Dutch Poetry

The High Window is pleased to acknowledge that this Dutch poetry special was made possible with financial support from the Dutch Foundation for Literature.

We would also like to thank David Colmer for editing and commissioning the work that has been featured.



Martinus Nijhoff • VasalisGerrit AchterbergAnna Enquist • Hagar PeetersMaria BarnasAlfred Schaffer

The Translators

David Colmer David McKay Judith Wilkinson Donald Gardner  •  Michele Hutchison

Previous Translations

THW5: March 7, 2017               THW4: December 6, 2016  

THW3: September 1, 2016    THW2: June 1, 2016

THW1: March 1, 2016


Four Poems by Martinus Nijhoff translated by David Colmer


I’ve seen a man. He doesn’t have a name.
Just give him all our first names rolled in one.
He is a father’s son and born of woman.
Each morning by the rosy light of dawn,
he leaves his suburb, walking past my window.
When evening blues the sky, he comes back home.
At work his colleagues know him as Awater.
Behold this man who’s clad in camel’s hair
thread through a needle’s eye. His meagre body
is fed on meals of honeycomb and locusts.
The meaning of his cries is lost to all.
It’s wilderness where he lifts up his arms.
He has a monkish air, a soldier’s look,
but no one says a prayer or blows a horn
when solemn books are opened at the office.
They sit at desks as if they’re in a temple
and write in Arabic mixed with Italian.
Columns of enigmatic words rise up
in numbers fluttering down like flakes of ash.
Inside the silent room the summer’s back.
A salty tang wafts from the steady clack
of metal hammers typing balderdash.
Read it, it doesn’t say what it says. It says:
‘Oh, Mother, you will never wear the fur
you counted every penny to afford,
and I won’t come into your public ward
on my days off with flowers in my hand…
I’ll take the roses to Churchyard Row instead.’
That’s what it says. Awater’s stony face
shows motionless how deeply he is moved.
What time is it? He rests his heavy head.
The phone is sleeping on a green baize bed.
The cups have been collected on a trolley.
The clock ticks – chimes – ticks and ticks until five thirty.
It chimes again and all the lamps go out.


I went to see the new bridge going south.
I saw the bridge. Two banks that in the past
just seemed to turn their backs had been recast
as neighbours. I sipped my tea, then wiped my mouth
and lay back in the grass to contemplate
the landscape spreading out in front of me –
then from the midst of that immensity
there came a voice that made me sit up straight.

It was a woman, singing on a ship.
She stood there at the wheel, alone and calm,
and sailed slowly by beneath the bridge.

I knew the song she sang. It was a psalm.
Oh, Mother, if only that was you there on that ship.
Praise God, she sang, He keeps us safe from harm.


There is a captive animal under my skin
That snaps and thrashes trying to escape.
Its dark blood pounds, its bulging muscles quiver,
Pushing hard against its cramped constraint.

Until my veins are flooded with its pain,
Hot and forcing the birth of gestures, whose
Controlled haste and constant balanced grace
Harness its momentum as it breaks loose.

One must dust one’s features well with powder,
So that only the searing coal-black eyes
Betray the madness of the animal within.

The mouth – lips painted red, stretched wide –
Must be divinely proud to leave no doubt
About the sated triumph of its grin.


Singing and free of memories
I departed from the first of lands,
Singing and free of memories

I came into the second land,
Oh God, this place was strange to me,
Arriving in this second land.

Oh God, this place was strange to me
But let me leave this land again,
Oh leave me free of memories

To sing and reach the third of lands.

Martinus Nijhoff (1894-1953) was a poet, editor, essayist, playwright and translator (of Eliot and Shakespeare amongst others) and is widely seen as the most important Dutch poet of the pre-war period. His long poem ‘Awater’ is the classic of modern Dutch poetry. Published in English by Anvil (now Carcanet) in a dedicated volume with essays, the original and three English versions, an excerpt is included here along with three other poems, all translated by David Colmer.

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Six Poems by Vasalis translated by David McKay


Out of the snow-white field without warning it comes—
a horse. How it stands, what it does,
is happening. Now. For good.
Breathe lightly, for this sigh, this horse, this field
will yield to time, but are, this night, this pain,
with me this once. Now. For good.


Time after time, the oriole flings
lassos of brightly polished sound.
So clear, so supple, and so loud,
his whistle, like a boy’s, rings out—
my head turns, and again, he sings!
As if no time at all had passed
Since I was a girl a boy could catch.


