Monday, May 02, 2005

translated by Coetzee

But just as I am sitting down at home
to eat my dinner, I hear the telephone.
I pick it up and from the other end
without ado am issued a command.

The supervisor. His voice is sharp, severe,
though a veiled gentler undertone comes through.
"My son, return to the same street tomorrow.
You know what interest I take in you."

Only a fool repeats an old mistake.
Best not to stay at home, best to go and take
a look at the block of flats across the way
that from ground level climbs into the sky.
There, once I find the floor directory,
all will of itself become clear to me.

This night, however, I achieved no more
than learn the doorman was asleep. Weary,
he had let loose the numbers from his memory
and lay there crumpled, head in arms. Absorbed

I stared in through the window. Softly the wind
rustled the surface where I stood outside;
and not far away, his duties thrust aside,
a living being who might have helped me find

my way out of this mess, if it had not
become so lonely and too dark for me
to think of whispering him awake. For he
would lose his head. Which would not do at all.
The supervisor's head would also fall
then. No one heard me leave. Did he look up?

At daybreak I am on the road, my face
still blurred with sleepiness. Although somewhere
the end of it all is taking up its place
the streets this first hour seem as free as air.

I feel a safety I have never known.
One of my superiors cycles by.
I greet him but he barely turns an eye.
Probably quarreled with his wife again.

Perhaps he is a bit suspicious meet-
ing me in quarters of the city where
a fitter has no business. A young and heed-
less generation has arisen here
by other forms of light. I've been observed.
Therefore back to the city my steps are turned.

-from Ballad of the Gasfitter, by Gebrit Achterberg

Self-Repeating Poem (for Cora)

To win the war and be killed,
to eat ideas with whipped cream and die of hunger,
to wave hello with a little thalidomide hand and be happy.

To consume calorie-packed ideas and die of hunger,
to salute with a little thalidomide hand and be decorated,
to win the war and speak an invalid language.

To win the war and be killed for good,
to grow rebellious and make a little thalidomide fist,
to make a little baby thalidomide fist and bleat like a

To win the war and speak an invalid language for good--
to have a mouth full of words and not know what to say--
to win the war and be killed for good--

-Sybren Polet

Landscape with Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands

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