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Feature: The Low Countries
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Dirk van Bastelaere


(The Opera Ain’t Over Till The Fat Lady Sings)

Translated by Willem Groenewegen

This piece is about 17 printed pages long.

”Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the somber renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings. I mean long journeys across grey space. I mean danger, the edge of every void, the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic. Understand the man who must inhabit these extreme regions, monstrous and vulval, damp with memories of violation.” Don DeLillo

  “Das Bedürfnis, anders zu werden als ich war, wurde plötzlich leibhaftig, wie ein Trieb.” Peter Handke

At an excessive moment you see,
as the last guest in the
projection room, when you have lost
your senses through an auricle in
a disenchanted world or overwhelmed by
faint sentiment, while you gasp for
air and, by way of abdication,
grimly bow your head into the
bath’s surging stream as water churns
up like erupting thunder over the
city or in a dream that
howls like the underground or while
you study remedial gymnastics or are
upset by a glossy catalogue of
catalogues, during a car crash, in
the immense dew of Florida that
brings forth hymn after hymn from
the runner or ingloriously in the
foreboding of a bridal flight when
violence arises like a fatal, solitary
buzz over Los Alamos destroying the
heat that quivers up from an
evaporated inland sea west of Salt
Lake City, an opportunity to survive
and your heart is flooded with
joy. You shudder in your shoes.
Someone has lost count. It is
an indifferent summer. It is an
event without consequence. Your heart, veins
limbs, all jolt and tremble with
desire. Speechless, in your desolation you
fare as you so often do:
you’re in love, in sexual love,
with your death and the death
of your kind. The oven you
were fatted for roars. Could the
wind lie down? Could a comparison
be made with the expanse, which
is there, where the stars are?
There’s no certainty. The season slipping
by, the napalm that descends as
so many tongues, the small wonder
of six silver spoons, every little thing
– a cape, the last plum in
the icebox, a petrol station burning
to the ground, the milk that
gushes between her buttocks, the broken
jukebox – is a change, it is
an example, it shows the power
of sacrifice, displays resemblance and catastrophe
and if you do not satisfy
the desire demanded, you will die
of a ravenous passion and rave
while dying. You showed undivided attention.
You’ll grow strong with enjoyment. You
no longer need to know who
these spectres in the dark are.
You’ve swapped the unimpressive dialectic of
light and night for the rapture
of fine-spun differences. With your external
beauty and your agitated thoughts you,
indecisively, make a perfectly natural impression.
Your sweat puts insects at ease.
So far, so good, but the
oldest fears are the worst, people
say and our breathing stifles. (Le
désert c’est le désir
). If you
cannot see it, it must be
real. The curtain slides to one
side and your impossible journey insists
on having itself announced by force.

The pond ripples.
The pond is smooth.

Was Faschismus seinem Wesen nach ist,
erweist sich vollständig erst dann, wenn
er die Macht besitzt und Politik
gestalten kann, also auf der Stufe
des Herrschaftssystems. Auf der Stufe der
Ideologie und der Bewegung kann sein
Wesen nur zum Teil erschlossen werden,
weil hier demagogische Elemente den realen
Charakter partiel noch verbergen.

The pond ripples.
The pond is smooth.

“For a long time I went
to bed early, hidden in rotting
wood while the city, immersed in
nuit Américaine, was wide awake in
fear of absence and the kind
of pod that burrows tentacles as
thin as sinews through your nose,
right into your battered dream. Dare
to close your eyes and a
groping death will spread its seed
all over you. Eyes closed tightly
I became fat, white as fish-bait.
Didn’t take the time to flush
out my nest. Like wasps I
left the mealy earth. Like surprised
birds. In these mental images I
swarmed out across the world. The
babbling of a crowd out of
breath making its way to the
murderously happy inertia became my nickname.
‘It is I.’ Yet who is
speaking? Where does the word take
place? A Doppler effect echoes through
the languages. A resounding racket had
awoken me. I revealed myself as
a public body, place of origin
without origin. I forgot my native
soil for the uncomprehending lust machines
of utter amazement, wu wei, the
mountains, non-action, the internet, the skywalks
of Minneapolis in which endless merchandise
circulates and the brutal, nuclear desert
of Nevada. I faced up to
the sun as the sun and
took from the sun its abundance.”

