Sunday, 10 November 2019

ALS: 'Rood stoplicht'

Red traffic light

For those who do not know this – Fokke Obbema was dead for a short while. Thanks to a 112 call, firemen appeared at his bedside who managed to restart his non-beating heart. He suffered no permanent damage. Fokke is a leading journalist on the Volkskrant and it seems only natural that he should write about it. He started a series of interviews about the meaning of life. It became a book. Now he gets invited to talk about that book. Since the 40 persons he interviews have highly diverging views about life and its meaning, all the meetings differ considerably. I went along to listen, not for the first time, though nice and close. He spoke a bit about his fascination for Job Koelewijn, an artist from Spakenburg who in his twentieth year broke his neck in a severe traffic accident. Against all expectations, he survived. He became a famous artist. To the question: What is the meaning of our life? he replied: ‘As long as you are still asking that question, you haven’t understood the meaning. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the ecstasy of being alive, without any reason whatsoever. That is, without you doing anything special or feeling in love. If you are touched by that ecstasy, the energy that it brings with it, even washing the dishes is a pleasure. Or a red traffic light – way out!’
I live five kilometres from the bookshop, I always take the road without traffic lights. So as to make up for this to Job Koelewijn, I silently wash the dishes the very same evening.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Hugo Claus: 'The Death of his Ancestor'


Before his death he has already left us,
six months earlier, dull, broke, musty, broken,
although still whole he walked through our rooms.

‘I have not been happy for a moment,’
he said gasping audibly
for air in the kitchen air.

And was then blue. Like a plum.
He was fond of plums. All sorts,
preferably just ripe. Mother sat alone.

Not that he was dead then. No, he clung
to the chairs, sea-sick.
It was his heart that did not want to die,

the engine. The carcass, the bodywork
were worn out but the engine was still good.
He stayed in bed and was sometimes dead.

The nuns hissed: ‘Yes, his time has come.’
But a hiccup or two and he set off
again: only even bluer.

He was then taken to the room
that is reserved for dying -
where the soul escapes decay.

His head shrank visibly,
about the size of a woman’s fist.
Eyes open. But can he still see?

It is nature. Had nothing more to eat
or drink. Though he still wanted to,
he chewed away. The nuns sang the Angelus.

When they wiped his lips with a
sponge, he bit on it and would not let go.
They pinched his nose and he let go.

No death rattle. The occasional hiccup.
Yes, his time has come. He was cold up to his knees
and his upper part sweat. But the engine didn’t stop.

They no longer washed him. For turning him over
would tip his heart over and cause it to stop.
Eau de cologne, not too strong, on his temples.

No speaking too loud. Not about debts. Nor
about a last signature. Go away, sir.
Son or not, go away. For he hears everything, everything.

His palate was black. His skin, say no more.
With cotton wool the holes in his skin were rid
of the black that crept into the edges, so quickly.

Fist-sized craters in the jaws of his hole,
with black mould. Let out the clutch, a shock,
he overworked the engine. Which stopped. Thank God.

And suddenly collapsed from within.
The man-sized cavity within the truss
was filled up with cardboard and cotton wool.

Straightened out, otherwise he’ll stay bent
and his bones will have to be broken.
He must be laid out fine. Everyone will be seeing him.

No more washing now either. Every form of contact
disperses the flesh, light as pollen in spring.
In the holes: the bonemeal of his fishbones.

Then came the troublesome distress for Sir Wild Boar,
Inundated with family council and solicitor.
And the time of the cart and the funeral.

I was the nail in his coffin, he often said.
Now just a fingernail, as a last gesture
scratching against the walnut of his head.

Lord, take your son in your arms.
The women went on the left (all loved ones)
The men on the right (all sons).

Time of the earth which now ferments in him.
Time of the seasons. A pint of beer, quick.
Many ancestors - and all disinherited.

