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Word of the day: wegwaaien (blow away)

This blog was written in October 2013 by Ruud Hisgen (Direct Dutch Institute)

When our office dog, Buffy, saw my posting yesterday, she was not pleased at all. She looked at me with her dark brown eyes, as if she wanted to say: ‘Stupid idiot, the photo is upside down.’ That’s why I used the same photo today but topsy turvy while continuing yesterday’s word WAAIEN (blow), and also because of a poem that Arthur Docters van Leeuwen published last week.

weg waaien

Who is Arthur Docters van Leeuwen? Expats would not know him, but I assure you, he is a BN’er (Bekende Nederlander, well-known Dutchman). Bear with me. I’ll return to this Dutch celebrity later in this posting.

Let’s first have a look at the verb WAAIEN. It is both regular and irregular. You can say: ‘Het waaide gisteren’ and ‘Het woei gisteren’. The past participle, however, is always ‘gewaaid’. According to Nicoline van der Sijs’ ‘Chronological Dictionary’ it is one of the oldest Dutch words. It was first recorded around the year 1100. Apparently it also existed in Old English as ‘wāwan’ but English lost it sometime in the Middle Ages and why? ‘The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind’, as Bob Dylan sung in 1962, ‘het antwoord, mijn vriend, is weggewaaid in de wind’.

WAAIEN and WIND go hand in hand, that’s for sure. When Job is down and out he cries out: (Job 7:7) ‘O remember that my life is wind.’ In 17th century Dutch this is: ‘Gedenk, dat mijn leven een wind is.’ In the modern NBG translation the wind was transformed into a sigh: ‘Bedenk toch: in een zucht is mijn leven voorbij.’

WIND is an invisible and intangible thing, and yet its force can do a lot of harm. WIND can only be experienced when HET WAAIT.

One of the oldest Dutch expressions is ‘hoge bomen vangen veel wind’ (Literally: tall trees catch a lot of wind -> a great tree attracts the wind).

docters van leeuwen nrc.nlOne of those tall trees who caught a lot of wind is the politician and civil servant Arthur Docters van Leeuwen (born in The Hague in 1945, and still living here). Shortly after finishing his law degree in 1969 he became my father’s colleague in the Ministry of Finance.

In the nineties Arthur Docters van Leeuwen was head of the Dutch secret service, the Binnenlandse Veiligheidsdienst (Domestic Security Service, currently the AIVD). He entered the third millennium as chairman of the Netherlands Authority for the Financial Markets. He was also politically active for the liberal VVD party. After he retired as a civil servant, he became known as a writer of fairy tales and last week he published his first volume of poems.

The title of his poetical debut is ‘Weggewaaid’ (blown away). I don’t think he meant this title as a reference to his own career when he was a ‘hoge boom die veel wind ving’ (a tall tree having caught a lot of wind). I presume that Docters van Leeuwen considers his life as a harvest leaf which is blown away by wind.

In this slim and exorbitantly expensive volume of poetry (20 euro for a mere thirty poems), Docters van Leeuwen revisits memorable moments in his life. The title poem is a maimed sonnet (14 lines) about the essence of time.

In this poem I recognize Docters van Leeuwen’s feeling of cosmic impotence. ‘Now’ is the result of zillions of blown away yesterdays in which a human being is absolutely powerless.

Is it a good poem? I don’t know. Maybe he intended it to be as shapeless and amorphous as a harvest leaf. Its rhythm is crippled. The words don’t sing and several just express a clumsy ‘daarvan’. Punctuation is slipshod and all lines start with a capital except line 10.

And yet, and yet… the image of memories being blown away from the present into the distant past and the other image of the present in its turn being blown away from the big bang to now somehow appeals to me.

Here is Docters van Leeuwen’s poem. Make up your own mind. I provide a free translation so that you can catch its drift.

Weggewaaid *

Het heden is een onpeilbaar moment
Van daaruit begint het verleden
Alles waait daarvandaan

Het nu, zojuist, vanmorgen, gisteren, eergisteren, jaren her;
Herinneringen dansen en fladderen in een onafzienbare rij
Ik ken het einde daarvan niet,
Maar velen zeggen dat de rij teruggaat tot de oerknal
Alles wat in het heden bestaat zou daarvandaan zijn weggeblazen

Wat ik in mijn leven ook uitricht,
moord, haat, genegenheid en zonde
Het heden blijft folterend ongrijpbaar

Evenzeer als de oerknal, dat begin van het begin
Beide bliezen en woeien mij van zich af

Ik ben weggewaaid

Blown away

The present is an unfathomable moment
From there the past begins
Everything is being blown away from there

The now, just now, this morning, yesterday, day before yesterday, years ago;
Memories dancing and fluttering in an interminably long row
I don’t know the end of it,
But many say that the row goes back to the big bang
Everything existing in the present is supposed to have been blown away from there.

Whatever I get up to in my life,
murder, hatred, affection and sin
The present remains agonizingly intangible

No less than the big bang, that beginning of the beginning
Both were blowing and blowing me away from it

I was blown away

* From ‘Weggewaaid, Arthur Docters van Leeuwen, Prometheus, 2013 p. 22

Photo Arthur Docters van Leeuwen: