Alan Morrison on

 

Occupied City/ Bezette Stad

 

By Paul van Ostaijen

 

Typography by Oscar Jespers

Translated by David Colmer

Inner design/layout by Katy Mawhood

With an Introduction by David Colmer

 

Smokestack Books, 2016

 

 

Dada Blast

Occupied City OC Zeppelin Paul van Ostaijen

Smokestack is to be congratulated for bringing so many relatively obscure and neglected posthumous European poets to an English readership, and this avant-garde longer concrete work by Belgian poet Paul van Ostaijen comes via a translation by David Colmer, and highly distinctive typography and typographical/poster-like illustrations by Flemish artist Oscar Jespers painstakingly reproduced by Katy Mawhood. This beautifully produced book, replete with Jespers’ stunning abstract cover artwork, and, at the front of the book, striking red ink title pages, was funded by the Flemish Institute. This whole enterprise is quite a scoop for Smokestack, van Ostaijen having been a hugely influential figure in Flemish poetry, credited with having introduced Expressionism into Belgian literature, and having also been the first writer to translate Franz Kafka from the German.

 

Colmer’s compendious Introduction furnishes us with all the information we need about van Ostaijen and the contextualisation of this his most important work. Here are the most salient details:

 

Paul van Ostaijen was born in Antwerp in 1896 as the seventh and last child of a Dutch father and a mother from Belgian Limburg. Precocious in both literature and politics, he was expelled from one secondary school and attended two others before starting work as a clerk at the town hall of Antwerp in 1914. His father had sold his successful plumbing business and moved the family to Hove, a rural village just outside of Antwerp, in the previous year and it was from here that van Ostaijen witnessed the start of the German siege of Antwerp in September, 1914 – including the fire that razed the church of St. Martin in nearby Duffel and the retreat of a long column of Red Cross vehicles, events described in Occupied City. Like most other civilians, the van Ostaijens joined the exodus of refugees, fleeing first to Antwerp and then further north to the Netherlands where they stayed with an uncle in Steenbergen before returning to occupied Antwerp in late October.

   Paul van Ostaijen spent the rest of the war in Antwerp, where he plunged into the city’s nightlife and cut an extravagant figure in literary and bohemian circles. With the artists Paul Joostens and Floris and Oscar Jespers, he set up a publishing house, Het Sienjaal, where he published his first collections of poetry, while at the same time continuing to write and agitate for a progressive Flemish nationalism. In January 1918 he was sentenced to three months in prison for demonstrating against the pro-Francophone Cardinal Mercier during a procession in Antwerp, but the appeal process delayed the implementation of this sentence until after the war, by which time van Ostaijen had already fled to Berlin. He remained there for three years, experiencing the disillusionment of the failed Spartacist uprising, mixing with artists and writers (amongst others, those associated with Bauhaus and Der Sturm), and producing works including Occupied City, which was published in Antwerp before his return to Belgium in May, 1921. Van Ostaijen avoided imprisonment as he had been granted an ‘administrative amnesty’, however, he did have to do his military service, stationed in Krefeld in Germany. From the mid-1920s Van Ostaijen suffered increasingly from tuberculosis, the disease that had already claimed two of his siblings, and died of it in 1928 at the age of thirty-two.

   From an early age Van Ostaijen read widely in several languages and the rapid evolution of his work reflects international literary developments as well as his own driving poetic vision. The Signal (1918) is an early example of humanitarian Expressionism, while Occupied City, written during his Berlin exile, is strongly influenced by Dada and August Stramm’s ‘concentrated word’. Van Ostaijen acknowledged Apollinaire as a source of inspiration, but not for the typography of Occupied City, which is intended as a score and not as an illustration of the content of the text. (Some exceptions, such as in the poem ‘Zeppelin’, reflect an intervention by the designer, Oscar Jespers, who deviated here and in several other places from van Ostaijen’s original manuscript.) In his later work van Ostaijen moved his emphasis to simplicity and musicality and strove to produce ‘pure poetry’, autonomous poems that could exist without reference to either their creator or external reality.

  Van Ostaijen’s work in general and Occupied City in particular have long occupied a central and influential position in modern Dutch and Flemish literature, but the language barrier prevented  the work from becoming widely known outside of Belgium and the Netherlands. Late translations of Occupied City into German (1991) and French (1993) expanded the audience for this key text, and now, a hundred years on from the events it describes, it is a privilege to be able to provide the same service for English speakers. The poet and translator Donald Gardner put it best when he described translating van Ostaijen as being like ‘finding a missing piece of the jigsaw of modernity. It explains modernity and is explained by it.’

 

Colmer then gives an informative insight into the manner of his translation:

 

As a poetic account of Antwerp during World War I, Occupied City is as multilingual as the city itself. The original book includes Dutch, in its Flemish variant the language of both the poet and the populace; French, at the time Belgium’s administrative language and the language of the bourgeoisie; German, the language of the occupiers; Latin, the language of the Catholic Church; and English, a presence in this cosmopolitan city even then.

    Trying to deal with all these languages while making the book accessible to English readers was one of many translation problems. Van Ostaijen quotes songs and advertisements, references films and books, and gives snippets of dialogue in the original languages. In general I have tried to follow him here. Lines of German dialogue represent the occupier, but the significance of the French dialogue is more complicated. Van Ostaijen might be showing the bourgeois background of whoever is speaking, or perhaps satirising Belgian royalism and patriotism.

    Even when not quoting someone else, he can slip into French now and then, understandable for someone living in a bilingual society, but this can be difficult to follow for an English-speaking reader and these passages I have tended to translate into English. I have retained Dutch where the poet is quoting from a song or giving the name of a Belgian or Dutch street, ship, book or film. Now, almost a hundred years after the book was written, it is not always easy to catch the references and I am indebted to the many scholars who have studied van Ostaijen’s work. The books of Robert Snoeck, Jef Bogman and Gerrit Borgers in particular were invaluable. For the identification of typos in the original, I used the errata published as a separate sheet with the first edition and also the comparison of manuscript and book published as an appendix to the Collected Poems (1996).

    The typography of the book presented a special challenge and it was not always possible to find an English wording that allowed a direct correspondence between the original and the translation. Similarly, some of the changes in English seemed to call for the introduction of new typographical features. Adaptation was required and I did this in collaboration with the designer Katy Mawhood, whose patience, creativity and professionalism were exemplary. Finally I would like to thank my fellow translators Kiki Coumans and Michele Hutchison for their help with the French, and David McKay for reading the draft translation, saving me from several blunders and providing many invaluable suggestions.

 

David Colmer

Amsterdam 2016

 

Still more compendious, and with slight additions of information, are the back cover blurbs on van Ostaijen and on the work itself:

 

Paul van Ostaijen (1896-1928) was one of the most original and influential Belgian writers of the twentieth century. An avant-garde poet, satirist and revolutionary critic, he opened up Flemish poetry to modern city life, introduced Expressionism into Belgium, and was the first writer to translate Kafka from German. After the First World War he met George Grosz, Herwarth Walden and Walter Mehring in Berlin, and later opened an art gallery in Brussels.

 

Occupied City/Bezette Stad is one of the key anti-war works of the Dadaist movement. First published in 1921 as a work of ‘rhythmical typography’, it is primarily about the German occupation of Antwerp during the First World War. But it is also a love song to the modern city, and a declaration of war on post-1918 Europe. Designed and illustrated by the Flemish artist Oscar Jespers, this epic poem was originally advertised as ‘a book devoid of Biblical beauty / a book for royalists and republicans / for doctors and illiterates / a book that lists every important song of the last ten years / in short: as indispensable as a cookbook / “What every girl should know.”’

 

It is clear, not simply from the highly unusual and distinctive font-varying typographical formations throughout that Occupied City was a hugely significant piece of work of its time, and highly innovative for its time, depicting the German occupation of Antwerp in 1914, but published in 1921, significantly, just one year prior to T.S. Eliot’s groundbreaking modernist masterpiece, The Waste Land. Occupied City prefigures Eliot’s breakthrough work on many levels, not least its wide-sweeping macrocosmic marauding, its visceral sense of place and landscape, and its almost cinematic quality, the work being littered throughout with allusions to films of the period. It is a very visual work, not least in its ever-restless and surprising typographical formations that really have to be seen in print form to fully appreciate.

 

Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists had already produced the cutting-edge avant-garde poetic magazine-cum-manifesto, BLAST, published punctually in 1914-15, which incorporated a similar typographical playfulness in its interior Manifesto; but in purely typographical terms, van Ostaijen’s long poem, or more specifically, artist Oscar Jespers’ radical augmentation of it through a dizzying variety of fonts, font sizes and font formations, left a radical mark. Having already mentioned The Waste Land, it is also ironic that a much later work published at the beginning of the 21st century, A New Waste Land, by Michael Horovitz, a poet who came to prominence as helmsman of the mid-Sixties British Poetry Revival (see Children of Albion – Poetry of the Underground in Britain, Penguin, 1969), is one work that bears some visual resemblance to Occupied City. Another is much more recent: Andrew Jordan’s staggering semiotic work, Hegemonick (Shearsman, 2012), which has an Eliotic macrocosmic scope, fractured sometimes abstruse narrative, cryptic poetic footnotes, and some interplay between textual content and typography, and is in this writer’s opinion the closest any modern poet has come to producing a 21st century Waste Land (reviewed elsewhere on The Recusant).

 

But the inescapable yardstick for Occupied City is Eliot’s The Waste Land which was published the year succeeding it; both works share fragmentary images, broken narrative, macrocosmic scope and cultural interpolations, in van Ostaijen’s case, contemporaneous allusions from other media such as cinema, music, comic strips and advertising –the latter medium presumably brought in to comment on capitalism’s commoditisation of the arts. Both works are in the stream-of-consciousness circuit of literary expression, van Ostaijen’s perhaps more inclined towards chance word associations and accidents of meaning, as well as metonymy and synecdoche. Occupied City is also markedly less esoteric than Eliot’s masterwork.

 

The overwhelming visual impression left on one after reading/looking through Occupied City is of theatre and film poster typography with its randomly enlarged names and titles and variety of font styles designed in order to catch the eye of the onlooker and to magnify certain details, such as the more famous names among casts etc. so that certain words typographically leap out. Nonetheless, we must take into account the primary conscious function of Jespers’ acrobatic typography which was ‘intended as a score and not as an illustration of the content of the text’. Due to formatting issues, it is not possible to excerpt any of van Ostaijen’s text as it appears in the book, so the text will be excerpted throughout this review in a normal linear form (though I include next to the book cover at the top of this review an image reproduced in the book from van Ostaijen’s original drafts to give some idea of how the text looks).

 

Occupied City begins, radically, with a filmic-comic strip slant: the first phrase seems an instantaneous comment on the consumer society of the time:

 

Much shall be forgiven you

for

you’ve seen a lot of movies

 

The opening trope continues:

 

we know them inside

out

FanTOMas Zigomar with a big Z too long

 

For the uninitiated here –which includes myself– Fantomas was a 1913 crime caper film, and part of a series of silent films by French director Louis Feuillade. Zigomar was a series of films by Victorin Jasset with an eponymous hero (from 1911 on). The compendious Notes at the back of this book elucidate most of the French and German nomenclature and references.

 

There’s a detectable Nietzschean tone of desolation which will also, of course, underscore much of the apocalyptic, post-God despair of Eliot’s masterwork the following year, as van Ostaijen states: ‘we have come to the end of all isms schisms’. Much emphasis on ‘emptiness’, of consciousness, of ontology, strongly foreshadowing Eliot’s later Nietzschean poem ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925). There then follows a lengthy dalliance with nihilism in all its forms, and a typographical orgy around the word ‘nihil’ ensues. There’s a nice description: ‘trains tapping out the tired/ rhythm/ of/ weary/ people’. Then the Eliotic:

 

Positive is convincing oneself

of emptiness

of mud and clay

of ruination

the realisation of complete emptiness

echoing

 

A hint of Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recursion in ‘turn around turn around turn around again/ rotating earth reversed’. Then the juxtaposition of artificial culture with an impromptu advert:

 

Rimmel's New Cosmetiue

For fixing the Hair Whiskers or Mustachios

and giving them a beautiful gloss & natural black

or brown colour.

E Rimmel, Parfumer 79 Strand; Bld. des Capucines, Paris

 

Van Ostaijen might be a serious commentator on his times but his polemical metier is not without its sense of humour as it demonstrates the degradation of common language through commercialism and advertising:

 

if the pageant rolls out again

the pageant again

the Ommegang

omega

omicron

Alpha (the letter not the margarine) beta zeta eta theta

 

Van Ostaijen makes no bones about his intractable artistic will to dominate his creation: ‘I want to be the director’. The poet’s frequent addresses in the plural help to keep readers feeling included, whether they like it or not, in the work which, in spite of its avant-gardism, is a work of commonality, or at least in pursuit of some kind of commonality –it’s aim, indeed, is communication: ‘We have known all songs/ 3 / Walzertraum evolution’. Ein Walzertaum (A Waltz Dream, or, more probably, A Dream Waltz) was an operetta by Oscar Straus with a German libretto by Leopold Jacobson and Felix Dörmann, based on the novella Nux, der Prinzgemahl (Only the Prince Consort) by Hans Müller-Einigen (1905).

 

A smattering of knowledge of classical music, its composers, works and nomenclature, certainly assist in deconstructing Occupied City:

 

from Lustige Witwe to Czardasfürstin

strike out all syrupy operettas

sentimental ersatz songs

 

Die Csárdásfürstin (The Riviera Girl) was an operetta by Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán. Eliot’s ‘Hollow Men’ continues to be anticipated:

 

everything is empty

frère Jacques

the last Pernod

Picon

quand je suis grihollow

sea wreck

never mind

stinking bus down worn-out street

lazy trains through stinking country

mountains sea valley valley sea mountains

 

A general sense of vacuum and existential ennui permeates:

 

rigolo gigolo zigoto

si tu veux faire une petite ballade

you’ve balladeered your way through Europe

your expectations die

 

Imagery becomes phantasmagorical, surreal, the animate and inanimate commingling with commercial branding:

 

EUROPE according to EROTIC BEDDINGS

we have known Europe for so long so long

drawn-out stretching flat and upwards

 

There is a sexualisation of physical landscape, a kind of geographic pornography (something expertly exploited, nearly a century later, by Andrew Jordan in Hegemonick):

 

legs thighs breasts Berlin Germany Brussels Amsterdam

Bucharest London Paris hair perfume fleurs Houbigant Longchamp

Maisons-Laffitte joe jack john joker gigolo rubsters ehrliche Frau

 

There’s a textual serendipity in the text being translated into English here (for the first time) with chance homonyms: ‘Should they have fallen all cathedrals/ cannibals/ Hannibals generals’. There are occasional pages mostly free of Jespers’ typographical acrobatics, and these appear like sudden pauses for more recognisable poem forms. The foreshadowing of Eliot’s ‘Hollow Men’ is quite striking:

 

and are these cross-drawn countries

not one great Christ

full of hollow wounds

 

and this hollow echoing sense of

despondency

not like Good Friday once

 

Personification is expertly deployed:

 

The gravely threatened city we will defend to the bitter end

lies trembling pale-bodied

an ASHEN POOL in the evening PRUSSIAN BLUE and the danger

stops time stops pan ting time stops space

 

This almost pornographic personification is used to startling effect, particularly when playing on ‘goose flesh’ as a flipside image of both the skin responding to touch, or sexual arousal, and the skin pricking up in the same formation as a fear reaction to threat and danger:

 

just enough

cash

the generals pimps patriots the demimonde

the goose flesh of the demimonde that’s no advertisement

that’s not satin not silk not moire

that’s goose flesh

shells falling despite your cash charity

 

Here Van Ostaijen belittles materialism in the face of material –and psychical– destruction; reading this one is reminded of the striking work of war artist Paul Nash, the sharp jagged forms and lines, also, of Vorticism, and, post-Thirties, of Picasso’s Guernica. The disturbing fusing of images of war and violence with those of sex proliferate: ‘cannon coitus’, and, in this particularly striking flourish:

 

a brothel flees to the cellar

bouncing breasts football bellies

tulle gold silver voile Mimi Manon sequins and teeth

the madam up to the nines

no time to change

the shell falls

without

un client mesdames voyons

 

in the cellar flesh quivers by the kilo

quivering breasts quaking bellies shuddering thighs

paint streams on greased mugs full of fear

and the grotesque oriental splendour

tulle sequins

scientific progress

teeth chattering gold and lead this time

Gaby – Recamier no dough to flee

suit way out of style streetwalking impossible

Ah c’est la merde merde pour les Boches merde pour tout le monde

lanky Irène is especially cold silver snakeskin mesh

and

watch out for rats

brothel girls huddle together

next door an abandoned piano

 

There’s also something reminiscent here of David Jones’ experimental long poem about his firsthand experiences in the First World War, In Parenthesis, although this work wouldn’t appear in print until 1937. The visceral agonies of war come into sharp relief:

 

wrecks cars riPping dark swathes of night

wrecked writhing

irregular TWITCHING crushed people

caked soldiers cursed beasts

 

treading tramping treading tramping

CORPSE rUMbling rusty cannon

MACABRe RiBs

DANCE iron

rattling ribs

clattering

cobbled roads

 

marauders break into houses lighter than shells

philanthropy

rescuing heirlooms

 

The paraphernalia of everyday life is listed almost like Joycean items of daily worship: ‘pram/ hatbox/ lamp chimney’.