Each breath already a remembering,
a different thing—
still fresh as wriggling fish
but tumbled onto one great heap
and floundering in the sparkling mesh
of life, which courses onwards in a rush.


Just as I breathe without a thought,
just as I feel my beating heart
so seldom, and can hardly see
my own face, even in the mirror,
likewise, I can so seldom, dear,
express in words that long-lived love
I do not have, but have become.


A heavy, lead-gray eyelid
droops over the low sun,
bringing sleep.
Who’s dreaming? Snow
begins to fall,
unsteady and slow,
and I see through a veil
for the blink of an eye
the look in his eye
drowsy and dull.


Like wind down through the chimney, tonight I hear him cry,
again unbodied, wandering, the child
who roams around and through my body and will find
no rest until my death at last has laid us side by side.

Vasalis (Margaretha Drooglever Fortuyn-Leenmans, 1909-1998) is one of the best-loved Dutch poets of the twentieth century. She worked as a child psychiatrist and wrote poetry throughout her life, combining elements of free verse with traditional forms and metres. After 1954, she declined to share her poetry with the public. The late poems presented here were published posthumously in 2002. David McKay’s translations of six of her earlier poems will appear in a forthcoming issue of Modern Poetry in Translation and The Loch Raven Review.

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Gerrit Achterberg: Six Poems translated by David Colmer


Grass… and having grazed,
lying here on folded legs
with eyes amazed
that I don’t need to take a step
yet find my mouth as full
as when I walked the field.
It must have slipped my mind again
what kind of animal I am.
Reflected in ditches when I drink,
I see my head and think:
why is that cow so upside down?
In time the gate I rub my back against
grows old and grey and greasy smooth.
I’m shy of frogs and children and they
of me: they find my tongue too rough.
The farmer’s milking is such bliss,
I overlook his avarice.
Quite unaware, I dream in mist at night
that I’m a calf, resting by its mother’s side.


Now I am here and breathing, breathing breath
like rain, repeating breath again
so that the bloody story might outweigh
the announcements of your death
– for they were kept secret from my body –
the languages are being woven to a single thread
and places of amazement rise
on every site I recognise; mirrored,
we see our faces, yours and mine,
merging in reflected light.


You’re with me through the night, the day, the night.
You once reserved the universe for me,
but that has been reduced to just this body.
Like the wind that howls around the house,
I feel you as a lack, a loss I can’t unwish.
I love you still, it is what it is.


I am the thinnest silk against your skin.
The dancing of your body makes me gleam
and draws me taut around your limbs.
At night in the dark
you’ve freed yourself of me completely
and shine a sparkling white,
a bride who died so sweetly.


The open window, the springtime that I drink,
the wind a hand that sinks down on my eyes.
Where did I possess this and how
can it find me in this dust, blind and forgotten?

Because what the rain whispers late at night,
silky and windless at the window,
cannot be translated for anyone else
and is a fatal disgrace to me, myself.


Last night I walked with you
along sleep’s muted avenues,
and now the day has dawned
I see that nothing’s changed,
except those two, who in their mutual night
were perfectly united,
having left me alone again come morning
to walk together further in the light.

Gerrit Achterberg (1905-1962) was a respected and influential poet, whose psychiatric problems were reflected in the obsessiveness of much of his poetry. Committed to a mental hospital in 1937 for murdering his landlady and assaulting her daughter, the notoriety this brought contributed to his myth. His collected poems have been reprinted thirteen times.

Acknowledgement: In 2008 the translator won the David Reid Poetry Translation Prize with a slightly different version of ‘The Poet as a Cow’, his translation of ‘De dichter is een koe’.

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Four Poems by Anna Enquist translated by David Colmer


My son was seven; his skates were way too big.
We saw a frog and fish below the ice,
whizzed past the reeds and crowds of cheering
imaginary fans, we stopped to eat
frozen chocolate on the bank and found
a shard from a pot in the crackling bog.
The world lay dry and shining at our feet.


When the dam was ready,
the water started rising.
A chill entered the mountain-
side. The trees were baffled,
choking on the element
they loved. Fish came to swim
between the vines and olives.

Yelling at the top of their lungs,
my children break the surface.
I want to call out to them: ignore
the pain of want, but fear the ir-
reversible power of excess, hear me,
the way I call, my stony silence.

