Tuesday, April 16, 2019


Nobel prize winner, Shirin Ebadi of Iran, has said that in order to have understanding of and peace in the world, we must read each other’s literature. I’d add that the emissaries of that mission are translators: think of Coleman Barks translating the Persian poet Mowlavi (Rumi); Jane Kenyon translating the work of the Russian poet, Akhmatova, Stuart Friebert translating the German poet, Karl Krolow…Think also of the independent press, Pinyon Publishing in Colorado, which often publishes international poetry translations, such as its recent release: a volume of selected poetry by M. Vasalis (1909-1998), a Dutch psychiatrist who specialized in treating children and whose work has been translated by Fred Lessing and David Young.

In the introduction to this volume, translators Lessing and Young emphasize that the poet Vasalis had little interest in promoting her work but that her poems “come out of her life, her experience of the natural world, her professional practice, and her family relations, arising from the press of occasion and necessity rather than from an ambition to originality or greatness…” That description alone impressed me because I admire the qualities of humility and modesty that inhere in a writer’s life mission.

Vasalis’s immediacy and simplicity in “Spring,” a poem describing the spring season readers in the northern hemisphere are presently experiencing, resonated with me early in the volume and is perhaps the most whimsical one in The Old Coastline: “The light gusts across the land in spurts,/waking the hard, brief glitter/of the blue, wind-ruffled ditches and canals;/the grass lights up, dims down, goes dark./Two newborn lambs next to a grizzled sheep/stand white, printing youth’s picture against grass./I had forgotten how this was, and that/the spring is not a quiet blossoming,/dreaming softly but a violent growing,/a pure and passionate beginning,/jumping up out of a deep sleep,/and dancing away without a thought.” Although Vasalis has been likened to the American poet, Elizabeth Bishop, I hear the voice of Emily Dickinson in this selection the translators included from her first book, Parks and Deserts (1940). 

A reading of selections from her third book, Vistas and Visages, published posthumously in 1954, reveals more serious poetic treatments as Vasalis probes the deeper subjects of suffering and loss arising from Vasalis’s own tragic loss of a child who lived only a year and a half. The imagery in “Star” carries this message of loss in a departure from any formalism and pivots on the figure of her lost child, then concludes in a pastoral scene featuring a cow, a powerful entry into the natural world. “Tonight I saw a star for the first time./He stood alone, he did not quiver./Instantly, he pierced me through./I saw a star, he stood alone, belief/made out of light: so young and from a time/before there was such a thing as grief./The meadows lie unspoken in the light./The cows, so often painted,/restrain, with a young wet eye,/any account of their warm mystery.” That one verse , so much akin to Japanese haiku, underlines the beautiful simplicity of Vasalis’s oeuvre.

In the same volume, Vistas and Visages, Vasalis reveals her love and appreciation of children and her journey as a psychiatrist dealing with youth. “Children Coming Home” evokes strong emotions in those of us who parented young offspring and welcomed them as they returned home from an all-day absence. Her description of them as “big flowers” coming out of the gathering dark, “the chilly evening air/that lightly drapes their cheeks and hair/they are so warm!” is neither Elizabeth Bishop nor Emily Dickinson but simply a mother experiencing intimacy with her young in an intense immediacy. Further, she writes: “Clasped/in the strong clamp of their soft arms/I glimpse the love, shadowless and full./ [not yet exposed to Jungian psychology about shadows that will beset them later] that lives at the bottom of their penetrating eyes,/It is not mixed with pity, which comes later,/and has its reasons — and its boundaries.” It is Vasalis who has the penetrating eyes and appears watchful about the boundaries of innocent children.

In The Old Coastline (2002), readers will enjoy some of Vasalis’s poems about older relationships; i.e., a poignant characterization of her grandmother, a cherished member of the poet’s family constellation in “Old Age”: “Grandmother/snow-white-lace on/her calm sweet, white-satin head/carried when she was in Holland, at home,/the smallest muff in the whole world:/inside a tiny bottle, no bigger/than an ampule./ There was just room/for her hands. Plus one child's hand,/oh, what a delicious nest of fur and/the very softest satin lining/…Her eyes were a constantly changing blue;/you could look into them as long as you liked:/as if you were seeing, through two small openings,/the calm sea on a summer day.” That intimate tribute is both exacting and graceful, two recurring components of the selections chosen by Vasalis’s translators.

Vasalis also gives readers a glimpse of her own ideas about mortality, one with which most of us in our eighties can identify: “I practice like a young bird on the edge/of the nest I must soon forsake/in little faltering flights/and open my beak.”

This translated work by Vasalis is a powerful addition to the canon of international expression and vision.Translator Fred Lessing, a Holocaust survivor, psychotherapist, and retired professor of philosophy, retained his native Dutch language after moving to America at age 12. His fellow translator, David Young, is a poet (Field of Light and Shadow, 2010) an editor of Field magazine, Oberlin College Press, and a translator who enjoys collaborative work with his long-time friend, Fred Lessing.

Thank you Gary and Susan for contributing to the mission of sharing international literature through expert translations! The Old Coastline is another occasion for celebration. 

Order from Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.

1 comment:

Jo Ann Lordahl said...

Thank you Diane. This is a wonderful look at a poet most of us will have never heard of. What an excellent job you've done! Jo Ann Lordahl