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Category Archives: Belgian Poetry

The Lonely Funeral by Maarten Inghels & F. Starik (Arc Publications)

The Lonely Funeral by Maarten Inghels & F. Starik (Arc Publications)

It was in June 1750 that Thomas Gray completed his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ before sending it to Horace Walpole:

“I have been here at Stoke a few days (where I shall continue good part of the summer); and having put an end to a thing, whose beginning you have seen long ago, I immediately send it to you.”

The poem became of course one of the most anthologized pieces throughout the past two-hundred and sixty-eight years and Arc’s new publication of The Lonely Funeral is firmly in that tradition of immensely powerful and haunting records of the deaths of those flowers “born to blush unseen”.
Starik’s Foreword to the volume places the scene:

“In Amsterdam there are approximately fifteen lonely funerals each year: lifelong junkies, solitary seniors, the occasional suicide. Undocumented migrants, drug mules, vagrants, victims of a questionable crime, professional drunkards who toppled into a canal weeks earlier. Most are discovered in their own home, after complaints by neighbours about the stench in the stairwell.”

And a ‘lonely funeral’ is one at which no one is present except pallbearers, one or two civil servants, the cemetery director and the funeral officiant. However, since November 2002 a project has got under way in which poets volunteer to attend these funerals of the unknown and forgotten so that they can read some words that place on record a shared sense of the common bond of humanity. The immense importance of this venture is of course for the living, as is true of all funerals. As Starik puts it “We pity no one. For us, all that counts is respect for a person’s life…the poet speaks in the darkness…We have no grief of our own”.
The first poem pays respect to an anonymous dead man who was found in an apartment in the Bijlmer, a social-housing district on the outskirts of Amesterdam. Starik suggests that he was probably from Ghana or Ivory Coast; nameless because without papers, without officially recognized identity. A migrating figure from The Dark Continent.

“Goodbye, nameless man, I salute you as you pass
into the last of lands where all are welcome,
where no one needs to know a thing about you.
Goodbye, man with no papers, no identity.

What brought you here? Who looks out through an empty window
now for you, nameless man, who’s waiting as I speak,
as I repeat my empty words in an almost empty room?
I came too late. I never knew you.”

When Gray sat in the churchyard at Stoke Poges in the mid-eighteenth century he gazed upon the stones which recorded humble lives. Buried there may be have been “Some village-Hampden that with dauntless breast / The little tyrant of his fields withstood” or some “mute inglorious Milton” who kept the “noiseless tenor” of his way. Gray names none of those whose resting-place is a “narrow cell” but what he does do is evoke a picture representing the “short and simple annals of the poor”. The breath of the poetry allows the reader to stand on the verge of individual clarity: we can almost see the picture of the living person who has been one of those flowers “born to blush unseen” where the use of the word “blush” conjures a hint of awareness, of social interaction.
Each poem is preceded by a short account of the known details concerning the body which is to be buried or cremated but the poems themselves speak in that darkness which constitutes our common bond. Number 40 is Mr. M.B. who died at the age of eighty-three:

“Just as the silence at his funeral was deafening, during his life Mr. M.B. also had no one to talk to. Andy had visited his place of residence in Antwerp-South, and had spoken to a neighbour. She did not know Mr. M.B. – yes, they had exchanged a word or two in the corridor once, when there was something wrong with his television, and he asked if she could help. But it never went as far as sitting down together in front of their favourite soap”.

The poem opens

“the things a person touches
carry their imprint for a while
an existence leaves a trail
that slowly fades away”

This is an immensely important book and I should like to see every school in this country acquire a couple of copies for their Libraries. It is a book which should be available within Secondary School English Departments where it could sit side by side with the powerful reconstructions from Chaucerian tale-telling, Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus for Comma Press in 2016. Gray’s elegiac meditations in a churchyard brought us to an awareness of “Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire” and less that fifty years later William Blake concluded his ‘Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ with the simplicity of an inclusive awareness of that common bond which keeps us pale: “Every thing that lives is Holy”. And what would a review of mine be without a passing reference to the poetry of J.H. Prynne whose introductory comment to the 1968 Ferry Press publication of Aristeas was from Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid:

“As to the destitute man who has no family, he takes his meals in the huts of his congeners; he enters a hut, takes –by right, not for charity – his seat by the fire, and shares the meal which always is scrupulously divided into equal parts; he sleeps where he has taken his evening meal.”

