Magazin, Poetik

Form and balance: on the boundary of the poem

Poetry is a text presented in poetic form. This seemingly neutral statement immediately raises difficulties, because what is that poetic form?

Many people will recognise a layout with defined line breaks as a poem, but do poems composed in paragraphs, or in longer lines with not the poet, but a computer or typesetter arranging the line breaks, fall through the cracks? (Experimenting with this form, Nachoem Wijnberg and Gwenaëlle Stubbe compose just over the poetic line in their recent work.) A definition of poetry is more easily refuted, than sustained on those grounds. Yet poets will generally be more attentive to the placement of their words on the page than would an author of a narrative in prose form.

When a poet replaces the page with the screen, this is no less the case. The lively words appearing and disappearing in Tonnus Oosterhoff’s poems on his website are not typographical experiments, nor are they text-based works by a visual artist. This is a poet shaping poetic lines; hesitant, crossing out, revising – indubitably, it remains poetry. According to Oosterhoff, writing poems for the digital screen is no more restrictive than writing poems for the printed page. These ‘moving poems’, as he calls them, are written ‘alfresco’, without draft notes, straight into the multimedia animation programme Adobe Flash. He fully develops the poem from scratch as he goes along. The revisions and rewritings which can be seen on screen, aren’t rough drafts for a still to be completed whole, every single one is integral to the moving poem.

Tonnus Oosterhoff explores poetic form on screen as well as on paper. In his third collection (Robuuste tongwerken,) een stralend plenum [(Robust tongue works,) a radiant plenum] not one poem remotely resembles another in form or content. In Oosterhoff’s work, the poetic form seems to emerge through a playful process. But what, in relation to that poetic form, is the purpose of the drawings which also appear in his work? The small figures on his website, or the scribbles in the margins of his fourth collection Wij zagen ons in een kleine groep mensen veranderen, [We saw each other turning into a small group of people] can’t be called illustrations. They too, seem to be part of the poem. Does this mean that that a poem could consist not only of letters, but perhaps also of images, numbers, photos?

Such diversions are not that unusual. I’m not so much referring to the historical avantgarde, Dada, Situationism; nor to Barbarber and the cheerfully calculated experiments of K. Schippers. In his second collection Mijn gedichten [My Poems], Mustafa Stitou opens a poem with a passport photograph. Is the photo an illustration, a title, or a supplement to the poem? Or is that passport photo actually the first thing that the poem says, the first word, as it were? What a poem is, in other words, seems to be that which the poet has decided to use in their poem. Or: what a poem is, is determined by the poet. There may be a dissenting murmur from poets who only work with classical forms, such as the sonnet, or a rhymed form, who say that free verse has too many possibilities. Yet free verse requires a completed form in order to be recognised as a poem and to be a fulfilling result to its author – poetry is therefore never completely free. It’s up to the poet to introduce us to the form and to enable us to absorb the work. Those reading the poem without longing for another form they’d read elsewhere, will come to accept the form through appreciation of the poem.

Poetry is always susceptible to some linguistic confusions. Formally, the poem is that which poet assigned to it, those collated and designated components. At the same time, there is the notion that a text ought to be ‘poetic’. In Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal, the knight crusader Antonius Block appears to be happy when drinking a bowl of milk and eating strawberries in front of the showfolk’s wagon. He smiles broadly and wants to remember those moments. Behind him, against the horizon, a horse is grazing. Then he gets up, he must go back to his game of chess with Death. He takes a few steps, the sky clouding over, the camera swerves in a half circle around him, and suddenly, in those scant few seconds, his happy face distorts into a grimace of fear. Then he sees Death waiting for him. Block is in a reckless mood, arrogant, his opponent even says. This is a crucial scene, as from that moment, the film unfolds differently than before. I’ve cited this film scene in order to analyse the conceptual misunderstanding between poetry as a written text and the ‘poetic’ as a qualifying adjective.

