As a young woman, Lucienne Stassaert (1936) was a promising concert pianist, but quite soon came to prefer creative to interpretative artistry. She exchanged music for literature and painting, making her debut as a writer in 1964, with the poetic prose book Verhalen van de jonkvrouw met de spade (Tales of the Lady with the Spade). As well as prose, Stassaert has also written radio plays and stage plays, but above all she has made a name for herself as a poet. In her work, all kinds of intermeshed tensions and oppositions find expression: life and destruction, man and woman, loss and fulfilment, love and death.
Stassaert’s early poetic work is in the tradition of post-experimental poetry of the 1960s and 70s: manneristically striking verses with many symbolically laden images and juxtapositions that often have a concealing or hermetic effect. They frequently express subconscious and irrational urges, in which the search for personal identity is central. Even so, her language has something evocative about it, since she often makes use of musical forms. That musical element has become much more pronounced in her work of recent years which addresses the reader somewhat more emphatically. Her latest work is less terse and strives to achieve a more open style in which the female voice still resonates.
The poems translated here are from Afscheidsliedjes (Songs of Farewell, 2001), a collection that is dominated by departure and death. At one moment death appears as something ‘recognisable’ in songs that excel in sobriety and repetitions; at the next, there are melancholy poems about Sylvia Plath. Eroticism, desire and dreams balance out each other in a particularly atmosphere-laden way.
Over the last few years, Lucienne Stassaert has experienced a tremendous poetic upsurge. In 2004, she compiled the anthology In aanraking (In Touch), a large selection of poems spanning 35 years of writing, introduced by her younger colleague and kindred spirit Bart Vonck. Vonck pointed out that Stassaert lets language “laugh loudly and harshly” in her work – “death is briefly made to look a fool”. He finds companions in adversity in the mystics and certain composers: the Schubert of ‘Death and the Maiden’ and ‘Winter Journey’, and Maurice Ravel in his later years. In addition, Stassaert would seem particularly to gain inspiration from ‘strong’ women. Over the past decade, Stassaert has thrown herself into translating a number of female poets. She has translated selections from the work of Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson, and created a modern version of poems by the 13th-century mystic Hadewijch, who wrote in Middle Dutch. Other ‘strong’ women from (art) history that have inspired her are the 17th-century English writer Aphra Behn, who forms the basis of her novel De lichtvoetige amazone (The light-footed Amazon, 2000), and the French sculptress Camille Claudel, whose life and work were the impetus for Stassaert’s most recent collection of poems In de laai van het vuur (In the Blaze of the Fire, 2007).
Fossiel (Fossil), Desclée De Brouwer, Brugge, 1969
Elixir d’Anvers (Elixir of Antwerp), Orion, Brugge, 1976
De sprekende gelijkenis (The Strong Resemblance), Orion, Brugge, 1978
Rui (Moulting), Hadewijch, Schoten, 1986
Naar Emily (To Emily), Poeziecentrum, Gent, 1992
Blind vuur (Blind Fire), Poeziecentrum, Gent, 1995
Tussen water en wind (’Twixt Water and Wind), Poeziecentrum, Gent, 1998
Afscheidsliedjes (Songs of Farewell), Uitgeverij P, Leuven, 2001
Als later dan nog bestaat (As later than still exists), Uitgeverij P, Leuven, 2003
In aanraking (In Touch), Uitgeverij P, Leuven, 2004
Het vlas komt in de blomme (The Flax Comes into Flower), Uitgeverij P, Leuven, 2006
In de laai van het vuur (In the Blaze of the Fire), Uitgeverij P, Leuven, 2007
A capella (Spanish) CEDMA, Malaga, 2007
De Vlaamse Gids poetry prize (1974)
Visser-Neerlandia prize (1975)
Vlaamse Poëziedagen poetry prize (1977)
Arkprijs van het Vrije Woord (Arc Prize of Free Speech) (1979)
Provincial Prize for Literature (1994)
Stassaert’s publisher’s website
Lucienne Stassaert's personal website
An early interview with Stassaert (in Dutch)