100 Dutch-Language Poems
Selected & Translated by Paul Vincent and John Irons
(Holland Park Press)
From a review for Sabotage Reviews...
The privately owned Holland Park Press is to be commended for publishing a bi-lingual anthology of Dutch poems. Poetry from the Netherlands and Flanders is rarely translated into English and here we have a hundred poems from the medieval period to the present day. It's a smoothly navigable book with a translator's introduction detailing the definitive periods in Dutch poetic history, and an excellent 11 page afterword by Gaston Franssen. The problem for this reviewer is that the afterword is the literary exegesis I would have liked to have written if I knew as much about Dutch poetry as Franssen does. I hope Franssen's essay was used as publicity for the book.
Franssen is sceptical about the cliched poetry and debatable metaphors about Holland's "backbreaking history and cramped mentality...dominated by a Spartan work ethic, and an ongoing battle against water", and the resulting "shaping and dissemination" of the Dutch self-image. He prefers to highlight varying styles in Dutch poetry ranging from naturalist, symbolist and surrealist, and foregrounds what he see as a fundamental love-hate relationship that Dutch poets have with their country, how the landscape of the Netherlands affects Dutch mentality and how topography shapes political thought. Enjoy Franssen extrapolating at length when you buy the book, for it is an important book to purchase and read, essential for students of Dutch literature or those interested in translation, and a welcome publication for bi-lingual readers.
100 Dutch-Language Poems opts for a chronological approach, the breadth of Lowlands poetry laid out in a dual language format: one poem per poet. Understandably, the result is an overall lack of depth, which individual poems like 'In Flanders Fields' and the introduction and afterword mitigates. There is a quietness to this anthology which makes me think of Dutch paintings, poetry as a series of still lives, subject matter: loss, love, death. If the poems are not always lively, they persuade with their quiet grandeur. As a non-Dutch speaker my approach has been to find a poem I like and then investigate more that poet's work and hope their poetry is translated into English. This is an admirable work of scholarship and translation by Paul Vincent and John Irons. One for the translation section of the library. I feel I can best serve their efforts by choosing three poems that might inspire would-be readers to buy this accomplished book.
Martinus Nijhoff (1894-1953)
'THE OLD LADY'
I went to Bommel just to see the bridge.
I saw the new bridge. Two opposing shores
that shunned each other seemingly before
are neighbours once again. A grassy verge
I lay on, tea consumed, for some ten minutes
my head filled with the landscape far and wide -
when from that endlessness on every side
this voice came, and my ears resounded with it.
It was a woman. And the boat she steered
was passing downstream through the bridge quite slowly.
She stood there at the helm, alone on deck,
and what she sang were hymns, I now could here.
Oh, I thought, oh, were mother there instead.
Praise God she sang, His hand shall safely hold thee.
Hugo Claus (1929 - 2008)
IN FLANDERS FIELDS
Here the soil is most rank.
Even after all these years without dung
you could raise a prize death leek here
to challenge any market.
The English veterans are getting scarce.
Every year they point to their yet scarcer friends:
Hill Sixty, Hill Sixty-One, Poelkapelle.
In Flanders Fields the threshers
draw ever smaller circles round the twisting trenches
of hardened sandbags, the entrails of death.
The local butter
tastes of poppies.
Herman de Concinck (1944-1997)
I seek a village.
And in it a house. And in it a
room, in which there's a bed, in which there's a woman.
And in that woman a womb.
Outside the window the river swells
for a long journey, the silver-scaled,
sea-seeking, here-staying one.
Thus a simile seeks
a poem for the night,
a man a woman,
a bookmark a fold.
Night shuts the book.