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Poems from the Netherlands - Ramsey Nasr (mostly)

Literature Discussion Group

6:30pm to 8:30pm
Teaism -- Corner of 8th and D Streets NW
- Meet downstairs
- Nearest metro stop: Navy Memorial/Archives

‘The marriage’ by Willem Elsschot (1910)

When he noticed how the fog of time
put out the embers in his wife’s eyes,
eroded her cheeks, cleaved her forehead,
then he looked away and was consumed by regret.
He cursed and ranted and pulled at his own beard
and met her with that gaze, but could no longer love,
he saw the greatest sin in the duty of the devil
and how she looked up at him like a dying horse.
But she did not die, even though his hellish mouth sucked
the marrow from her bones, that kept on carrying her.
She did not dare to speak, to ask or to complain,
and shivered where she stood, but lived and stayed healthy.
He thought: I will beat her to death and burn down the house.
I have to wash this mould from my rigid feet
and run through the fire and through the puddles
until I reach another love in some other country.
But he did not kill her, because in between dream and act
there are hindering laws and practical issues,
and even melancholy, that no one can explain
and that comes at night, when we all go to sleep.
The years went by. The children grew up
and saw how the man, they called their father,
seated motionlessly and silently at the fire place,
gave them a godforsaken and grizzly gaze.


By Ramsey Nasr:


turn my mother into a luxuriant garden of snow
creamy-white jasmine and roses grow white
the fullest of sounds come deep from within
like fruit in the stone

turn my mother into chameleons two without eyes
green he gambled and stroked the chest
she’d curled towards him, deepest red
so something beautiful might arise

turn my mother into a cathedral of light in a box
in the morning lift up the wooden lid and listen
to the many-voiced mass that begins
a celebration of loss

turn my mother into the same girl but iron
raise her this time with more powerful blows
console her or teach her some smart magic spells
because in this body she’s dying


science laugh it off
but it’s only natural
for crying out loud
it’s never clicked between us
                    the poet

                    and you
measured man plus chemical woman
laboratory twins of progress
filling petri dishes together sure thing
explain that away
down white corridors I’ve heard otherwise
in immaculate coats exchanging
proteins between yourselves
nucleotide base pairs maybe
then whispering together
and why do you do it and who for
spit it out! what are you in god’s name!
oh my god up to

I’ve heard all this recently
from confident sources 
but heed my words
and – read – lips – kiddo
or we too will cause disaster
with sheet lightning and titans’ thunder 
hold on to those richter scales
sincerely hold on to me
                    hold me

                    your poet


the rose the lily the dove the sun 
monkey saturn the hydrogen bomb 
love’s bliss encompasses a lot of things
big and tangible they fit
easy in the mitts
of all-crumbling lovers 

for them it’s all:
      a. cuppa cha cuppa java 
      b. ootchy-kootchy
      c. cuddly-snuggly honeybunny 
      d. hi sweetie hi sugarplum 

lovers trivialise the elements 
a tad
stepping like armoured children 
into their means of transport

sitting in their topsy-turvy choo-choo train 
that’s come to a standstill
for the second time this week
because of the silly chappie underneath 

full of love he too
wanted to crush language 
with his hands like them 
but in his own way

he took steps
exploding himself from element
to vast delaying chaos 
sudden thaw and frost in one 

human bliss clings to stars and pollen 
no miracle too big or small

for the determined blind 
monkey is rose dove sun

the true lover admits no difference 
between lily and hydrogen bomb


silly juliet 
what have you done
those eyes snuffed out
your throat squeezed shut
your gut run through
your fingers cut up
you’ve murdered your body
with silly silly thoughts
i am here
do you want me
do you want me to rise up to you
to push you up further
to pull you along
to give you my help
to learn to fly together
without letting go
toasting each other
two chambers one heart
i am coming my love
i put on my heavy wings
and rise
i rise
and on the way i’ll count the stars for you
and planets too
with water sprinkling from my toes
i’ll keep ten toes for you
and both my heels will shoot out light-blue gas
to bring me higher close to you
filth dripping from my eyes
and running down my cheeks
to fill up both my hands
they pour it out
far below
dead filth over dead earth
i am coming closer
i pick up speed
the skies around turn dark i call your name
i see the stars behind me fail
i see them slowly dim
while i squeeze flames from all my hairs
fine tubes over my entire body
my head is burning for you
my hands are ten pinions of radiant fire
i rise with my own power
no longer ascending
i am coming to you
my body melts away
my bones explode like hot swamp gas
i am radiant
feel my body swell and burst
veins arteries capillaries
nerves of light solidified as light for you
i’ve changed myself for you
i am searching now for you
i light you up from deep inside
i seek the edges of your hollow body
searching for your fingers
ten fingers for me
i burn
i scorch bright inside you
do you feel me
i am coming to you my love
i am coming


welcome to the land of milk and honey
where figalmondapricots grow
unmetaphorically on accommodating trees
eat of them and be my guest today
i’ll pay your taxi to the first roadblock

