Contemporary Dutch Poetry: A Quiet Storm



Grand Larcenies, Translations and Imitations of Ten Dutch Poets, edited and translated by P.C. Evans. Carcanet Press. £14.99. ISBN: 978-1800171329

Rinkeldekinkel, an anthology of Dutch Poetry, edited by Rob Schouten. Milkweed Editions. £11.75 (via ISBN: ‎ 978-1571315335

                                     grand larcenies     rinkel

In a Different Light, Fourteen Contemporarary Dutch-language Poets, edited by Rob Schouten and Robert Mnhinnick. Seren. ISBN: 1-854113135

100 Dutch-Language Poems, From the Medieval Period to the Present Day, selected and translated by Paul Vincent and John Irons. £14. Holland Park press. ISBN: 978-1907320491

                                    in a different light      dutch language poems


Although, worldwide, Dutch is the third most widely spoken Germanic language with some twenty million speakers in nearby Holland and Belgium, it is unlikely that most readers of poetry in the UK could name so much as one Dutch poet. This is certainly not the case for Hispanic, Russian, Greek or Italian poets. Maybe it is a dearth of Nobel laureates or something about Dutch stability and economic success that does not appeal to the romantic sensibility, which tends to seek its heroes in those who, like Lorca, Akhmatova or Ritsos, can be seen to have suffered for their art. Occupied by the Nazis in WWII, it should not, however, be forgotten that the Dutch, also, have had their share of trauma, but somehow this does not seem to have shaped their poetry. Martinus Nijhoff, a poet much admired by the Russian exile and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, once lamented that his international profile would probably have been more significant if he had written in English. A small number of Dutch poets have, of course, been translated into English, in both monolingual and bilingual texts, but nothing like to the same extent as work from other languages. Moreover, the overwhelming predominance of English around the globe means that its speakers have little incentive to dabble in a ‘minority’ language. Where Dutch is concerned, this is a pity because it is relatively easy for English speakers to learn how to read it, especially if they have some basic grasp of German.

It is timely, then, that two excellent new  anthologies, both bilingual, have been published within a couple of months of each other. Grand Larcenies, Translations and Imitations of Ten Dutch Poets, is published by Carcanet Press and edited by P.C. Evans, who has translated every poem himself. One interesting feature for those who are able to tackle the Dutch text is an appendix of line by line literal versions, followed by ‘Windows’, a brief essay in which Evans discusses various approaches to the art of translation. Finally, there is a somewhat idiosyncratic introduction in which the editor might have spent a little more time discussing the poets translated rather than others who aren’t.

Evans does, however, attempt to define ‘the essence of Dutchness’ and comes to the conclusion that it is ‘freedom within a box, within a strictly delineated framework.’ In doing so, he evokes, also, the brightly coloured geometry that one associates with the Dutch painter Piet Mondriaan. At the very least, his assertion is a useful starting point from which to evaluate the ten poets gathered here, most of whom are represented by three to four poems, although Hans R. Vlek has fourteen and Eva Gerlach nine. Obviously, in a review of two substantial anthologies there is little scope to do more than glance at the work of a small number of poets. However, if one homes in on a brief untitled poem by Eva Gerlach, the first poet featured here, one does get a clear sense of focus and objectivity, and of stringent formal control, which concludes on a note of shocking matter-of-factness:

It was evening when the ants sprouted wings.
They crawled in waves from their tunnels in the earth
and up a wall; awkward at first,
as they circled around. Later, they would fly,

one or two as far as the awning, but they wouldn’t try
their luck any further that day. They fell away,
or turned back, many writhed upon their backs.
I even saw some gnawing off their wings.

Memorable too in its measured effect is, ‘My Mother Walks through the Room’, a poem about her mother’s dementia: ‘How can you change the world if you can’t remember the word’. In ‘Mortality is Insistent’, Gerrit Kouwenaar, like Gerlach, gets to the heart of the matter without sacrificing formal control:

Mortality is insistent, this morning
someone woke from my sleep, and this evening
the sober glass pleads for mercy.

