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Poems in English

Selected Poems in English
Peter Theunynck

thanks to
Willem Groenewegen
Machteld Hardy
Raf Quagebeur
Annmarie Saur



The way people fly
in old engravings, so clear-cut
so credulous.

Between portraits of emperors
and soldiers, vertebrates and
whales, so irrefutable.

Did they lose the knack later on,
due to a loss of elasticity
in their fingers, too much lead

in their fathers? Swallows
in waiting, chattering
on telephone wires.

from: Messages from Pan American Airlines & Co (1997) (Berichten van de Pan American Airlines & C°)
(translation Willem Groenewegen)



The man holds the dove in
his hand. Looks with a cigarette
behind his ear if there is still
something in the air.

In these far pavilions, between
clothesline and calamity
a bird seldom happens
back on its instinct.

The bleached wind blows
nowhere. Telephone wires
tremble not with talk of the town.
Doves don’t touch down,

except for the one. His favourite.
With his large black hand
he brings her to the blue
of his breast.

The hero of the cote.

from: The trees are purple and the sky (1999) (De bomen zijn paars en de hemel)
(translation: Machteld Hardy)


Far from the Indians in the camp,
from people smelling of oil,
the pencil behind the
greengrocer’s ear.
Far from the undercoat on the gate,
the sand in one’s hair,
from all that’s alive,
the little brother lies still in the cot.

The newspaper doesn’t know what
to do with its cod. The ounce of tomatoes
blows its nose in the bag – sadness
leaking everywhere. The paint catches
flies and the sky looks blue.

The father keeps on blowing air
and presses keys no longer
generating sound.
A walk on a tiled floor, to
those looking round, is vexingly

slow. We put a doll in
a box, leave small change on
a saucer, eat some butter biscuits,
bow to everything. No, candles
aren’t for us. The soil is hard
to our spades. The neighbours behind
the privet hedge are silent.

from: The trees are purple and the sky (1999) (De bomen zijn paars en de hemel)
(translation: Willem Groenewegen)



My father said: here they lie,
the Canadians. I saw them standing
by the canal, in their grey clothing.
Endless rows, fit for the slaughter.

Shoulder to shoulder, they stood:
the slightest wind and off they’d go.

In peace. Canadians on both
sides. Here for too long
to go back. Too deep
in the ground to march away.

from: Man in Manhattan (2003)
(translation: Willem Groenewegen)


They reside in palaces along the Seine.
People dim the lights before they leave.
People hardly dare to cough, people
gather heaps of statistics about them.

They are arrows on cross-reference cards,
lemmas in full-colour guides, are pebbles
in the splashing streams of words,
a catch in an exam.

It is forbidden to touch them.
To wake them up. Don’t talk,
they only speak dead languages.

That they have passed through hands,
through desert storms and graves, endure
the wars, is not the point right now.

from: Man in Manhattan (2003)
(translation: Willem Groenewegen)


The day Seamus Heaney won the Nobel prize
for poetry I woke up. You were still sleeping the bronze
off your shoulder. Shower hailed,
stairs creaked of/to bread. Milk cut itself

on the scissors, emptied in mugs.
Lunchboxes lined up. Sandwiches
chose chocolate or peanut butter. I fished
children slowly out of their sleeping ponds.

While the water was seeping through the coffee,
layer afer layer until it dripped
earth black into the pot, I heard:”Seamus Heaney
has won the Nobel prize for poetry”.

Then I dug the man from Tollund from deep within me.
I still see his leather head screaming in the fen/marsh
with impotence and the pen that digs and digs,
until it hits on unchartered layers.

The day Seamus Heaney won the Nobel prize for poetry
I woke up.

from: Man in Manhattan (2003)
(translation: Machteld Hardy)



A little green spade is my dog.
I hold it tightly in my hand.
I hardly ever put it in my mouth.
A little green spade is my dog.

When I sleep, it sleeps beside me.
Without a sound. It digs,
to my surprise, far deeper than me.
A little green spade is my dog.

It swims as a hound,
guards as an Alsatian. Never
takes a single step without me.
A little green spade is my dog.

If someone wishes to hurt him
I bark for him, because
my poor little dog has no voice.
A little green spade is my dog.

from: Eyewitness (2003) (Bijzonder heden)
(translation: Willem Groenewegen)



I want a wristwatch.
A giant wristwatch.
I hear seconds tick loudly.
They lick up my life.

