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This poem is taken from PN Review 137, Volume 27 Number 3, January - February 2001.

Faces and Distances: a selection of poems (translated by Julia Blackburn and Herman Makkink) Vasalis

Vasalis is the pen name of Margaretha (Kiek) Droogleever Fortuyn- Leenmans, based on her maiden name of Leenmans which means 'vassal'.

She completed training as a neuropsychiatrist just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Her first volume of poetry,
Parks and Deserts (1940) won the van der Hoog prize and went into ten reprints within the first year. The second volume The Bird Phoenix (1943) was also hugely acclaimed. It is dedicated to her second child, who died during the war. The final volume was Faces and Distances (1954), after which for various reasons she did not wish to publish any more, although she continued to write. She avoided publicity and only appeared in public three times to receive further prizes. She never gave interviews.

For the last fifty years her reputation in Holland has not diminished and four to five thousand volumes of her work are still sold every year, more than of any other Dutch poet. She writes with clarity and simplicity about complex emotional states and achieves a popular appeal which she found disconcerting, because it made strangers presume they knew her and could share her experiences.

I first met her in Holland fifteen years ago and she became a close friend. I always stayed with her and her husband when I had completed a book, and would often read bits of it to her and the whole of it to myself while under her roof. She had a very wild and sometimes savage sense of humour.

She said that James Joyce's poetry was an influence and she shares his simplicity of rhyme and rhythm and apparent simplicity of thought. The poems are very hard to translate. I tried to do some of them ages ago with her help, but it did not work. This translation was done together with my Dutch husband, Herman Makkink.


'My heart lay unharnessed ...'

My heart lay unharnessed like the early dawn,
pulsating with a thin white pain,
nailed fast to the edges of being.
I was not asleep and had not yet surfaced.
Then a bird began to sing,
    deep in the throat of daybreak,
and the heart tore at its holds unbearably,
wanting to swell, grow smaller and be happy.
And I awoke clear and lucid with pain.

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