Monday, 4 November 2019

The opening poem of Lennart Sjögren's 'I grenverket'

The icicle

I am the icicle
and resemble a god in the sense
that a thousand years to me are as a day
and a day to me a thousand years
I gleam in a way nothing else can gleam

I carry on where roofs and what protects end
am pointed downwards
into a different time and in different way of reckoning
am turned upwards
like a dagger I rip with my tip
through the cosmos

I am a live skin of crystalline glass
my insides shake
when I crash down and gain my greatest triumph
then I resemble humans and I know
that the border between life and death
is a random notion

I belong to the elements
I transform myself, I crash down in spring
transform myself again, become meltwater
transform myself again, become autumn rain
I transform myself again to ice
when travelling through the realm of the cold

In crashing I turn into myriads of stars
then I do not count seconds or millennia
I am the sovereign
in falling I break into two, three pieces or more
and when completely crushed against the ground
I arise in the splintering no one has time to count
in a raised foam of silver, iron, copper
in an outward-hurling movement
I then rise up like a small upturned waterfall

Just as you are the one you are
I am the one I am

I was born in the collision between cold and heat
but in actual fact I was not born at all
I have always been and always shall be

I belong to the cyclical
I show myself and cause amazement
children especially show their delight
I succumb, disappear and become
a moment of chagrin in those who believed
I would always continue to exist for their sake

Look at me one more time
when I rise up in the splintering
when I become a star-fall and disappear
return again.

A fourth Lennart Sjögren poem

Much has being going on for far too long
no secret patterns are sensed any more
in entrails or among paving stones

No one was really completely convinced
too many leaf falls had taken place

Last night none of the dead were heard to speak
yet the night offered no place to rest either
up to the surface came that
which unsolved lies sunken in old wells

And then that ticking
not the ticking of a clock but even so ticking
that which belongs to childhood and drawn-out ageing
and which measures time in a different way.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

ALS: 'Lichtschip'


A man in the same train as me. Do I know that man? Of course not, I don’t know anyone when travelling. And certainly not on the journey I often make, Zutphen — Amsterdam. I mumble these place-names, I’m a place-mumbler, I use my forlorn voice: Zutphen — Amsterdam (2x). Sometimes the train goes via Zwolle, sometimes Arnhem, sometimes I have to think of Japanese, sometimes of Chinese, but as far as the time it takes, it makes little difference. Yesterday it struck me that there were frequent announcements coming from the railway personnel. Work underway, Schiphol only accessible by bus, the train waits at unknown stations, is coupled to an auxiliary locomotive, I have to alight, wait for three quarters of an hour. The world has taken over things, I sit on hard benches with incomprehensible Japanese, sometimes Chinese. I’m no good at mental arithmetic, but I give my thoughts a sum to work out. Result: this time the journey from Zutphen to Amsterdam will take four hours. People are waiting for me, I will arrive too late. The railways can’t do anything about it, it’s my own fault. This is a survival from my secondary school, we had a German teacher who always said: Whatever happens, it’s your own fault. Already back then I had the feeling that there was something wrong about this, but I couldn’t forget it even so. The unknown man in the same train sat as I did, seems to be an acquaintance. It is Mathijs Deen, a writer I admire. He talks about the lightships that in former times used to lay off our coast. They were floating lighthouses at anchor. They had a full crew, ready to sail away. But that never happened — the ships had no engines. The crew felt bored on a ship that could not move of its own accord. Mathijs Deen writes about this. He visits old sailors who at some point served on such a lightship. Once the chef had ordered a live lamb that he wanted to slaughter when the time came. But that never happened. Burly seafolk had become so attached to the little creature. We’re approaching Amsterdam.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

A third poem from Sjögren's latest collection

The silence after rain
when someone has left
and will never return
or that a child’s just been born

The insects sit there with their rostra
the humans stand there in their shoes
and wait for what is to come
after such a silence.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Another poem from Lennart Sjögren's latest collection

To some extent I think I know humans
and to some extent I think I know animals
we live together after all
can touch and smell each other
have different ways of expressing emotions

Everything outside this is unknown to me
but I am not referring here to monsters
not to angels and not to
so much talked-about demons either

If I were to say that physically speaking
it is smaller than midges
or larger than lions
it would be an insult
both to midges and to lions
I am not even sure it materially exists

But it is there even so
and tells me both day and night
that I must mention it
if at least to a certain degree
I am to speak the truth.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Poem from Lennart Sjögren's latest book of poems: 'I trädets grenverk'

Amongst the tree’s branches
where the days and nights constantly change places
where the foliated and defoliated
find short-lived respites between the seasons
which sometimes give life
sometimes cause the trunk itself to succumb

What I wrote I wrote as one captured
in the enviable situation
between the heat that is unbearable
and the cold no one has escaped from alive
here there is total joy
and no joy whatsoever

In the gasps of the canopy of branches
where life until now has even so been possible
where you and I change places
in the restless night

We long for what is abiding
but do not know what it is.

Monday, 28 October 2019

ALS: Underground


In the 60s of the previous century, I knew a young man who lived under the ground. He was studying biology and was interested in bats. He lived in a cave in South Limburg where great clusters of bats hung.
The student slept on a mattress and worked at a small table, sitting on a wooden kitchen chair. A heavy but portable storage battery provided energy. He had stuck a label with a number on it on the back of each sleeping bat. Whenever they flew in and out they were automatically photographed. The elapsed time was also registered. After a year the sticky labels fell off and back home in Delfzijl he wrote a standard work on bats. I visited him in his cave on one single occasion, after which I had nightmares that took place underground. That’s sixty years ago now, but last night they struck again – a gruesome adventure in the earth. I had been giving a reading in Arnhem at the Hijman Ongerijmd bookshop and had parked my car in an impenetrable parking garage where I found a space in the Dance A section. The bookdealer accompanying me urged me not to forget this code — there were other categories apart from Dance such as Fashion, and you could also end up at B, C and D. It was deathly quiet, there was not a soul to be seen. The cars had been brought to their various places in an unknown dimension of reality without drivers. When I started my hunt for my car towards midnight, it did not surprise me that my worst premonitions had turned into reality. There was not a soul to be seen, all the cars stood waiting there like corpses. I suspected that I would only succeed if I thought intensely of the simplest form of life: running like an innocent child through countryside on the edge of a town. The sun is shining, the fruit trees are in blossom, my mother is calmly watching from a close distance. A man-sized bat lands next to me, I don’t scream, it has a sticky label on its back with the words Dance A. It lifts me up and takes me to my car.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

ALS: Nothing personal

nothing personal

In the early daylight the boy walks past the nightspots of the town. Doors stand open, work is in progress, the night is being swept out, some music still hangs around. The boy is terrified, he actually believes (his mother has told him this) that these are the gates of hell. Don’t laugh, stay serious – this is your fellow man. This is the freedom that it is all about: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of dwelling, freedom of holding one’s breath and suddenly gasping. The young man is a boy no longer, he has become a man, erect in life and limb. I got to know him in this borderland area. I understood that I had to leave hell out of consideration. That cost me no trouble – I come from a family where religious belief was never talked about. Just as we never talked about the permafrost in Siberia or the Shah of Persia. We talked about the Kindertotenlieder, because each week my father went to the Concertgebouw. When the boy’s mother had died, I realised that the freedom of religion also applied to him. He was twenty-three years old and, like me, lived in the Rivierenbuurt precinct of Amsterdam. If we happen to talk about freedom, it always has to do with love, that delicate area where the tiniest differences can have the greatest consequences. Since the young man also believed that he here also had a free choice, the reality of the matter was hard.
The girl he wished to approach admittedly belonged to the same church as he did, but after his mother’s death there were rumours buzzing around about his abandoning the faith. The young woman in question had no strong feelings about that, but her parents were implacable. Their daughter got into hot water because of an important characteristic of our culture – being grassed on. She was observed on several occasions with the young man on the edge of the Beatrixpark. They were standing talking to each other, they were not touching each other. When she no longer came, the young man found a letter in the letter-box with just one sentence: It’s nothing personal, I’m not allowed to see you again, my father’s forbidden it. I’ve always remembered the first four words, it’s sixty years ago.

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Time for a Villon!

Ballade des dames du temps jadis

Dictes moy où, n’en quel pays,
Est Flora, la belle Romaine;
Archipiada, né Thaïs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine;
Echo, parlant quand bruyt on maine
Dessus rivière ou sus estan,
Qui beauté eut trop plus qu'humaine?
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan!

Où est la très sage Heloïs,
Pour qui fut chastré et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart à Sainct-Denys?
Pour son amour eut cest essoyne.
Semblablement, où est la royne
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust jetté en ung sac en Seine?
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan!

La royne Blanche comme ung lys,
Qui chantoit à voix de sereine;
Berthe au grand pied, Bietris, Allys;
Harembourges qui tint le Mayne,
Et Jehanne, la bonne Lorraine,
Qu'Anglois bruslerent à Rouen;
Où sont-ilz, Vierge souveraine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan!

Prince, n'enquerez de sepmaine
Où elles sont, ne de cest an,
Qu'à ce refrain ne vous remaine:
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan!

Ballad of the ladies of former times

Tell me, in what land Flora is,
The fairest Roman on this earth;
Alcibiades, born Thais,
Who her first cousin was by birth;
Echo, who sound from sound did breed
Above the stream or pool, I vow,
Whose beauty humans’ did exceed?
But last year’s snows, where are they now!

Where too is wisest Heloise,
For whom to monk they did castrate
Pierre Abelard of Saint Denise?
Who for his love endured that fate.
And likewise too the queen insane
Who Buridan had flung somehow,
Trussed in a sack into the Seine?
But last year’s snows, where are they now!

Queen Blanche, white as a young lamb’s fleece,
Who sang with siren’s voice amain;
Big-foot Berthe, Beatrix, Alice,
Eremgarde, governess of Maine.
And Joan of Arc, burnt at the stake,
Whose death the English did allow:
Where are they, for the Virgin’s sake?
But last year’s snows, where are they now?

Prince, do not ask for week or year
That I their whereabouts avow,
Lest this refrain should taunt your ear:
But last year’s snows, where are they now!

Sunday, 13 October 2019

ALS: 'Middeleeuwen'

Middle Ages

In the afternoon of 11 October I am sitting in the deathly still room, gazing out at the edge of the wood. The weather forecaster has said it will be rainy and blustery, but it is still, grey and dry. I stoke the stove with wood that I have gathered in the wood this summer. Everything is peaceful and tedious and as it should be. I have locked the door to keep out all reports of the world outside. Someone has said that somewhere or other a dangerous war has broken out, but I don’t want to know who and where. As the afternoon is drawing to a close, there is a knock at the door – the milkman’s son. His father is old and stopped being a milkman a long time ago, the trees grow slowly, the landscape is a quite unapproachable woman, the milkman’s son retains his name and is satisfied with it. His coming to my remote house has something to do with the role that I play in his life. For the past twenty years I have been a letter-writer. The first letters I wrote at his request were to a young woman from the village. She wrote back to hm, I answered. We wrote fourteen letters. He got married to her without her suspecting my efforts. He is going through a rough patch, the marriage is in danger, she wants to leave her husband. She’s already moved out for a trial period. He asks me if I will once more write his letters. I do so of course, I’m his letter-writer, I submerge once more into the Middle Ages.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Hölderlin: 'Menschenbeifall'


Ist nicht heilig mein Herz, schöneren Lebens voll,
  Seit ich liebe? Warum achtetet ihr mich nicht mehr,
    Da ich stolzer und wilder,
     Wortereicher und leerer war?

Ach! Der Menge gefällt, was auf dem Marktplatz taugt,
  Und es ehret der Knecht nur den Gewaltsamen;
    An das Göttliche glauben
     Die allein, die es selber sind.

Human acclaim

Is my heart not sacred, full of more beauteous life,
  Now that I love? Why did you hold me in greater esteem
    In my prouder and wilder,
     Verboser and emptier days?