It’s darkening.
The pond ripples.

Dichtung ohne Besinnung auf Volk und
Boden ist undenkbar. Der echte Dichter
weiß im Dienst seines Volkes, dem
er verhaftet ist durch die Bande
des Blutes und der Sitte. Nationalsozialistische
Dichtung, vor allem aber ihr Gesetz,
trägt nicht der einzelne aus, sondern
der Nationalsozialismus schlechthin. Die Partei ist
nicht allein der Staat des Dritten
Reiches, sondern das Volk in seiner
Verkörperung, und sie ist das werdende

The flower closes itself.
The pond ripples.

“I then
carried my
ashes up
into the
mountains, but
the mountains
took no
notice of
me. It
was I,
the one
in which
was expressed:
‘If you
do not
produce what
is in
you, then
what you
do not
produce will
annihilate you.’
Yet I
was what
I produced
and what
I was
I did
not know.
No more
than how
in I
was in
me. And
how little
I was
I how
I the
manifold names
from history
that I
was not
than on
that single
lasting day,
beaten in
enjoyment outside
your countable
rational calendar,
in Ash
Springs, a
wide, baseless
petrol station,
a vortex
later repeating
itself. It
was a
place full
of power
and danger.
Tree roots
I ate,
baked beans,
salted meat
and chilli
burritos under
this expanse
like hammered
copper plate,
from which,
when I
walked around,
the waters
of chaos
and darkness
descended. I
could see
the Nevada
Test Site
as the
west, even
with eyes
sewn shut
behind the
screen door.
I had
(in what
disposition?) gone
into the
deep south.
That deep,
desperate south
welled up
in me
like soil
shadowed by
blood. I
could no
longer separate
soul and
senses. ’Hey
Bill, I
heard you
shot your
woman down’.

Then my
body was
discarded, like
a bush
burning and
unconsumed, a
hotbed, hot
in hot
grass. And
now? My
assorted tormentors,
what now?”

The pond is smooth.
The pond ripples.

Der Faschismus an der Macht ist
die äußerste Systemsicherung in äußersten Krisenlagen
des monopolbestimmten Kapitalismus. In den entwickelten
kapitalistischen Ländern besteht die Hauptfunktion faschistischer
Ideologien, Gruppen und Aktivitäten darin, Unterstützung
für eine rechtsorientierte (auf stärker autoritär
bestimmte Herrschaftsmethoden und auf Militarisierung der
Gesellschaft gerichtete) Politik zu liefern.

The pond ripples.
The foliage cheers.

Start again with the sun, sailing towards the void, a pure event, a catastrophe without gift of mercy or ‘powerful voice’. No religion’s involved in this. No anthropomorphisms. ‘In four billion years your phenomenology and utopian politics will have died out, with no one remaining to sound the death knell or hear it.’ Nature ignores our existence, this much is clear. That leaves the question whether you are, here and now, having a sore throat, caressing her shaven mound, smelling petrol fumes, feeding the cats or are, as Harrison Ford in Blade Runner, in the dark about your ‘life’. Perhaps you are, like Deckard ‘on the run’ through the chemical rain of L.A., an actor’s character that’s after you, a replicant with emotions, dreams, a case history. A story programmed many times (by whom?), set in a darkened city. Impatient. Delusional. You don’t see things unfolded or in their entirety, but in likenesses. Against a background of other likenesses. Luckily there is the self-destructing clock inside of you. The question is therefore: how long, who to spend time with and what for? In that light everything is without consequence.

The pond. The pond.
Ripples. Is smooth.

Sein soziales Wesen realisiert der Faschismus
durch die terroristische Zerschlagung der Organisationen
der abhängig Arbeitenden, durch die Auflösung
oder Entmachtung aller anderen Organisationen, in
denen antimonopolistische Interessen sich artikulieren könnten,
durch die Abschaffung der Institutionen des
Parlamentarismus und der rechtsstaatlichen Bindungen des
Staatsapparates, durch die Zentralisierung der politischen
Macht und durch die Errichtung eines
Systems umfassender Kontrolle aller Lebensbereichen.

The pond reflects
reflects the pond.

“The pain of thinking is, I
think, thinking itself to the extent
that it decides to be indecisive.
Who saw the wind, loudly breathing
signifier of the event? The chaos
that lives in us. The charge
that chases you before the tepid
lightning of pipe dreams and forces
us to continually evaluate positions and
decisions? Is he the disregarded one
who, like whizzing bamboo, gives us
a slap on the soles of
our feet when nodding off flares
up in us like a blush?
The not now not ever? And what
blows through the fading that announces
itself in a mood (that tangible
emotion), flows out ‘heavy’ as passion
as well as ‘confusion’? The eventful
that even parodies its own model,
interrupts you like anaesthesia? Only when
the model changes can we learn
from history. You there, with your
statements, your irony: know what effaces
you, makes your body an anonymous
place of excess, discipline. Political, beside
itself, sweating under its weight without
ideals. In days of almost ‘perfect
composure’ it presents itself as horny
and disturbing like a professionally administered
enema in the rubber room. Such
was my belief in earthly beauty,
human autonomy as celebrated in antique
books. If I am wild, it’s
because life, that’s earthly, is wild.”

Your oldest fears are the worst.
A strong black rain is descending.

”Um die Unterjochung der Kolonialvölker zu
legitimieren und die Bevölkerung für den
Krieg zu mobilisieren, war die aus
dem kapitalistischen Konkurrenzkampf relativ spontan entstehende
Ideologie des Sozialdarwinismus zu einem extremen
Nationalismus und Rassismus gesteigert und durch
effektivierte ideologische Apparate verbreitet worden.”

The flower closes itself. The pond.
The state’s monopoly on violence.

“I left ‘my native soil’
for a yielding world,
without truth or reality,
but living, solid on
details. Flourishing in faces
like swarms of midges,
paragrams, a serene progress
shows itself as swaying
that disappears into old
city light, blind maps,
partial connections, the blissful
cotton that lifts a
bed wide into the
night, Chaplin’s hilarious eating
machine. Ecstasy without consequence.
The rest that remains
when all has been
said, perhaps fulfils itself
in the banal thud
of steel on steel
or like a slowly
unfurling fireball that climbs
the Nevada sky, singing.
In a different state
of history that was
a pillar in the
east, an encampment exploring
frontiers, a bricked up
church niche, a dream
palace in the opium
slumber of a nineteenth-century
body. Is this it,
trembling lust organ? High-pitched
wedding song? Behind the
throbbing blue of the
Lincoln sand wafted up.
Radio reception was perfect
and from Callas’ singing
elsewhere flowed ’Ne andro
as a precious,
sad body. In draughty
airports passengers embarked. For
a destination. People sat
awake at night, applauding
the news. Sang a
hymn to the nation:
an invasion being prepared.
These heroes fight for
. High-rises started to
dominate the cityscape. But
for years I never
grew tired of enjoyment,
hindered by no heart’s
desire, stunned by the
Internet’s byways through which
I ran my Oraciones
(or vice versa), becoming
other people’s complex allusions,
meanwhile consumed by an
expensive, personal sun, a
virus that annuls its
host: white light, white
heat. Once there was
stuff, shot, rush, the
echo of a shot.
A high tone whined
on through the world,
awakening in the cry
of everyone startled by
a nightmare. A whistling
cocktail glass fell, fell,
fell. What once drove
