Peter Theunynck’s body houses twin souls: a virtuoso aesthete and a contrary troublemaker; a mild melancholic and a snappy hero of the resistance; a whistling nature-lover and a protesting city-dweller. This division does not lead to poetic conflict but to a Theunynckian mixture of sensitivity and obstinacy.
The volume Pan American Airlines & Co got Peter Theunynck off to a flying start. A focus on flight in all its permutations binds the cycles together into a consistently constructed whole. The collection was very well received and was nominated for the C. Buddingh’ prize for best debut. The title pays homage to Panamerenko, an artist who not only challenged gravity with his self-designed ships and aeroplanes, but also our powers of imagination. Theunynck introduces some of “those strange machines” in the central cycle. This is surrounded by pioneers of aviation, birds and flightless people taking to the skies (and regularly crashing). As Theunynck writes in the opening poem ‘Welcome aboard’, “Do not rely too much // on your locomotion, but stir up / the driving power of the word”.
In Theunynck’s work, in fact, everything takes flight: words, verses, stanzas, cycles and collections, all apparently as light as feather, surround man, nature, art and society. The theme of art is most apparent in The Trees Are Purple and the Sky (De bomen zijn paars en de hemel). In between cycles on the invention of paper and printing, images appear of artists including Edward Hopper, Gustav Klimt and Frans Masereel. Theunynck says of his own work that what he didn’t succeed in evoking with palette and brush he did manage to bring about with verse and paper, creating arresting imagery. At the beginning of Man in Manhattan, Peter greets the poets, those strange creatures who wish to measure beauty, while later he allows one of his cherished predecessors, W.H. Auden, to speak on the principle that “The words of a dead man / are modified in the guts of the living”.
One of the dead poets churning in Theunynck’s bowels is the sensitive-symbolist poet Karel van de Woestijne, to Theunynck he devoted a biography. The ‘Descents’ series in Theunynck’s Tear Gas Society (Traangasmaatschappij) is preceded by lines by van de Woestijne: “This is the house no-one unlocked / this is the window that saw no morning . . .” (from The Orchard of Birds and Fruit (De boom-gaard der vogelen en der vruchten), 1903–05). In van de Woestijne’s case, the house, within which can be seen, amongst other things, the poet’s body and emotions, is kept tightly shut. In ‘Descents’, Theunynck evokes a similar stifling feeling of man and nature covered by a bell-jar. However, unlike Van de Woestijne, he sheds not tears but blood in his description of a man shooting pigeons.
Peter Theunynck does not want to remain cooped up with his prize poems. Wholly convinced of their relativity, he has unlocked the house and set off to discover the outside world. For example, in Exceptional Present, together with photographer Norbert Maes, he investigates the interior lives of disabled people. And, as chairperson of the Green Belt Front and spokesperson of the Lappersfort Poets Society, Theunynck mobilises poetry against the continuing damage to the planet and gives voice to those neglected in “the land of civilian kings”.
Berichten van de Pan American Airlines & Co (Messages from Pan American Airlines & Co), Manteau, Antwerpen, 1997
De bomen zijn paars en de hemel (The Trees Are Purple and The Sky), Manteau, Antwerpen, 1999
Man in Manhattan, De Wereldbibliotheek, Amsterdam, 2003
Bijzonder Heden (Exceptional Present), Stichting Kunstboek, 2003
Traangasmaatschappij (Tear Gas Society), De Wereldbibliohteek, Amsterdam, 2006
Karel Van de Woestijne, Meulenhoff / Manteau, Antwerpen, 2010
C. Buddingh’ prize (1997, nomination)
Guido Gezelle Prize by the Flemish Academy for Language and Literature (2002)
Gerard Michiels Poetry Prize (2005)
The works of Peter Theunynck are published by Wereldbibliotheek.