True Inscrutability Before Breakfast

h1 July 7th, 2020 by jules

Louis: “I wish I was alone. …”
(Click image to read poem in its entirety)


I Wish is a Dutch import, originally released in 2011 and now on American shelves (March 2020), thanks to Elsewhere Editions. Translated by David Colmer, this striking collection of poems, over a hundred pages long, was written by famed Dutch writer Toon Tellegen (a 2006 finalist for the Hans Christian Andersen Award) and includes portraits by the award-winning Flemish illustrator Ingrid Godon.

As I understand it, Godon’s beguiling, mysterious portraits came first—most have names attached to them, and even Red Riding Hood makes an appearance—and the author used the artwork as a launching point for these poems (over 30 of them). Staring right at readers, all with contemplative expressions and wide-set eyes, are portraits of people of all ages; they were evidently inspired by old-fashioned photographs. The poetry expresses their deepest desires, many haunting and some humorous (including a boy who wishes he had a “thousand alibis” and a child wishing for a pet, maybe “Ryan the rhinoceros”). One early poem speaks, I think, for many of them; this poem, accompanied by a portrait of a red-headed boy, reads: “True inscrutability is a rare thing.” Indeed, there’s so much unsaid behind these eyes, and the evocative poetry also hints at much more than is laid out on the page.

Death, mortality, and God are recurring themes. There’s the young girl pondering her own mortailty (after her death, she wants someone to check “how long someone’s still thinking of me”); the woman who wishes she wasn’t scare of dying; and a young woman pondering metaphysics (“Couldn’t I have just as easily been someone else?”). Two babies, who appear to be twins (Marie and Rose), wish they didn’t know about death at all. And there’s also the boy who believes in God but knows he’s a “complete disappointment to him.”

The poems also explore complex inner worlds (a sensitive child, for one, who loathes blushing, as well as a child wishing they’d never felt pain), and as the title indicates, there’s a great deal of longing. There’s Olga, wishing a boy would fall in love with her; a boy wishing for courage; a young man who sees an ugly person in the mirror and one longing for happiness (“I wish happiness was a thing and I / found it somewhere and took it home with me”). One of the most moving poems, the one opening this post, is of a boy with his eyes closed, who writes: “I wish I was alone. / No, that would still be too much. / I wish I was nobody. …” Another features someone who wishes they could say “yes”: “I’m really good at writing yes. / Yes. Yes, of course. Yes, sure. Oh, yes! / But saying yes, that’s too hard.”

These thought-provoking poems, which would engender rich discussions with students of all ages, are many things — wild in spirit, vulnerable, touching, and delightfully peculiar. Here is a selection of portraits from the book. Click each one to read the poem paired with it.


Susanne: “I wish I wasn’t scared of dying. …”
(Click image to read poem in its entirety)


Nora: “… Blushing is war on my face.”
(Click image to read poem in its entirety)


José: “‘That, I will not do.’ / If I could one day say those words. …”
(Click image to read poem in its entirety)


Carl: “I wish happiness was a thing and I
found it somewhere and took it home with me. …”
(Click image to read poem in its entirety)


Sailor: “I wish I was music, a song that everyone was singing,
whistling, humming. One everyone had
on their mind when they were in love …”
(Click image to read poem in its entirety)




I WISH. Copyright © Toon Tellegen, 2011. Copyright © Ingrid Godon, 2011. Originally published in the Duth as Ik wou by Lannoo Publishers. English language translation
© David Colmer, 2020. First Elsewhere Edition, 2020. Illustrations reproduced by their permission.

One comment to “True Inscrutability Before Breakfast”

  1. Stunning. This is how my day begins… 🙂 Thank you!

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