Five Poems and One Fragment by Martinus Nijhoff

The Wanderer

My lonely life wanders around the streets,
Within house walls, through fields, along the shore.
No blood flows through my dead hands any more,
My heart has silently forsaken deeds.

A cloistered monk from the time of Charlemagne,
With solemn Flemish face I sit withdrawn;
Watch people walking on a sunny lawn,
Hear from the quay the sailors’ loud refrain.

An artist from the time of the Renaissance,
At night I draw some lady’s smiling eyes
Or, bending to a mirror, scrutinise
My own, and study their amazing brilliance.

A poet from the time of Baudelaire
— Days spent with books and nights in some cafe —
I curse my love and dance like Salome.
The world embraces luxury and wretched care.

A watcher am I in a lofty tower.
A space divides me from the world around,
Which I see small, far off, and without sound;
Neither to hear nor touch have I the power.

When my hands had at length become inactive
My eyes saw all things with tranquillity;
I watched a train of images go by me,
Silent mosaic, with prospect nor perspective.

From The Wanderer (De Wandelaar, 1916)
By Martinus Nijhoff
Translated by Tanis Guest



Within my heart a little tree grows;
Red as heart’s blood is its root,
But when it flowers the blossom shows
Snow-white on the delicate shoot.

I dream of birds and of fire by night,
Hear the sound of warlike clashes,
But a song springs up in the morning light
Like a phoenix from the ashes.

And the red of love fades gradually
To the child’s unmarred innocence —
Death has a kind of purity
Which begins before life ends.

From Forms (Vormen, 1924)
By Martinus Nijhoff
Translated by Tanis Guest


Al Fresco Dinner Party

The clear June evening spreads a lofty glow
Above the lake’s expanse, but round the bright
Table on the lawn, its lamps alight,
The trees swell into darkness green and slow.

Eating dessert, we camouflage the sight,
We lonely rebels, with poetic musings low,
So that, now the hour yields to wistful shadow,
We do not spoil each other’s brief delight.

Already, over there, there are guitars,
And lantern-lights, and gently plashing oars,
Moving unhurriedly over drowned stars –

They sing, and then towards each other lean
And kiss, not out of love, but just because
Of the fleeting sublime, and what they feel between.

From Forms (Vormen, 1924)
By Martinus Nijhoff
Translated by Tanis Guest


The Song of the Foolish Bees

A scent of higher honey
embittered all the flowers,
a scent of higher honey
enticed us from our dwelling.

The scent, and a soft droning
frozen in the clear heavens,
the scent and a soft droning
over and over, nameless,

called us, audacious creatures,
to come forsake the gardens,
called us, audacious creatures,
to enigmatic roses.

Far from our kind and kindred
we have been driven onward
far from our kind and kindred,
jubilant, on adventure.

No one’s by nature able
to interrupt his passion,
no one’s by nature able
to suffer death incarnate.

Constantly yielding further,
constantly more translucent
constantly yielding further
to the elusive symbol,

we climbed aloft and vanished,
disbanded, disembodied,

we climbed aloft and vanished
away like things asparkle.

It’s snowing, we are dying,
fluttering worldwards, homewards;
it’s snowing, we are dying,
snowing between the beehives.

From New Poems (Nieuwe gedichten, 1934)
By Martinus Nijhoff
Translated by James S Holmes



We’re standing in the kitchen, she and I.
All day long I’ve thought: you must ask her today.
But, because somehow I’m ashamed to say
it, I want her caught unawares and shy.

So now, seeing her bent busy over her task,
and having the chance I wanted to have
the most unprepared answer she can give —
‘What do you want me to write about?’ — I ask.

Just as the teakettle whistles out a jet
of steam, a cloud covering her until
it shoots up and fogs the kitchen window.

Then she answers, at the same time she lets
a string of boiling water slowly fall
spreading the smell of coffee: ‘I don’t know.’

From New Poems (Nieuwe gedichten, 1934)
By Martinus Nijhoff
Translated by Raphael Rudnik


Awater (last section)

The fireman tosses coal upon the fire.
The engineer leans out and stares ahead.
Beyond the station roof, above the rail
patterns, the signals start their overture.
The clock’s hands jump from minute on to minute.
The locomotive calls, time after time,
calls that it has been waiting far too long.
Its pile of sighs becomes a clew of clouds.
But do not think its fretting is for you,
this Orient Express; nor does it share
your joy at seeing place names in a script
that is adventure’s opening accord.
Its readiness to travel is relentless.
Whatever hopes you cherish or reject,
it does not care, it is immune to even
the fancy of a travelling companion.
That you, alone in all its luxury,
put down the window with a heavy heart
and cast one final glance along the platform;
or that you taste that sheerest human bliss:
to know that you were guided, it was not
without a reason, you have not been duped —
be praised — it does not care. It sees blue skies.
Its clanking girdle is of iron links.
It sings, it lifts a knee, enswathed by steam.
And it departs at the appointed time.

From New Poems (Nieuwe gedichten, 1934)
By Martinus Nijhoff
Translated by James S Holmes

All poems first published in The Low Countries, 1996