June 27, 2010

Peter Holvoet-Hanssen

Peter Holvoet-Hanssen [Belgium/writes in Dutch]

Born in Antwerp in 1960, Peter Holvoet-Hanssen worked as a caretaker of marine mammals in the Antwerp zoo and as a counselor in a shelter for homeless people before his famous poetry debut of 1998, the collection of poems, Dwangbuis van Houdini (Houdini's Straitjacket). That book won the Flemish debutant prize of 1999.

Stromboliccio of 1999 and Santander of 2001 quickly followed, making Holvoet-Hanssen a well-known figure in the Flemish poetic world.

His heavily theatrical performances of his work, often for children and with his wife Noëlla Elpers, engage his readers with accessible humor and emotional expression that, at times, seems at odds with the adventurous explorations of his work. Yet the whole, often including musical accompaniment and props, take the work to a more emotional level.

In 2008 we won the Flemish Culture Prize for Poetry and in 2010 he won the Paul Snoek Poetry Prize.

Holvoet-Hanssen has also written fiction, De vliegende monnik (The Flying Monk, 2005) and has translated Rimbaud and others from the French. His most recent poetry collection is Navagio, published in 2008.


Dwangbuis van Houdini (Amsterdam: Prometheus, 1998); Strombolicchio (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1999); Santander (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2001); Spinalonga (Amsterdam: Bert Takker, 2005); Navagio (Amsterdam: Prometheus, 2008)


Poets from Flanders: Peter Holvoet-Hanssen, ed. by Tom Van de Voorde (Antwerp: Flemish Literature Fund, n.d.)

Roza and the Moon

The moon is a boy and yet he’s cute
he peeps from under the clouds
but I sleep under the sheets.

He sings at an impossible hour:
‘Nought are the stars, nought is the moon
it’s off to bed the stars must soon
but it’s time to wax for Jack ’o Light Moon.’

He mangles in a loud voice:
‘Kirk, you’re no Adonis thinking
he’s at the centre of things.
Spock, your rusty starship
isn’t leaving anywhere at 25.00 hours
for the moon of Manakoora.’

Dim-witted owlets and rabbits
start the mousy-hair rocket
stew the piggy with the longest snout
for the moon is in the clouds, lies
asleep in my bed of roses.

—Translated from the Dutch by John Irons

(from Dwangbuis van Houdini, 1998)

Song for the Dead

Upsadaisy. From hobby-horse to hearse over the cobblestones.
It drizzled when grandmother was buried.

In September her daughter scrubs the grave though no one
ever comes by. My knees are ruined, she muses. So many
wasted years. If I ever get Alzheimer’s, give me a jab. Or:
poor old granny was afraid the rabbits would nibble at her toes
in the cemetery. When my time comes, I’m going to let myself be
cremated. Mr Death’s a gourmet underground.

In the mist above the graves: a little room at her house. Grey
dove stares at the tube, doesn’t recognise her. ‘I only get twenty
degrees and the TV guide offers only lousy programmes. You’re
not sleeping with that man from downstairs, are you? How could you? He’s
a thief, I hide my money.’

The smell of burning potato leaves. Mum says goodbye
to the swans. The skies are heavy, the mud sucks. Arthritis
in the shoulder. Quickly back to the house.

A radio drama in the living room. Nobody listens.
The hit parade. Anti-wrinkle cream. And a rosary in the drawer.

—Translated from the Dutch by John Irons

(from Dwangbuis van Houdini, 1998)

The Curdling Reverence of Captain Grapplehook

I break myself down, build myself up.
Tack aback and then flip-flop.
Foam at the chops.
Keelhaul and heave ho.

‘What d’you want, Hook?’
‘Avanti. From lava to spumanti.
West becomes east.’

Other suns, other planets.
Mortals that know of no stopping, brave the high
wave, learn from keeling
survive an ordeal by fire with senses reeling

when rounding Fire Island.

—Translated from the Dutch by John Irons

(from Strombolicchio. Uit de Smidse van Vulcanus, 1999)


It rose up from the very ocean floor
till the ice cap melted and cracked over Europe, it flew
along the hugest horror to the weakest wail
from the 25,000 throats of Béziers
standing by the Cathars, dancing over funeral pyres
on a Flamethrower with a bayonet
with the 15-inch-howitzers hacking on the cold
above Brandhoek, Ypres, Hellblast Corner, no-man's-land
sank alongside G. E. Ellison, lancer, the last to fall
mixed in carnal knowledge and then took root
in forgotten graves—Solferino, time after time

—Translated from the Dutch by John Irons

(from Santander. Ontboezemingen in het Vossenvel, 2001)

The Princess in the Glass Mirror


In every stage of life is given
A warning voice, it speaks from Heaven

Two thousand mice slept in two thousand matchboxes.
King Rat in his air balloon coloured everything in his flight: a
Friesian cow became a Belgian flag, mooed in shock until
it rained frogs. But still there fell no pennies from heaven.

