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Herman Gorter

Herman Gorter (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Today, Herman Gorter is a name scarcely remembered outside the bounds of his own fair country. Even there in the Netherlands, the words that remain of his character are those of the epic poem, Mei (a powerful poem of 4,000 lines today viewed by many as the very height of Dutch Impressionism), which has since been assigned as the practical anthem of the movement to which much of this writer’s life was dedicated.

As you might have gathered, Gorter was a Dutch poet. He was also a revolutionary–a fact that, admittedly, factored rather heavily into a number of his works. He was a socialist, though an opponent of Lenin. He survived the first World War, and was a member of a group known as the Tachtigers–influential Dutch writers dedicated to the revival of literature’s prominence in their country, in the face of the powerhouse that was English and French writers of the time.

Though I think posting a 4,000-line poem would probably be overdoing it a bit here, I offer to you another sampling of his work, a piece known simply by its first line: “Oh, the cool black breath of the nighttime draws near…” I also have the pleasure to be able to offer up the original version as well, for those of you capable of comparing the translation to the power of the predecessor…

~Chris Galford

Oh, the cool black breath of the nighttime draws near,
brings pitchers of quiet-flowing wine-black here,
brushing mourning fingers too softly to hear –
comes and revives my poor languishing dear.
You see the sparkling and deep red
wine juice fall from the jug, red and gold,
right through the night black and drear,
that is the gloomy red old
exhumed bleeding dead
wine in the night’s hand hither brought.
O my loved one let us toast
the red together like yawls off the coast
wander homeward when the catch is in –
together sinking where dark’s most
deep, mid the houses’ dark resonant host
as if aping our steps within.
Those houses are full nonetheless
silent lightfolk make each other guess
words and silently laugh –
we walk together bathing through the dark recess
brimful of the dark seeds to excess
joy that will soon outgrow the chaff.

Calm yellow gazes of people spying
at the windows and starting to grimace
at us two stumbling on our way –
whores round corners their mouths all sighing
leer, men’s backs surge along in the race
of the gold-lined street stream’s spray.

Our closed eyes go –
past our eyes the waves go,
dark sky –
we are two fishes that will inhabit
deep-dug black sea caves
with no cry.

In the black city
in the coal-black city
in the city with metal root,
I’ve filled a room with soot
black – and red with desire,
within burns yellow fire.

The empty walls surround,
fallen velvet, and around
the silent folds joyously play –
then rush upon their way
through the red gold lights –
we’re amazed at these sights –
and walk on sighing.

Like blunted houses with lighted panes,
in which lightning blazes
so are our walls there –
like great women with falling hair
each corner stands up and retains
the room’s soft muffled planes.
There we stand and keep still,
we touch with a shuddering thrill
and look around us –
there’s a buzz in us,
far outside the city buzzes too
with drear, dull hue.

But great flame flowers are about to start
to sway in your hands with love in their heart –
your hair rises like a flame,
your cheeks flow with fire, and perspire –
oh let it be consumed in me
that blazing rationality.

~ Herman Gorter, Translated by Paul Vincent

O koele zwarte ademen van den nacht,
stil vlietende kannen van wijnzwart gebracht
in haar rouwvingeren slepend zoo zacht –
gaat lavende tot waar mijn liefste wacht.
Ziet ge het flonkerend zware roode
wijnvocht de kan uit, de roodgoude,
vallen dwars door den zwarten nacht,
dat is de sombere roode oude
opgegravene bloedenddoode
wijn in de nachthand hier gebracht.
O mijn liefste laten we drinken
samen het rood, als zeeëpinken
dwalen naar huis die de vischvangst doen –
samen diep door het duister zinken
tusschen de huizen die donker weerklinken
of ze binnen ons stappen nadoen.
Die huizen die zijn wel volgeladen
stille lichtmenschen die zich te raden
woorden geven en lachen stil –
wij loopen saam door het duister te baden
boordevol vol van de donkere zaden
vreugde die straks hoog groeien wil.

Geele gelaten kijken van menschen
achter de ramen en gaan dan grijnzen
om ons tweeën die strompelen voort –
hoeren om hoeken den mond vol wenschen
loeren, en ruggen van mannen deinzen
mee in de straatstroom goudgeboord.

Onze gesloten oogen gaan –
langs onze oogen de golven gaan,
duistere lucht –
wij zijn twee visschen die gaan bewonen
diepgegraven zwarte zeeholen
zonder gerucht.

In de zwarte stad
in de steenkole stad
in de stad gestegen van metaal,
daar heb ik een zaal
zwart gebrand – rood van minne,
daar brandt geel licht van binnen.

De leege wanden staan rondom,
gevallen fluweel, daar vouwen zich om
de stille plooien verrukkend –
dan gaan daar rukkend
de roodgouden lichten door –
wij oogend staan daarvoor –
en wandelen zuchtend.

Als stompe huizen gelicht geraamd,
waar het weerlicht in vlamt
zoo zijn onze wanden daar –
als groote vrouwen met vallend haar
staan de hoeken omhoog en houden verzaamd
het zachtfloerse zaalgeraamt.
Daar staan we en houden stil,
we raken elkaar met geril
en kijken al rondom ons –
in ons is gegons,
ver buiten gonst ook de stad
somber en mat.

Maar groote vlambloemen gaan beginnen
in uwe handen te wieglen van minne –
uw haren rijzen als een vlam,
uw wangen zijn vuurvloeiend, lichtklam –
o doe in mij vergaan
dat vlammend beraan.