Brussels and Belgium: both are impossible to avoid in the oeuvre of Geert van Istendael. However, those expecting patriotic poetry will be sorely disappointed. Van Istendael’s bond with his native country and his native Brussels – where he still lives and works – proves to be a complex love-hate relationship. His poetry depicts both the city’s top architectural designs and the vagrant in the alley – beauty as well as decay.
Geert van Istendael was a parliamentary journalist for years, with the Flemish national channel, until he decided to focus wholly on writing in 1993. He made his debut in 1978 with the volume Bomen wijzen niet maar wuiven (Trees Don’t Point, They Wave), but he only began to be noticed with the publication of his third book, De iguanodons van Bernissart. Een Belgisch gedicht (Bernissart’s Iguanodons: A Belgian Poem; 1983), a collection of poems about time and transience inspired by the discovery of dinosaur skeletons down a Walloon mine. It was followed in 1987 by Plattegronden (Street Maps), in which Van Istendael writes poems both about the work of Belgian expressionist painter James Ensor and about the degradation of his beloved Brussels. It was no coincidence that Van Istendael did scientific research into city planning for a while, after studying sociology and philosophy. Taalmachine (Language Machine; 2001), in which he expresses his passion for Brussels as a multicultural metropolis, received the Literary Prize for Poetry from the Flemish Community Council and the province of Flemish Brabant.
Geert van Istendael shared his status as a City Poet with fellow poets (one French, one Moroccan, one Galician). As a member of this multilingual Brussels poetry collective he contributed to the European Constitution in Verse. Social concerns are never far away in his transparent, accessible poetry. Van Istendael – a self-confessed reactionary – warns, devoid of nostalgia, of a society overtaking itself and blindly aspiring to modernisation. His poems provide critical footnotes to the Western belief in progress. More than once, the poet draws attention to the loss of traditions. In Het geduld van de dingen (The Patience of Things; 1996), Van Istendael writes without hesitation about seemingly banal artifacts such as a red flowerpot and a wooden spoon. In his most recent volume, Berichten en bezweringen (Messages and Invocations; 2006) he even composes a poetical ode to a trash can.
Apart from being a poet, Geert van Istendael is also a well-known, erudite and contrary essay-writer who tackles a wide range of subjects: from Brussels to Dutch and German culture and society, from tuition on language deterioration to globalisation and migration. He managed to reach the general public with his bestseller Het Belgisch labyrint (The Belgian Labyrinth; 1989), in which he expands on the history of Belgium and the country’s complex political structure. Lauded as “the definitive book about Belgium”, Het Belgisch labyrint became a standard work and was awarded the Dirk Martens Prize for Essays. Van Istendael also writes prose and fairy tales, translates from the German and is the chairperson of the writers’ society PEN Flanders. In December 2009, he will receive an honorary doctorate for his role as a socially committed cultural beacon in Flanders and the Netherlands from the Open University, a Dutch-Flemish educational institute providing academic distance learning programmes for adults.
De iguanodons van Bernissart. Een Belgisch gedicht (Bernissart’s Iguanodons: A Belgian Poem), De Arbeiderspers, Amsterdam, 1983
Het Belgisch labyrint (The Belgian Labyrinth), De Arbeiderspers, Amsterdam, 1989
Het geduld van de dingen (The Patience of Things), Atlas, Amsterdam, 1996
Taalmachine (Language Machine), Atlas, Amsterdam, 2001
Mijn Nederland (My Holland), Atlas, Amsterdam, 2005
Berichten en bezweringen (Messages and Invocations), Atlas, Amsterdam, 2006
Mijn Duitsland (My Germany), Atlas, Amsterdam, 2007
Gesprekken met mijn dode god (Conversations with My Dead God), Atlas, Amsterdam, 2009
A belga labirintus avagy a formátlanság bája (Hungarian), Gondolat, Budapest, 1994
Igvanodoni iz Bernisara: Belgijska pesma (Serbian), Prometej, Novi Sad, 1996
Price iz Hehelanda (Serbian), Prometej, Novi Sad, 1996
Belgický labyrint (Czech), Cinemax, Praha, 1998
Le labyrinthe belge (French), Le Castor Astral, Bordeaux, 2004
Moje Nizozemsko (Czech), Lidové Noviny, Praha, 2007
Mijn Duitsland (German), Parthas, Berlin, 2008
The works of Geert van Istendael are published by Atlas
Van Istendael’s contribution to the European Constitution in Verse