you breathlessly into a
body? Led us choking
like fish from the
dream. Everything changes, but
in death’s direction. You’re
a being that should be
blinded and stunned. ’If
we realize that everything
is illusion, then any
illusion is perfect.’
Continental took me where
the Continental wanted. Stately
body, wrathful orchestra, lethal
construction in which I
lost myself unknowingly and,
breathing broadly, could ascertain
the shape-shifting world that
displaced in its unnameability
and struck down and
struck down I was
allowed to shift. This
was Nevada, a wilderness
blooming with drought, plutonium,
lust. In the machine
I sat chalk-white as
Buster Keaton dragged by
a train. A Texaco
signpost creaked to and
fro in the silence.
The wind blew incessantly
about the pump. Grass
gnawed its way through
the cracks in the
concrete. Welcome. Garage, body
shop, sacrificial site to
the sun. The wind
was petrol, drenched your
clothes, your hair, breath
and soul. This was
the placeless place that
had called me. I
took my placeless residence
there and the place
went into me. A
shudder ran through the
immediate vicinity. It resembled
‘the soft sough of
a breeze’ or ‘the
frail sound of silence’.
It was perhaps a
descending owl or the
thick rush of blood
in the inner ear
of someone who, quadriplegically,
sees all this take
root in him as
his salvation, his oldest
fear or the interminably
slow telescoping of steel,
tank, skin, burning rubber
in a crash that
permanently repeats itself in
this protracted screaming, resembling
the delayed sound reproduction
of Canticles or the
stronger being of an
angel who impatiently fingered
your soul’s sphincter. The
desert demanded my constant
rapture and the sun
did its job: the
Lincoln became malleable steel
in the heat; my
nasal bone hardened into
titanium. The wind bashed
gills into my ribs.
I snarled at the
sun, which wrote its
punishment into my muscles.
A body’s remains having
struck down on the
engine block. Swarming with
flies, it was without
organs and smooth. Latched
onto it from miles
around jackals, maggots, organ
creatures and signs. Rods
penetrated holes. Pistons and
tubes connected to the
bloodstream. Greased up creases.
(A fist-size gear-stick shone
in its mouth.) Chrome,
flywheel, transmission. It spoke
with one armpit, breathed
difficultly through wafting hair.
Angry in its angry
appearance it stared unreasoningly
at the ruins of
history from an anus
related to the sun,
retched blood, sperm, petrol.
Was rapture now conceivable
as an idea of
place? It was all
undone with flow charts,
flight paths, turmoil, sweat,
logograms, geodesics and tar.
A body became body
without organization, while thousands
of ants sprayed their
pheromones groggily onto blazing
skin, a chemical vocabulary
that spurts in dreams,
territorial marks as unspeakable
as lust. The beauty
of thresholds here in
the heat. No postponement
of death or nullity.
Traces, formulas, fall-out, a
punch: it was taking
place, raving. It was
midnight and the rain
beat against the window-panes.
It wasn’t midnight and
the rain didn’t beat
against the window-panes. I
saw all enjoyment in
the raving of love.
It was enjoyment beyond
comprehension. Moderation exists, for
I am excess: I
was ablaze last night,
people could almost see
I had died. I
seemed radioactive last night
and am nowhere to
be found. Start again
with the sun, an
imperceptible catastrophe. The end
will carry the burden.
The lust for lust
lies somewhere in between.”

The pond is smooth:
the order is not to move.

Der Nationalsozialismus als Wille zur Hochwertigkeit
entspricht geradezu der Tragödie, die höchste
Lebensbejahung ist. Die Gemeinschaftstragik unterscheidet sich
gerade dadurch von der Individualtragik, daß
sie den Helden in die Basis
des Handelns des ganzen Volkes stellt,
das heißt, den Helden mit dem
sittlich notwendigen Ideal identifiziert.

It’s darkening?
Rule out any ambivalence!

“In those days
I sat on
the veranda, circumsphinxed
by Dudu and
Suleika, two feline
raiders, red-eyed, thin,
sexless in their
comings and goings,
wedded closely to
the fluttering world,
the planet taking
its first breaths
that became flesh.
Guarding the intensity
of the unimportant.
Pliable. Gladly circling
petrol tanks. In
the morning sun
my 360 joints
spoke to the
plaintive awakening of
their cartilage in
the language of
seed-boxes popping open
or a pinery
bursting into flame.
I lay there
getting all benevolent
when, like water
rushing down, Ariel
stood behind me,
panting in a
midnight jacket. In
backlight I saw
his hair streaming
silver-white, one of
Blake’s illustrations. The
jaw the jaw
of an effigy.
The moon in
his iron teeth.
I thought, some
perverse order’s emerging
when, trumpeting (a
megaphone?), he spoke
to me: “You’ll
write history if
you do business.”
I thought, what
a great opening
and said, looking
at the boney
flapper behind his
zipper: “Is that
a gun in
your pocket or
are you just
happy to see
me?” A whirlwind
rose, sucked the
blackness from the
world. It whirled
around in his
eyes, smoked from
his throat, fluttered
down. His briefcase
appeared to produce
a lead pipe.
Quick as lightning.
He struck like
an animal, for
seconds, that was
a clause in
his contract. My
night eyes, fits
of pain, delusion
breeders, didn’t escape:
chucked Dudu into
orbit, Suleika rocked,
quite flattened, towards
the pavement. The
cities were lifeless.
Water dripped from
bridges while Ariel
shiningly continued, dancing
orderly within the
law that made
him part of
an erasing force,
spoken in a
language that pushes
us down and
wreaks havoc deep
within us, finger
pointed imperatively at
me: “Say after
me:  — I pledge
allegiance to the
flag of the
United States of
America, to the
Republic for which
it stands, one
nation under God,
indivisible, with liberty
and justice for
all.” I saw
the landscape as
Sinai, leaning back,
humming, until slime,
fat, piss, vermin,
snot, all broke
out of me.
It left me
spontaneously, my prayer
to God. Around
me swarmed (his?)
midnight creatures and
Ariel smashed through
all the doors,
dragged me, bucking,
bawling, roaring, away
through the heavens,
showed me all
the world’s kingdoms,
bathing in glory.
Said: “All these
things will I
give thee, with
thine grease-reflecting hair,
bugger, self-igniter, when
thee kneelest before
me in worship,
abandon all pleasures,
say after me:
’ — It’s patriotic to
have the AIDS
test and be
Blood streamed
out of my
ears and eyes.
I vomited all
over his shoes.
I shat in
his pockets, roared
with laughter. Swayed
like Erroll Flynn
across the scene.
Beamed. Became woman.
So he immediately
(being quick-witted) knelt
down before the
sink in an
elegant tuxedo as
if at an
altar vast in
the evening light
or flickering neon.
A Vegas organ
started the dance.
And he spoke:
”Say after me:
I take you,
to have and
to hold, from
this day forward,
for better for
worse, for richer
for poorer, in
sickness and in
health, to love
and to cherish,
till death do
us part, so
help me God.”

He drank from
the chalice, breathed
heavily as if
already consummating our
marriage. But when
it passed, singing,
through my hands
I smelt petrol.
How could it
be otherwise? Took
a swig. Trembling
(with distaste, anticipation,
distraction, unrest?) I
lit the first
Lucky Strike of
the day.” Wwwwwhhhooosshh
sang the diva.

And so the landscape
became ever stranger
The pond
The flowers
The boyum tree
Yackety yack
Yackety yack
The clouds wide
and white, the
clouds wide
and white, the clouds
wide and white, the clouds wide and
If this is the real world
you can keep it
How can you only
Who is the dearly departed?
You sleep and you think
that you are safe
but in the dark
I’m standing beside you and you don’t know
The violence lies hidden
The catastrophe
is what we forget to think
You’re walking in the wrong direction
She spread her arms and
Be bop a lula, she’s my baby
If I could only
Try to get used to my company,
I even have friendly dreams
that have always
started elsewhere, earlier, differently
You close your eyes and when you open them
you think that everything must have changed
I am totally ready for it
I can at least show my teeth
She thinks that she’d better
She turned round
It’s as if,
Do not pretend
Join us now
It is high time
Soon in a cinema near you
You are so far away
Such is life on earth

Dirk van Bastelaere was born in Sint-Niklaas, Belgium in 1960. Publications include: Pornschlegel en andere gedichten (De Arbeiderspers, 1988), Hartswedervaren: Gedichten (Atlas, 2000) and De wind uit het elders: In praise of Barnett Newman (Druksel, 2003). His collection of critical essays, Whhhoooosshhh: Over Poezie en haaar wereldse inbedding, came out with Vantilt in 2001. He is co-editor of the journal Freespace Nieuwzuid: Driemaandelijkse discursieve machine voor cultuurkritiek en amusement. This translation of “Wwwhhhooossshh” has been republished from his selected poems in English 1988–2005, The Last to Leave (Shearsman Books, 2005).

Willem Groenewegen was born in Eindhoven, the Netherlands in 1971. He grew up in Britain, and was educated at the University of Groningen. A specialist poetry translator, his major translation projects include Arjen Duinker’s selected poems 1988–2000 (The Sublime Song of a Maybe, Arc Publications, 2002) and Rutger Kopland’s new selected poems, What Water Left Behind (Dublin, Waxwing Poems, 2006). He was guest-editor of a special issue on contemporary Dutch poetry for the South African poetry journal Carapace (no. 53, June 2005).