Friday, August 17

Poetry Friday: "No" by Toon Tellegen

When I was a kid the newly created volunteer army was attempting to rebuild its ranks through advertising -- something about joining the army, see the world. In response there were counter-cultural bumper stickers and buttons (available in the classifieds of Rolling Stone or the pages of High Times or your hipper hobby shops) that mocked their attempting-to-be-with-it efforts with the rejoinder "Join the Army, travel to exotic, distant lands, meet lots of interesting people, and kill them." The more things change, the more they stay the same?

I thought about that ad on my recent travels. Not about killing people, mainly the part about meeting interesting people and the doorways that are opened in such exchanges. I'm not much for chatting up strangers even at home, though I am particularly fond of meeting interesting people in the books they write. Every trip I take I manage to find a new author, a new voice, something that marks not only the place but the experience I had along the way. This time around I managed to luck out, this time around I found a Dutch author noted for his poetry and children's books.

I knew nothing about Toon Tellegen when I saw his books sitting next to translated editions of Sharon Creech's Love That Dog and Roald Dahl but I had this sense that anyone being given that sort of attention had to be someone to check out. I fudged my way through enough Dutch to see that he was a prize winning poet in his native land and, sure enough, had a shelf to himself in the poetry section. It was silly to imagine I'd find an English translation of his work so I decided to pick up one of his children's titles to (eventually) try and translate for myself with the hope that once I was home I could learn more about him.

While Tellegen merits a Dutch Wiki page information in English has been hard to come by. I did find a site featuring a biography and selection of his poems and was immediately struck with what I read. You know what kind of a crapshoot this kind of thing can be, where you take a gamble on something (the lunch special in a language you can't read, for example) hoping for the best but resigning yourself to the whim to chance. Sometimes chance rewards you for the adventure. Behold.

No was a small word,
an insignificant word.

It listened to the large words
Yes and We and Always.

It studied the crumbs of their thoughts
that they dropped from their table.

It was not a stupid word.

One day it crept into the kitchen,
climbed onto the sink,
grabbed a knife
and ate it.
(Words can eat things.)

It was still a small word,
but no longer an insignificant word – that never again –

and it returned to the room,
sat under the table
and listened.

translated by Judith Wilkinson originally appeared in The Literary Review

There's something not just a little creepy about that No under the table, able to eat knives, waiting for its chance against those big words. Wait, did I just think there was something creepy about a knife-eating word? Did I suddenly have an entire world open up where words represent something other than their common meaning? Did I just attempt to imagine what sort of foods other words ate that left crumbs? Man, you gotta dig the power of words at times to conjure and illuminate.

I can't wait to figure out what sort of stories he has for children.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic! I'd love to see more of his work (Google, here I come).

How have your attempts at translation been going otherwise?

david elzey said...

I've got three major writing projects going on right now and don't anticipate beginning the translation until around mid-September. Dutch not being a language I know (I studied German, similar, but way different) I suspect it's going to take me a while to get through.

Let me know if you have success with that Google search.

John Mutford said...

That's a great one for sure. I hope more English translations are forthcoming.

Anonymous said...

I LOVE this poem. I think my "no" needs to swallow a knife or two.

And I love that his first name is Toon.

Thanks for the introduction.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Thank you, David. I really enjoyed that poem. Keep us updated on your further Toon reading. I wonder if I'll have success finding his translated stuff here??

tanita✿davis said...

This is a stupendous poem!

I really have to let that expand in my brain for a bit. Thanks for sharing that bit.

Sara said...

I'm actually a bit nervous after reading this. "Just Say No" was never simple, and now it's impossible.

You really do find the most interesting things, David.

Morning Star said...

As someone who's long been familiar with Tellegen's work for children, I can assure you your guess is correct. THE MAN IS A GENIUS. And if you should learn Dutch just in order to read those zenlike, deep-nonsense-funny-amazing little stories, you won't regret it either.
My favorite has been The Bison's Birthday. They have a face value and are delightful and endearing regardless of the philosophical issues.

Anonymous said...

I tottally agree with Morning Star. You should learn Dutch in order to read those little stories & it is totally worthwhile. I'm a absolute fan of his, & thinking of translating some of the stories into English, which I find even better than his poems.