They make fountains and rainbows.
They laugh, not listening, there
on the surface of depth,
on the far bank of time.


In our hips, the hips
of our daughter; in our eyes,
the wild look from hers.

Hidden in our voice
is her voice; her hands,
encapsulated by ours.

What a job: dissecting
out the pelvis, detaching
the eye. The requirements:

a steady hand, a lucid
mind. Unflinching, we must
cut free the tongue, pry

between sinews and veins
for the pale stalks of
her fingers in our fingers.

It’s an ambitious task, taking
all our hours, extricating
the daughter in us.


We do hear it, the drum in the distance,
but don’t listen. The rhythm of the sticks
determines our steps. Even now.

I want to linger by a waltz from before,
a dance, a child in my arms. The tension
between the past and present is unbearable.

The march is inescapable. Furiously
I dig into memory’s music box, trying
to find her before I fall. But look,

the drummer brings us the grandchild,
luring us into a new song, saddling us
with a final joy before the end.

Anna Enquist is a musician, psychoanalyst, poet and best-selling novelist whose work has been translated into many languages. Since publishing her first collection in 1991, she has been one of the Netherlands most-loved poets. Much of her work is highly personal and drawn from the joys and tragedies of her own family life. The Fire Was Here, a thematic bilingual edition of ‘poems about mothers and children’, was published in 2003, and included the first two poems above. ‘The Drum’ appeared first on Poetry International Web.

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Four Poems by Hagar Peeters translated by Judith Wilkinson


Your body yes your body
your hairy shameless body
your shimmering white body
your sprawling stretched out body

that stares at me with caverns and crannies
with tufts and curls and plumpness
or skulks under sheets and weavings
or bulges out of suits and trappings

it’s always your body your body
your lazily seductive body
your sinuous tapering body
your invisible arousing body

your shamelessly spreading body
your noisily coming body
your turning-towards-me body
your turning-away-from-me body

your never-strange-to-me body
your never-unknown-to-me body
your never-unloved-by-me body
your ever-present body


In the murky submarine struggle
of the sweatiest hour
in the darkness of the deepest chasm
in the crevices of our closed eyes
the hollows and the balls

in this between-sheets sublunary revolt
this between-poems overriding
white forgetting
this downy dissipation of fear and pain
this womb-mimicking darkness
in this wet and weary night
in which we kindle the fires of hell
the shadows mimicking our movements
in the flickering candlelight
where, together, we’re one rider on horseback
this arm and this hand, decked out with a swift pen
in this interim in this oblivion
in this panting this grinding this moaning
this howling this going down howling
in this little death we die
but never forever
when you write poems
that I read

I recognise you

this little death we die together
so we can handle the big one alone.


Last night I ran into my parents,
two pale shadows inclining towards
each other in the glow of a street light.

Judging by their happiness I hadn’t yet
been born. They were young and very much in love.
A great sadness weighed me down,
knowing how the story would unfold.

He whispered something and she laughed out loud.
He roared with laughter as he still often does.
Briefly we exchanged civilities
and then we went our separate ways.

‘Just you wait’, I called out after them,
‘you’ll see, our paths will cross.’ They didn’t speak.
Arm in arm they turned the corner of the street.

(Previously published in Poetry Salzburg Review.)


I am the stone my parents once decided
to stumble over only once, so I’m alone.

I am the pebble-stone of contention in the gravel
at the front door of their cardboard façade,
I commemorate – as a memorial stone –
the end of what was once a home,

I am the gravestone of a person without surname,
the rock that Sisyphus was condemned to by the gods,
the millstone round the cripple’s neck.

I carve myself into a thousand toes
to stub them endlessly on the slightest things.
I am a soft stone from which no shoot springs.

(Previously published in Poetry Salzburg Review.)

Hagar Peeters is one of Holland’s best known poets. She frequently gives readings of her work. Her first collection, Genoeg gedicht over de liefde vandaag (‘Enough about love for today’), gained her immediate recognition as a bold and distinctive new voice. Many of her subsequent collections – five to date – have been awarded prizes. In 2008 she was on the shortlist for Poet Laureate. She is also a critic, editor and columnist and in 2015 her first novel appeared, Malva, inspired by the life of Pablo Neruda’s daughter.

