Translated from Dutch by Judith Wilkinson

Winner of the 2011 Popescu Prize (formerly the European Poetry Prize for Translation)

As the 2nd Dutch Literature Month comes to an end (thanks, Iris – I enjoyed myself as much as last year), and I reach the half-way point of the Read More, Blog More Poetry challenge, I’m getting ambitious.  Reading a full poetic sequence of 97 translated poems or is that 1 poem with 97 stanzas? A case can be made for either viewpoint, I think.

I said at the beginning of the year that I was attracted to narrative poems.  That remains true and so I was drawn to this collection by the promise of a narrative sequence, a story of a dysfunctional family, completely dominated by a tyrant father.

Each poem (with the exception of the last) begins with “My father” and a description of a trait of his which is then expanded upon or serves as a starting point for some very strange incidents.  Poem 1 gives a good indication of what is to come.

My father
moved heaven and earth

heaven broke and the earth tore

my mother came running along a platform,
threw herself in front of a train on a daily basis ….

The narrator remains at a distance, an observer of the impact of this parental behaviour on his mother and his brothers  (A fictional family.  The author states:  “Years ago, I invented someone whom I called my father …., and invented my mother, my brothers and myself.).

The portrait of the father is multi-faceted.  This despot is quite needy.  He is fortunate to have a loving wife, one who sacrifices herself for the sake of her sons, who inevitably adore her and hate the father.  Poem by poem the composite picture builds and comes into focus.  That despite some very strange cracked imagery, some perplexing and irritating jumps in logic. (Designed perhaps to demonstrate the ever-shifting emotional landscape of this home?)  However, like a kaleidoscope of broken pieces, it finally fits together.

Tellegen himself likens his poetry to jazz, with multiple improvisations on a theme.  Well, yes, there are some riffs I adore, others hurt my ears. So too in this collection. Here’s one I found particularly successful.

My father
poured salt in wounds,
my father loved wounds,
kept making new, capriciously spreading wounds, insidious wounds, undermining wounds,
looked in the attic for old and forgotten wounds,
beat them into my mother and my brothers,
filled them with salt and acid kisses

‘happiness is a wound,’ my father said, ‘I’m looking for happiness’

my mother nodded,
pain is indispensable, she knew that.

As the collection progresses, the vitality of the father diminishes, he sickens and dies.  The final poem begins with My mother.   It is a surprisingly poem.  Instead of relief, the woman is lost with little comfort to be found in the love of her sons.

Everyone loved her, that was obvious,
and loved her more and more, more wildly, more hungrily

….

and my brothers called her again,
slammed their fists on the table,
plates bounced up, glasses toppled over

and my mother went inside
and thought of my father,
spring had come, and no mercy.

It would appear that the next generation of raptors has landed.

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