To judge by much of the work gathered here, one senses that Dutch poetry is, by and large, highly intelligent and even, perhaps, a tad cerebral. It is  not inclined to harangue the reader or wear its heart on its sleeve. It presumes that the reader, like the poet, is literate and mature. Frequently, the work casts its spell slowly, as in these lines from ‘A Weaning’ by Hester Knibbe, which have been beautifully rendered by Evans:

Sleep now sleep in the chaos of silence
the trees will cast a shadow over you
and weave their gauze of coolness too
and everything will hold its breath

Slaap maar slaap in je baaierd van stillte
de bomen zullen je schaduw geven
een gazen koelte over je weven
en alles houdt de adem in.

In Willem van Toorn’s ‘Reservoir’,  a sense of bereavement is all the more powerfully expressed because of the unadorned nature of  its language:

It’s just then when I turn to face him,
he isn’t there; I’m alone
in a deserted street
in an endless suburb.

While English-language poets tend to be wary of ‘intellectualism’, this does not seem to be an issue with their Dutch counterparts, who tend to be more at ease with the philosophical. In ‘Sound’, J. Eikelboom explores the nature of language: ‘For words, meanings / are too multifarious, / they merely sink beneath / oceans of sound’. In ‘A Change of Perspective’, the same poet’s painterly viewpoint is soon informed by more metaphysical concerns:

But it does let the light in from above
that streams out of eternity
if you believe in all that.

In praising some of these poets for their restraint one must recognize that each is of course an individual and none more so than Hans R. Vlek.  And yet, even his outrageousness, which had its roots in mental instability, retains a respect for traditional form that has more in common with Rimbaud than the Beats. Here he is in ‘Angel’:

No dinero, no dollars, no baksheesh. Each day before dark
Me and my hermanito hit the garbage heaps.
Sometimes we find old grapefruits that we can eat,
Table scraps from chic downtown eateries, and for me

To work the streets, a pair of laddered tights.

Some of his other poems, like ‘A Short History of Lust’, where ‘fellatio and cunnlingus are ‘clowns from ostia’ or ‘Porq’ whose ‘models’ have ‘perma-tanned tushies’ and ‘quims bristling with depilated hair’, would not be out of place in Rimbaud’s Album Zutique.

Hot on the heels of Grand Larcenies, like the proverbial second bus, Rob Schouten’s Rinkeldekinkel, an anthology of Dutch Poetry, is another substantial anthology, which enables the anglophone reader to range more widely across unfamiliar terrain. Published in the United States by Milkweed Editions, it is most easily purchased in the UK, and at an affordable £11.75, via Amazon. Although both anthologies have an almost identical page count, Rob Schouten’s Rinkeldekinkel has a more capacious feel to it. There are twenty-three poets, thirteen more than in Grand Larcenies, but there is also a more equitable spread of poems.  No poet is represented by more than three or four, which is the same for most of Evans’s. Some poets appear in both volumes, but the poems are all different and, in Rinkeldekinkel, have been translated by various hands. Schouten’s anthology, also, has a brief, but quite useful introduction.

Schouten, who is a significant poet in his own right, has not included any of his own poems in Rinkeldekinkel, although his work does feature in Grand Larcenies, where his  irreverent playfulness marked him out as one of the more exuberant voices, a quality which is reflected in the onomatopoeic title he has assigned to his own anthology. It is taken from Elma van Haren’s poem ‘Breaking’,  where it is translated by David Colmer as ‘SMASH-CLATTER’:

It gave off a loud SMASH-CLATTER,
Not tin or glass, but words,
xxxxspoken in a laconic voice.
Linguistic double-shot. Break out!
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxForce your way out!

It would seem, then, that Elma van Haren, like one of the the maenads in Derek Mahon’s ‘Courtyards in Delft’, can sometimes feel constricted by the quiet decorum that one tends to associate with Dutch culture. In ‘Sumatra Wharf’, she relishes the sounds of exotic place names, reminding us that the Dutch once had an empire and that, in earlier centuries, they vied with the British for command of the seas:

solemn brick swinging beside the water
that asks about its history
with every wave that breaks
on the singsong names:
Marong Serang Bogor Kraton

There are other poets here, as well, whose work is less circumscribed than some we have so far mentioned. Turning to Pieter Boksma, we find a poet who tends towards the visionary, as in ‘Lightning Visit’, a poem written in memory of Czesław Miłosz: ‘I landed on a lily and entered the calyx / down a spiral staircase of slender smells …’ .  In ‘The Happy Ending’, Anneka Brassinga also stretches out. Posing the question ‘What on earth are we doing here’, she explores its ramifications through eight substantial stanzas. In ‘Beethoven on the Beaufort Scale’, she achieves some marvellous sound effects based on the the Dutch gutturals ‘g’ and ‘ch’, which John Irons has made a fair stab at conveying. Impressive, too, is Ilja Leonard Pfeiffer’s ‘Idyll’. A tour de force in fifty-four rhymed alexandrines, it develops a single metaphor by means of which the poet imagines a world in which  everything reverts to a prelapsarian ground zero:

I’ll hang up the grapes, I’ll pour in the wine
Until they’re brimming and tingling on the vine,
They sink singing into the soil and disappear.
I’ll stick the fleshy meat back on until cows reappear
That rush lowing from slaughterhouse to pastures wide …

It should not be imagined, however, that Schoutens’ anthology gives the lie to Evans’s or maps out a completely different poetic landscape. Maria Barnas’s ‘A city Rises’ presents an aerial view of Buenos Aires that plays with perspective in a way that is not dissimilar to Eikelboom. Arjen Duinker, in ‘XXIV’, is cooly philosophical and presents the reader with a Kantian dichotomy: ‘On the one hand is the thing. / On the other is the mystery.’ In ‘Return Journey’ his penchant for the analytical assumes a more lyrical tone:

Sometimes I seek early roses
In the desert of the everyday.
Sometimes I seek late roses
In the garden of my youth.

Ingmar Heytze, also, who first published his work in his late teens, is an exquisite lyric poet, whose unashamedly romantic ‘To the Dearest Unknown’ develops a trope which has been used effectively in the novels of Marguerite Duras and in a chart-topping pop song by Michael Bublé. However, it is  in a poem like Menno Wigman’s ‘Jeunesse Dorée’,  where we see most clearly reconciled the antinomies we have explored in this review. With its French title it would seem to hint at French antecedents, although its first line is a translation into Dutch of the opening sentence of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’:

I saw the best minds of my generation …
Ik zag de grootste geesten van mijn generatie …

And yet, within the brief compass of its fourteen carefully constructed lines, it has, as in the work of Hans R. Vlek, far more in common with Baudelaire and Rimbaud than it has with the sprawling excess of Ginsberg’s Howl.

Before signing off on these two excellent volumes, mention should be made of their two impressive predecessors. In a Different Light, Fourteen Contemporary Dutch-language Poets, published by Seren in 2002 and edited by Rob Schouten and Robert Minhinnick, is a substantial English-only volume which, because it does not contain the Dutch originals, has the capacity to feature a much wider range of poems. Finally, for those who might like to explore the entire range of Dutch poetry back to its medieval origins, there is  100 Dutch-Language Poems, From the Medieval Period to the Present Day, published by Holland House and edited by Paul Vincent and John Irons. Individually, these four anthologies have much to recommend them and, taken together, provide a comprehensive survey of the richness and variety of Dutch poetry.

David Cooke is the editor of The High Window. His most recent collection is Sicilian Elephants published by Two Rivers Press.

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