September 10, 2022

Stefan Hertmans (Belgium / writes in Dutch) 1951

Stefan Hertmans (Belgium/writes in Dutch)



Born in Ghent, Belgium in 1951, Stefan Hertmans received a Doctorate in Philosophy of Art andcurrently is professor of art criticism, agogics, and text analysis at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent.


     He begin writing in 1981 with a novel, Ruimte, and went on to publish five other novels to date, six books of essays, and twelve collections of poetry. His first poetry collection was Ademzuil, published in 1984, and several other books including Melksteen, Bezoekingen, Vervwensinger, and Kopnaad followed. He received the Belgian State Prize for Poetry for his 1995 collection, Muziek voor de overtocht (Music for the Crossing). But his break through poetry collection was Goya als Hond (Goya as a Dog), his 1999 volume which was awarded the Maurice Gilliams Prize of 2002.

     Among his works of fiction are To Merelbeke, Als op de eerste dag (nominated for the Ferdinand Bordewijk Prize), and Het Verborgen Weefsel.

     His most recent fictions are Oorlog en terpentijn (2013) and De berkeerlinge (2016). Two recent collections of essays include Het zwijgen van de tragedie (2007) and De mobilisatie von Aracdia (2011). He also writes drama.

     His work has been widely translated throughout the world, including in English, by Penguin.




Ademzuil (Gent: Grijm, 1984); Melksteen (Gent: Poëziecentrum, 1986); Zoutsneeuw. Elegieën (Amserdam/Leuven: Meulenhoff/Kritak, 1987); Bezoekingen (Amsterdam/Leuven: Meulenhoff/Kritak, 1988); Het narrenschip (Gent: Poëziecentrum, 1990); Verwensingen (Amsterdam/Leuven: Meulenhoff/Kritak, 1991); Kopnaad (Amsterdam/Leuven: Meulenhoff/Kritak, 1992); Muziek voor de overtocht (Amsterdam/Leuven: Meulenhoff/Kritak, 1994); Francesco's paradox (Amsterdam/Leuven: Meulenhoff/Kritak, 1995); Annunciaties (Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 1997); Goya als Hond (Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 1999); Vuurwerk zei ze. Gedichten (Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 2003); Kaneelvingers (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2005); Museik voor de overtocht. Gedichten 1974-2005 (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2006)




Music for the Crossing



. . . pearly trail of a snail

Or grit of trampled glass . . .


Eugenio Montale




How I found a very small snail

Crossing the hallway:

The “external coincidences which

Determine a thing’s origin”.

Glenn Gould played Hindemith sonatas.

Nothing prescribing restriction

Remained unaffected, unchallenged.

In the meantime the snail had

Drawn a silvery trail across marble.

Blackly, its own discovery lay mirrored

In the reflection of the garden

Which it had exchanged for stones.


Hindemith never took chances,

Except maybe this one: to choose for

That unassailable quiet in a time

Full of wind and nazi plague, to

Reflectingly write sonatas while

Elsewhere blood colours the red flags

Redder, nomads scrub pavements,

Feeble breaths transatlantically

Go underground in another ghetto.

The three sonatas for piano

Seem to have been written in the

“tempo of a very slow march”:

an army creeping over the Alps

draws a snail’s trail across Europe

while Der Pauli sees mirrors in

the great lakes, reflection as

negation of death, a black score

under which eel and wagfish

quiver in granite liquid.





Characteristically, snails have the weakness

Of not recognizing, not even seeing their enemies,

They’re hardly aware life is vulnerable

Without any hair or house.

A whimpering child doesn’t hear

How the rustling already betrays

The chop of sharp knives in the music

Of the spheres;

The tip of a shoe now approaches

The trail, the march is slowly driven back

Into its beat, like a marche funèbre.

Marble tiles will not allow movement

Forever, even though a hallway sometimes

Looks like fordable rivers and each

Time I step into them I’m different.

This too is a game with tonalities,

Tiles look like keys and nothing

That beforehand could be checked

On a magic diapason, is certain.


While polishing the shaped skins

My Uncle Maurice, a leather merchant

In a high and gloomy house, often

Argued that the tuning of memory

Was a matter of two instruments:

One that he called fleetingness,

The other obsession.