Extraordinary artistic expressions, but also experiences outside of art, may contain what is called ‘poetry’. But that doesn’t mean they are a poem. This misunderstanding seems to be abetted by the word ‘inspiration’. Poets are said to be inspired before they begin writing. By turning that notion into a commonplace, inspiration is confused with the poetic. Ultimately, a poet can write about anything and all material is useful. The material which inspires poets isn’t restricted to recondite matters, nor conversely, is the recondite necessarily poetry at all. The term ‘poetic’ has become too overused as a qualifier outside of poetry, to be at all elucidating in determining what makes a poem a poem.

‘Dicht/Vorm’ is the title of a series of short animated films based on canonical and contemporary poems, produced for secondary education. With the poem ‘De Werkster’ [‘The Charwoman’] by Gerrit Achterberg, we see a figure moving across the screen on hand and foot, who knows, to quote the poem, ‘the underside of bed and cabinet’, and crawling, belongs to the animals ’that crawl on hand and foot’. When God finds her and she ascends the staircase to heaven, hitting her brush against the dustpan, there too, ‘her fate to scorn’, are the pastor, the baker and the schoolmaster, who all receive a cross before her. The film demonstrates with simple graphics what the poem is already saying. By drawing up De Stijl-like planes in which the woman crawls, the filmmaker frames the image. The charwoman is repeatedly boxed in. Finally, the planes of the higher classes pile up above her. On hands and feet, she supports an entire tower of blocks of all walks of life. The very staircase which God lowers for her, too is made from blocks. For a moment she is no longer a moving insect, but we see her face as she looks up. When she arrives at the top of the blocks, the planes reveal the contours of a painting. The black edges turn into upright crosses. This short film by Lucette Braun enhances the poem. Working with collage, computer animation and hand drawn animation, she underpins the simplicity of the poem. Her film isn’t an intervention in the poem, rather, it is a mediation of the poem with the clear intention to find new audiences for it.

The conceptual misunderstanding between the poetic form and the presentation of a poem beyond its printed appearance also occurs in poetry film festivals. Presenting contemporary mediations of poems, such festivals suggest that poetry film may already be called a genre in itself. Yet the short films shown are often adaptations of poems which the author had already previously published in collections. While it may be argued that avant-garde movements have always been focused on taking the text out of the book, the makers of poetry films more often work as illustrators: they visualise what is written. And the makers of the texts concerned seem not to have done away with the book at all. That is, most of them. The risk of an argument is that it can always be self-legitimised: It refers to a wider audience who go to poetry events and a more select one who purchase poetry collections. By that reasoning, it’s the book which is at fault for creating the narrow margin in which poetry emerges. Yet makers of poems who don’t settle for printed collections are still few and far between. A collection is put together by the poet, with texts from a certain period, where, all being well, the collection sets off, embeds the poem.

Tonnus Oosterhoff’s website is unique in that regard. Poems on the site are made with moving images and voice samples, and as such, aren’t printable on paper. For example, in ‘Wat moet ik ervan zeggen?’ [‘What should I say?’] Oosterhoff takes the voice of the centenarian Theo Tukker as a guideline. By imitating the hesitancies, slips of the tongue and breathing spaces of that voice with his own, with text that is written out and repeated at the same time, and by illustrating this with drawings, Oosterhoff sets a particular pace. That pace is not connected to the reader absorbing the poem in their own time, but rather to film, where the audience follows the pacing. Reading pace is assumed to be the same for each visitor (‘visitor’ already suggests a different persona to ‘reader’) to the website. Interestingly, when Oosterhoff presented one of his moving poems in a gallery in the Fries Museum, in a much larger format, and with a black background instead of the website’s white one, the projection speed needed to be slowed down, so that the moving poem could come across in the gallery space.

Oosterhoff emphasises that working on screen demands constraint: ‘you can’t mess around’, he says about writing poems in Flash. It needs to be right straight away. But it also needs to be ‘slightly off kilter’, because out of the rigid pattern of emerging and fading words on screen one can work toward the boundaries of that rhythm, as in jazz music: slowing down the beat and going against the rhythm. Not that one desperately has to keep on tweaking those boundaries.

