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.