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Feature: The Low Countries
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Andrew Duncan reviews

The Last to Leave
by Dirk van Bastelaere
Translations by Willem Groenewegen, John Irons, and Francis R. Jones

116 pp. Shearsman Books, 2005. 0907562701

This review is about 4 printed pages long.

Fixing the Carousel on the Zoomatic

A recent interview in Der Spiegel quotes Klaus Bachler, new Intendant of the Bavarian State Opera, as saying that he wants “a sensual Mediterranean sound”, “in the metaphorical sense more Catholic” than the current style of the English Sir Peter Jonas, with his “rather Protestant style”. It’s not quite clear to me what this means - although in the semi-bankrupt state of the federal budget, making Papist noises in the direction of the steadily CSU-dominated Bavarian republican government can never be a waste of Schmus. But, is there a difference between Catholic and Protestant (and Orthodox) ways of doing art? Flemish-speaking Belgium has a thick streak of Catholic piety, a way of resisting the pressures of secular French culture.

Three Men and the Sea

As long as I’m on the dike
I can be seen from the window
that will only let itself be known
once the man has crashed through it,
for such is thirst for knowledge.

Then someone imagines
that through the churning white of the air
she can hardly make me out to be a man by the lighthouse
or a boat fleeing from the lee of the pier,
the moment she closes the curtains.

Much later my body can be made out on the tarmac,
its position known as contorted,
for then I’ve stopped being thought of
as wishing I could stand in a flapping, light-blue suit in front of the casino,
a fair-haired man the equal of what he can do,
whilst I was about to open a window
which was asking for just that.

We should register right away that this is a predominantly visual poem, that violence is important in it, and that the rendering is finicky and stylish. That is the whole poem - there is not enough information in the poem to work out just what has happened. The frame is imposed very carefully, very knowingly. We are partway through a mystery story, and we would want to leave if the mystery was resolved. Distinctions from banal poems which merely transcribe the visual show up with the insistence on the standpoint of the observer: what on earth is this triangulation where someone (unnamed) is thinking of the protagonist as wishing he could be like a third person. The visual planning includes the blind angles - just as our line of sight shows us some aspects but not others. The count of men is three - the title gives us that. Some thriller plot is under way.

Does the speaker crash through the window because the man (in the light blue suit) has shot him? When does he move from the dike to the window? Is the window (on which the unnamed woman closes the curtain to give way to imaginings) the same one from which the speaker plunges - and, if so, does she push him - and why?

To make an observation about method, this is a visual scene, planned as such; it does not grow out of a linguistic imagination, and so it may survive a lot better in translation than most poems. Of course, the stereotype about Dutch and Belgian poems is that they are descriptions of pictures which the poet has designed (but not made). The poem is almost a trick - a game to see how much ambiguity can be generated in 70 words in a series of plain statements. ‘Such is the thirst for knowledge’ - perhaps someone is being punished for their curiosity. They are trying to work out the story - as we are. Often in these poems people seem to be acting out a scene on behalf of a painter, or film-maker, being recorded by a third party who has no idea what the plot is.

This is serious poetry. I have to point this out. However abandoned the project is to the profligacy of images, the recording of violence, it flies on a high level - the work of someone who could be a remarkable film director. His talent is completely released; he is in complete command of his idiom and has a fertile mind.

Dirk van Bastelaere arrived, in 1987, in a shared volume with 3 other poets, called Twist met ons. This is a half-line from the Dutch poet Martinus Nijhoff, but also means twist with us - in the sense of a dance craze of 1965 led by Chubby Checker. Nijhoff’s line is addressed to God, by a tram driver, and runs ‘Wrestle with us. Wrestle with us. Wrestle not with moderation.’ Twist means duality, conflict. The reference is to Jacob wrestling with the angel. The title literally means argue with us.

Much of the Flemish criticism of van Bastelaere - which I downloaded off the Net - is about the poet’s relationship to postmodernism. If we are all sitting in the same cyberbar, and there are a thousand varieties of beer, each labelled ‘international pomo non-organic locarb’, we will never recognise the brand of a particular beer. I have to identify what is unique about the book under review, not what is (internationally) generic. Anyway, Belgian beer is the best. I suspect that we all have a rolled-over and unpayable slate in this bar, by dint of which we have heard about PM a thousand times too often, and are unlikely ever to even the score. Benno Barnard’s intro to Twist met ons says ‘Postmodernistisch: even the word means close to nothing, an echo with no source.’ I never want to hear this word again. Let me move hastily on.

