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Feature: The Low Countries
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F. van Dixhoorn

Two Poems: ‘All at sea’ and ‘Big batten’

translated by Astrid Alben

See the translator’s note at the end of this file.

All at sea

what goes well
with what
1. pull loose

transformation of
minuscule bubbles

a dab for starters

2. you’re back
I said delighted
3. at the beginning

of the largest pier
in the world
4. you’d better ask
when you get upstairs
everybody laughing of course

a dab for starters

1. at the beginning
of the largest pier
in the world
2. you’re back
I said delighted
things names
all sorts all sorts

3. that that
is possible
equal to each other
nurtures rest
red is urban sprawl

4. again
closer to each other
than before
carefully measure
with string again

1. again
closer to each other
than before
carefully measure
with string again

2. sigh grows
more quiet
on a piece of string
3. on the waves

a boat

4. grows
more quiet
if another one
is needed
1. sea keeps young

2. people at sea
3. forever yours

4. across each other
1. en route
to the warm seas

2. usually ends
with the purchase
of a red vase

cheerful by nature

3. zinc

buyer brass
over there it is
six hours earlier
than here

4. much too low
whole mosquito swarms
in their turn
mosquitoes attract birds
moving on

1. from
the difference
in starting times
what about me
the material is
colder than before
2. by thinking
the same over and over
the boat
has become far bigger
3. by four
4. by four
I really should
ask dawn

I emerge

1. sings of the sun
running up stairs

if anything happens
to that one particle
it will show
in the other
at the same time

2. pull loose
transformation of
minuscule bubbles
3. weighs four kilos

I can walk round with it
for hours
4. or in a box
the past
sits in boxes
always alone

what I know
1. that an observed particle
gives an unpredictable shove 2.
3. remove

4. in the spring
1. in the summer
much damage
to nestling birds
budding green
being in tune
audibly relieved
2. I am distracted

3. sailors
never think about
what they leave behind
4. what comes after

1. that and the fact
of staying upright
up here

2. tidy up and count
stand dreaming
now 4.
3. beaks full of mud

Big batten

1. hands held high                           
2. young shoots
bend light
then helpless
with outstretched necks
3. circled entirely
by water
as if someone
committed a crime
4. I partially do it
finish it
it is done                                
and forget it
1. one

finds himself
on a ship
outside the harbour
thinking by and by
he finds himself
at sea
2. two
they have a car
when will they leave
just after sunset
3. if I do it
I feel small
because he takes large steps
how he does that
gets it together
another meaning

4. in the forest four lean
against the car
speak in whispers
to each other
whilst staring at the
1. there’s someone down there
2. I ask him 
will you stay down
2. I ask him
do you want us
to stay
3. three in the car
with hands full of wood

he looks about satisfied
I found that wood
4. I ask him
will you stay
down there
1. the sun breaks through                       
which doesn’t mean
the light
that the object        
cannot pass
is held back
2. walking round it
does not yield
any further answers
3. the shadows
of the trees     

slip and shift
with the sun
to the west
first rise                                                        
4. try walking 
round a basket
whilst your face
remains focused                              
remain focused                                                          
on the wicker basket
1. more
a hound
it seems                     
as if deliberately

2. under the weight
of the ripening nuts
as the shadows grow
in the evening dusk
3. for another
the portent of
an approaching ship
4. the portent of
an approaching ship
keeping your hands
like so
unpleasant in fact is
a menacing question
1. the shadows

of the trees
slip and shift
with the sun
to the west
2. by not thinking
the same over and over
the boat has
become terribly big
when nothing is done   
the collection threatens
to fall apart
in summer
3. forty seven
4. almost dead straight
from the ground up
because standstill

begins exactly at
the most risky point                       
when greatness
lies within reach
1. I should stop       
because standstill
at the most risky point
2. smiles too
grabs my hand                                  
pushes something in
white shore
fine weather
3. the sun
in the far west
the entire boat

the events
succeed one another
there where they occur
the shadows stand
4. take possession
of the trees
of the desire
of the monkey
only to return
1. the same shore
I ask him
which does not mean
a boat drifts away
when somebody
finds the empty boat
thinks that

I have had an accident
2. I you we
in spring
I grow quieter
the leaves appear
on the trees
I can no longer see her
3. and so in the gale
the leaves fall 
from the trees
into the water                                                                         
4. another
and another
1. splits

Translated by Astrid Alben

F. van Dixhoorn (1948) lives and works in Middelburg, Zeeland, the Netherlands.

His first collection Jaagpad / Rust in de tent / Zwaluwen vooruit was published in 1994. Later publications include Armzwaai/ Grote keg/ Loodswezen I (1997) (the translation of Grote keg (‘Big batten’) is from this collection), Takken molenwater/ Kastanje jo/Hakke tonen/ Uiterton/ Molen in de zon (2000) and Dan op de zeevaartschool (‘All at sea’) (2003). Twee piepjes (‘Two peeps’) is due to be published in 2007. These collections are all published by De Bezige Bij.

These poems as well as their translations in the English and French are presented in their original visual format at

Astrid Alben

Grote keg/Big batten and Dan op de zeevaartschool/All at sea: Translator’s Note on F. van Dixhoorn

This morning B says he wants ‘to ruler the world’, doodling with pencil on paper what I think, is either a bridge or a banana.

Taken out of their context, everyday objects and language look or sound banal and carry little meaning. As is the case for most people, my need for cohesion eventually exceeds the kind of alluring bewilderment I admit I felt when I first chanced upon the poetry of F. van Dixhoorn’s, and I began to translate his poems because, well, to try and make sense out of lines like,

1. uit/het verschil/ in aanvangstijden/ en ik dan/ is het materiaal/ kouder dan eerder.

F. van Dixhoorn’s poetry for me became an exploration of the ways in which we use those ostensibly basic facets of language - stock phrases, idioms, common expressions, throw-away observations - that are the loose change clanking about in the register of the brain. A line appears to say one thing in combination with the preceding one, yet something quite different in combination with the following,

1. the same shore/ I ask him/ which does not mean/ a boat drifts away/ when somebody/ finds the empty boat/ thinks that// I have had an accident.

Translating F. van Dixhoorn’s poetry then, is not so much about slotting the right word into the right place as it is about translating the continually shifting syntactical structure that comes with unimpeded private thought. And simultaneously to translate the resulting symptomatic lack of continuity, without allowing the translation to evolve into something hollow and disjointed.

Words, which tend to fall into place like bricks to build a bridge, conveying to the listener or reader some sort of intelligible narrative, in Van Dixhoorn’s poetry become constructs of those scattered, fly-away thoughts that accompany us on a bike ride, brushing one’s teeth or taking the rubbish out: it makes sense and it doesn’t make sense. The poems mimic how impressions slide imperceptibly into words without an obvious audience in mind and so without an obvious syntactical scaffold to hold up what’s what.

Poems like Grote Keg/Big batten and Dan op de zeevaartschool/All at sea alienate as much as engage because the reader is confronted with the combination of the everyday, routine use and turns of language and its private application. To preserve this tension in the translation was a main concern.

The matter-of-course allusions to the endless monotony of the landscape, to the presence of the sea, the activity on and around the water, to shipping; the far-reaching flatness of the land, the never shifting horizon, where the trees lining the cycle paths seem to repeat themselves as one rolls by on a bike; it’s all in the poetry. The evident presence of the sea/land-’scape’ in the poems was another priority.

Even if the lines hinge in and out of the intelligible or don’t ‘mean’ anything, what the poetry does offer, rather than relate or share, is an experience,

1. from the difference/ in starting times/ what about me/ the material is/ colder than before:

an experience of time, of place, sensory. It also engages the reader with what reading is – a rather imprecise and associative endeavour. Old hat, but it brings me back to B who I confess dropped by merely to illustrate a point, who will ruler the world and doodles bridges looking like… well, it may be a bridge, it may be bananas.

Astrid Alben (1970) lives in Amsterdam, where she works as a translator and poet. She is co-founder of Pars, an organisation that brings together scientists and artists: