B. Zwaal (Vlaardingen, 1944) is a poet. For many years, however, he was the director of the celebrated Dutch movement theatre group, BEWTH, which made performances with the architecture of conspicuous buildings as departure point. In 1984 Zwaal published his first collection, fiere miniature (proud miniature), which he followed up with nine other collections and a considerable number of bibliophile publications.
Zwaal’s collections often display a similar structure, generally opening with taut, powerful poems that you might indeed describe as “proud miniatures”, succeeded by longer, baroque poems which almost spill off the page. In the first five collections, at any rate, the effect was of a swelling wave breaking on the rocks with the final word of the closing poem. In the later collections, this wave takes on a somewhat different form. There is still a progression from short poems to long, but towards the end the text becomes less dense once again as though the wave has dispersed.
A good instance of an epigrammatic opening poem occurs in bos in ’t rot (wood in decay): “in bloeiend / vocht / bevochten / zij aan zij / deernisdijen” (in flowering/ moisture / their lasses’ thighs / fought / side by side). Or take the fourth poem of zee bestookt (sea fired up): “de watervoor // betast” (feels up // the water furrow). This sensual and insinuating play of sound and image immediately alerts the reader to the most important linking themes of this work – nature, or more specifically water and eroticism. Although these two are celebrated in divergent styles and registers, Zwaal’s voice is an unfailing presence. It would seem as though this poet is trying to bring about a synthesis between a calm lyricism and verbal exuberance.
Zwaal’s singularity can best be seen in his idiom, which is full of neologisms, archaic language and vernacular. In delta methusalem, for instance, he writes: “brackish saltings barley tottering roadsteads/ seem pale as creeks”, recalling the work of Lucebert (who, like Zwaal, was sparing in his use of uppercase letters and punctuation). Zwaal’s work, however, is largely independent of influences. He has compiled a work imperturbably for almost thirty years now – one that is unique in our language for its atmosphere and tone.
Fortunately, the consistent quality of this writing has at last been acknowledged by Dutch prize-giving judges. een drifter (fishing boat) was nominated for the Ida Gerhardt Poetry Prize, while Zwaal was also a nominee for the VSB Poetry Prize with zouttong (salt tongue).
fiere miniature, Querido, Amsterdam, 1984
bos in ’t rot, Querido, Amsterdam, 1986
loofhut morelle, Querido, Amsterdam, 1988
dwang parasang, Querido, Amsterdam, 1990
delta methusalem, Querido, Amsterdam, 1993
dat vat, Querido, Amsterdam, 1996
zee bestookt, Querido, Amsterdam, 1999
zouttong, Querido, Amsterdam, 2008
vers vee, Stichting Kunstuitleen Zeeland [Slibreeks, nr. 110], Middelburg, 2004
wijde maas, uitg. Ser Prop, Terhorst, 2012
BEWTH, 15 onvoltooiden in foto (with Roeland Fossen and Carol Schade), THOTH, Bussum, 2003
BEWTH voltooid. 1965–2005 (with Carol Schade), THOTH, Bussum, 2005