Second Man

Nachoem M. Wijnberg Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer
August 18, 2022
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I once heard the poet Terrance Hayes respond to some variation of the familiar question about his relationship to formal poetry by saying, “If it has no form, it casts no shadow.” I took that to mean that every poem, regardless of whether it’s written in a received form like a sonnet or a villanelle, has some form; it’s how the text receives the world’s heat and casts a shape inside which one can find another weather. But once in a while I come across a poem composed with such exacting clarity that I can only think of it as shadowless, like Nachoem M. Wijnberg’s “Second Man.” The first stanza of the poem, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, sets out an aphoristic premise: “If a man has traveled on a train with a second man and that second man dies, the other accepts the rest of his life.” It’s a frank conditional, as uncomplicated as the sun directly overhead. If a shadow is a kind of company made from the self, here is only the blunt fact of an other; and in the other’s sudden absence, the self turns not inward, but further out, “[looking] at the tracks / and the lights / and a detached engine.” There is no respite from the world—only more of it.

Claire Schwartz

Listen to Nachoem Wijnberg read "Tweede man" in the original Dutch.

Listen to David Colmer read his translation.

(English follows the Dutch, below.)

Tweede man

Als een man met een tweede man in een trein gereisd heeft en die tweede man sterft dan neemt de ander de rest van zijn leven in ontvangst. Hij stapt uit nadat de trein aangekomen is en loopt met openhangende jas door de koude nachtlucht naar de uiterste en verboden zijkant van het station. Van daaruit kijkt hij naar de rails en de lichten en een lokomotief die los op de rails geparkeerd staat. Groot en ondoorzichtig. Een man die met een andere man, die stierf, samen gereisd heeft is hem dit schuldig.

Second Man

If a man has traveled on a train with a second man and that second man dies, the other accepts the rest of his life. He gets off the train after it has arrived and walks through the cold night air with his coat hanging open to the forbidden far side of the station. There, he looks at the tracks and the lights and a detached engine parked on the tracks. Large and dark. A man who traveled together with another man, who died, owes him this.

Dutch excerpted from De voorstelling in de nachtclub by Nachoem M. Wijnberg, published by Uitgeversmaatschappij. Copyright © 1990 by Nachoem M. Wijnberg.

English excerpted from
Nachoem M. Wijnberg by Nachoem M. Wijnberg, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, published by NYRB Poets. Text copyright © 2022 by Nachoem M. Wijnberg. Translation copyright © 2022 by David Colmer.

Nachoem M. Wijnberg is the author of five novels and 20 poetry collections. His poetry has received many of the most important Dutch and Belgian literary awards and has been widely translated. He is also an economist and a professor at the University of Amsterdam Business School.

David Colmer is a prolific translator of Dutch-language literature. He translates in a range of genres and has won many awards. In 2021 he was awarded the James Brockway Prize for his body of work as a poetry translator.