highly polished

the gentle sway of the monkey’s tail

left in its wake a trail of star-dust


pa played out of time

Gerrit Komrij: 'Residu'




Dichters, we lezen ze met droge ogen.

Waar zijn de tijden van het hartebloed?

Waar de gezangen van het mededogen?

De litanieën, waar? Voorbij. Voorgoed.


Het bloed werd gruis. De tranen werden glas.

Het leed werd leed van bordkarton. Te koop

Kwam grimas, gil en wrede pijn. (En masse,

Per stuk, zoals je wil.) Azijn werd stroop.


De dichter, heden, is een zonderling.

Hij hangt de paljas uit voor zijn publiek.

Wat blijft: bezetenheid om één, één ding.

De wonden die hij likt. En de muziek.





Poets, we read them and our eyes stay dry.

Where are the times of lifeblood freely shed?

Where songs full of compassion’s heartfelt cry?

The litanies – where now? All gone. Quite dead.


Blood turned to grit and slag. Tears turned to glass.

Sorrow was pasteboard. What now sold a treat 

Were grimace, shriek and brutal pain. (En masse,

Per piece, you name it). Vinegar was sweet.


The poet, nowadays, is just a freak.

He clowns around and poses in full view.

What’s left: a single-track, obsessive streak.

The wounds he licks. The music too.



Monday 25 October 2021

Jean Pierre Rawie: 'Sterfbed'




Mijn Vader sterft; als ik zijn hand vasthoud,

voel ik de botten door zijn huid heen steken.

Ik zoek naar woorden, maar hij kan niet spreken

en is bij elke ademtocht benauwd.


Dus schud ik kussens en verschik de deken,

waar hij met krachteloze hand in klauwt;

ik blijf zijn kind, al word ik eeuwen oud,

en blijf als kind voor eeuwig in gebreke.


Wij volgen éen voor éen hetzelfde pad,

en worden met dezelfde maat gemeten;

ik zie mijzelf nu in zijn bed gezeten


zoals hij bij zijn eigen vader zat:

straks is hij weg, en heeft hij nooit geweten

hoe machteloos ik hem heb liefgehad.





My Father’s dying; as I hold his hand,

I feel the bones protruding through his skin.

I search for words – speech has deserted him,

each breath is laboured in this final stand.


So I plump pillows, smooth the crumpled spread

at which a clutching hand now feebly grasps;

remain his child, though centuries should pass,

and as his child am ever in his debt.


The selfsame path we follow one by one,

the selfsame yardstick every time applies;

I sit here on the bed in which he lies


as he beside his father once sat down:

soon he’ll be gone and will have never known

how helplessly I’ve loved him as his son.

Sunday 24 October 2021

Martinus Nijhoff: 'Moeder'




We liepen samen dikwijls langs de stranden

Als ’t avond werd. Dan zong ze naast de zee –

Ik, kleine jongen, die haar stem zoo kende,

Ik hield haar hand en zong de liedjes mee.


Een klein wit vrouwtje, met nerveuse handen

En steeds bewegend, steeds bewegend hart –

Wij wisten dat in haar geleden werd,

Dat zij het leven kende, en ’t voelde branden.


Ze ligt in ’t graf het gelaat naar boven.

Donkere moeder, wieg haar lichaam warm,

Zie, als een kind ligt ze naakt in uw schoot –


Zachter dan ’t leven zij haar de eeuw’ge dood,

Die menschen eenzaam maakt en stil en arm –

Maar die ’t witte zonlicht niet kan dooven.





Along the shore we often both went walking

When evening came. She sang then by the sea –

I, young lad, found her singing voice enthralling,

I held her hand and joined in eagerly.


A small white woman, hands in restive motion

And ever-darting, ever-darting heart –

We knew she suffered from much pain and smart,

That she knew life and felt its fiery potion.


She’s in her grave, her face now skywards gazing.

Dark mother, rock her body until warm,

Look, in your lap she’s naked as a child –


May more than life eternal death be mild,

Which turns us into lone, poor, silent forms –

But cannot stop the sun’s white light from blazing.


Willem Jan Otten: 'We lieten de parkieten los'



 We lieten de parkieten los,

verloren als we waren in

het schachtenlabyrint,


dat weergaloos begaanbaar
en gegraven door vergeten goden 

voor ons klaar gelegen had. 


Kwetterend verdwenen zij.

Wij voelden dat wij handelden

als eens een aartsvader. 


Zij hadden stervend zullen

fluiten: leef. Zij vlogen heen,

getrokken als door een magneet.


Wij zijn nu vreemd alleen.

Zo zij zonder wederkeer en nergens

blijven zwijgen weten wij nog minder


dan voorheen. Dit is het enige

dat ons gewerd. Wij zouden minder

weten, minder dan voorheen.



We then released the parakeets,

lost as we were in

the labyrinth of shafts,


that peerlessly passable

and excavated by forgotten gods

had lain there ready for us.


Twittering they disappeared.

We felt as if we acted as

once a patriarch had done.


Dying they ought to have

called out: live. They flew away,

dragged off as at a magnet’s pull.


We are now strangely on our own.

As those with no return and nowhere

remain silent we know less than we


did before. This is the only thing

that befell us. We were to know yet

less, less than we did before. 

Parakeet is a broad term covering 115 species of small parrot, but in North America

it is often used to mean a budgerigar.


Willem Jan Otten: 'Scena Madre'



Zoals ik ben gaan zitten

in een vouwstoel in te maaien gras,

doe ik denken aan mijn moeder.

Trilgras tastend naar je zonnebril,

de kinderen hoorbaar ergens

waar zij denken wij zijn moederziel,

een stapel boeken, Kierkegaard

vooral, of anderszins een zoon

die of beweert of of, de duizend

kleuren blond van overal het talmend

gras. Al is ze helemaal niet af

en zit ze in een ander gras vandaag,

ik ben haar ademende graf.





The way I am sitting

in a deckchair in grass that needs mowing,

is reminiscent of my mother.

Quaking grass feeling for your sun glasses,

the sound somewhere of the children

who are thinking we’re all alone,

a heap of books, Kierkegaard

mostly, or otherwise a son

asserting either, either or, the thousand

golden hues from everywhere the lingering

grass. She is not wholly dead and gone,

although she sits now in some other grass -

I am her breathing resting place.





Willem Jan Otten: 'Tot de bellenblazer'



Zesenveertig jaar geleden, bellenblazer, 

greep het plaats, in de Rivierenbuurt

van Amsterdam, even ten westen van

mijn geheugen: mijn ene geboorte.


Er werd terstond van mij gehouden,

zoals er wordt gehouden van de zeer,

zeer zeldzamen die voor je ogen

ontstaan en dan kleddernaakt zijn.


Ik was van meet af aan van groter waarde

dan ik in mijn eigen ogen worden zou.


Mijn geduldigste gedicht, mijn bondigste zin,

mijn strakste worp in de handschoen van een zoon,

hebben niet vergolden dat ik toen,

die ene keer dat ik geboren werd,


voor de aanwezigen minstens alles was,


de bel die paarlemoer komt aangedreven

door de tuin en niet de adem kent

die blies, niet terug de wind in kan. 






Forty-six years ago, bubble-blower, the great

event took place, in the Rivierenbuurt

neighbourhood of Amsterdam, just to the west of

my memory - my one and only birth.


From the start love was showered upon me,

as love is showered on those who are most,

most rare and who emerge before your

very eyes, drenched to their naked skin.


I was deemed from the outset to be worth more

than I would ever become in my own eyes.


My most patient poem, my pithiest sentence,

my swiftest pitch into a son’s glove,

have not offset the fact that I then,

on the sole occasion of my birth,


was for those present the world and more besides.


the bubble that mother-of-pearl comes drifting

through the garden and does not know the breath

that blew, cannot turn into the wind.

Saturday 23 October 2021

Willem Jan Otten: 'Over het roven van tijd'




Waarom anders bent u,

lezende, van waar u was

maar liefst tot hier geraakt,


dan om te vernemen,

van een ander dan u zelf,

dat alle vijftig eieren


die opa Otten de Agnost

eind vorige eeuw geraapt

en leeggezogen heeft,


en in een hemelsblauwe

ladenkist gelegd,

die mij nadien gewerd,


dat alle vijftig eieren,

dat van de kneu incluis,


het pinknagelkleine,



alsnog in deze regels

zullen worden neergevleid

als in hun nest van toen,


en in uw lezen uitgebroed?





Why else have you, reading,

ended up here of all places

from where you were before


unless to discover

from someone other than yourself

that every one of the fifty eggs


which agnostic Grandpa Otten

once collected and sucked

a century ago


and laid to rest in a

sky-blue set of drawers,

in time bequeathed to me,


that every one of the fifty eggs,

that of the linnet, too,


small as a little finger,

freckled with ochre,


will, in these very lines,

be gently feathered as in

their nest of former times


and, in your reading, hatched?





Hvorfor ellers, læsende,

er du nået hertil

fra dit tidligere sted,


hvis ikke for at fornemme

fra en anden end dig selv

at alle halvtredsindstyve æg


som bedstefar Otten Agnostikeren

i slutningen af det sidste århundrede,

samlede, udsugede


og lagde i et himmelblåt


som jeg senere hen arvede,


at alle halvtredsindstyve æg,

torniriskens indkluderet,


lille som en lillefingernegl,



stadigvæk skulle puttes

i disse linier

som i deres rede fra dengang


og udruges i din læsen.