my father waits behind the second roadblock
he’ll make you his guest of honour too
with oil bread oregano sesame
stars press down upon his roof
sleep there and give him nadir’s love

the day to father is hard but essential
try to find a kid with a barrow
take donkeys or scramble on foot round the cliffs
follow the others keep telling yourself
now we are animals this is permissible

wheelchairs go bouncing through dust
back from the city where they cure the sick
diabetic with cancer in blazing sun
many old, many sick, many sweating animals
but that’s the whole idea

in the day we are sweating climbing animals
because that’s the whole idea
they beat and kick the animals to an end
that one day we will give milk and honey
one day manna will rain from human hands

if this seems insane to you habibi
just think that miles down the road
real girls and boys are sitting nervously 
outside starbucks as an act of resistance 
uproarious in fear of their lives


the flowers used to know exactly
when and where young germans
with deeply wounded hearts
would appear in the bushes 

pistils and all they homed in on them

by evening one heard
the sobbing crocuses and narcissi
even above the sound of the german
who’d come so far he was now trying 
to dissuade some i’ll end it all bluebell

consolation was a way of life back then

the nighting-gull dropped by later too 
no secrets in the woods those days 
heavy hearts just pissed it off
it pealed those cheerful tones 
sick bush turned gleaming thicket 
a constant switching on and off
flashing blackberries and raspberries 

the bush with the german
was now an enticing mini universe 
come come cosmos
the stars stayed put 
so far away so vast and all 
but eight minutes later it came 
full-blast from space
red-hot chunks of solace 

and every day the same 

nowadays you hawk your reject heart 
door to door and no one’s buying 

germans are suddenly suspect
in this grey cankered city 

for love freddy wonderlick 
had already diluted imagery 
but now he knew for sure
every tear is a minus


give me the head of a daft persistent into-the-ground runner
who rhymes heart with part cypress with red dead with hyacinth 
scrapes his spilling confidence back together bending down

and won’t stop organising stumble tours down trodden paths
tossing banana rhymes ahead he’s imperturbable
half and off he calls them magic cobbles look 

a bad joke told by a poet the way he rants and raves
leaping up sometimes for no reason snatching handfuls of air 
but not always no not always and I prefer him far more

a thousand and one times more than scrimping king holland 
with his battened modern voice behind his spiky table 
wheelchair and handbrake no I’ll manage or damage myself

also I loathe oracles of the order of the chocolate defecationists 
pouring forth their broad brown nile certain of their own infallible delusion
confection-crapping a true vatican box full of chocolate liqueurs 

                                                          I believe

in velure petals the ruined carmine of the sun’s setting 
the splendour-driven backward flight of the quetzal 
his long emerald green tail awkwardly radiant for her

his ridiculous ostentation favouring life over death
and I believe in utter love it says what it says as if it doesn’t

compared to liberian rebels gang rape is poetry too
I am attached to froth in all vanity I bear my night like a pouch


I - hudson’s shortcut

our outcome was that you were in the way
we sailed to that conclusion on a dream 
dreamt by a fool: our captain hudson claimed
that he could find a shortcut to the east

go straight and keep the north pole on your left
then you can slip down quickly to the indies
and we believed the guy and followed him
yes, even when he said: “or maybe west . . . ?”

henry hudson had been dismissed before
and when he swore on the shore of a foreign bay
that all we had to do to reach the orient
was set a course straight through america
we’d wisely lowered sail – already wedged
from stem to stern in this new continent

II - new amsterdam

the waiting bay lay like an outstretched finger 
at the end of an invisible dutch arm
we went exploring, stamping round we found
our way in a deserted fertile backwater

perhaps no other body but ours, which never
managed to win one god, one people for itself
which rose from drifting, loose minorities
could lay the seed for such a babelopolis

who taught you how to use the melting pot?
who said, be equal, be diverse and free
your trade, who told you, dreams can spread like shares?
the true world champions of immigration
we were, a distant spark of liberty
america, the netherlands writ small

III - new netherland

oh font of humanism, oh shining beacon
oh cradle of exemplary citizenship 
who listens to us now? we have our leaders
they blare their christian values round the place
and mount the moralistic foghorn high 
but in america their frightened faces
all gleam with drooling pride, it’s not prime time 
but still we steal a slot in the cool white house

what kind of model country toes this line?
we bob along behind the big boss boat
impressive, don’t you think? a fifty-state fleet 
with an inspiring airbed at the back
WANTED URGENTLY: foolish fools with vision 
who dare to dream and make the cold sea crack

– A poem about empty dishes

Imagine a room. The room contains a number of regular elements.
There is a window on the left. There is the light it admits. A pearl necklace
and a yellow satin coat with an ermine collar. Invariably there is a table 
to display the elements: look, a loaf of bread; look, a basket. 
These are the organs. 

Adorning the back of the room is a painting or a map. At least, a nail.
Then the canvas is gone for a moment, standing behind the observer. 
Painting, window, mirror and map form the boundaries
a second skin to live in. A miraculous membrane breathing
between inside and out.