Ah! the masses are pleased by marketplace values,
  And respect servants feel for none but oppressors;
    Belief in what is divine
Have only those who are godlike.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Friedrich Hölderlin: 'An die Parzen'


Nur Einen Sommer gönnt, ihr Gewaltigen!
  Und einen Herbst zu reifem Gesange mir,
     Daß williger mein Herz, vom süßen
       Spiele gesättiget, dann mir sterbe.

Die Seele, der im Leben ihr göttlich Recht
  Nicht ward, sie ruht auch drunten im Orkus nicht;
     Doch ist mir einst das Heilge, das am
       Herzen mir liegt, das Gedicht, gelungen,

Willkommen dann, o Stille der Schattenwelt!
  Zufrieden bin ich, wenn auch mein Saitenspiel
     Mich nicht hinab geleitet; Einmal
       Lebt ich, wie Götter, und mehr bedarfs nicht.


But one last summer grant me, you mighty ones!
  And one more autumn for songs of full ripeness,
     So that my heart, by such sweet playing
       Sated, within me will readily die.

The soul whose divine right in life was denied
  Will no rest in Orcus’ dark realm find either;
     Should I the sacred ever attain, 
       That which is dear to my heart, the poem,

You will be welcome, oh shadow-world’s stillness!
  I am content, though I make my way downward
     With no lyre to strum; just once I’ll have
       Lived as do gods, and that will suffice.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Friedrich Hölderlin: 'An die jungen Dichter'


Lieben Brüder! es reift unsere Kunst vielleicht,
  Da, dem Jünglinge gleich, lange sie schon gegärt,
     Bald zur Stille der Schönheit;
     Seid nur fromm, wie der Grieche war!

Liebt die Götter und denkt freundlich der Sterblichen!
  Haßt den Rausch, wie den Frost! lehrt, und beschreibet nicht!
  Wenn der Meister euch ängstigt,
  Fragt die große Natur um Rat.


My dear brothers! Our art perhaps will best ripen
  If, as is with a youth, after time to mature
     It attains beauty’s stillness;
       Just be pious, as were the Greeks!

Love the gods well and of mortals think graciously!
  Frenzy hate, likewise frost! Teach, shun description!
     Should the master dismay you,
       Ask of Nature her wise advice.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019


My Grandpa loved large veneered cabinets. One of these had a fan-shaped window on the front, with three knobs underneath. The window of the fan contained a list of radio stations on the medium and long wave, and one of the knobs turned this card of names until the station you wanted reached the zenith of the arc. It was here i saw my first Danish word – Kalundborg. A bulb behind this bakelite card faintly lit the names.
The lid of this crate-like object with rounded corners, could be lifted, revealing a gramophone turntable. The lid itself housed a cavernous loudspeaker. One speed only, 78 rpm, although a lever at the side could slightly increase or decrease the velocity. The heavy pick-up arm was of metal, the type where you lifted over the head itself in a smooth arc and lowered it gently onto the shellac records. The 12-inch records were classical music, the 10-inch popular music from the 1920s and 1930s. For some reason, Grandpa gave it to me when I was about twelve years old.

Standing in the bath holding the shower-head, it turns into that pick-up arm and I hear my favourite hit record of the 1920s once again: ‘I’m looking for the Ogo Pogo’. I see an orchestra of neatly shaven, brillianteened young men all in evening dress, sitting in a large arc. There is a touch of the Savoy about them, though the music has a Dixieland feel to it, despite its polished elegance. Doo-wacka-doo-wacka-doo-wah go the trumpets. Bhom-bhom-bhom-bhom goes the sousaphone. ‘His mother was an earwig, his father was a whale. I want to put a little bit of salt on his tail...’ I sing happily, in my poshest voice. ‘I’m looking for the Ogo Pogo, playing on his old banjo. The Lord Mayor of London, The Lord Mayor of London, The Lord Mayor of London wants to put him in the Lord Mayor’s show!’ 

I foxtrot naked out of the shower, search on Google, and hit the jackpot: