Tag Archives: The Netherlands

Clogs – a poem

Volendam, the Netherlands. Credit: Mel_88 via Pixabay

I’ve been typing up notes from a Zoom writing workshop with Liz Berry. The focus was on short poems – some of them only two or three lines long. One was a two-line poem about a chess game and a raised hand by Charles Simic, the Serbian American poet.

In the early days of the spring lockdown, Dutch TV showed famous places somewhere in the Netherlands which are usually thronging with tourists: Volendam, Giethoorn, Kinderdijk, Zaanse Schans. One night the Red Light district in Amsterdam, empty and quiet.

Here is my short poem about clogs, a cliché along with the tulips, bicycles and cheese. I hope you remembered to put your clocks back!

Clogs, Volendam

Poem of the Clog

The clog was crying.
It wasn’t lonely: there were
thousands of shiny clogs.
I am addicted, it howled,
there are no tourists

World Animal Day

Photo credit: Artcats via Pixabay


World Animal Day was started in 1925. I was looking for an animal poem in my file. Looking back on this experience, we might question the animal welfare aspect. The horse seemed happy enough at the time.

Circus

The Arabian thoroughbred
and his blue-blood spinster
lodged with a middle-aged couple
living in the Dutch bible belt.

My parents despatched
my younger brother and me
that summer to acquire
circus skills in two weeks.

Each morning a child took
turns standing on the horse
as it walked round the ring
inside the stuffy canvas tent.

In the afternoons we swam
in the local pool, tried to get
the couple’s fat ponies to obey.
There were prayers, a lot of eggs.

By the end of the holiday we
balanced, arms outstretched,
on the trotting horse. We swung
off and on as it cantered.

Neighbours Day – poem

Photo Credit: andrewlloydgordon via Pixabay

Yesterday was Neighbours Day here in the Netherlands. The Neighbours Day initiative was started in 2005 by Douwe Egberts, one of the traditional Dutch coffee makers: social contact starts with a cup of coffee. A few years later they were joined by a charity called Oranjefonds. Each year they provide funds, support and advice for a large range of social and community activities, such as Dutch language support for refugees, mentoring, club houses for the old and young.

During the lockdown earlier this year, many new initiatives were started by people volunteering in their own street or local area. A good fit with this annual initiative. My neighbours here on the camping have cut their hedges and have gone home. My day always starts with a good cup of coffee made in a cafetiere. It happens to be D.E. – a firm started in 1753 in a small shop in Friesland, a northern province.

Earlier this year I talked with my brother about events in our childhood. This memory came up.

Getting to know the neighbours

We’re snoozing after lunch
in a Sunday afternoon garden.
One of our family, still awake,
sees silent orange flames rising
that side of the opaque glass.

It’ll be a small insurance claim.
As evening turns pink, the old
Belgian couple walk their Borzoi.

Photo credit: akunnen via PIaxabay

Father’s Day

 

40th Wedding Anniversary
The picture shows me and my parents at a dinner to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in 1984. At Christmas 1988 I became the scapegoat for the difficult circumstances around my sister leaving her husband. My father, my brother and that husband were all called Theo. My sister was living with someone else by then.

So, one Theo told me off for keeping in touch with that Theo and the third Theo collected me from my parents’ flat and took me to the airport. My father and I became estranged. Late September 1990 my father was taken to hospital after a suspected heart attack. He was doing okay, my brother told me, no need to rush and book a flight. Two days later my father died in hospital, instantly, after a large heart attack.

 

Almuerzo con mi padre

My father’s eyes behind the spectacles sparkle.
There’s wisdom in his moustache,
and dreams of fino sherry, chilled in a thin glass.

There would be time to wait and wander,
criss-cross a square, look at people,
the statue of a famous general on his horse.

The dead will be around us on the hills that hold the city.
My father claps his hands, decides where we will eat.

He’s learned his Spanish from reel-to-reel Linguaphone.
I’m online with Duolingo: Vino tinto, pan, conejo.

My father would have found it hard to choose
between the crema catalana and helada.
His moustache would have selected ice cream.

The light streams in …

 

Keukenhof 18

Yesterday afternoon I watched a TV programme about the Keukenhof, a major Dutch tourist attraction. Annually visitors come from over 100 different countries. A team of 40 gardeners has worked for three months last autumn planting around seven million bulbs – tulips, hyacinths, narcissi. Easter w/end is usually one of the busiest times; this year the Keukenhof will not open to visitors.

The photos are from 2018 when I went with my sister and brother-in-law. Now you cannot visit the Keukenhof, the Keukenhof will come to you. On the website they will be posting more videos. Go to de Keukenhof

 

purle tu;los

 

The poem is by Thomas Tranströmer, from his collection The Sad Gondola, 1996. May you and those dear to you be safe and sound this Easter.

 
The Light Streams In

Outside the window, the long beast of spring
the transparent dragon of sunlight
rushes past like an endless
suburban train – we never got a glimpse of its head.

The shoreline villas shuffle sideways
they are proud as crabs.
The sun makes the statues blink.

The raging sea of fire out in space
is transformed to a caress.
The countdown has begun.

Here I am walking …

trotting-3598639_1280

Photo credit: Digwen on Pixabay

 

These are my neighbours. Yes, camping Duinhorst backs onto a racecourse. Duindigt opened in 1906. Most of the races held are trotting races, with the jockeys sitting on a sulky as in the picture. Some days I can hear the faint sounds of commentary, or a national anthem at the end of a race. And, very often when I’m out and about I come across horses being exercised. That is where the writing started.  It is the second poem in my second collection Nothing serious, nothing dangerous.

I was going to fly to Holland on 5 April, but things are serious and dangerous. I managed to get a flight out on Wednesday 18 March from Manchester to Schiphol in the Netherlands, and went straight to my caravan. You know from following my blog that I am a Dutch national, long-term resident in the UK. Faced with “social distancing” and a possible four-month’ quarantine, I felt it would be easier in the caravan. It has a small garden and I can go for a bike ride, or a short walk in the nearby dunes – as long as I keep my distance.

 

Here I am walking …

 
Here I am walking with a small horse.
I found it on the path to the supermarket
where it stood, eyes closed, by yellow gorse.

All this happened a long time ago,
before I was born, before the war,
and the rope in my hand smells of horse.

We can turn to the right, walk over
the dual carriageway, head for the dunes,
four bronze crosses to remember

the war dead and we’ll arrive,
place our feet on the beach
where it’ll soon be night.

St. Nicolaas, 5 December 1957

 

_Groeten_van_St._Nicolaas!__St._Nicholas_and_a_helper,_St._Nick_is_in_a_white_robe,_orange_cap,..._(NBY_1458)

 

Traditionally, both St. Nicolaas and Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) arrive in ports in the Netherlands on a steam ship towards the end of November. A white horse awaits the holy man who rides through the streets. In the week or so before St. Nicolaas’ evening, children would leave a carrot for the horse in their shoe (few of us wore clogs!) by the fireplace. The evidence that St. Nicolaas and Zwarte Piet had come down the chimney to visit was there the next morning: some sweets, chocolates or a small piece of marzipan in those shoes.

Black Peter is a helper, distributing sweets to the children who’ve been good. However, he also carries a large bag. Any child that has been misbehaving during late November-early December risks being noticed and being carried off to Spain in that bag.

The competition from Father Christmas has become stronger over the last decades. In recent years, there has also been a controversy in the Netherlands about Zwarte Piet and a small UN Human Rights deputation even came to investigate the accusations of racism and colonialism. Some councils and schools now have a white helper (not blacked up) and elsewhere St. Nicolaas visits on his own. The controversy is ongoing with demonstrations, petitions and activism.

On the 5th of December I will be in the UK, on a writing week. I still love marzipan, but I am cutting down on sweets and I have asked St. Nicolaas for a large batch of good, new poems! The poem is from my debut collection Another life (Oversteps Books Ltd).

 
St. Nicolaas, 5 December 1957

We’re crowded in our dining room.
Grandmother has closed her face.
There’s me in pyjamas, smiling.
I’m next to my father’s father.
His heart will give out soon.
I’ve just been given a book;
animal stories with illustrations.

My brother too smiles, because
our mother isn’t there.
She may be in the kitchen
or upstairs, ill, thinking
about walking out on us.
My father has taken this photo.
He too will have closed his face.

Cheerio and Goodbye: going bananas

1024px-Wijk_aan_zee_044

To date, over 13,000 people have booked to attend a party on the beach at Wijk aan Zee in the Netherlands on the 31st of October. It all started as a joke on Facebook in August but quickly grew. People paid Euro 19.73 (the year the UK joined the EU) and they were going to wave goodbye to us here in the UK, listening to live music and being served Belgian beer, French wine and Dutch chips and cheese.

I know Wijk an Zee very well: it’s just two miles from the small town where I was born. I spent a lot of time there as a child and adolescent. From the beach you can see the chimneys of the steelworks by the port of Ijmuiden.

Brexit has been delayed and so has the party! The organiser, Ron Toekook, admits that it has not been possible to get the finance sorted for a party this size in such a short time. Money will be refunded, and they will try again early next year.

According to a recent survey, one third of the UK population reports mental health issues as a result of Brexit.  That’s close to 22 million people and I am only one of them.

This seems a good time to share with you my Brexit poem Going bananas. One of the lies told by politicians here in the UK was that the EU wouldn’t allow bananas to be bent! The poem is in the form of an abecedarian. This is an ancient form with each line starting with a letter of the alphabet. Apparently, the first examples were in Semitic and religious Hebrew poems.

Going bananas

Aliens’ Office: the first destination on my 1969 arrival, a somewhat
bewildering encounter with Blighty’s bureaucracy in London.
Colombey-les-Deux-Églises it ain’t and I’m in Manchester now, five
decades down the time-line, feeling like a sick parrot, a dead one
even. I was an economic migrant, attracted by English eccentricity.
Four candles? Fork handles? Wit and humour have been turned into the
Groundhog Day of Brexit negotiations. Jack took a fortnight’s leave –
halcyon days in September – and through marriage I acquired an
Irish surname while my husband held two passports, even then.
Je ne regrette rien screech those who voted non in the referendum.
Kafka would have been enchanted by a hard border in the Irish sea.
Languages were my passport, small flags sewn on the uniforms;
my Seaman’s Record Book rests in a box file with birthday cards.
NHS nurses and pediatricians are returning to Europe, even poets I know.
Oui, some of the three million are voting with their feet.
P&O gave the world the word posh: port out, starboard home. The
question of lorries queuing on the M20 still has no answer, as do the
refugee tales of children held in indefinite detention or stuck in Calais.
Schadenfreude is not what they feel in Europe, they’re just bewildered.
Tourist shoppers avail themselves of the sinking pound sterling and the
ugly UKIP man with Union Jack footwear, beery bonhomie, claimed
victory then scarpered sharply right. What kind of victory is it
when I now no longer want to become a British citizen? My neighbours are
xenophobes who, Macron says, will soon need visit visa to enter France.
Yes, the yahoos are among us yanking us closer and closer to the edge,
zealots who prefer the zilch-no-deal, while I cry and pluck my zither.

The Herring Eater

 

Herring Eater

The Herring Eater is the centrepiece of a series of 23 inter-related sculptures by the American sculptor Tom Otterness. The tubes and round shapes are typical of his work: cartoon-like and humorous. However, these sculptures called Fairytales by the Sea are not from the children’s playground, but they remind us how these stories have a serious, even bleak, message. Here are Gulliver and creatures held down, tied down, or captive in cages. There is the hangman’s noose.

 

Fairy tale

 

Scheveningen was one of the major ports for the Dutch herring fleet. To this day, most Dutch people love their raw herring with chopped onion served in a white bread roll. There is always a queue at the stall next door to my local supermarket. I am about to close the caravan for the winter. The poem was written earlier in the season.

 
When in Holland

When in Holland do as the Dutch do:
eat raw herring in a white roll with
optional small bits of onion.
Or, like the giant bronze statue
The Herring Eater, already weathered
out on the promenade, head backwards,
holding the fatty fish by its tail.

Next you need to hunt out smoked eel
in the supermarkets. They’re delicious
with a sauce of crème fraiche and jenever.
Flight KL1079 to Manchester arrived on time
and I let the fish go.

Living below sea level

Living below sea level is the title of Kathleen Kummer’s debut poetry collection (Oversteps Books Ltd, 2012), as well as the title of a short sequence in the book. Kathleen and I met at the beginning of the century on a week’s writing workshop with the poet Lawrence Sail. She had been married to a Dutchman and lived and worked for 14 years in the Netherlands, teaching French and German.

We kept in touch as poets and then became friends. When Kathleen moved to Devon to be nearer her two daughters, I suggested she submit her work to Devon publishers. Kathleen only started writing poetry seriously in her late sixties and had immediate success in competitions and acceptances in quality UK magazines.

I’m featuring Kathleen as this month’s poet, with three poems from the collection. That day is the second poem in the sequence. The cover picture is by Shirley Smith, Society of Wood Engravers.

News item

Let it be hard to write this poem.
Let it be hard to listen to.
Its words should lie flat and grey on the page,
ugly, as befits the vocabulary of war.

He had no alternative, said the surgeon,
but to amputate the festering hand
of the baby, nine months old.
Did you, like me, hear the news over dinner

in a comfortable chair, in a comfortable room,
and wonder how you could go on eating,
go on living? But did, having no
alternative. Let that child, I asked –

without knowing whom I asked it of –
still have a mother and family to rock
and cradle it. For how many lullabies will it need
to sleep, how many bedtime stories?

 

ii That day

A kind of delousing: hours later,
I’m still finding rice and confetti in your hair,
but no trace of the cobalt-blue, vermillion
and burnt umber which dappled your face
and your dark hired suit, as the sun streamed on us
through the stained-glass windows. And that cascade of notes
‘Handel’, you whispered. I was proud of you
for knowing and didn’t let on I knew.

Image (6)

Boat on my windowsill

Forgive me for not using the pine cones you gave me
to light the fire. They look good on the hearth
in a wooden bowl. Among them, I found
a piece of bark, two-sided, V-shaped.
On my windowsill, upside down, it becomes
whatever boat I want it to be:
The Oseberg ship, chattels, carved wagon
on board, moored in its burial ground;
a Viking longboat, cutting through
the Baltic and Skagerrak as though they were butter;
a rowing boat, sturdy enough to take me
out to the ships which stand so still
on the firm line of the horizon; in the coracle,
I’d be snug and safe as a walnut in its shell
for the short crossing to the other side.