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Four Poems by Maria Barnas translated by Donald Gardner

mariabarnas with credit


Out of the corner of my eye I see fields and houses go past
while I try to pay attention to the girl
sitting opposite me. The corner of an eye can contain many things.
A house that I recognize a ditch a cow and even

the creature grazing and staring in bewilderment as it
stretches its neck anxiously hearing an unfamiliar sound.
Or is it, more stiffly, awaiting a signal?
Animals proliferate at the edge.

They settle down in this subsiding marshland
with ungainly houses in every one of which
I’ve lived. The girl is clasping a book

in her lap with cross-sections of brains.
She draws circles round lobules and ventricles and dissects
my ability to think and think of her.


And just when everything seems right
the children the plants the newspapers
the lawn the washing-up almost finished
coats hanging up shoes in matching pairs

and you want to draw a breath
in the corner of your eye you see a multitude get up
from their seats in a stadium. They rise
as one man. Lift their arms and cheer.

How ten thousand tongues move as if in one
open toothless mouth. Men slide round
the field and behave according to the rules

inside the lines and outside governed by a ball
and a penalty spot. The world is so close
you could wipe the sweat from Robben’s brow and you see

the fury in Ribéry’s rolling eyes. Tenacity
in their calves till the cameras swing away
and a multitude sinks back again into its seats.

And just as you’re about to exhale
more surely than rules and lines a chill rolls
into the house a gust of cold air among the bodies

that slowly and repeatedly rise gasping for sound
around our feet. We stay seated.
Pitting our hopes on extra time.


Thirteen minutes left
no twelve.

I had the whole day to work in
but I started reading and sorting things and seeing
how I could best plan my day and now
there’s only eleven

Then I have to pick up the children. Put on nappies
wipe noses and shout that they mustn’t hit
heads with saucepans or kick
animals and doors or poo on the carpet
and then ride through the poo on the toy train
and don’t wipe your nose on your brother
and now you really must sleep sleep please sleep now
in your own bed and not shriek not shriek don’t shriek like that!

Sobbing in me
as I see the morning go by
in shock shocking.

Eight minutes left for a masterpiece
or at least a start.

Something that sounds like this.


Salt and pepper mills roll off the table. Ashtrays smash
in splinters on the ground and red wine spills
from shattered glasses on the lime-green lounge cushions
that cover the broken sun-deck planks.

While menus scatter like startled seagulls
over the Kostverloren canal, I narrow my eyes.
One person after another leaves the table as if pre-arranged
until I alone remain to witness a ship chug past.

On the ship is a hill of wrecked bicycles.
As the skeletons reach the bridge I recognize
the certainty of death in the wreckage. The deathbed drifts by.

I hold onto whatever it is the captain must see
when he vanishes under the bridge. Is it a vision?
You never know. Slowly it passes by

Maria Barnas is a poet, artist, columnist and novelist. She has published four Dutch-language collections of poetry and one in English, Umbra. Twee zonnen (‘Two Suns’, 2003) was awarded the C. Buddingh Prize for first collections, while her 2013 collection, Jaja de oerknal (‘Oh Yes, the Big Bang’) was shortlisted for the VSB Poetry Prize. The translations published here all come from this collection. A feature of Barnas’s work is its reckless gaiety and unnerving wit. Many of her poems are imbued with a sense of deep discomfort at everyday situations that are generally seen as normal.

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Four Poems  by Alfred Schaffer translated by Michele Hutchison 


I’m making a terrible mess I think.
I can’t get the spoon up to my mouth
but the guards are patient
with my dog too, I’m sure he won’t bite.
I should give him a name.
I’ve got nothing left to say after last night.
No one is interested in bad news so
I don’t move a muscle, I don’t even blink.
What sadness, nothing but landmines and graves
for miles around.
If I’m new here there’s something wrong with my memory or
I haven’t been paying attention –
what takes place in the mind and what happens outside of it.
My arms are itchy, I smell pretty bad.
First I’m for it, then I’m against it,
and every now and then I nod my head
just to be polite.
A single nod is enough.
I don’t have much to say anyway.
He-he-hel-lo m-m-my n-name i-i-i-is.
I get no further than that.

