Friday 9 December 2022

Martinus Nijhoff: Het Uur 'U'


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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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