A lamppost that waved and betrayed a young couple to death. After
25 minutes the girl was reanimated. A white dove that
flew against your window the night she departed this life. Did she call
on the emergency frequency? The dove on the roof stared at you. Don’t ask
why. Coincidence or no coincidence: that wavelength. Inflation everywhere.

Death leads life in randomly snipped-off courses.
In youth it whispers as a friend.

Is she still alive, pearl-fisherman?
She is still alive.


In joy and grief, in ease and care,
In every age, prepare, prepare.

Reynard, you’d amicably asked the rat to leave.
Two weeks later he lay on the lawn. You tattered and torn.

’99 frogs took a horse to Paris.’ You saw a raven fly
to the other side of the world to make it dark.
Ice on fire. Mouse in trap. What song haunted your head?
Come, father, come on home with me.

Her pony mourns and dances to the thunder. Silverplate green.
Around her starry bed the family flattened like the clouds.

The magic lantern has been put out.
Mother stays strong, continues talking to her daughter.
Somewhere she can hear me still, she thinks.

Is she dead, child on the pier?
Dead she is.

Translated from the Dutch by John Irons

(from Santander. Ontboezemingen in het Vossenvel, 2001)

V Country (Irish V Poem)

Cloud formations are on the move in constantly changing shapes
look, a dog stretches out its paws and now stands upright
with their shadows the phantoms crawl up the hills
and wet the patchwork quilt, my love, until the sun colours the mountains
mauve like my head, stampeding and balding as the rocks
into which the sea burns holes – only the gulls can still see me
maybe also Fergus who was foaming from laughter even
a long while after John Joe with the wild roses went to roost
stones can’t die his daughter said they just get
older while the swallows show me their white small bellies and the
dolphin in our bay waves her tail at me – with the V
of disavowing in the water above the vanished houses, the V
of the deserted village past the V-shaped traffic signs
in the V-valley where I will find you: I bring the virgin fire of
your song into virtual safety, invisible to the hunters of the night

A donkey cuddles a sheep and a ox yawns in a meadow
amongst the rabbits – it is like snow and sun all at once where your
hideout is, with the waves that I can hear even though I can only
see them one by one in feverish dreams, with the cliffs where it rains upwards,
drops that dry before they can fall on my V-veined feet
I go on looking for you: under a patch of fog, under a rainbow
cloudless becomes crowdless, you glisten between two peaks
you flash between the opposing poles of life, singing for the
victims of the famine, fodder for the dogs, fodder
for death – like a mangy terrier in the middle of the track
I attack a car for here the roles are reversed
you crash into a farmer, pay the cow and wires in the sky
are for the rooks – a V gate keeps livestock out; there
you sit by the well studying the harebells, you fly up

Void of division you fiddle above the V cleft, you warble
hey Paddy, I’m taking the piss, come vanish with me

Translated from the Dutch by John Irons

(from Spinalonga, 2005)


death causes living and being mad pain
deeply sagging chair of wisdom
swallowed key of heaven

must engrave this statue deserted

hello my lily under the thorns
draw aside the curtains will you
smother glowing coals of doubt
fear from Kandahar gain wings
I kiss your neck, thank this peaceful
moment, see how your waking
eyes light up: gleam of a lake
unseen even by yourself, like
shards of Kabul a mirror
that ripples—capers
from Lipari nothing to beat them
you sleepily say picked millions
of crocus stamens—a scent
of saffron; the sun rises, the
kettle shrieks, I bring you coffee
by the buddleia, blood as wine

fetched a toddler from the rubble, ay
death when living and mad with pain

Translated from the Dutch by John Irons

(from Navagio, 2008)


"Roza and the Moon" and "Song for the Dead"
Reprinted from Dwangbuis van Houdini (Amsterdam: Prometheus, 1998). Copyright ©1998 by Peter Holvoet-Hanssen. English language translation copyright ©by John Irons.

"The Curdling Reverence of Captain Grapplehood"
Reprinted from Strombolicchio (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1999). Copyright ©1999 by Peter Holvoet-Hanssen. English language translation copyright ©by John Irons.

"Solferino" and "The Princess in the Glass Mirror"
Reprinted from Santander (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2001). Copyright ©2001 by Peter Holvoet-Hanssen. English language translation copyright ©by John Irons.

"V Country (Irish V Poem)"
Reprinted from Spinalonga (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2005). Copyright ©2005 by Peter Holvoet-Hanssen. English language translation copyright ©by John Irons.

Reprinted from Navagio (Amsterdam: Prometheus, 2008). Copyright ©2008 by Peter Holvoet-Hanssen. English language translation copyright ©by John Irons.

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