Taking Oosterhoff as a model is always a dangerous thing. On the one hand, he wittily embodies contemporaneity and relativises the state of play in literature with his multi-modal oeuvre. On the other, Oosterhoff is stubborn and free-spirited. To call him a ‘digi poet’ would do him short: he continues writing books and publishing ‘ordinary typo-collections’, as he puts it. The small press edition handschreeuwkoor [hand shout choir] (Druksel, 2008) is a facsimile of handwriting that is sometimes legible and in other places distorted into doodles. The subheadings ‘went for a lie down and did not get up’ and ‘who’ll pull my dead body out of bed’ make for a rather hallucinatory whole.

Although Oosterhoff remains a pioneer, strictly speaking he is not the first poet who has experimented digitally with poetry in Dutch. Around 1990, the Flemish poet Didi de Paris published two issues of Braindrain Disk Magazine: a magazine produced on floppy disk. The design was still static and rudimentary, but its subdivision into pages (one leafed through the disk by pressing hard return) was not the work of the author, but the publisher. One of the featured texts was a translation of Raymond Queneau, in which the reader could interactively create their own trajectory by choosing one of two versions each time, and so decide how the story would unfold.

In the wake of Tonnus Oosterhoff’s online practice, the virtual studio ‘Digidicht’ was established. The works on that site are collaborations between poet and visual artist or graphic designer. The quality is dependent on how the collaboration goes. Paul Bogaert was shown the ropes in digital practice by Danny Butaye, and since then has run his own domain for what he calls his ‘website poems’ which do not appear in his printed collections. Two of those consist of subtitles for found footage: an instruction film with seven young ladies taking a dictation. The ladies are seated on a chair with a folded tablet arm. On it, an exercise book in which they write. The robust dictating voice belongs to Paul Bogaert’s father, who reads out lines such as ‘You lie and you filter sideshows which you discuss and douse’ and ‘as if they are the proprietors of that pimped-up hotspot’ and repeats them word for word at writing speed. The tension created between the poem recited as a dictation (‘the laborious backflip we see all too often’) and the atmosphere of the Fifties mis-en-scene is very amusing, especially when the central young lady looks up rather irritated each time the dictation voice seems to go too slow, or when she seems lost in thought about the correct spelling (‘hotspot’) of a word. In another short film, a hand and a foot are being bandaged; the shots are from a training film about wound care. The subtitles ‘I love my husband so much’ are an adaptation from an In Memoriam card: ‘my husband always understands me/ although I don’t say much’. According to Bogaert, the film images affect the simplicity of the words, while the found words touch him: ‘suddenly language was an effective communication medium again’, he notes on his website

Bogaert and Oosterhoff expand the poetic form into almost indecipherable scribbles or into found, extant texts as subtitles to film. As long as the poet creates it, and it’s not an adaptation by someone else, or a mediation designed to appeal to a different audience, it’s superfluous to ask whether it is still a poem. The more relevant question is what the motivation of the poet may be in calling such work ‘a poem’. In conversation with Tonnus Oosterhoff, Arjen Mulder compared it to artists’ sketch books, in which the artist develops work through drafting and sketching, even as those books could also be called an artwork in themselves and be purchased as that. In that sense, a virtual text studio could also be a poem.

Subtitling as a form of poetry also occurs in the practice of the French poet Pierre Alferi, who has inter alia brought out subtitled photographs as artworks. Together with Olivier Cadiot, he edited two issues of Revue de Littérature Général, a magazine in the format of a telephone directory with texts and collages. His third collection Kub or comprises texts in the shape of stock cubes: poems of seven lines, each consisting of seven syllables, and printed with aligned margins. He has also published a flip book as a poetry book. More recently, he adapted a Welsh children’s song into a video, Tante Élisabeth. An aunt seems to be looking forward to the children’s visit and joyously jumps up and down with outstretched arms. This is followed by images of a garden: ‘in the garden of our aunt Elisabeth, there are the most beautiful cherry blossoms in the whole world’. Then we see found footage – a violinist, waltzing men, images from the early film age. A bed floats through the air and turns in circles. Repeated images of cherry branches in bloom, ‘the most beautiful branches of all the branches in the whole world’, interspersed with dance and Chaplinesque slapstick. A man removes the letter ‘b’ from the sign ‘garbage’ on a waste bin and a car drives out, and above ‘the garden that is the most beautiful garden in the world, the most beautiful sky lights up above the world.’ Toward the end we see the blissful aunt again, but now in a wide shot. She is sitting in a recreation room together with other elderly people. The beautiful garden around her is the garden of a residential care home.