It is clear from the same downloads that van Bastelaere (b. 1960) was received as someone who shocked a wide range of pious Flemish academics, with solemn liturgical and maintenance duties towards the Belgian classics. He deftly pressed their buttons - to get the maximum of attention even if they were saying ‘this is not existentially valid and so not worthy of our attention’. This drama cannot be observed here (outside Belgium) unless the palsied academics are exported, as a kind of travelling exhibit, to staff it. I think we are not going to be offended by van Bastelaere. Not enough to be thrilled, anyway. Of course, a rebel who survives until 40 is in a curious state. If he has accumulated no oeuvre by this time, his claims to talent are quashed; if he does have one, he is almost a property-owner, the manager of a collection - and subject to insolences by glamorous young rebels who shoot from the hip and comb their hair a lot.

The simplest concept here is a set, ‘Soon at a cinema near you’, in which 5 poems evoke 5 films. One of these, ‘Home Movie’, is about Zapruder: ‘There was a tailor/ with a Bell & Wesson Zoomatic,/ who did not perceive anything, but Filmed.’ That is, unwittingly filmed the shooting of John F Kennedy in 1963. The poem goes in part:

I was standing on a concrete block
close to the bridge, mainly
casting shadow, while his petit-bourgeois wife,
in the pink shroud of her Chanel,
bent over him and Someone dies,
in frame 313,
where the stench of philoctetes
is whipped
out of the Bowl
like a scarlet flower-cloud, and francis Bacon
mixes her Suit
through jack’s flesh
and his hair through her mouth,
while He leaves his place Behind, that survives him
and is unassailable
by someone else, after which,
almost unnoticed thick flesh and cold flesh
slowly starts to cover the Epoch (.)

I said this is simple, it’s also extraordinarily clear and extraordinarily vivid. We all know what this scene is. The I who speaks is a marginal witness, Jean Hill, one of many voices linked by dissolves. (Again we have multiple witnesses and lines of sight.) I think it was Bell & Howells, wasn’t it - the ‘Wesson’ is patched-in from Smith and Wesson, who made hand-guns. Also involving a rotary feed and a magazine? Possibly. I suppose the place is Kennedy’s place in history. The realisation is crystal-clear; we can supply the oration for ourselves. The idea about the epoch is a kind of candy bar, pleasing (but not long lasting).

Van Bastelaere seems to have an extraordinary lack of interest in the event on Dealey Plaza. It is as if he saw it as a picture from a JG Ballard story, cut out and pinned up. He does nothing but render the physical scene, 15 to 30 seconds around the shots. He doesn’t express regret at someone dying. He isn’t interested in who set the killing up (it was LBJ, I read this in Paris-Match). He doesn’t even praise Oswald’s shooting. He does comment on Zapruder’s 1 for 1 ratio of film shot to film used. His use of selection and emphasis is masterly. The high impact is due also to brilliant use of peripheral detail. As a comparison, there is a hiphop record about the assassination, made of cutups from TV news of the time, which accompanies the line ‘Ruby came from Texas, he runs the Carousel Club’ with a blast of carousel music - a spooky sort of fossil techno, a frozen fairground version of the Folies Bergère. I suppose that the golden gallopers stood for the strippers on whom Ruby’s scenic vision relied. The clip lasts a few seconds but is incredibly striking. The evocation of Mrs Kennedy’s pink suit (with matching hat) is equally effective - peripheral but piercingly vivid. Within 20 lines we get the erotic Noontide Demon, the Book of Revelations, Parsifal, the Iliad - and Coco Chanel.

As elsewhere, the poem is visual, violent, and brilliantly aestheticised. Could I quote from the author I see as the closest model for the work:

“Captain Webster studied the documents laid out on Dr Nathan’s demonstration table. These were: (1) a spectroheliograph of the sun; (2) tarmac and take-off checks for the B29 Superfortress Enola Gay; (3) electroencephalograph of AlbertEinstein; (4) transverse section through a Pre-Cambrian trilobite; (5) photograph taken at noon, 7th August 1945, of the sand-sea, Qattara Depression; (6) Max Ernst’s ‘Garden Airplane Traps’. He turned to Dr Nathan. “You say these constitute an assassination weapon?”
(from JG Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition, 1969)

There is no inherent logic of images. What people really mean by this is something which feeds the appetites guiding the eye. Film does not have to go in a particular direction. The appetite of a Western eye may be a learnt thing - after watching thousands of Hollywood films, our optical kit looks for what is likely to be important. So appetite is memory. These narratives are on a loop and in a sense never stop.

