Tuesday 5 June 2012

Classic long poem by the Dutch writer Martinus Nijhoff (1894-1953)


A POEM (1936)

For St. Storm

It was a summer day.
The street still as a grave lay
baking in the heat.
A man turned up the street.
On a distant pavement a group
of children played, although that group
carried but little weight,
rather the opposite, it made
the street seem even more deserted.
The sun reigned undiverted.
Even those bound by their
second nature to appear
here at this hour: the lone
student, the lady quite unknown,
the teacher now retired,
had felt themselves required
to depart from routine today,
they were missed, missed in a vague way.
More so: the workman who
had till the hour of two
or three dug a hole apiece
for the central path’s new trees,
had left his spade right there
and now had gone elsewhere.
But stranger, yes indeed
far stranger than the street
being empty, was the fact
of the silence so compact,
and that the sound of the feet
of the man now in the street
left the silence as it was,
yes, that each stride as
he quickly covered ground
made the silence more profound.
No thief, no spy could outbid
what he so effortlessly did;
and the feathered leather shoes
on which Hermes would choose
to descend from his mountain place
did not as quietly traverse space
as he could move along the street,
just walking, shoes on his feet.

The pavement sound he made
was ominous and yet stayed
inaudible – it had the air
of an early warning flare
shot high and out of sight:
in a small cloud light
bursts into a glaring star
and along the whole line of fire
no one can disavow
that zero hour has come, now
ends all uncertainty
about the time allotted me,
now it’s too late for everything.
The silence arising then
is a silence, not just one of form,
a silence before the storm,
but a silence of a sort
where things are heard uncaught
before by human ear.
Such was the silence here.
For as the man fast covered ground
with measured tread, the sound
of gas in pipes could be heard
beneath the houses, the surge
of water underneath the street,
and, to make things complete,
in wires to radio and phone
a crackling buzzing tone
as if bees were nearby.
Nobody peeked on the sly.
For when somebody goes past
one’s interest usually grows fast,
one draws the lace curtain aside
as it normally seems implied
to a greater or lesser extent
that each passer-by’s an event.           
Was there nothing one could see
about him? Could this be
since everyone was sleeping tight,
or since his footsteps were so light
no curtain moved as he went by?
No, no, each window was eye,
a shuttered lid, the slit
of a peering owl that sits
upon its branch of oak.
The silence that nothing broke
throbbed, and then music was heard.
Panic is such a big word,
but well describes the silent fright
that at that moment quite
possessed the empty street.
A languid cloud, like a brief
small island, unfurled in clear sky,
signalled the do-or-die
offensive was soon to be.
All with binoculars could see
against the sky’s blue ocean
a battleship in motion.
And was it friend or foe?
One simply could not know,
no flag was at the mast.
Just as the man who passed
bore nothing by which one can
tell one man from another man.
And the music sang on, grew higher,
swelled to an unseen choir.
For from that very moment
water, gas, buzzing current
could all be heard to stream,
so too had heartbeat, and dream,
and yawn, and circulation,
and silent hope, and desperation –
in short, all that never found voice,
formed a concert of distant noise
which inescapably
increased in clarity
and from silence drew breath.
Longing, mauled to death,
a child slayed in a keep,
cried out, now shaken from sleep,
for plaything and playmate instead.
For that which is dead is dead,
but what’s murdered lives on undeterred,
lives after that time less disturbed
than what lives and never has died.
The deed that never was tried
does more wrong than the deed that was done.
To face death with death once overcome
is mercy, but woe to the man
who in a single span
must suffer the pain and the loss
of living and dying, must cross
with no bridge death’s abyss.

Quite swift a step was his,
the man’s, though not swift enough to stop
each window misting up
with breath from a mouth gaped wide,
that found no words inside
no matter how wide it grew.
And at the same time too
as this unnameable woe,
the music then brought in tow, –
and note, in a street that less
than gladly mentions distress,
that, conversely, with glee
would only like to see
the sorrows others meet, -
and note, in such a street.
when behind pane on pane
the stammerers all strained
to strike up an infernal roar
of language, – and once more,
smothered cries only implored, -
when then this hellish chord
vibrated through all the hot air,
so that anyone standing there
most certainly would have done
the same – i.e. upped and gone –
as the man who forgot his spade,
the one who earlier had made
the holes but not planted the trees, -
when that dissonance wrote a frieze
of spirals shrill and loud
up to an innocent cloud
afloat on a sea still and slow, –
the music then brought in tow,
– for such is music: it plays –
while all this time people’s gaze
followed the stranger who strode
past the houses flanking the road,
that every mortal there
had a vision, became aware
of euphoric, heavenly bliss.

The doctor, for one, who’d set up his
practice here as a local GP
in the street after he,
then a young assistant, had quit
an experiment merely since it,
though far-reaching, only had fed
him with meagre crusts of bread, –
back the wild music bore
him to a still clinic: he saw
himself standing, remote,
rubber gloved, in a white coat:
in a cabinet on the wall
things of glaze and metal,
of enamel and glass broke
into sparkling language that spoke
of a rising dawn behind
evil of every kind. –
The judge now saw himself shorn,
no official attire to be worn:
no wig, no bands, no gown:
from a sense of law alone
and with high-raised hand
he stuck to his oath’s command:
in the name of justice he
let sin off perfectly free
and his personal guilt had to own. –
The lady quite unknown,
the vixen as she’s referred
to, saw herself without her
flowery blouse, a Diana quite bare
in a wood: a deer drew near:
and when she saw how he
knelt down, so then did she:
her hand quivered, her eye gleamed
now she drank from a living stream.

So everyone gazed at
something – one this, one that.
But the pure bliss to be tasted:
an instant was all it lasted
before it had vanished and gone.
It was rather like being on
an abandoned ship, on deck
where one keenly follows the speck
of the lifeboat that disappears:
so dire are then one’s fears
that one, as belief dictates,
pours oil onto the waves:
and for one split second alone
there is calm, a calm unknown:
the ship holds itself in check:
but already over the deck
rolls a heavy wave mixed with oil,
and that which was meant to foil
the sea catches fire, explodes,
and the clogged wreck sags from the load
like a sludge-filled barge under strain.
So behind each window pane
in the waters, glass-smooth and clear,
a man sees his image sink near,
his own image, now all awry. –

Oh, that oil then gambled away
had for sure not been spilt in vain!
For briefly the spirit had strayed
through panoramas quite vast,
and like the camel had passed
through the narrow needle’s eye.
In what land did he arrive?
On earth. – In his own land. –
Just like a moon was the hand
that slid across his brow
and slowly seemed to plough
on through a dew of sweat;
so too his staring eye that
was constantly open wide –
it seemed more qualified
to be a moon than a sun.
Soon though the blood had sprung
in spurts from a thawing spring,
and already had borne everything,
the dream and its wake out of sight
on that stream – like a tree might
after a storm drift downstream.
A sermon’s amen then seemed
to be formed in relief like a sigh.
And down from an empty sky
the spirit, at one stroke
returned again to the yoke
of fixed job and daily bread,
was grateful that this death
had freed him from fear of space.
He was, now back in the flesh,
tired, to be sure, very tired,
but, plainly put, chuffed and inspired
although flesh was feeble stuff:
no deficit blatant enough
that could not be pinned on this
paltry partner of his,
allotted to him by fate. –
But look, that companion sat
there once more toiling away
at his desk – and in such a way
that the spirit looked down ashamed
at that loyal zealous friend
and found he dared only draw near
after quelling an awkward tear.
Out of silent defence, though, the man
did not even put down his pen,
pull a chair up, or look his way. –
The spirit thus could not stay,
had no choice but to re-ascend to
his place of exile, void and blue,
between earth and sun.
His partner followed for one
moment the willing one’s soar,
pondered, and in the air saw
a tiny cloud, and saw too
the stranger still passing through –
still that man in the street.

But, as can be surmised, at such speed
– for people slowly came round
from their reverie so profound
and he fairly swiftly made tracks –
what they now saw was his back.
His welcome had hardly been
all that festive or keen;
nor would that have seemed justified;
but luckily he kept up his stride,
and when the likelihood
of maybe now – for good –
getting shot of him grew more
and more likely than before
at every step of his,
the whole street made, that is
each and everyone
– with the exception of one
whom the careful reader may guess
was the judge himself, no less –
all made the sign of the cross,
except the judge of course
– sit verbo venia –
behind the retreating man.

But for the umpteenth time to be sure
this was counting one’s chickens before
they were even hatched. And so
would bitter experience show,
for the man in the street was still there.
With one’s forehead placed full square
against the window, one’s flesh
blood-red from the curtain mesh,
one could follow his every pace.
It was then that something took place
beyond words for those in the street.
The shock made their hearts skip a beat.
Fuming with rage, deathly pale,
fists clenched, they followed wholesale
the frightful events that below
the man in the street brought in tow.

The place where the kids were at play
on the pavement now lay
directly ahead of the man, quite near. –

It’s often not what it appears,
their play: children sometimes don’t bother
and simply chat with each other,
the words in themselves are a joy.
Three of the group were young boys,
but a girl was the last of the four.
This though one only saw
when it happened to catch one’s eye
that down towards the thigh
of her sailor’s blouse it frilled
into a scotsmanlike kilt.
Foot on his scooter, one lad
pointed out that it had
indicators to show
which way he intended to go.
‘That doesn’t make it a car,’
said the largest, clad in plusfours.
‘Talking of cars,’ he went on
in a condescending tone,
‘Haven’t you lot got a car?’
Over nickelplated handlebars
the girl then swung her leg high
– she was natural in every way:
her tilted-up nose, and her hair
cut like a boy’s, had an air
too artless for manners as yet, –
‘With ours you cannot do that,’
she said, swinging it back.
His arms behind his back
– what else could he have done
with only a bathing suit on? ­
the smallest one cried: ‘And the bell,
does it ring?’ It rang. And he: ‘Well,
that’s something cars don’t do.’
The owner, though, was not through
with opening and shutting the wings
of his indicator things,
his face now as if made of wood.
A miracle can’t be withstood.
There came not a single reply.
And then the man passed them by.

Now there’s a certain game
that children play with the name,
so I’m told, of ‘treading on shadows’.
As someone walks, one follows
his shadow and keeps in his wake.
Normally, for each step he takes
one has to take two to his one.
It cut one right to the bone,
it tore at the heartstrings to see
the group in a row to be
skipping along as they did –
a stranger followed by kids.
It cut to the quick to be sure
to see sailor’s blouse and plusfours
dancing arm in arm together,
all the while holding in tether
the other two at their sides:
sailor helped swimsuit who
had managed to lose one shoe
and the second would follow the first,
while in a sudden burst
of speed alongside the plusfours
ran the owner of the poor
scooter, dumped at the kerb in full view. –
It was now long overdue
that all of this came to a close.
Against the house windows
there came the loud tapping
of fingers all rapping,
like an angry hen had begun
to call chickens back to the run.
The children paid no heed.
What had just occurred would need
their attention to the full.
The shadow now stood still.
Quite undaunted, they viewed,
their eyes raised, the stranger who
had come to a halt close by.
His head held half to one side
he gave them a serious look.
Unabashed, not one of them took
away either one of their hands.
And thus interlinked the band
of the four children stood,
like Tom Thumb in the wood,
gazing down at the tiny stones.
It lasted a minute perhaps, though
one that was an eternity.
Then the man moved on, and he
with his strange, extended walk
was seen – in no time at all –
to be round the corner and gone.

At once, windows were flung open on
all sides, flung open as wide
as could be. It was time.           
For what could be observed?
The meals were about to be served.
How was this to be seen?
From the steaming soup tureen
now given pride of place
and from the array of plates
each with their silver spoon. 
Through open front doors one soon
saw mothers go outside and,
commandingly clapping their hands,
call out their children’s names.
From elsewhere too there came
a similar such cry.
It came from high in the sky.
It was the starling and sparrow,
the blackbird and gull, like arrows
diving down from the gutter.
They flapped their wings and twittered,
breasts quivering poured out scales,
till right in mid-street, on the rails,
along which the tram, delayed
by a power breakdown now made
its appearance, and that,
hurtling along jam-packed,
was trying at every cost
to make up all time lost.
 But children, off like a shot,
never come home on the trot.
That’s how they are, and were here.
Before they were all in their chairs
at table, napkins to the fore
fifteen minutes had passed or more.
And by the door, on the tiles,
even resting awhile
on the open window-sill,
a little bird fluttered a trill
for some crumbs, completely at ease.
There were no birds, though, in the trees,
No none in the trees could be found,
for those were not yet in the ground.

How lovely though – yes, every time –
are blossom and leaves in their prime.
How lovely? Heaven knows how.
But that’s well and good for now.

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