A Horse In Three Parts - Ted van Lieshout

Review by Bas Maliepaard
Translation: Laura Watkinson

Published in Dutch newspaper Trouw, April 9, 2011


You can often see at a glance what a piece of writing is, says Ted van Lieshout in Driedelig paard, whether it’s a letter that you’re reading, or a poem or a shopping list. However, the texts in this book lack the telltale signs: they all look like rectangular blocks.

Van Lieshout calls them ‘block poems’, although their content often leans more towards prose than poetry. The blocks of text seem impenetrable at first sight, but as soon as you start reading, you become caught up in the excitement of this experiment in form. Every text is a voyage of discovery: who is the writer and who is the text aimed at?

Slowly, the stories unfold: amusing, slightly absurd tales, anecdotes, letters, ‘missing’ notices, prayers, monologues and even advertisements, like the one for ‘super-concentrated mineral water’ that means you only have to go to the toilet half as often. It’s an entertaining comment on how the advertising industry likes to hoodwink consumers.

Social criticism often puts in an appearance in this collection, sometimes in an even harsher form, for example in the proposal from an old people’s home to ‘put down’ troublesome residents or to ‘clear out’ the whole home if necessary, in order to meet cost-cutting requirements.

The power of these block poems is that they are hilariously subversive. Familiar situations are reversed, magnified and described in an unconventional way. Take, for example, the mother who breaks one of the golden rules of parenting and informs her son that the picture he drew for her on Mother’s Day is of very poor quality. ‘I wonder how you’d like it if I presented you with such a messy drawing. I’d never hear the end of it!’

The often tense relationship between mother and son is a theme that frequently appears in Van Lieshout’s work, particularly in his poetry. But the tone is also always unmistakably his own: provocative, vicious or aggrieved, pedantic, quick-witted and sometimes unexpectedly serene and touching, as in his most poetic block poem: ‘Will there ever be anyone sitting at the window who looks out and is happy to see me walking outside and thinks it’s a beautiful sight?”

In many of his texts, Van Lieshout explores the boundaries between reality and the child’s imagination by creating variations on fairy tales and their elements. Sometimes he also refers to his own work. Among the block poems, there are eye-pleasing ‘visual sonnets’, in which, by way of contrast, the shape is really important. These consist of photographed objects, such as tomatoes and shells, which are arranged in the form of a sonnet. Driedelig paard innovates and inspires on all fronts.
Ted van Lieshout (b. 1955) writes prose and poetry for children and has carried off nearly every literary award in the Netherlands, including the prestigious Theo Thijssen Prijs of €60,000 for his entire oeuvre. His YA novel Gebr. has been translated and well received in many other countries. In 2009, Hou van mij was published, a unique brick of a book that brings together all of his poems. This year saw the publication of Mijn meneer, his first novel for adults.

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