Herman de Coninck died when the galleys of his collection of poems Vingerafdrukken were going to press. His sudden death, at the age of 53, sent a shockwave through Dutch-language literature. Not only because he died on the job - on the street in Lisbon, on his way to a poets’ gathering - but also because of the dynamic role he played in the literary world. As a critic for the weekly magazine De Morgen and editor of the literary journal Nieuw Wereld Tijdschrift, he was able to clearly put his stamp on poetry. He wrote crystal-clear essays about his favourite poets and was able to defend them, and help advance their cause.

De Coninck made his debut as a poet in 1969 with the collection De lenige liefde (Lithe Love). In his later collections, he moved his readers with his sober, almost palpable formulations. In an ostensibly simple poem like ‘The Place’, he reaches almost unfathomable depths: ‘We have here. We have time / to leave something behind for the day after tomorrow. / You have to see to it today. / Your mortality.’

The poems in Vingerafdrukken have the same subtle, penetrating quality. The last three lines of ‘Ars Poetica’ are an example:

It’s a hard silence, a poem:
headstone listening to what’s been chiseled in.
Letters that listen until they fill with rain.

It is distressing to realize that a striking number of poems in this collection are about death. Distressing, not only because the writer - one of the most important postwar Flemish poets - is dead, but also because these melancholic poems are so full of life. De Coninck himself provides the best proof of this in the title poem of his last collection:

I think poetry is something like fingerprints
on the window, behind which a child who can’t sleep
stands waiting for the dawn. Earth generates mist,

sorrow, a kind of sigh. Clouds
are responsible for twenty-five kinds of light.
They actually hold it back. Back lighting.

It’s still too early to be now. But the rivers
are already leaving. They’ve heard the rustling
of the silver factory of the sea.

Daughter beside me at the window. Loving her is
the easiest way to remember all this.
Birds hammer at the anvil of their call

all, all, all.

Tr.: David Colmer


Vingerafdrukken (1997). Poetry, 60 pages.
Copies sold: 5,300


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