Nine pages are devoted to a poem called ‘Zapruder Stress’. Zapruder is the owner of the Zoomatic. The Kennedy assassination seems not to form any part of the poem ‘Zapruder Stress’. What does Zapruder stress mean? The phrase, surprisingly, is in English in the original. It may mean the pressure of events on an observer who is helpless to intervene in them. It may simply mean the pressure of Zapruder’s finger on the switch of the camera. I can’t work it out. The position of Zapruder - of filming a key event without even being aware he was doing so, his camera functioning ahead of the part of the brain that assigns meaning to raw visual data - may be vital to van Bastelaere’s selection of subjects. If we watch a lot of TV news and fiction films, we are repetitively spectators of violent death and Historic Moments - suffering the stress of excitement which we cannot discharge, of close knowledge we cannot act on.

Van Bastelaere seems more at home with images of the 1960s than with anything later. The Twist, Kennedy, Ballard. Motives may include a temperamental preference for a stage of late childhood, and a cultural one for the attitudes, especially of people making film and photographs, of a certain era: one of curiosity and self-confidence, into which cynicism and political guilt had not yet entered to demand the back rent. Van Bastelaere seems to be frightened of what happens when the photograph runs out. Getting the photograph is everything. This is also a kind of artistic conscience - everything which is not vivid is cut. Maybe this is the callsign of secularism - we just get the event, the endless moralising about it afterwards is simply left out. On with the next event.

In the whole volume Hartswedervaren (Adventures of the heart, I suppose, 2000), the central Flemish tradition of religious painting is repossessed and distorted in the most provocative way. What would the pious make of this legend:

At that time Jesus lived in the heart of Anna of Jesus, the giggling of Myriam or the flower-print dresses of Pipilotti Rist. Dead-still he lay in his bed. His sleep was as deep as the Marianas Trench. White was the room, with a window (bricked-up), a door (nailed-up), a bed (live with electricity) and a toilet (filled with concrete). The camera whirred. Outside time roared past
like light darts from nova to nova.

Knowledge doubles, and yes: ‘We have a jesus.’
Humanity, a zoological given.
Armenia. Kampuchea. Rwanda.
Byzantinism, rococo, pensiere debole.
We plough and plough the shit of being.

Invisible flames licked Jesus’ toes and during these two thousand years his heart, with the holy relentlessness of a stalactite -
in a Holy Crack of the dark -
had beat but once

(from “Fables of the Sacred Heart”)

This is halfway between Ted Hughes and a rock video. Knowledge doubles every ten years, isn’t that the tag (and the sacred texts are dissolved by it). ‘We have a jesus’ is a parody of habeamus papam, the announcement that a new Pope has been elected. Byzantinism is probably a reference to the Papal monarchy, its secrecy and archaic bureaucracy, controlling the Church. Rococo was the final stage of Catholic art when it still dominated Europe, superficial, insouciant, and uncritical, and perhaps the condition of any art that surrenders to religious control once faith has gone. Pensiere debole, thought is weak (but belief is strong, the tag runs). I think the subject is a satire on Belgian tradition but also a promise that life will go on, bigger and better, after the loss of priestly tutelage.

Given that Catholic painting generally involved violence of some kind, central authorised scenes, and selected high points to illustrate a story, it does seem possible that all of this is post-Catholic poetry in the sense that Munich now has Catholic opera (I read it in Der Spiegel). Flemish painting rendered the body parts of the martyrs with three-dimensional realism, but since it renders everything else with the same realism the accusation of perverseness may be ill-founded. The painters had limited choice of what to paint. Van Bastelaere has a baffling lack of engagement with his images. There is no latent promise that if we piece all the images together we will find, like a plastic spaceship hidden in a breakfast cereal packet, a Personality. Van Bastelaere does not seem to have a personal mythology. Maybe that is a Protestant thing. The images retain their autonomy, and that is really why these poems are so compelling, and perhaps that is also what Zapruder stress demands.

I wish I knew more about the other three heroes of Twist met ons (Bernard Dewulf, Charles Ducal, and Erik Spinoy), and about modern Freespace Zuid poetry in general. I don’t have the ability to compare van Bastelaere to his peer-group. This just underlines how good it is that a large-scale translation of this frankly brilliant poet is now available. Everyone should know 5 Belgian Symbolists, 5 Belgian Surrealists and 5 Belgian Postmodernists.