Only the visitors change. They move the organs now and then
stand motionless in their closed systems of paint and sable hairs 
open the window, play lute or guitar, read letters, pour milk 
or stand in the Dutch room, all warm gravidity. 
Like this lady.

With her belly before her like a glowing sickle 
she seems to weigh air. She is expectant. But of what? 
The woman is not weighing, she is waiting. Like some kind of Mary
wrapped in the night’s pouch of blue and white. Unapproachable
heart with two dishes.

People see her for much that she is not. They used to say,
“Vanitas. The woman is pondering eternal life.” They called her
Woman Weighing Gold. Or Pearls. Her belly a crowded room full.
It was the gleam that misled us like aureoles, for centuries.
Because the dishes are empty.

And those who seek references, want deep-sea insights or cherish
higher values should do just that, but this is enough. 
For me this is sufficient, like a pagan faith in the tangible. 
The sublime resides in this room. A crust is a window is a table. 
Vermeer was the great equaliser.

When the painter died, he left the organs intact: 
the glass, the paintings, the map and also the yellow coat 
that had been worn by one woman and then another 
they were still there in the room, which seemed no emptier than usual. 
Only the master was gone.

Not a sketch or drawing of him remained, today we know
virtually nothing, no diary excerpts or chance letters 
except the letters on his paintings, that have since been spread
over The Hague, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, New York and Washington. 
The room has multiplied.


There is another room as well. This room is scarcely lit. 
Nothing on the table. It is quiet and deserted. The window
is round and tiny. A peephole through which the world 
looked in, casting a sky-blue colour on the wall.
This was the boardroom. 

From here loans were handed out for years like so many pearls.
Passing the readies to anyone able to mist a mirror or sign
on the line unaided while meanwhile they tried to keep the pearl 
or at least withhold the gleam so they could flog it again later 
on a separate occasion,

by transferring it to a new room, where they could chisel
the weight away from the gleam to deliberately lay it on
someone else’s table as their holy credit rating, over and over
on someone else’s hopeful table – risk has to move, move away, fast
out of this room, further still 

from room to room, until in the last pitch-black corner
the shadow of the weight of the gleam of the former pearl was also 
removed, and the caboodle repacked so many times the walls began
to slide and tunnels formed of their own accord like bundles of nerves 
in a system with no exit.

                 And the system
                 saw that it was good

                                  neither head nor tail 
                                  uncentred excessive

                                                    it was lighter than ether
                                                    better than perfect.

Its only reference self-referential
it became more and more multipliable. It spread across
the waters in expanding ecstasy as a sky-blue light, from New York 
to Paris, Berlin and The Hague, Amsterdam – until finally
no one was able to distinguish a mirror from a window. 

Technically speaking things were going
peachy. Casting aside moralism even cancer
can be seen as a chivalrous form of reproduction
unadulterated profit in fact. We were overrun with prosperity. 
It was just a downer when someone asked about the pearl necklace.

The pearls . . . yeah. Where had they got to?
They were crushed and spread, love, like glittering confetti
somewhere on the edges of our economy. But where exactly,
that is the question. And the woman asked once more about her pearls.
Two dishes in her hand. Outside, like a lump of twilight, the sun began to set.

In Washington, basking in her lead yellow glow
the lady had waited and waited. Now she watched
as the dishes gradually came to a standstill, as before her eyes
in a sudden equilibrium of thin air and deliberate hot air the whole
system collapsed like a punctured lung – room after room after room.


I have a suggestion.
It’s time to count our blessings. Milk. Earrings. 
Delft bricks. We are the owners of light. Like good
trustees we should feed ourselves again with paint.

That’s not difficult. 
You take a shockproof container to America and ask, 
“The orange curtain, that light from the left and that pair of old dishes
can we borrow them? In a couple of months we’ll bring it all back.”

But we won’t. 
That canvas is staying here. We’re going to dismantle
and bring back every room. We’ll reassemble the lot and
sit down in that one room. Calmly counting what’s left. 

This is what’s left:
one mirror. Two hands. Black-and-white floor, golden edges 
glowing sickle and ultramarine. The cinders of a catastrophe
are as tangible as bread or glass. As edible as a table.

This at least – this is real.
Let the pregnant woman stay here, in this building. Not out of greed
but to save our lives. We gave them the gleam of a pearl as a pledge.
That will have to do. To each his own.

We were screwed right down the line
wrung out to the bone we lived in boxes of optical illusion
but that paint is ours. Today we will learn to look. Let us
cut back in this room, and grow accustomed to the lean years.

Let us use the very last 
bonuses we have left, scraped up out of the shameless 
chinks of our souls, to get our canvases back and say 
That is bread. This is stained glass. And that’s the feel of the glitter of water. 

It’s not too late. 
Look through the window from outside to in. Go on, look: it says 
what it says. And yes, that’s not much. But we too will be rich.
We will learn to take pride in owning empty dishes.
What's Left" was inspired by Johannes Vermeer’s painting Woman Holding a Balance. The painting was on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam from 11 March through 1 June 2009, on loan from the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Sources and other sites of interest: