Herman de Coninck

Flanders' leading poet, Herman de Coninck, was born in Mechelen on February 21, 1944, and died in 1997 in Lisbon, Portugal. For 13 years he worked as a journalist for the Flemish weekly Humo. In 1984, he founded New World Magazine (Nieuw Wereldtijdschrift), which quickly became the most important Flemish and Dutch literary review.

The author of seven highly acclaimed, prize-winning books of poetry in Flemish, he has also published two books of critical essays. These have been translated into Polish, Chinese, Bulgarian, and German. Six poems have been translated into English for the anthology Dutch Interiors: Postwar Poetry of the Netherlands and Flanders, which was edited by James Holmes and William Jay Smith and published by Columbia University Press. Posthumous titles include: Collected Letters 1965 – 1997, Collected Poetry, Collected Prose, and a volume of uncollected poems.

De Coninck wrote about love and family in a way that flirted with his native Flemish tongue. All poetry is difficult to translate, but some is inherently complex and challenging. Sewn with puns, double and triple entendres, unconventional rhymes and syntax in concise, intricate forms, de Coninck's work presents the translator with formidable choices. How do you represent such linguistic acrobatics, preserve the formal grace and intelligence, and express such delicate wit in another language without losing the lightness of touch, the deftness of thought, and the quips and jabs that mark this poetry and lift it above much other writing of its kind? That final point is crucial, because it is in this way that sentiment and portentousness are kept at bay. How to preserve the gist of that poetry, "get it across" in all its dazzling and daffy beauty, its considerable depth of perception, its wry observations and tender insights? This is the great difficulty, and joy, of translating the work of Herman de Coninck.

—Laure-Anne Bosselaar and Kurt Brown

If only he could, just like that, leave her
for another country, another I, another wife—
but if he did, he’d only leave himself behind.
He was tender, like a little boy whose blind

whining she endured, who constantly
complained about his small alarms,
until, finally, he’d grow silent, shedding happy
tears, a wrinkled man of eighty in her arms.

In ancient times there was a legend that averred
she-bears licked their shapeless newborn cubs
into their bear-shape. That’s how carefully

they nuzzle one another.
She gives him his “I” shape
then strokes him into her.

Als hij zomaar van naar weg kon gaan
naar een ander land, een ander ik, een andere vrouw —
¬maar hij laat haar niet achter, maar zichzelf.
Tederheden die hij was, jongetjes van elf

die hij bij haar mocht zijn, zeurend,
bijna vrolijk, over hun kleine gemisjes,
tot hij eindelijk zwijgt, bijna treurend
van groot geluk, mannetje van tachtig.

In de antieke wetenschap ging de mare
dat berinnen hun vormloos geboren jongen
in de berenvorm tikten. Zo omslachtig

zoenen zij elkaar.
Zij krijgt hem in de ik-vorm,
en streelt hem tot de hare.



What you do with time
is what a grandmother clock
does with it: strike twelve
and take its time doing it.
You’re the clock: time passes,
you remain. And wait.

Waiting is what happens to
a snow covered garden,
a trunk under moss,
hope for better times
in the nineteenth century,
or words in a poem.

For poetry is about letting things
grow moldy together, like turning
grapes into wine, reality into preserves,
and preserving words
in the cellar of yourself.

Wat jij met de tijd doet
is wat een ouwe grootmoedersklok
ermee doet: twaalf uur slaan
en daar alle tijd voor nemen.
Jij bent de klok: de tijd gaat voorbij
maar jij blijft. Jij wacht.

Wachten is wat een tuin overkomt
onder sneeuw, een boomstam
onder mos, hoop op betere tijden
in de I9de eeuw,
woorden in een gedicht.

Want poezie heeft te maken met het lang
samen laten beschimmelen van dingen,
het alcohol laten worden van druiven,
het konfijten van feiten, het inmaken
van woorden, in de kelder van jezelf



Evening in the Hérault. The scent of thyme
floats heavy on the air. No need to go anywhere.
It hangs in this valley, like us,
the way you’d like to drift, no matter where,

as long as it’s here. Mist carefully
hovers over this land, the way
one doesn’t touch a sleeping child,
breathing over it.

I don’t really own what I have.
Waves of wind blow an ocean of time
softly, back and forth.
The tide is out.

Avond in de Hérault. Thijmgeuren dobberen zwaar
op de lucht, moeten nergens zijn
en blijven hangen, zoals wij in dit domein.
Zoals je zou willen zwerven, het doet er niet toe waar,

als het hier maar is. Nevel gaat
net niet over het land
zoals je een slapend kind
net niet aanraakt, erover ademend.

En je weet: ik heb niet wat ik heb.
De branding van de wind
waait een zee van tijd zacht heen
en weer. Het is eb.

Translated from the Flemish by Laure-Anne Bosselaar and Kurt Brown

Laure-Anne Bosselaar grew up in Belgium, where her first language was Flemish. She is the author of a book of poems in French, Artemis (1973), and two collections of poems in English, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf (1997) and Small Gods of Grief (2001). She is also the editor of the anthologies Outsiders: Poems about Rebels, Exiles and Renegades (1999), Urban Nature: Poems about Nature in the City (2000), and Never Before : Poems about First Experiences (2005), and the co-editor, with Kurt Brown, of the anthology Night Out: Poems about Hotels, Motels, Restaurants and Bars (1997), also from Milkweed Editions.

Kurt Brown is the editor of Drive, They Said: Poems about Americans and Their Cars (1994) and Verse & Universe: Poems about Science and Mathematics (1998), as well as the essay collections The True Subject (1993), Writing It Down for James (1995) and Facing the Lion (1996). A fourth volume of essays, The Measured Word: On Poetry and Science, appeared in 2001. He is the author of four books of poems, Return of the Prodigals (1999), More Things in Heaven and Earth (2002), Fables from the Ark, (2003) and Future Ship (2005). He is also the author of five award-winning chapbooks of poetry published by various presses.