Ian Brinton, 1st September 2018

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Poems by Georges Rodenbach Selected, translated & introduced by Will Stone (Arc Publications)

Poems by Georges Rodenbach Selected, translated & introduced by Will Stone (Arc Publications)

When I reviewed Will Stone’s translation of Stefan Zweig’s Messages from a Lost World for The London Magazine (October/November 2016) I stressed the “clarity and insight” of his introduction. The substantial twelve page introduction to this attractively produced bi-lingual edition of Rodenbach’s selected poems is a clear reminder yet again of how the translator and literary critic/historian treads a path to the reader: Stone brings the world of Rodenbach’s eerie white shades to the fore and we can recognise the ways in which Baudelaire, Rilke and even the early Eliot can be seen within an urban landscape.
The introduction opens with the picture of a man, “half-framed by an open window” standing in front of a background which seems to be of Bruges:

“He is a spectral figure drifting across the canal’s greenish-black waters, his dark jacket blending naturally with its opaque surface, suggesting an area of confusion where dream and reality converge.”

Rodenbach’s treatment of Bruges, the Venice of the North, presents us with a supernatural landscape; a world where, as Will Stone puts it, “what is seemingly dead speaks, where the worn-away stone, even the grass and moss growing up through the cobblestones, have a voice detected only by those who are endowed with the sensibility to receive the true soul of the town”:

“It is this treatment of Bruges as a poetic vehicle for a mood, one of supreme melancholy, which forms the backbone of not only these poems but Rodenbach’s entire oeuvre.”

The melancholy atmosphere of the town and the haunted sense of the poet trapped within a chain of noises is vividly there for the reader from the very first poem chosen by the translator, ‘Dimanches/Sundays’. The “Mournful Sunday afternoons in winter” are made more vivid as “some inconsolable weather cock creaks / alone on a roof-top like a bird of iron!”. As if to emphasise the living death of this world where a long-gone Medieval history seeks refuge within the “vieux hôtels” and lanterns seem “to burn for the cortege of some deity”, the sudden clashing of bells intrudes to offer a complement to a funeral:

“And now of a sudden the restless bells
disturb the belfry planted in its pride,
and their sound, heavy with bronze, slowly falls
on the coffin of the town as if in spadefuls.”

As readers we are inevitably reminded of those bells of Baudelaire’s ‘Spleen’ which “tout à coup sautent avec furie” bringing with them not only the “esprits errants et sans patrie” but also the funeral cortege which files its way slowly through the poet’s mind.
There are four poems from the 1896 publication Les Vies Encloses (The Enclosed Lives) included in this selection and two of them, ‘Aquarium Mental / Mental Aquarium’ are particularly striking to my mind.

“Aquarium water, drear night, half-light,
where thought passes in brief appearances
like shadows of a great tree over a wall.”

Or again:

“Yet in the water, from time to time, something strays,
circles, opens out or obliquely shifts;
luminous shivers tense this water that drifts
– like spasms of light from a diamond! –
a murky fish undulates, a weed in mourning stirs,
the soft sand scree of the bed collapses as if
sand in time’s hourglass upended;
and sometimes too, on the transfixed crystal,
a flaccid monster, blurred image, shows on the surface,
while the water suffers, seeming to drowse,
and senses, in her morose lethargy, a thousand shadows
giving her ceaseless shivers as they pass
making her surface one great spreading wound.”

Without suggesting for one moment that there is a direct influence here I am drawn from this poetry to the ‘afterword’ that Jeremy Prynne wrote for his edition of Parataxis Number 7, Spring 1995, in which he introduced the reader to the Chinese Language-Poetry Group that had been based at Suzhou University in the summer of 1991:

“Within the great aquarium of language the light refracts variously and can bounce by inclinations nor previously observed. Some of the codes will unfold with merely adept connivance, others will swim vigorously into and by circulation inside their own medium.”

These thoughts may well have developed from a letter Prynne wrote in April 1992 to one of the Chinese poets represented in the Parataxis anthology, Zhou Ya-Ping:

“Language is an instrument of symbolic performance and representation that also has no independently direct connection to ‘a real world’: it belongs to men and to their sense of the possible just as much as of the actual…If the level and method of representation are shifted strongly into the language-world it may seem like fantasy; but it is a way of thinking about potential experience, liberating the mind from clumsy and doctrinaire ‘realism’ while keeping a complex connection with its components.”

In Rodenbach’s aquarium world “underwater dreams are ceaselessly voyaging” leading to an unending “buried life”.
Yet again Arc Publications, in this guest-edited volume by Olivia Hanks, has revealed itself to be one of the most important poetry presses working in this country. Long may it continue!

Ian Brinton, 8th May 2017

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