Words’ journey

‘De OBUS over de stad’
Paul van Ostaijen


The city considers its streets
of an early morn,
greets – Obus, obas –
its ghosts and passers-by.

The light comes streaming in,
specked with dust and stars
– all senses open –
crosses the Voorstreek,

sees a woman in the window
over the chemist,
adjusting her skirts,
phone pressed to one ear,

turning off the nightlight
and leaving, like time,
a disappearance in a language
that will not be spoken.

The light steals a glance
through the cat flap
in a brother’s door,
shoots over the canal where,

upstairs from a shop with fabric
and rugs, the ghost
of a man who could only
live in his poems

pursues an ocean of clouds
that sings of the dream
of an island far beyond
the narrow-minded day.

The city considers its streets,
knocks on the windows and shutters
along the Kelders and hears
in the rain on Bij de Put

the pounding sound of trains
traveling into a dark
east, the deported
voices – how tyrants

twisted words into lies
in the hour of madness
when language
lost the power of thought.

This drowned rat of a morning
bursts open in the light that falls
from the bowels of the sun
on the city’s three terps,

the light that – Obus, obas –
trembles like a girl who
lets her glassy body drift
in the form of a fish

to a crooked-looking
lighthouse where ghostly
voices call kumara,
o maidin maidin mhaith.

The city speaks and contains
(like time in a terp) the tongues
and tales of what we are:
its passers-by.


Translated by David Colmer

Epigraph: ‘De OBUS over de stad’ is a poem by Paul van Oastaijen, translated as ‘The CRUMP over the City’; lines 36/37: ‘Tyrants twist words into lies’ is a line from the poem ‘Words’ by Tiny Mulder, translated by Michele Hutchison; line 51: kumara means good morning in Sranan Tongo in Suriname; line 52: Maidin mhaith means good morning in Irish.

Au Musée

The word turns to mud
in the mouth of time,
unsayable this winter’s night
while the sea still speaks,
the room an orchestra pit,
under the cuneiform
of stars in the darkness
over terp and coast.

Someone stumbled along the sea dyke,
a ghost disappearing
in tha herta fon tha winde,
I heard the slurping of the sludge,
thinking in that Moddergat café
of my language, Frisian,
on its way
to the Musée,
Persephone’s home.

Via Quatrebras I drove
through dead and sleeping villages
into the Woods, a storm
tore at the trees;
the breaking branches buffeted
by a sea of voices,
a sea of the drowned,
the sea that spoke, cruel and pounding,
south of Lampedusa.



Translation: David Colmer

A loss

He disappeared in the dead of winter
W.H. Auden



The days are nothing but a maze
a search party after the loss
of one who spoke life in life,

a voice that set the heart of the whole
universe to tapping and pounding,
o, how right it was, elated,

bright and fierce in the hour
of youth, that is, a knock,
knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door.

For a search party after a loss
all tracks merge or peter out
behind the tower and the clock,

while the video feed from the lanes
and alleys only ever says:
‘No, no, didn’t see a thing.

No, no, didn’t hear a thing. No,
no, don’t ask us,’ and the city
is a play of ghosts and fog.

The days are nothing but a maze
after a loss and a search party
that just goes on, like all questions

with no perspective, blind as
the winter mist tonight,
drifting over canals and bridges,

swirling around the towers,
deaf to the word that set the heart
of the whole universe tapping and thumping.



Translation: David Colmer

Under the Cities

Last night a heavy snowfall whitewashed all the clocks.
Docks and factories, squares and ships
were all asleep.
Where I wandered, lost half in thought,
I saw, in blue streetlight,
a father, a brother
and their harried shades,
black as the horse that cantered once
through songs and bodies.
The ponds and waterways were frozen over,
slabs beneath the wintry sky.
By the Blockhouse Gate I stood and stared.

To the sonorous sound of a tenor sax,
a dog barked out its cold disquiet.
Further along a ship slipped from the quay,
breaking a path
through the creaking ice,
floating off under the cities of night.
I saw the shades of a father, a brother,
a vanishing into a universe that doesn’t signify.
Of all that’s gone and disappeared, I
am the abandoned city, with homes and shops
and a courthouse whose walls are blank.
By the Blockhouse Gate I stood and stared.



Translation: David Colmer