(DAY)DREAM #12,292

I’m not comfortable I smell of cleaning products.
My teeth as pappy as wet cardboard, my skin porcelain.
Tap against it, you hear a tick.
My tongue clacks Water water please
but clacking is not talking.
If only I knew more than I know now.
What I was waiting for,  -visitors, or something else.
So that I could fall into a deep sleep, not prowl.
Wandering along calmly, like a day at the beach
only the sea was gone, I stared into a ghastly abyss
a rotting, bottomless pit  –
so I screamed for help
as though I was being shadowed by a horde of me’s
as silent as stone.
Which was actually the case.
Me me me they bellowed in my ears.
Not hearing a soul.
And then I spoke a foreign tongue
neither heavenly nor natural.

(DAY)DREAM # 11,264

I skip along the street from left to right and back.
The music is pleasantly loud
and not only inside my head.
My shadow is a skinny strip, wafer-thin
my rucksack has the same shape same colour
the same dots as a squashed ladybird.
There are houses, cars and dustbins all over the place
all of it flammable, all of it higgledy-piggeldy.
There’d been a strong wind, very strong, but all around a heavenly light
pours over housefronts, gardens and roofs like a hot sauce.
This is old world romanticism.
Before mankind started to stink
but was cuddled to death by gods and goddesses.
A vulture circles powerfully above all things –
strange, you never used to see those birds above residential areas.
Frozen from head to toe eyes shut
and practically dreaming with the lights on
I pick up a thick stick from the ground. Man
how long this is taking
and what havoc too.

‘CURFEW’ – DAY(DREAM) #1,263

Snow blocks the streets the cat sits in the window.
Black flowers in a black vase.
Black streamers and balloons.
A tin crown on my head
in my memory faces and faces
I never forget a face.
I just ate cake and more cake
from early in the morning  -till late at night
as though I had to celebrate something urgently.
As though I’d brought about some kind of miracle.
Although I was no angel.
I’ve had it up to here with all the moaning and barking
in the room next door, I really don’t want to hear it.
Deer in the kitchen, elephants in the park
and fireworks and valleys, what else can I make up.
I want to go home, I only came to take a look.
Check up on things, it’s like a fridge in here –
that’s how it goes, hot air rises, cold air
sticks around.

Alfred Schaffer grew up in The Hague, the son of a Limburger and an Aruban. In 1996, he moved to Cape Town, South Africa to continue his studies and met his future wife. He returned to the Netherlands in 2005 and worked as an editor in Dutch publishing before moving back to South Africa in 2011. He currently works as a lecturer at Stellenbosch University.  Schaffer is the author of five poetry collections and has won prizes in both Belgium and the Netherlands. His most recent collection Man Animal Thing was nominated for the VSB poetry prize. 

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The Translators


David Colmer is an Australian writer and translator who lives in Amsterdam. His most recent poetry translations are Menno Wigman’s Window-Cleaner Sees Paintings (Arc), Paul van Ostaijen’s Occupied City (Smokestack) and Ester Naomi Perquin’s The Hunger in Plain View (White Pine).  Colmer has won many prizes for his literary translations, including major Dutch and Australian  -awards for his body of work. Besides poetry, he also translates novels and children’s literature.


David McKay is a professional literary translator in The Hague, whose recent translations include War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans and Multatuli’s classic Max Havelaar (a joint translation with Ina Rilke, to be published in 2018). He hopes to find a publisher for an English edition of the complete published poems of Vasalis.


Judith Wilkinson is a British poet and translator, living in Groningen, the Netherlands. She has won many awards for her work, including the Brockway Prize in 2013 and the Popescu Prize for European poetry in translation in 2011, for her translation of Toon Tellegen’s Raptors (Carcanet Press). She is currently close to completing a collection of poems by Hagar Peeters.


Donald Gardner is a poet and translator who has lived in the Netherlands since 1979. His most recent collection of his own poetry is The Wolf Inside (Hearing Eye Books, London 2014). Originally a Spanish-language translator (Octavio Paz, The Sun Stone, Cosmos Books 1969), he has translated many Dutch and Flemish poets over the years. He published two collections of Remco Campert’s poetry, I Dreamed in the Cities at Night (Arc Publications, 2008) and In those Days (Shoestring Press, 2014). For the latter collection he received the prestigious Vondel Prize, a two-yearly award for Dutch-English literary translation.


Michele Hutchison was born in the UK in 1972 and has lived in Amsterdam since 2004 with her Dutch husband and two children. She was educated at UEA, Cambridge, and Lyon universities. She translates literary fiction and nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and children’s books. Recent translations include La Superba by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, Roxy by Esther Gerritsen, and Fortunate Slaves by Tom Lanoye.

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