I wear a wristwatch.
Time is expensive, time is perfectly
divisible by twelve. Time means eating.
Eating on time. Sleeping eats time.

I am becoming a wristwatch.
I am the arms of the hour.
When I start the stopwatch,
time is playing with fire.

I am a wristwatch.
I used to tick and sometimes I refuse to.
I am slow, I am fast.
Get mixed up among the days.

The watchmaker sleeps
under a white sheet.
Nobody in the whole land.
Can set me right again.

from: Eyewitness (2003) (Bijzonder heden)
(translation: Raf Quagebeur)


She asked: change me
into a stone. Or better still:
a prehistoric bone.

Lay me on the edge of something.
No longer deal with me.
Mean nothing to me.

Lay me down. Cut off my time,
let it graze in the meadows,
let it rave on the prairies.

Do not blow me out. Do not overtake me.
Don’t dive for me within myself.
Wait for me unwearyingly.

Grow lovelier each day because of me.

from: Tear Gas Society (2006) (Traangasmaatschappij)
(translation: Willem Groenewegen)



On that Friday in May – 25°C in the shade – the Frankfurt
gorilla makes a decision, yes sir, the Frankfurt Zoo
super-gorilla, without an escort, without permission:

«we’re good to go». He just does it. Past the gate. In fear.
It’s spattered everywhere. Jumping all over its kangaroos!
Suddenly everyone a sloe, each heart jimbays to its nearest village.

With a handful of peanuts, by the skinny arm of a girl,
sixteen, from which boot did her heart rise up, back to the cage.
That’s quite enough. Why this outburst?

Sudden flood of people. All peeling off their shrubbery skin.
Walks out of bounds. Reveals his gleaming teeth. What an ordeal.
So cute, that helpless beast. Don’t people just love those iron bars.

Tear Gas Society (2006) (Traangasmaatschappij)
(translation: Willem Groenewegen)



We carried a part of your life outside.
Piling up on the platform all you’d gathered
under our roof. It lay in ropes, in piles,
blindfolded in boxes: moving as much as possible

at once to a larger city where you’d live in smaller
rooms with stranger folk. No longer with us.
You said you’d often return. I knew how years
before I’d promised the same while lugging boxes,

but I saw the flicker of another life in your eyes,
in wider lanes with taller buildings, trees and terraces
in many languages. Seduction’s golden years. It was time
to empty out, let go, which always takes some doing.

We’d have to get by with less of you.

from: Towards A New Sea Land (2010) (Naar een nieuw zeeland)
(translation: Willem Groenewegen)


What is this rustling sound?
The weeping of a tree, my boy.
What is a tree?
A bird house of leaves.
What are leaves?
The weight of the twigs.
What are twigs?
The driftwood of the branches.
What are branches?
The begging arms of the trunk.
What is trunk?
Whatever dwells within that gnarled bast.
What is bast?
What separates the bark from the wood.
What is wood?
Planks with veins and knots.
What are planks?
Rainforest stacked in the port.
What is rainforest?
The last of the Mohicans.
What ar Mohicans?
Formerly with your tomahawk.
What is formerly?
Formerly? A forest, my boy.

from: Towards A New Sea Land (2010) (Naar een nieuw zeeland)
(translation: Machteld Hardy)


Past the village and its drawn-out barking,
past the cypress with its praying
fingers we climbed higher and higher.

We walked straight into the arms of the sun.
Our bodies pearling before the swine.
Heat murmured white about the lips.

We tasted thirst, hungered for leaves.
Lizards rustling like water and high
above us soared and soared the stone eagle.

Out of nowhere loomed the first
chestnut trees, a herd of
gently grazing good-natured giants.

They grew ever more numerous, old trunks,
here they had been living for ever in houses
of filtered light, cooled air.

Here I would like to stay, you said.
Here view and shelter merged.
The trees knew this long before us.

Here they sat staring deep into the nightly
universe, came a squirrel and ate from
their hands, howled the wolves in the distance.

No one could chase them form this place, no one
could get them to the lowland alive.
They closed the circle round the enemy

from: Towards A New Sea Land (2010) (Naar een nieuw zeeland)
(translation: Machteld Hardy)

Uncollected work


Cities are mad as a hatter old men.
In autumn they drag their feet
as if the weight of the whole world

sticks to their heels. They slide tired
deadly into winter, under snowy
blankets. Ready for total sleep.

How they breathe slow and heavy. How they
keep quieter than the quietest cemetery.
Yet spring sees them wake up red cheeked,

crocus in the buttonhole, daffodils
in grass green fingers. They straighten their back,
iron out the folds of the old body

and walk unfaltering towards the prettiest
through jubilant shopping streets.
‘There, the Minnewater’, they murmur,

as if spouting life’s wisdom.
They ride in stately carriages
with always groomed horses.

After Office hours they smoke cigars. Their evening
filled with restaurant and swan song.
Way after midnight the last bar shakes

them out. Then they climb chimes and all
towards the towers. How they love the sun
reborn as Ursula rising from the waters.

(translation: Annmarie Sauer)



The daffodils had come.
Their laborious trip through
the inside of the earth had been
completed. So there they stood
blowing on their golden
trumpets on the inner square
of the béguinage: here we are.
It was their Vivaldi of joy.
So much to sing the praises of. By day
their song shone so bright and white
like the swans. By night it sounded
deep and dark like Minnewater.
In about a month the retreat was
sounded. In a month
their jubilance would shrivel
to nothing. Prey for the scythe.
Now it was Easter and peace.
Now there was just enough wind
for a swaying choral dance.
Now was as good as ever.

(translation: Annmarie Sauer)



Every house receives with open arms.
Every glass curtain wants to be a summer’s dress.
Among all that John Dowland flies out
on the shoulders of Andreas Scholl.
Slowly the sky pours melting lead.
All the streets sweat with people.
All walk on endless legs.
All suddenly hungers for beer and shade.
Let Salvatore then lay a marble hand
on your neck. Let the skippers on the canals
embrace you with their water. Enter Groeninge
and go with Christ into the Jordan of Gerard David.
Evening falling, dive with the sparrows
in the hedges of the ramparts, or with the long-eared
owl in the foliage of the Lappersfort. With the swans
of the Minnewater awaking will be feather soft.

(translation: Annmarie Sauer)



Swans are ice floes, congealed in oil thick water.
Frozen fishermen the trees. They stand so bend,
but don’t no longer throw out their lines, see no float
bobbing anymore. Even the loudest fish keep dead silent.

In erased streets every voice sounds louder,
because no motor grinds anymore, no hoofs
clang on the cobblestones. People harrow over sidewalk
after sidewalk. For a while they have the say so.

The city is filled with faded out sound: echoes
of steps, sizzling sleds, mature cantatas.
An alt swirls form the sky. A soprano melts
like snow for the sun in a choir of violins.

At the edge of the city sleeps in a bridal gown
in lace the Chartreuse. After thaw set in he will come,
her lover. A metal noose he lays tightly
around her neck, in concrete he’ll pour her soul.

(translation: Annmarie Sauer)



Say: you ban the hounds within you.
You lock them in a kennel. Somewhere
in the back. With iron bars and such.

Are they barking? Let them bark.
Are they panting? Let them pant.
Are they raging? What if they rage.

A day without raging: good day
to hounded life. A week without
panting: welcome tranquil week.

A month without barking: sun
deck chair under southern sun.
Give it the time of day.

Never again so tired or sick as,
so mean or dirty. Never again
tail between legs. No dog days.

Never again in the dog house. But
what about the fleet-footed, damp-
nosed, the cuddly, the ever playful?

(translation: Machteld Hardy)



This year we will marry the clouds.
This year we will dance with the sun.

We won’t be stalked any longer.
The world will keep on turning without us.

We will build dreams from villages
Where haste has been exposed,

Use what has been thrown out/discarded:
A chair and a table, a bed.

This year we will marry the clouds.
This year we will dance with the sun.

We will live out with verve
The passion of when it began.

We will skim low above the roofs,
We will build our nests high in the rafters.

No dogs will have to guard the courtyard.
There is no money socked away.

This year we will marry the clouds.
This year we will dance with the sun.

We will melt down guns and daggers.
We will raise the white gown.

(translation: Machteld Hardy)

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