High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands


High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands

The Right Path: The Thought-Provoking Verses of Nachoem M. Wijnberg
© Lukas Gbel
© Lukas Gbel © Lukas Gbel

The Right Path: The Thought-Provoking Verses of Nachoem M. Wijnberg

Until recently, only a handful of verses by the highly prolific Dutch poet Nachoem M. Wijnberg had been translated into English. A new anthology compiled from twenty of his collections is now filling the need for more. A great opportunity to become acquainted with one of the most original and thought-provoking poets in the Netherlands. “Wijnberg takes us in hand leading us on to our own illogical conclusions, worlds of strange occurrences and mysteries, some pleasant and many experiences that in their honesty truly hurt.”

Nachoem M. Wijnberg was born in Amsterdam in 1961, and went on to study law and economics at the University of Amsterdam before receiving his Ph.D at the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in 1990. He continued working at the Rotterdam School until he was appointed Professor of Industrial Economics and Organization at Groninger University in 2001, and since 2005 has taught at the University of Amsterdam.

So, when he has found the time to write something like twenty collections of poetry is almost inexplicable. Yet not only has he published these collections, but they have helped to make him among the most renowned of contemporary Dutch poets, winning him awards such as the Herman Gorterprijs in 1997, the Paul Snoek Prijs in 2004, the Jan Campertprijs in 2005, the Ida Gerhardtprijs in 2008, the VSBPoezieprijs in 2009, the Gedichtendagprijs in 2010, and the prestigious P.C. Hooft Award for his entire oeuvre in 2018.

Wijnberg's poetry has often been praised for its clarity and simplicity. Yet literary critics debate the meaning of Wijnberg's evocative poetry. Attempts to pin down a definitive meaning lead critics in multiple directions, some disregarding the search itself claiming that directness seen from the surface is the beauty in itself. One might also look to Nachoem's Jewish origins for meaning. Some see references to the tragedies of World War II in his texts. Some praise Nachoem Wijnberg as a classical poet. Other's use a post-modern lens to see the critique that may lie within his words, questioning boundaries and rules of language, ambiguity and objectivity. Given the seemingly oppositional aspects of the poet’s work - clarity and complexity - one might argue that all of these views are in some respects correct.

If nothing else the large new collection of his work spanning his entire career published in English this year by the US publisher New York Review Books, lays out this vastly contradictory territory.

Reading his poems, one alternately sees Wijnberg as a kind of trickster poet, a game-player, sophist, and intellectual skeptic

Reading through this substantive collection of poetry representing works from his entire career to date from 1989 to 2022, one alternately sees Wijnberg as a kind of trickster poet, a game-player, sophist (both in the true meaning of that word, “a teacher of philosophy and rhetoric” and in its popular meaning as a purveyor of specious reasoning), and intellectual skeptic.

Although his poems seem to be filled with simple statements, they are never as transparent as they appear nor do they mean what we first might think they do

If his poems generally begin with a clear, almost crystalline sense of logic, by a few lines later or by the second or third stanza they begin to pivot, to move away from the seemingly coherent statements of its first phrases into a profound disquisition of its logic and by extension of our own. There the rhetorician in the poet seems almost to tap upon our shoulders to wonder why we so easily bought into the very logic which needs most immediate questioning.

Indeed, although his poems seem to be filled with simple statements, they are never as transparent as they appear nor, often, do they mean what we first might think they do.

Consider, for example, his early poem “The Writers” from his 1990 publication The Performance in the Nightclub. It begins simply enough with a statement of the great novelist Leo Tolstoy about his friend and fellow author of short stories and dramas, Anton Chekov:

Leon Tolstoy on Chekhov:
if he weren’t a doctor he would write even better.
And also: he doesn’t believe in God.
And also: enormously talented but his starting point
is materialistic, conceited, and wrong.

So far there is nothing here that, as Wijnberg himself once declared about his poems, “could not be understood by a child of twelve.” The two writers were good friends, with Chekov often visiting the elder, who was far more spiritually-oriented since experiencing his “great spiritual awakening” after reading the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in 1869, leading to his conversion to the role of a Christian Anarchist throughout the 1870s. Indeed, even Chekhov recognized that given the heavy demands of his rural doctoring he had little time for writing. He did not believe in God, and, as a realist, had committed himself to the materiality of life, although whether or not he was conceited (or even used conceits in his writing) or that such viewpoints were “wrong” is obviously open to opinion.

But the poet makes no attempt to evaluate Tolstoy’s comments, simply now turning to Chekhov’s own life.

In each year of Chekhov’s life he built
a house, a bridge, a school.
And he planted rows of trees in his garden
and when his body grew weaker he had a chair
put down on the earth and sat in it in a dressing gown
while a man planted a tree according to his instruction
and he decided that the tree also counted for that man
and only paid him for carrying the chair to the tree.

I admittedly do not know if Chekov actually built a house, a bridge, and a school every year of his life, but he did indeed build all of them at least once. He did have a notable garden and an orchard. These pieces of everyday information are also easy to comprehend, but as Wijnberg structurally places them in the poem they almost appear to be some sort of response to Tolstoy’s statements, on one level supporting the great Tolstoy’s views of the playwright—Chekov certainly does seem materialistic in his practical activities, perhaps even a little conceited in his chair and dressing gown, and maybe even wrong in his equation of a man to the value a tree—while, on the other hand, arguing for the “doctor’s” enormous practicality, his down-to-earth values that share something with the serfs he encountered in his medical duties, and certainly frugal in the way that even a Christian Anarchist might admire.

The next stanza, however, presents information in a far more arcane manner:

In the winter of 1942 Stalin ordered
the giant Tolstoy exhumed and brought back to life.
He stood three meters tall barefoot in the snow
and snatched incoming German aircraft out of the sky,
listening to Stalin’s whispered explanations.

Here, we have suddenly left the straight-forward and lucid commentary of the other two stanzas. Of course Stalin did not exhume the “giant” (in the sense of great importance) writer’s body and bring it life. These statements probably refer to the fact that after sculptor S. D. Merkurov’s monument to Leo Tolstoy created in 1910 was rejected from its position in front of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral by the Moscow City Duma, the project was brought to life again as a propaganda tactic in the late 1920s, and placed in Maiden Field. Whether that statue was thought by Stalin or others to bring down German aircrafts or not is pure poetical speculation. But the irony of the situation is that by 1942 and even earlier the area around Maiden field had become known as a center for medical clinics and hospitals, in which even the great novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, also a renowned Russian writer-doctor, lived for a time. Chekov would certainly have been at home there, many of his difficulties of finding proper medical facilities and materials resolved. In 1972 a far more monumental work by A. M. Portyanko replaced it, and the Merkukov work was moved to the Leo Tolstoy museum.

The poet’s last lines: “Anton Chekov on Leo Tolstoy: / as long as he exists, one can call oneself a writer, even if one doesn’t produce anything oneself, his work is sufficient justification for all our efforts and hope” is a poetical rendition of Chekov’s real comment: "When literature possesses a Tolstoy, it is easy and pleasant to be a writer; even when you know you have achieved nothing yourself and are still achieving nothing, this is not as terrible as it might otherwise be, because Tolstoy achieves for everyone. What he does serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature." The comment, in either version clearly makes Chekov the materialist and non-believer sound like a kinder man than the saintly genius Tolstoy.

And finally, it might be useful to know that while the abstemiousness Christian Tolstoy grew up in a wealthy, aristocratic family, Chekov raised in a rather poor home as the son of a pious Orthodox Christian choir director who was terribly abusive to his family, a hypocrite, in short, of the kind that often appear in Chekov’s writings.

A great many of Wijnberg’s works might be described as illogical conundrums, a seemingly straightforward and reasonable conclusion being transformed into a confusing dilemma

In another words, even if the lines of Wijnberg’s poem seem to be clear and easily comprehended, the ideas behind them are not always evident and demand knowledge outside of the poem. What he seems to be presenting as a simple interchange between two great Russian writers actually becomes a statement about the differences between Tolstoy’s Christian philosophy and Chekov’s realist aesthetic.

In the vast majority of Wijnberg’s poems, moreover, the dichotomies and paradoxes he presents are even more ineffable since they deal with a vague narrator’s self. Moreover, often these works sound somewhat like philosophical conundrums which begin logically enough but don’t quite hook up to that logic by the end of the poem as the author seductively converts it. For example, the 2008 poem “Cause, Sign” appears to make a logical distinction between a sign and a cause, between evidence and causation:

“A sign shows is what is going to happen, a cause makes it happen.” The poet seems to expand on that logic a bit further in the next two lines, but which also take his argument into new or different territory: “If the sign also makes things happen there is no reason to set it apart because / then I would be setting something apart simply because it is different for me.”

That may be true, but if the difference between the two is established as he already logically asserted, does he need talk about setting them apart? And what does difference have to do, in any event, with evidence and causation, except in his proposing that they are not the same? The “different” he is talking about in this sentence is something other than mere “difference.”

In the very next line we get an intrusion that leads us to a truly unrelated syllogism: “If I didn’t need to write this myself, but had secretaries I could dictate it to, I / could say more about it.”

