Tuesday 12 June 2012

Poem by the Dutch writer
Ramsey Nasr

What we have left – a poem about empty scales


Assumption, there’s a room. The room has a fixed number of components.
There is a window to the left. There is light that falls through it. A necklace of pearls
and a yellow satin jacket with ermine collar. Invariably a table also
to bring out the components: look a loaf, look a basket.
These are the organs.

In the background of the room a painting or land-map figures.
Or at least a nail. Then the canvas has been briefly removed, stands behind the viewer.
Painting, frame, mirror and land-map form the boundary
a second skin to live in. A strange membrane that breathes
between inside and outside.

Only the visitors change. Now and then they change the position of the organs
stand still in their closed system of paint and sable-hair
open the window, play lute or guitar, read letters, pour out milk
or stand almost viviparous in the Dutch room.
Just as this lady.

With her belly bulging before her like a glowing sickle she seems
to be weighing air. And she is expecting. But what?
Furthermore, the woman does not weigh: she waits. Like a half Mary
she stands still in her blue-white pouch of the night. An unapproachable
heart with two scales.

Much is seen in her that is not there. Earlier it was said: ‘Type Vanitas.
The woman meditates upon eternal life.’ And she was given names such as
Weigher of Gold. Or of Pearls. Her belly seemed a full living room.
It was the gleam that has led us astray as aureoles, for centuries.
For the scales are empty.

And whoever seeks references, wants to make deep-sea observations or rather
to cherish higher values, must of course do so, but this is enough.
This suffices for me, like a pagan belief in the tangible.
The higher dwells in the room. A window is a crust of bread is a table.
Vermeer was the great equaliser.

When the painter died, the organs remained behind intact:
the glass, the paintings, the land-map and the yellow jacket too
that was worn first by this and then by another woman
they still lay in the room, that seemed no emptier than before.
Only the steward had disappeared.

No sketch or drawing by him has survived, almost nothing
is known of him today no fragments of diary entries or chance letters
except the letters in his paintings, which have since been dispersed
over The Hague, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, New York and Washington DC.
The room has propagated itself.


Another room also exists. This room is scarcely lit.
Nothing on the table. It is silent and deserted there. A small round window
was left open in the wall. Through this small hole the world peeped
inside, spreading a sky-blue colour against the wall.
This was the committee room.

For years loans were issued from this room like loose pearls.
All who could mist a mirror yes without help could scrawl a signature
had marbles rolled towards them, as meanwhile attempts were made
to keep the pearl, or at least to withhold the lustre of it and to flog this
once more separately,

to channel it to a new space, in order then to chisel loose
the weight of the lustre and to lay this down wilfully
on another man’s table as holy creditworthiness, and yet again
another man’s hopeful table – a risk must be kept on the move, away, quickly away
from this room, still further

from room to room, till in a final jet-black far-off corner
even the shadow of the weight of the lustre of the former pearl
had been removed, the caboodle rebundled so often that the walls
started to slide by themselves and formed tunnels, like nerve bundles
in a system with no exit.

                  And the system
                  Saw that it was good

                                    neither head nor tail was it
                                    coreless and without measure

lighter than ether was it
better than perfect.

With reference to nothing but itself
it had become constantly more manifold. It spread itself
in wild ecstasy like a sky-blue light over the waters, from New York
to Paris and Berlin and The Hague, Amsterdam – right until
no one could distinguish a mirror from a window any more.

Technically speaking, everything
was tops. Once a person puts morality aside
he can see even in cancer a gallant form of propagation
of pure gain in fact. We were overrun with prosperity.
The fun wasn’t over until the pearl necklace was inquired about.

The pearls... ah, yes. Where were they.
Like glittering confetti they lay pulverised and spread abroad, there
somewhere on the edge of our economy, my lady. But where exactly,
that is the question. And the woman asked for her pearls once more. In her hand
two scales. Like a lump of dusk the sun outside began to set.

Bathed in its yellow-leaded glow
the lady from Washington had stood there continually. Now she observed
how the scales at last came to a standstill, how on the spot
in a sudden balance between air and wilful bullshit
this whole system collapsed like a pneumothorax – room on room upon room.


I have a proposal.
The time has come to count our blessings. Milk. Earring
Delft Brick. We are the owners of light. As good
stewards we ought to feed ourselves once more with paint.

It’s not difficult.
You take a shockproof crate to America and ask there:
‘The orange curtain, that light from the left and that pair of old scales
may we borrow them? We’ll bring it all back in two months.’

But we won’t do that.
This canvas stays here. Let us dismantle and fetch back
all rooms in this way. We put back the whole lot together
go and sit in the one room. Calmly tot up what we have left.

This is what is left:
One mirror. Two hands. A black & white floor, golden edges
gleaming sickle and ultramarine. The embers of a disaster
are tangible like a loaf or glass. Edible like a table.

This at least – this is genuine.
Let the pregnant woman remain here, in your building. Not out of avarice this
but to save her life. We gave them the lustre of a pearl as pledge.
That must suffice. Let everyone receive his due portion.

We were consistently taken for a ride
run down to the bone we have lived in boxes of optical illusion
but that paint is ours. Today we will learn how to look. Let us
dwindle into this room, and get used to the lean years.

Let us with the very last
bonuses we still have, that we can scrape together from the
shameless chinks of our soul, fetch back our canvases and say:
so that is a loaf. This is glass-in-lead. That’s what the radiance of water feels like.

It is not yet too late.
Look through the window from the outside inward. Look then: what is there
is there. And yes, it is little. But we too will be rich.
We will learn to be the proud possessors of empty scales.

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