June 17, 2010

Stefan Hertmans

Stefan Hertmans (Belgium/writes in Dutch)

Born in Ghent, Belgium in 1951, Stefan Hertmans received a Doctorate in Philosophy of Art and
currently 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.

Hertmans 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
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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