He dipped biscuits in his tea,

On Sunday mornings went to the tiny

Graveyard at Saint-Blasius-Boekel

And had a strange adoration

Of my mother, especially when she

Played the piano.





With Hindemith however, nothing’s as certain

As the trail you have forgotten.

The one hand looks for the other, finds

It a few seconds before the tyranny

Of the chords drives it on;

Sometimes they look like musical lobsters,

Twins risking a rondo, sometimes

The one mounts the other

For a moment, even though making love

On marble keyboards isn’t really

Everyone’s idea of lebhaft, but look,

It can’t always be contrapuntal.


Webern was more fond af canons,

Hindemith played it like a fugue,

Tonal so to speak, cunning and yet

Banal – ideology’s not like cultivating

A slime trail on a stony floor.


Yet afterwards the hands lie gasping

For breath, dreaming or drowsy.

At worst, they’re waiting for a tide

That won’t come back. Outside, there

Are voices in the hallway, pending in

The air of empty streets, one sometimes

Calls this history – a cave where

Meyerbeer plays with catapults.





My snail promises me, if only

For a moment, an eternal comeback –

Miraculously, the circle of its trail

Has now encorporated my heel, my feet

Become scorpions, and inside this circle

All that is left to me is staring

At my own sting.


How can I get out of this?

This search for reflecting fugues,

Retrograde motion, dual motives

And the coolness of this hallway:

It avails to nothing.


There’s no night long enough

To bring that snail back to me,

Or to check how on earth it landed

So far from the garden, on this mirror.


I must still learn to listen, hold

My breath, eliminate thought and learn

To hear voices wrenching themselves past

Each other in their slippery substance.


What happens when the winds lie down:

Absence fills the homecomer

With motion,

He takes chance places for

His niche, is indifferent to

Solid matter, sometimes writes

That voices are sourdough and

Then again praises the mind.





A snail that suddenly appears to have

Auricles: protrusions changing into

Antennae, a small snout unexpectedly

Transforming itself into a caricature,

And before I understand, it starts

To yell, slippery, unbearably high

And sharp, in a German accent that

Is undeniable: Love thy Destiny!

So let your ears at the inside

Of your body, amplified a thousand

Times, make the most of space

And auditory nerve, then grow

Your own cave near your temples,

Let the shadows report themselves

At the nearest office –

A border crossing to atonal regions

Where everyone sings fifteen variations

Of his own first name.


Thus Igor played his own hand

In these sonatas (and this too

Is a quote that will get me no

Further, since everything will

Wipe out something else, until

The mind, as a retrogade motion,

Returns to a tombstone’s marble).


But for now, let’s not leave this snail

Here misunderstood, even if its form

Can only be scraped from the keys

With great difficulty. It’s just

The small body has become formless,

The silver trail keeps showing up

On the black mirror of its origin.

And already, a strange key creaks

In the lock, in three-four time

The song leaps over a low wall and

Disappears without making a sound:

Beware of what you know.


Old harmonies, forgotten safety.

Unhindered a man walks through border

Crossings, in search of snow and poems.





All this had just, incessantly, begun

When this snail interrupted my ways

And crossed from left to right.

Gould still played Hindemith,

Flies landed in yawning mouths,

History sneaked into the detergent

With which I’ll scrub the tiles next.

A man of the midway, of compromises,

A cosy family, a child that leapt

Over a wall and disappeared

In a camp for Jews, musique

D’ameublement in the background,

A trace of Igor and his loved ones.

The culprits will be publicly

Executed, later.

Only black-and-white contrasts remain,

Recollections of fire and mud.


A man with a slightly balding skull

Slips through the meshes in the net.

Along the way, he rears antennae.

Not he but those who look for him

Are looking for some trails:

Not given away, not reported,

Just charged with leaving

A trail on an orphic mirror.


Say Pauley good night,

Clench the fists between two octaves,

Increase each distance by its opposite,

Greet the triton like a sea god

And pray that all snails resurrect

In the breakers, as once was promised

To the souls – when they didn’t exist yet.


Gould suddenly plays Hindemith,

I find a snail on a tiled floor

That never remains its mirroring self

And I step into it, for the first time.