That certainly may also be true, but in the context it is not at all logical. The evidence that he doesn’t “have secretaries to dictate to” has nothing to do with the proposition nor with its conclusions - except that his conclusion might have been more extensive, perhaps, in explaining the difference between being “different” and “not being the same,” one of which involves being a new experience and the other suggesting that there is no logical connection or link, with or without secretaries to whom he might dictate or prescribe knowledge.

By the last three lines we have moved off into entirely different territory, a confession of personal reaction that has nothing whatsoever to do with “what is caused or meant”:

If something is taken from me I think about what it would be like if the
opposite were taken from me—that which causes or means what is furthest
from what is caused or meant by what has been taken from me.

By the time we reach the poem’s conclusion all “evidence” seems to have been rubbed away from the final “causation,” the sign removed (“taken away”) from the signifier. We are left only with something that might have been caused or meant without knowing what it might have been in the first place as it becomes something “other.” In short, the logic spirals our of its own conclusion; the sign has become the cause itself. We are faced with an illogical conundrum.

Indeed, a great many of Wijnberg’s works might be described as illogical conundrums, a seemingly straightforward and reasonable conclusion being transformed into a confusing dilemma.

In the 2017 poem, “Yours,” for example, the poet seems to explore the basic difference between “what you wanted to be yours soon” and “what you wanted in no hurry” just to examine the difference between the two, perhaps the difference between desire and the delectation of it.

This opposition, inevitably, gets tied up with the process of “remembering” itself, as he adds:

If you remember so much, you can also be
in more of hurry without it
frightening you.

This time the idea of waiting for something and the desperation for it becomes conjoined in the hurry to see it simply because you are “without it,” which frightens the vague narrator; or, if read differently, to be a “hurry” without it being frightening.

The next line shifts that “want” or desire into something definitely sexual, as with “someone standing on a streetcorner” luring in the customers with the line “do you want to see a drawing of a boy and a girl!” having been brought into the poem evidently because he had “heard that a hundred years / ago that was a good way / to make a buck,” reminding us of the porno postcard purveyors at the turn of the century in any large city’s red light district.

In short the “wanting” is turned into something transactional, both the narrator and the other attempting to share a memory they do not truly share. In fact, by poem’s end, what the narrator might describe as his (“yours”) is only a memory of someone saying yes, a bit like James Joyce’s Molly’s Bloom’s total acceptance of sexual love, leaving the desirer even more alone “like an empty street, / long ago.” Evidently, if what one wants involves another person, he or she can never truly be possessed, and certainly never be described as “yours.”

Surely some readers will resent this often purposeful metamorphosis of seemingly logical statements, events, and narratives that through the writer’s unreliable guidance takes us into frustrating and even sometimes painful dead ends. It is almost as if the writer is playing with us, torturing us as logical thinkers, and reminding us of our readiness to make false conclusions. As Piet Gerbrandy writing in the daily De Volkskrant has argued, “What Wijnberg writes does genuinely hurt. For that reason he is a great poet.”

For those who believe his work is transparent are confused or lying

Finally, just as often Wijnberg invites us, in his fable-like fantasies, into new worlds that, although they may speak in the language of a 12-year old girl, mean something only through the lens of adult sexual experience:


A boy walks up to me and says:
there is a beautiful woman in the next village.
I only need to follow him.
She does not remind you of anything, she prepares.
On the roadside grass two large and hairy men are wrestling.
The boys says he checked the grass for them.
They are her brothers, they don’t like being watched.
In exchange they gave him this receiving.

If the boy has invited the narrator into a world of a marvelous reception by a beautiful woman, the child has evidently paid for it quite strangely, “checking the grass.” What does that phrase mean in English? (I don’t know the Dutch equivalent). “He checked the grass.” Has he laid down in the grass to check out its softness; has he been forced or asked to lay down with the two brother wrestlers? And why are they wrestling? What does wrestling, in this case, mean? Are they, themselves, engaging in some sort of sexual act, a challenge of virility since they are both obviously large and hairy. Perhaps that explains why they do not like to be watched.

In exchange for this very queer adult world, the boy has been offered the opportunity to invite the unknown narrator to the reception of the fable-like beauty. Perhaps we all must suffer the abuse of our adult worlds, like the wrestling men, to be able to enter into such a lovely fair world where beauty simply awaits us if we travel down the right path.

The right path, might in fact, be a clue to reading nearly all of Wijnberg’s poems. For those who believe his work is transparent are confused or lying. The writer, each time, takes us in hand leading us on to our own illogical conclusions, worlds of strange occurrences and mysteries, some pleasant and many as Gerbrandy argues, experiences that in their honesty truly hurt. But I’ll go there with the poet:

Being right
about what can go wrong
and not fleeing in time.

Nachoem M. Wijnberg, translated by David Colmer, New York: New York Review Books, 2022, 232 pages

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