November 27, 2022

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Two poems by Nachoem M. Wijnberg trans. David Kolmer [Introduced by Thomas Moody]

3 min read

David Colmer is an award-winning Australian translator who has translated over 15 volumes of Dutch-language poetry, including Even Now by Hugo Clauss, shortlisted for a PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, and Self-Portrait of an Other by Cees Nooteboom. In 2001 he received the James Brockway Prize, an oeuvre prize for translators of Dutch-language poetry established by the Dutch Foundation of Literature, for which the prize jury stated: “[Colmer] is particularly comfortable with the colloquial, contemporary voice and does not hesitate to produce slang when the Dutch demand it. (…) He is a courageous translator; he never automatically chooses the obvious, but tries to tease the maximum out of every line.”

Colmer’s latest translation is a selection by Dutch poet Nachoem Wijnberg, published by The New York Review of Books earlier this year. Wijnberg is a particularly prolific poet, having produced 20 volumes of poetry since 1989, and the NYRB Collection contains poems from each of these titles. While there are notable developments in form and mode throughout the various volumes, Colmer’s selection captures what seems to be a constant in Wijnberg’s poetry: his use of the simplest spoken language to mystify and mystify. These poems exist in their own logic and reliably undercut our expectations; They’re disorienting in the way they can be cheerful and unnerving, linear and elliptical at the same time. “Laziness and Patience,” which reads almost like a parable, and “I Am a Doctor” are two poems that both accomplish the extraordinary feat of ordinary mystification.

laziness and patience

The three sons of the father who says when he dies

the entire inheritance goes to the laziest son.

A judge must find out which of the sons is the laziest.

The first son says: I get quiet when I think someone loves me.

That’s not bad, especially the hurry, like someone

who came to tell someone that he doesn’t love them.

The second son says: My father worked hard all his life

to say that the inheritance goes to the laziest son

and that it is for a judge to find out which son

is the laziest. If it was more I know what I would do

says the third son to the woman with whom he shares his inheritance

in just one night. The woman tells the judge.

The judge asks the son: How did you know that she was the woman?

who would tell me about it?

I am a doctor

I let rain destroy my clothes

and stay up all night and fall asleep

in the back seat of my car, on my horse.

When I find a dead body on the street

I search pockets for letters and keys

and try to find someone who recognizes the corpse

(sometimes it’s the dog or the horse).

Look at me, I’m a doctor.

Give me your hand, I’m a doctor.

Let me through, I’m a doctor, no, a cop.

No, a doctor and a policeman were walking down the street.

Here are two envelopes.

One contains a joke twice as good as the joke

in the other.

You can keep one of the two jokes.

Choose an envelope, open it, read the joke.

The joke in the other cover is twice or half as good.

If I swapped you, would you?

What is it about, I asked everyone I found

and everyone told me the same joke about themselves

and they also gave me lists of their properties

as if they wanted to be in a better place.

it’s me, talk to me

I’m a doctor, people called me to make sure.

I’ll make a joke that stays good

for ten years.

I have all the ingredients.

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