The small salon is flanked by shelves and cupboards
and so awash with the overpowering reek
of toiletries that it seems smaller still.
Awater – I must admit I’m quite relieved
to see him, he’d almost given me the slip –
is sitting at a round ceramic sink
wrapped tightly in a cloak of starched white linen.
The barber does his job and I pretend
to be the next in line and take a seat.
I’ve never seen Awater closer by
than in this mirror; never has he appeared
so absolutely inaccessible.
Between the bottles, glittering and splintered,
he rises in the mirror like an iceberg
the scissors’ shining bows go gliding past.
But spring comes soon, and with the mist still hanging
from a sudden passing shower, the barber’s comb
now ploughs a furrow in his tousled hair.
Awater pays and leaves the barbershop.
I follow him without a second thought.
Chance takes a short cut to its destination.
Was it meant to be – Awater’s ending up
in the bar I used to visit with my brother?
It was: he’s even occupied our corner.
I sit down somewhere else. It’s hardly full.
The barman knows me. He knows the way I feel.
He wipes my table for a second time
and dawdles with the white cloth in his hand.
‘The times,’ he mumbles finally, ‘have changed.’

by Martinus Nijhoff

Copyright © Martinus Nijhoff; translation © David Colmer, 2010.

This poem is taken from Awater, translated by David Colmer, edited by Thomas Möhlmann, and published by Anvil Press.

Notes courtesy of Peter Jay at Anvil Press:

This is a bit of a teaser, or a trailer. It’s an extract from the middle of Nijhoff’s 300-line poem with the mysterious title, which is also the name of the mystery character in the poem. It’s not quite a detective story as there are no unexplained deaths – just unexplained lives! The story is that Awater goes to work, leaves it, and goes to the railway station via the barber’s, followed by the narrator who has decided to shadow him. Hardly material for great poetry, you might think, but it’s regarded as the classic Dutch poem of the 20th century.

The poem is formally a little more elaborate in Dutch than in the only possible English equivalent, David Colmer’s well-paced blank verse. How can a narrative poem with a plain story like this be so rich both in poetry and ideas? Simply described events become luminously riddling and mysterious: what is going on? why? what does it all mean? or are these the wrong questions?

For partial answers, you must read Wiljan van den Akker’s essay in Anvil’s new edition of the poem, edited by Thomas Möhlmann. The Dutch text is followed by three different English translations and several contributions (including from the late poet: Nijhoff lived from 1894 to 1953) which cast light on them, without ever quite solving its mysteries.

Anvil Press Poetry was founded in 1968 and publishes English-language poetry and poetry in translation, both classic and modern. You can read more about Anvil here.

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