Translated from the Dutch by Peter Neijmeijer


(from Muziek voor de overtocht, 1994)





Late Forms


Just that one cloud we saw,

in nothing ever resembling anything else,

suddenly appearing like a funnel above the hill

umbilical pink and deep purple, veined and hollow,

a barrel full of evening wind and menace,

probably a few miles wide,

an enormous oyster drifting in time.


Could I from such a distance see the spot

where, years ago, you and I lay entangled

on a wooden bench, in breezy spring

and bright white light, waving young leaf,

capricious forms, a forest path

blindly leading to a face;


perhaps I could have briefly

seen that cloud appear, even

then, in your dreamlike deep;


for nothing betrays an old force

so much as being silent and disappearing.


Translated from the Dutch by Peter Neijmeijer


(from Annunciaties, 1997)




Ripe Cherries


What holds on is inedible.

The oldest houses are exchanged for newer rubble,

and smooth stone reaches out to older rubble.


But I have Under Milk Wood in the room

and Richard Burton who, like a drunk

sleeping with his arch-mother in his dream,

sells fortune-telling on record.


He dreams her twenty two

and naked under a wide black dress,

her legs tanned from working in an inaccesible field.

Her white breasts he weighs on his one hand,

while flexing her small wet body with the other.


They’re spraying the streets against the heat, even at ten in the morning.


I bought cherries, I rinse them with cool water

and put the glass bowl on the granite table

in the scorched garden.


At night it gets even warmer,

the tiles lie in blazing rows on the roof

and radiate down into the rooms where we lie

and listen to how the other one sleeps.


Neither of us sleeps.

I hear you sighing, half asleep, louder and regular.

I think I can make out my name. For a moment,

a moment in between, the landing

is as cool as water at my feet.


Your door is open. The window is open.

In the heat you lie open on the bedspread.

When I, two hours later, go back upstream,

you’ve dropped off already. The first light sees the

intimate glint we leave behind there together.


I bought cherries.


A young woman gave me two for sampling in my hand;

I weighed them with a small gesture and stared at her

for a long time. Then her pupils dilated.

With black cherries she saw me.


I bought the full pound of her,

flung the stones I licked clean into the bed

on which, laughing in sweat, you said something about ripe cherries.


The roots in the roof-gutter, years from then,

feed on the rubble you and I shed,

a small tree ‘deeply trimmed and giddy,

love’, as the old poet said.


It only blooms in December, when blossoms come from heaven,

cold and shivery as a ballerina in her first springtide.


We have time.

Tonight, when heat falls down on us again from the eaves,

I let you listen to Under Milkwood.

We lie there, with bodies open as ears,

chanting love and sweat.


Translated from the Dutch by Peter Neijmeijer


(from Annunciaties, 1997)



The Wool-Gatherer


He read a book in which the old poets

were called young, since they knew how

you could taste a thing first on the tongue,

because they had fingers which didn't stop


touching the fruit skin of their language.

Alone, at night, in his room like a ward,

as his body grew cold and his breathing

just went its own way through the slightly


opened, cool window, he saw them parade:

birds, vipers, peacocks and some kind of

winged horse—for poets are only worthy

of their own forms, and not their feathers.


He couldn't remember anything, though some

strange light lit up in his empty glass,

and he suspected there had been something

sometime, though he couldn't think of it now.


So he sat in his chair, an obedient

idiot, he took up a pencil and started

scratching signs in the red-lit window.

Then he knew what the old ones knew,


even if he didn't give it a name.

A few hours later he was dead.


Translated from the Dutch by Peter Neijmeijer


(from Annunciaties, 1997)





He caught a hawk-moth

With his hand when really

He wanted to keep a child

From plunging headlong into water.


The child, unsteadily upright,

Saw a wound-shaped

Jewel. It fluttered and


Tumbled, ducked down the

Blond hairs of a smooth skin

And landed flat on a rippling plane.


There it drank briefly from its

doom, then drifted, like old


barter, into the river mouth,

the waterfall, washed along


with things.


A hand grown small reached

For a pointing finger.


Translated from the Dutch by Theo Hermans


(from Goya als Hond, 1999)





First Steps


He ran into the street without a glance

and I, who becomes like him more and more,

thought he could make it to the door.


