.. alsof hij hoort waarvan hij droomt en de plek ziet waar hij te vinden hoopt
… as though he hears the thing he’s dreamed of and sees the place he’d hoped to find
– Martinus Nijhoff, Awater
And so because I cannot sleep I leave
the hothouse of my sheets
and walk the streets. How close to me
right now are you? The dead lanes keep
their silence, well-trained in secrecy.
The air’s like silk, the trees and street-lamps
only like themselves. No dream
could say it clearer. Some compass needle
leads me to the park, where gates of steel
declare ‘Each plant and planet feels
the inmost drive to move and dream.’
A young man lies here on a bench, beached
on the night’s cool sand – his breathing
falters as I pass. The place is feverish
with noise. A sign ‘Menagerie’
directs me to the regions deep
inside the body of the city,
my ears a stethoscope to its squeals
and ticks, its troubled moans and shrieks.
In their concrete yard the camels’ feet
enact some pilgrimage across a sweep
of long-lost dunes, the gilded eagle
listens for the wind-scoured fields
and in the keeper’s office floorboards creak
remembering their former life at sea.
Only the dogs and last night’s heat
lie quiet now, their histories deleted.
That’s what I’d like my life to be,
not the dream but the young man sleeping.
All day becalmed the city sits
at anchor. In Victory Gardens tourists
cram the shady benches, jasmine
shrivels in the back streets, at tills
and kiosks police post notices,
Missing: Have you seen this wind?
The frail expire and pale dogs whimper,
quarantined on this stilled ship.
Just now I thought I saw you slip
a needle’s eye through tram doors, singing
as you went. Only that glimpse
and you were gone, invisible,
eclipsed once more by stone and brick.
The heat patrols the precinct,
windows, walls and doorways frisked
in turn. The sun’s eye never blinks.
I pray for a miraculous pitch
of snow. Across the road a cinema
beckons, EXIT-WAY IN
the doors revolve, this way for winter
they seem to say. It’s like a fridge
in here, the inside of a kiss
made cool by ice and gin. I swim
into its darker water, swallowed in.
The film’s set in some future city –
narrowed skies, the air electric,
a chase scene through a crowd spilled out
across a pavement late-night drinking.
And then I see you there amid
the extras, as if you’d walked in
from the street and been uplifted
to the screen, its living window.
You seem so happy there. What is
that world? So much I’d never noticed
I see now – how tall and willowy
you’ve grown, the way your spirit flickers
between eyes and lips. Film
does that, the focus on the face, the skin.
Outside it’s getting dark. A stirring’s
in the air, a breath from somewhere distant
as though a storm had flapped a wing.
Boarding the tram was like taking my place
on the back of the mythical serpent, that tale
of citizens carried along the lanes
in open daylight, watched from gables
and roof-lights by neighbours who gazed
amazed as the dragon snaked them away.
‘Better to travel than arrive,’ you always say
so I sing to keep my spirits raised.
We have come to a region of skyscrapers,
giant redwoods of glass that sway
under the clouds. We have come to a place
I never dreamed so close, so strange.
It seems like forever. We are going to tame
the storm and sea. I cannot wait.
Notes on this poem
Shortly after completing a translation of the medieval dream-elegy Pearl, I discovered Martinus Nijhoff’s 1934 poem Awater in David Colmer’s recent translation for Anvil, and was struck by the consonances between the two. In Nijhoff’s echoing and enigmatic poem the narrator, searching for a substitute for his late brother, stalks a mysterious figure named Awater through the city streets at night. Elegiac and allusive, the two narratives six centuries apart pursue their different fugitive dream-guides only to each discover the impossibility of joining them, although they are powerfully drawn to follow them.
Deliberately invoking an old European form to explore the very modern existential questions at the heart of Awater, Nijhoff takes as his model the Chanson de Roland’s ‘laisse-monorime’, playing on only 8 different vowel-rhymes across nearly 300 lines. The effect is haunting and hypnotic, and it’s a form I found propelling as ‘The Occupant’ came into being while I recorded interviews with Awater admirers as part of a recent Netherlands residency hosted by the Dutch Foundation for Literature. These recordings can be heard online on the Poetry Society’s Soundcloud site.
Hailed by Brodsky as ‘the future of poetry’, Martinus Nijhoff’s Awater is the great Dutch modernist poem, yet it is hardly known outside the Netherlands.