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This review is taken from PN Review 247, Volume 45 Number 5, May - June 2019.

Cover of Monk’s Eye translated from the Dutch by David Colmer
Anthony BarnettAn I who is a he
Monk’s Eye, Cees Nooteboom, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer (Seagull) £12.99
It is, I believe, fairly common for a great poet to produce a prose work – fiction, essay, autobiography – that is at least interesting, and sometimes much more than that. It is not often that a great novelist writes interesting poetry. Cees Nooteboom, author of, for example, such marvelous stories as The Following Story and A Song of Truth and Semblance, also an essayist, is one exception. Poetry is, in fact, central to his life. Previously translated by David Colmer for Seagull are Nooteboom’s selected poems Light Everywhere and, with artist Max Neumann, the truly remarkable Self-Portrait of an Other, which might inadequately be described as a unified sequence of prose­poems. I know that Colmer is a trustworthy translator. I first read Self-Portrait in an earlier translation in a review. I had the original and I thought that the translation was good and true. Then I read Colmer’s and understood how much more work he had done.

Monk’s Eye is a poem in thirty-three parts. I would have said poems but Nooteboom’s postscript describes the whole in the singular. Each part, then, is made up of three irregular, unrhymed quatrains, plus one more line which he has described elsewhere as a cauda, rather than a coda. The thirty-third part has a further cauda: ‘The murmur of the sea’, repeated three times. Monk’s Eye was written on two islands, the Frisean Schiermonnikoog [‘Grey Monk Eye’ – schier is an old word for grey], settled by the Cistercians, and Minorca, where Nooteboom spends his summers, so the sea and the shore, and ‘Phaedrus and Socrates on the ...


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