Notably Alferi, with all the techniques he incorporates, allows for a sentiment that seems beyond the pale to the deconstructive aridity of French contemporary poetry. For his cinepoèmes, he records cities he is visiting: Prague, Budapest, Warsaw. He films street scenes, squares, and divides the footage into three planes. Two people walk toward each in the right section, embrace each other in the middle section of the film, and then leave each other in the left. He edits his recordings into dance. According to the text running across the top of the screen, his video poems are also travel letters to his wife and children who remain in France: “Seul je perds de l’équilibre. Je n’ai rien de plus intime / que vous.”

It’s a cogent line break: the traveller has nothing more intimate than his organs of balance. Yet at the same time, he is out of balance because he is not with those to whom the film is dedicated. He is looking for another balance: a work made for a viewer, an audience, a work which has a destination. A letter home. The same year In Time appeared in France, Martin Reints’s poetry collection Ballade van de winstwaarschuwing [Ballad of the Profit Warning] was published in the Netherlands, from which this fragment: 

of everything you are, you are mainly your organs of balance:

the realisation that you’re walking or lying or swinging
that you’re sitting still in a chair
that your head is moving or not moving –

the sense that has lasted your whole life
is the most intimate organ in your body
being everywhere you are

Close affinities between poetry from different countries don’t happen that often, and in some senses may be coincidental, because developments within traditions primarily take place within discreet language areas. Yet exchanges between poets from different countries, and internationally noted scientific discoveries, such as research into the organs of balance, may stimulate such congruities. K. Michel’s poetry often has something remotely resonant of a Chinese proverb. A closing line exudes a sense of serene reasoning after a summative sequence of images and impressions. In collaboration with the artist Dirk Vis, Michel created two online poems for Digidicht. In ‘Staande golf’ [Standing Wave’] a poetry line emerges rapidly in the same fixed place, letter by letter until the entire line has appeared, before slowly unfurling toward the left. ‘Absorbed’, the poem starts, and that word is repeated in the conclusion: ‘in the skating of a long-legged insect/ on the pond’, ‘in the carrying of/a shopping bag about to rip’, ‘in the sniffing of the wind in the grass.’ An alert spirit discerns the writing on the wall in the guileless appearance of things that conceal themselves in their everydayness. At the end of the subsiding lines – which have a lingering rhythm (’absorbed/ in the tangle of signs in the arrival hall of the airport’) – comes the turn: ‘suddenly you seem / to be sitting in the shadow of a tree/you took with you as a twig from your youth.’

Michel has remarked that a screen with animated letters only allows for small chunks of text. The restrictions and possibilities of the animated text make for a tautness in play. As the reader already creates associations, these don’t have to be illustrated with electronic gimmicks. This is the reason why a clear technique and simple language was chosen. In the shower song ‘Ah’, letters don’t sprinkle down from top to bottom – that would be too illustrative and difficult to read – but rather, from right to left, and at different speeds, so that they slide over each other. It reads as if someone is standing under a shower and, humming or singing, arrives at new thoughts and ideas. ‘Ah’ and ‘ha’ appear first, then ‘oh’ and ‘lala’ and ‘aha’. The letters move across the screen at different speeds again and slowly begin to form more consistent, less interjectory lines. After a while, we see ‘between one and zero there’s an entire world’ and ‘there and here are banks of the same river’.

These minimalistic animated poems are a natural diversification of Michel’s creative practice, as characters – letters and punctuations marks – have always played a prominent role in his poetry. In his first collection Ja! naakt als de stenen, [Yes! Naked as the stones] the exclamation mark transforms his lines into joyful and lyric expressions. Characters also take on another significance in his poetry: as personae who disguise themselves in his work. In the poem ‘In the koepelzaal’ [‘In the belvedere’] the I figure attends ‘the congress of things’ dressed up as a souvenir and meets ‘a lilac vase with bare feet’. This vase defends the appearance of things, which is Being and unique, and warns against those who name:

Names are officials
They put us in files,
……………in large drawers.
Names are customs inspectors.
…..They check for origin
……………………for contraband.
Then they issue a stamp.

In the ensuing stanzas, the poet Michel resonates in his other protagonist, who argues against this. Names are also ‘blue’ and ‘swallow’. The vase, however, seems to have the upper hand: ‘you, as souvenir, must know that/you, after all, are the emblem/of the status of things in this time.’ And when the dance orchestra strikes up, they cry out together like a cartoon, ‘Yaaaa!/Life beyond names.’

Show me a poet who doesn’t distrust language, this poem says cheerfully, otherwise you’d be writing whatever. In Michel’s later work, there’s ‘an almost visible bunch of text balloons’ above the heads of people waiting in front of a raised bridge, in which we can read what they still need to do that day. In ‘Glas is een trage vloeistof’ [‘Glass is an inert liquid’], the poem is like an extensible telescope, generating a series of consecutive images. Each stanza portrays different shapes of water: a rain puddle, a water drop, a trickle. ‘The best analyses of the expression problem/ come from singing under the shower,’ Michel writes. In his fourth collection, there’s a poem called ‘å i åa ä è ö’ which could mean around ‘800 kilometres North’ or ‘and in the stream there’s an island’ in some language. In the poem ‘handpalmpapier’ [‘hand palm paper’] a horizon and a river are denoted by two lines: ‘now fill in the names and colour/the shadows and the water/ blue the stream gets going.’ And in his collection In een handpalm [‘In a palm of the hand’] there’s a photo of a text Michel has pinned up in his kitchen to get himself into a good mood first thing in the morning: ‘In passing/I ask the high hat/does free will exist/and the rabbit answers/do we have another choice.’

Sometimes a poem has the character of musical notation. For a sound poet, the printed version of the poem can work as sheet music, which they read much like a composer or musician hears music. The signs function as a blue print and aide memoire for a performance. In this case too, a poem can consist of language, letters, as well as numbers, scrawls, lines and also images or found text or image fragments (‘ready-mades’). Sound poet Jaap Blonk creates different scripts which emerge from improvisation. His phonetic study into the rhotic consonant /r/ is reminiscent of a chemistry student’s notebook. One of the created languages his sound poems are written in, is called ‘Onderlands’, intended as a serious alternative to Dutch, whose pronunciation rules it follows. This can lead to vivacious and compelling texts, such as the short poem ‘Glag’:

Heu la wie joo!
Mallan nie hamme
Glag te zouwe zou

Hamme nie loo,
Zouwe mallan wie glag,
Wooze da biel! 

Zou wooze nie hamme
Glag mallan la wie biel
Heu loo, da nie joo.

Blonk repeatedly designs his own language anew. He also works with aleatory variations, using a computer to create random variables for lines in ‘Onderlands’. Other work by Blonk is a walk (‘Er op uit’ [‘On a jaunt’]) which opens in standard Dutch and increasingly strays off into linguistic deviations (‘sluipweide’, ‘morsdal’) [‘slink lea’, ‘slop gorge’], until there is no way back, and one expires in the ‘molmstroom’ [‘sludge rill’]. The language changes in the line ‘de minister betreurt dergelijke uitlatingen’ [‘the minister regrets such statements’] too have a transformative effect. By repeatedly swallowing a vowel from the end of the sentence, then repeating the sentence and not pronouncing a consonant at the beginning, two different kinds of register are achieved with one line: ‘d mnstr btrt dglk tltngn’ sounds like a command, and ‘e iie eeu eeije uiaie’ like a request.

Experimentation with poetry on screen is relatively new. Blonk publishes his own work on cd with the texts printed on sleeve inserts. Although an internationally renowned Dutch poet, he doesn’t have a publisher. In France, where there are around thirty sound poets, the genre is recognised as poetry, and poets such as Bernard Heidsieck en Michèle Metail appear in regular anthologies. Yet the choice of medium remains significant; Blonk’s work really comes into its own on a sound device. In most of his texts, the signifiers cannot be directly traced back to the sounds produced, while Jaap Blonk is such an outstanding performance artist and jazz musician, that his role as performer and interpreter of his own work is integral to the experience.

In languages from further afield, image appears to be able to take on yet another relationship to the text. The Taiwanese poet Chen Li wrote the poem ‘A War Symphony’. It opens with a stanza of sixteen lines, each with twenty four times the character, , which is pronounced ‘bing’ and means ‘soldier’. The stanza looks like a column of sixteen rows of soldiers in tight formation. In the second stanza these characters lose either their right or left leg and become ‘ping’ or ‘pong’, respectively ‘gun shot’ and ‘scream of pain’. Those sixteen lines contain progressively less characters. The third and last stanza is again tightly filled with sixteen lines of twenty-four identical characters each without any legs: (pronounced ‘chiu’) which can be translated as a type of hillock in which the Chinese bury their dead. Chen Li has called this a visual poem with sound and meaning. In the first stanza the characters stand prepared in combat position. In the second, according to Li, the signs battle each other onomatopoeically. The signs losing their legs in the final stanza is, according to Chen Li, a sign of protest against war, as much as a tribute to the Chinese language. While the spoken version of the poem is notably suspenseful, the animated version does not add anything to the poem: a blue and red Stratego army of characters marches toward each other, becomes entangled, loses right or left legs, and then lie without any legs jumbled up on top of each other. In this case, the version on paper in itself may be enough of a visual symphony.

Chen Li: ‘Oorlogssymfonie’ (Uit: The edge of the Island, poems 1993–1995)


乒乒乒乒乒乒乒乒乓乓乓乓乓乓乓乓乒乒    乒乒乒    乓
乓乓    乒乓乒乒    乒    乓        乒乒            乒乒        乓乓
乒乒        乓乒    乒    乓    乒    乓    乒乒乒        乓    乒
乒乒    乓    乓乓    乒    乒        乓        乒    乓            乒
乒                        乓乓                        乓                乒    乓
乒            乓                乒                    乓                乓
乒                                                            乓


The Taiwanese poet Luo Qing told Silvia Marijnissen and Martin de Haan: ‘As a child, I wanted to become a painter, and my teacher said that to become a painter, I would need to learn how to write poetry. And to do that, I needed to learn calligraphy. In the beginning, I was very practical about it: Chinese painters like empty spaces in which to write poetry, because poetry is very evocative, and plays an important part in the composition of the whole. And if you do have to write a poem, you may as well do so beautifully.’ In that same interview, Luo Qing emphasised that his poetry reflects the changes in Taiwan. ‘In Europe industrialisation and modernisation took two hundred years, in Taiwan it took only thirty. Before we knew it, the digital age had begun.’ This literally recurs in his work when he cites a poem from 208 CE (‘how calm the water is!/a mountain island rises up’) as a footnote to his own poem, and adds a p.s.: ‘This the first time that I/have written a poem/ with a Chinese word processor/The two characters for ‘rises up’ / I coded myself with the/character design programme.’

Luo Qing is as explicit in the subtitle ‘second example of video poetics’. In the poem, a camera zooms in on a sparkling river: ‘what’s sparkling are countless/ large and small space ships.’

Hsia Yü, a Taiwanese poet who has lived in Paris and gives wonderfully guileless and jazzy readings, too has taken a classical Chinese philosophical text as her departure point. She adapted it into ‘Missing Image’. Her poem looks kitschy; between the classical vertical lines of Chinese characters, the word that means ‘image’ has been replaced by simple icons of a small figure: cat, schoolbag, penguin, dolphin, dinosaur, snake, flower, kettle, bench, triangle, scorpion. They look like decorative images in a friendship book.

‘Text alignment is a modern importation from the West,’ is Shang Ch’in’s rejoinder to the question why he mainly writes prose poems. He has always resisted formal restrictions. When he was fifteen, he was enlisted against his will on the street by Nationalists in the Chinese province Sichuan. After a spate of desertions and being re-enlisted, he travelled with the Nationalists to Taiwan in 1950. There wasn’t any point escaping there, he did not speak the language of the original inhabitants, and, as he put it, an island is only small. In the barn where he was first held captive, he came across the poetry of Lu Xun and Bing Xin. Shang Ch’in was in the army for twenty-three years without rising above the rank of sergeant, a remarkable feat in itself. After that, he worked as a gardener, clerk, food stall holder, and became editor of the China Times Weekly. He has published only four collections to date, around a hundred poems.

Shang Ch’in’s poems are surreal, although in a completely different way than French poetry. His poems are calm and reflective. Shang Ch’in places his themes in the light of his escapes. In the afterword to his second collection, he writes: ‘ I can still remember the lights of the fishing boats on the Jialing and the lapping water.’ He also deserted from his own name and has published under different pseudonyms. ‘But I’m not able to escape from myself anymore, and therefore I always find myself ‘between door and heaven’ or ‘between dream and dawn.’’

In the short prose poem ‘Giraffe’, a young guard reports to his superior that the prison windows are placed too high. The necks of the prisoners are growing. The superior denies this, he says they’re just looking up to see time. But who or what or where time is, and what it looks like, the guard doesn’t know. The poem, as his translator Silvia Marijnissen says, is ‘melancholic yet gleeful’, there is always ‘a tinge of laughter.’ In ‘Electric lock’, there’s a power cut just as the protagonist arrives home: the friendly taxi driver keeps the headlights on him while he is looking for his set of keys. The driver aims the bright beams at his back and he sees ’the jet black silhouette of a middle-aged man on the iron door.’ When he sticks the right key straight through his heart, the taxi drives away. In ‘Half a Rooster’ he’s sitting on a bench that’s missing a leg, eating his lunch from a fast food place, and it occurs to him it’s been a long time since he’s heard a rooster crow. In another poem, he’s sitting in the corner of a library, only daring to cough when someone drops a book. Shang Ch’in always remains grounded in everyday life, the surreal shifts emerge from precise, measured observations.

Helping out with the translation of another of his poems, Shang Ch’in made a small drawing to clarify to the translators what the poem represents. The drawing has three parts. On the right, a figure with crossed arms takes a step forward. In the middle, we see a dog in profile, looking at something. There’s an arrow pointing to the left in front of its eyes. In the third part, there’s an outline of a man on his back. A few dotted lines run from his eyes to points sticking up above a blocked wall. The arrow in front of dog’s eyes points to those dotted lines.

The short prose poem too has three parts, three paragraphs. The first is only one line long; it mentions that there’s a war going on somewhere. In the second paragraph, a policeman is doing his morning rounds and is stopped, he’s run into something which then disappears. He crosses his hands behind his back and drops his head, he wants to know what is going on. He walks on with weary, tenacious steps and changes into a sculpture.

Not he, but a street dog discovers in the third paragraph what is stopping him. It is a line, made from stares, a mesh made from the stares of someone who has just woken up, between dream and dawn, someone who washes and gets dressed, and whose dream images are still shining from his eyes, toward the brick wall with the glass shards on top. Those glass shards reflect the dream images back, which become intertwined with each other, resonances of images which interlace – and those lines, that mesh observed by a street dog, forms the boundary between poem and not poem.

Translation: Karlien van den Beukel


Erik Lindner was born in 1968 in The Hague. His first book of poetry Tramontane appeared in 1996 by Perdu. Since then he has published five more volumes, most recently Zog (German „Sog“, Van Oorschot, 2018), as well as a novel. In 2013, Matthes & Seitz Verlag Berlin published a selection of his work in German translation by Rosemarie Still, After Akedia. Lindner is a freelance writer and lives in Amsterdam. He works as a literary assistant at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht and is co-founder and editor of Terras magazine for international literature.

This publication has been made possible with financial support from the Dutch Foundation for Literature.

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