But he turns round around, cars racing

along the prom. Now he’s almost there

I’ll never get to him in time.


Just so my father, all his life,

could dream of my hand, as small

and quick, able to slip between some bars

into the depths of rock and water.


Life rushes in a wink.


Then I grab him – he unafraid,

His eyes wide open and so calm –


I with that fatal smash

That will never leave

My life and body.



Translated from the Dutch by Gregory Ball


(from Goya als Hond, 1999)






For the first time in a year and a half, in the dead

Of a night of the moon's last quarter, he's asleep

On his back. I see his features that are mine.

And odder still, he's growing. His mouth, ajar

For air to elbow in and out, seems to be

Wanting to say something that doesn't come.

You'd think that verses formed there in the days gone by,

That lines emerged which left the Elders speechless

And academies in despair at a past reduced to ashes.

But he's asleep, and feverish. I bear the blame for

This breath, without diversion or revenge. He's breathing; something

Makes the stairs creak and the footstep flowering in the grain

Of the wood. His mother was promised this once.

He doesn't sidestep being given in, the

modest fact that someone, tired of waiting, turns the lights off,

lays a finer in the palm of his hand. That fits perfectly.

And all breathing, like a column, towers above a face

Raised for the first time from sleep entirely.


Translated from the Dutch by Gregory Ball


(from Goya als Hond, 1999)




Fireworks she said


On five etchings by Karel Dierickx




Fireworks she said,

I see black fireworks in the night.


We have to wait for a hand's

light touch.


We looked inside through the window.

Saw the unwritten tablet,

Borne by Moses from the mountain.


Scratch the glass with our finger,

You taste the acid that

was in my eyes.


Haze can now condense into a graze.

Writing was once: drawing from nature.


How bright the night becomes-


You see that distant downing?

Who's brought along those eyes so






That arm she said,

You saw the sweeping gesture in the night?


A face seemed suddenly

To loom up in the sky,


Nostrils, formed and shaped

By this great sweep.


Forehead, borne by this



Your hair barbed wire, my love,

So strange to us the night becomes-


You see those lightning darts

Of gravers in the distance?





A bouquet she said,

I see a bouquet without flowers

In the night


Who is it scatters all those things

Above our heads just like

A form abandoned

By its contours?


Do we not have to pass by

The spray that awaits us?


And who is it firmly holds our hands

Whenever expectantly resigned


We search for you,

Small god, Morandi.


And scrape upon night's copperplate?





Calvary, she said,

I see the Hill of Suffering

In the night


I took her in my arms.

But hush, it is the morning

that awaits us.


Do you know for sure?

We kissed.


The world is a hollow skull

she said.


I want the dream that waits

For us that cavity.


Golgotha, Goy's head,

Countless are the memories


Of what the night snuffs in due time.


Can you hear how proximity

Has promised us the skyline?





Oh, tiny heads she said,

Just look there, small heads rocking in the night.


I thought that we were inside now;

Didn't a vase stand here with something red?


The twilight came.

Shadow trickled, like a puddle,

from its place.


Wasn't there a hand lie next to

Thos small objects in the studio?


It seemed as if we'd passed by

Here some time before.


The maker with his hands

Still full of ink awoke, he saw us

standing there in great confusion.


He seized a rag

And drove us deep, deep

Through the inking in his head.



Translated from the Dutch by John Irons


(from Vuurwerk, zei ze, 2003)






"Music for the Crossing"

Reprinted from Muziek voor de overtocht (Amsterdam/Leuven: Meulenhoff/Kritak, 1994). Copyright ©1994 by Stefan Hertmans. English language ©by Peter Neijmeijer.


"Late Forms," "Ripe Cherries," and "The Wool-Gatherer"

Reprinted from Annunciaties (Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 1997). Copyright ©1997 by Stefan Hertmans. English language ©by Peter Neijmeijer.


"Banks," "First Steps," and "Eclipse"

Reprinted from Goya als Hond (Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 1999). Copyright ©1999 by Stefan Hertmans. English language ©by Theo Hermans and Gregory Ball as noted.


"Fireworks she said"

Reprinted from Vuurwerk, sei ze (Amsterdam: Meulehoff, 2003). Copyright ©2003 by Stefan Hertmans. English language ©by John Irons.

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