October 21, 2022

Peter Holvoet-Hanssen (Belgium / writes in Dutch)

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 Bakker, 2005); Navagio (Amsterdam: Prometheus, 2008); De reis naar Inframundo, bloemlezing en dichtbundel (2011); Antwerpen/Oostende, stads- en zeegedichten (2012); Gedichten voor de kleine reus, ouverture (2016); Renga. Gehavende stad  (with several others) (2017); Naar Nergens door dichterscollectief "Vrijhaven" (2018); Blauwboek. Gedichten voor de grote reuzin, poëzietestament (2018); De wolkendragers, 'totaalboek' (2020); De windvangers door "Vrijhaven (2021); Libretto. Lied- en muziekdoosgedichten (2022)





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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