An Alphabet of Poets – D is for de Coninck

To celebrate National Poetry Month I am featuring a new poet for each day of April. I will be at my abecedarian best and go through the alphabet from a to z, with a few letters getting more than one post!

Fingerprints on a Window

I believe poetry is like fingerprints
on a window, behind which a child who can’t sleep
stands waiting for dawn. Mist rises from the earth,

a sigh of sadness. Clouds
provide for twenty-five kinds of light.
In fact they hold it back: backlight.

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

My daughter stands next to me by the window. To love her
is the best way to remember all of this.
Birds find, in the forge of their sound, the word

gone, gone, gone.

Herman de Coninck, trans. by Laure-Anne Bosselaar and Kurt Brown, from the Plural of Happiness,  Oberlin College Press, 2006, originally published in Fingerprints, 1997

What a surprise. The thin little book of poems from a man described in Laure-Anne Bosselaar’s introduction as “Flanders’ most renowned poet.” It arrived at my my house because of a whim. I had read a knock-out poem by Bosselaar and I went on the net to buy one of her books. There, I was intrigued to see she had translated a book of poems, with a forward by former U.S.poet laureate Charles Simic, by a poet who I didn’t know. I ordered the book! What a treasure.

Simic says this in his forward: Years before I read his marvelous poems, I had heard Herman de Coninck praised in Belgium and Holland. He was an extraordinary love poet with a huge following.”

Simic adds something at the end of his forward which is also critical: A good translation is a miracle of nature. In many ways a translated poem is a new poem. It must stand on its own. It is a hybrid. It is neither the original author’s poem nor its translators’. But it is also both.

De Coninck lived a short life, he died unexpectedly of  heart failure in Portugal in 1997,  aged 53,  but he lived the life he had to the lees! He wrote seven celebrated books of poetry in Dutch and published two books of critical essays. He was a prolific letter writer and kept copies of all the letters he wrote.

When de Coninck died he left a collection of 15,000 letters ( those he sent and received) and some of his letters were published  posthumously. He was a journalist as well as a poet and he suffered greatly with the unexpected death of his first wife in a car accident in 1971. However, he married again to the novelist and short story writer Kristien Hemmerechts whom he lived with in Antwerp until his death.


Not much is needed to love here.
Someone says “here” against the unmeasurable.

A coin on the mantle,
a passport photo. The unforgettable
is that small.

from The Plural of Happiness, originally published in Singular, 1991

It is an oddity to see in one collection a poem and then also its revised version. William Carlos Williams did that a number of times and to see what he changed reveals so much. De Connick did this with his poem Here. Here is the revised version:

Ars Poetica

“Not much is needed to love here.
Someone says “here” against the unmeasurable,

A coin on the mantle,
a passport photo. The unforgettable
is that small.” End quote.

What originally stood there was:
the unforgettable is “that huge.” I changed
it to “that small.” It took me a year to do that.
A poet must work hard learning to be silent:

a gravestone listening to what is etched in it.
Letters that listen until they’re filled with rain.

from The Plural of Happiness, originally published in Fingerprints, 1997

What do you think? Do you agree with him? I think I do. But  regardless I so enjoy seeing his poet’s mind at work and I so appreciate having the second poem and especially its cracker jack line: A poet must work hard learning to be silent. Yes! And I so admire his ability to make metaphoric leaps, achieve bravura lyricism, as in the last two lines of this poem.

“And she hugged him with all her sins”

And she hugged him with all her sins
and mouths. And she kissed him
with her nights, with all her forevers.
Where did she come up with all those things?
He walked through her words
as through a soft rain, and couldn’t live anywhere
else in the world, he wandered in love.
And she taught him to be unable
to say what he felt – but to feel.
How many legs did she throw around him
and how many snakes?
And how long did she take to tell a lie,
saying the word beloved?

It took months – that word was many months long.

from  The Plural of Happiness, originally published in Lithe Love, 1969

“The way you came in and said hello”

The way you came in and said hello
and stepped out of your clothes, your words

(the next-to-last you took
off was the word “darling,”
and the last a smile; then
you opened your parentheses, I entered,
and you closed them)

was how you left, slipped
on a few flimsy words
of good-bye
and shivered.

from The Plural of Happiness, originally published in Lithe Love

A master poet. I hear echoes of e.e. cummings and Robert Creeley. But in the end he is all Herman de Coninck and I wish (hope) Laure-Anne Bosselaur,  a dear friend of his when he was alive, would translate some more of his astonishing words into English.

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