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Christopher Levenson: Remembering the Flood
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Friday Verses
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Christopher Levenson: Remembering the Flood

Christopher Levenson

This week's Friday Verses are written by Christopher Levenson. We selected his poem Denkend aan de watersnood (Remembering the Flood).

Canadian Christopher Levenson (b. 1934, London) is a poet, translator, editor, and professor of English and creative writing. In 1960 he was the first recipient of the Eric Gregory Award. Levenson has published many articles and books of poetry, and translated seventeenth-century Dutch poetry. He is also the founder of C.A.A.N.S., the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Netherlandic Studies.

When Levenson was 19 years old, he went to Zeeland to help the victims of the flood disaster. He spent seven months in the Netherlands. That period inspired his poetry. A number of his poems are about the flood. These and other verses have been translated by the Dutch poet Ad Zuiderent and were recently published in the collection Vox Humana.

Remembering the flood

That first day in ’53,
on the ferry from Hellevoetsluis,
cramped against hammering metal, hot diesel fumes,
we watched one horizon swaying and another
emerge out of the mist, and slowly grew accustomed
to a new world of grey water as the almost sunken island
of Overflakkee floated alongside. We clambered on trucks
and were driven in the half-dark along dykes
through Middelharnis to Oude Tonge. Even two months after
the sea’s bombardment, it was a war zone:
roofspars of houses exposed to the looting wind,
the polders awash with debris
of absent families, smashed farms. At the relief camp
we cleaned bricks, rebuilt pigsties.
November that year
with the last breach repaired, the pumps beginning,
I returned to other villages, Dreischor, Nieuwerkerk, –
the names blur – cleaning out homes
that reeked from nine months under salt water, disinterring
from under the bed stone bottles of Dutch gin
next to the family Bible, scraping the walls free of sea-pox,
scouring wells until the winter made the sand
too hard for digging. And in the village
only the mayor and a handful of labourers remained,
and the police, working all hours to bring us fresh water.
There were times we escaped
to Zierikzee or the dunes but for the most part
where now wide causeways run we were marooned behind sandbags,
abiding the onset of winter.
I was nineteen and this my first close look
at human misery, my total immersion.

(Dutch version below the photo)

Denkend aan de watersnood

Die eerste dag in ’53
op de pont uit Hellevoetsluis,
krap tegen bonkend metaal gezeten, hete dieselwalmen,
zagen we de ene zwaaiende horizon verdwijnen en een andere
uit de mist opdoemen, waren we net gewend geraakt
aan een nieuwe, grijze waterweld, toen het bijna verzonken
eiland Overflakkee langszij dreef. We klauterden op vrachtwagens
en werden in het halfdonker over dijken door Middelharnis
naar Oude Tonge gereden. Zelfs twee maanden na
het bombardement van de zee was dit nog oorlogsgebied:
dakspanten van huizen blootgesteld aan de verwoestende wind,
de polders overspoeld met afval
van afwezige gezinnen, ingestorte boerderijen. Wij van het vrijwilligerskamp
maakten bakstenen schoon, lapten varkenshokken op.
In november dat jaar
toen het laatste gat was gedicht, het pompen begonnen,
ging ik terug naar andere dorpen – Dreischor, Nieuwerkerk
de namen vervagen – maakte huizen schoon
die stonken naar negen maanden onder zout water, groef
van onder het bed kruiken Hollandse jenever op
naast de familiebijbel, krabde zeepokken van de muren,
maakte waterputten schoon, totdat door de winter het zand
te hard werd om in te graven. En in het dorp waren
alleen de burgemeester en een handvol werklui achtergebleven,
en de politie, die ons dag en nacht van zoet water voorzag.
Zo nu en dan ontsnapten we
naar Zierikzee of de duinen maar de meeste tijd
zaten we ergens achteraf – brede dammen liggen er nu – achter zandzakken,
in afwachting van het begin van de winter.
Ik was negentien en ik zag voor het eerst van nabij
menselijke ellende, ik werd volledig ondergedompeld.

Friday Verses

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