 

the whores forget to solicit

they only flee

as if one can’t do both flee and solicit

but

the chairman of the ESTAMINET UNION saves the day

his top hat

and his tricolour neckerchief

 

An ‘estaminet’ is a small café which sells alcoholic beverages as well as coffee, also known as ‘brown pubs’ or ‘brown cafes’, they are ubiquitous features of Amsterdam, but also of Bruges and Brussels in Belgium. Van Ostaijen has a particularly dark, astringent sense of humour: ‘you can use their heads as stepping stones/ couldn’t that have stayed symbolic’. The sacramental items are listed a second time: ‘Always/ pram/ hatbox/ lamp chimney/ babe in arms’.

 

The contemporaneous cultural allusions throughout Occupied City make it quite a minefield of references though thankfully there are extensive Notes at the back to assist. However, not all nomenclature is included in the Notes:

 

Always people

a peculiar puppet show put on by God the Father

or Siderius (for astrologists)

 

Siderius appears to be possibly a double allusion: there was a German weapons company that supplied the Krupp artillery while operating with the Dutch army during the 20s and 30s, while Sidereus Nuncius was the title of an astronomical pamphlet by Galileo, published in 1610. Siderius is from the Latinate term denoting a time-keeping system that astronomers use to locate celestial objects. It would appear, then, that either van Ostaijen or the translator mistakenly pair Siderius with astrology rather than astronomy; either that, or van Ostaijen is playing on the similarities between the two terms.

 

Van Ostaijen often shows an Eliotic sensibility in terms of depicting images and nomenclature of bourgeois gentility against apocalyptic backdrops:

 

always elegant

Mr Crump Esq.

very fast car

greeting everyone

alighting calmly

at his hotel

 

‘Crump’, incidentally, is a term for a large artillery shell. Here we see bourgeois insouciance amidst foreign occupation: ‘Marching foreign soldiers/ occupied country occupied city aerial view’ is then juxtaposed with KODAK in large capitals: advertising has its place even in wartime. War even has its own music, its own cacophonic score:

 

Dance through the land of Howitzers

Dance of the crumps

shrapnel minuet

 

overwhelming

aRsenals RaTTling across the country

 

For much of this work van Ostaijen furnishes austere, pared down imagery, but occasionally there are beautified flourishes of phrase, as in ‘soldiers walking flowery rifles/ soldiers striding flowery rifles’. And the imagery is at its most descriptive and evocative when depicting war horrors:

 

CORPSE sprawled in maggots crawling

with maggots

falling

corpse

mute Scream of shako raining

s k y

filthy bubbles oozing from oilskin

trampled barbed wire

c u t s

hands

and bleeds gushes filth with filthy rain

mute stumps abandoned abatis

thousand 1,000 1,000

dizzy

shuddering cellar skeletons cold earth

blasted brewery one wall standing

 

Van Ostaijen’s use of the anachronistic ‘shako’ is curious, this term was used to described a common type of European military hat mostly of the Napoleonic era, but one suspects it is meant sardonically, contrasting the colourful baroque uniforms of soldiers of the past with the grim field greys and khakis of the First World War. Images of rust and decay abound:

 

snapped signpost

reddish-brown Instructions

about what

about what the rain

unending

filth gushes

Rusting ironware

steel helmet chopped o f f head

 

In Dadaist style, van Ostaijen flirts with graffiti in terms of visual form but also in terms of randomising free associations of found phrases and slogans: ‘If only the walls moved red-hot story by Poe’. In many ways Occupied City is a kind of found poetry. Images of palaeontology and taxidermy give an entombed, airless museum-sense to the poet’s depiction of contemporaneous society:

 

Abandoned dolmen

stuffed mammoth

sudden wilderness

suddenly

 

Pompeii Herculaneum

missing only all-too-modern means of transport to get around

in the Museum of Arts and Crafts

 

There’s a continual Eliotic juxtaposition of the ancient and modern:

 

ANNO MCM X I V

simulating operations with several wax dummies

the docker the tally clerk the dock constable

blue coat with silver trim

WAXWORKS window number

and improved version of the galley slaves of Cayenne

 

As in Eliot’s The Waste Land, images of rust and decay are rife, as is the permeation of ‘brown’, the colour of mud:

 

Caulking carcasses

hammering

metallic dome

inverted cauldron

clear clatter of scattered skittles

transatlantic hull harbour-half

balance opposite side : the Rest

brown sloBBy hoBByhorse lost house crooked wheels port train

sails front and wings

Floris Jespers saw this transatlantic

harbour half sharply

but the brown slobby hobbyhorse

is the perfect colouristic

 

 

caulking tar to bales of hides

earthy colours that cut through all senses

 

‘Caulking’, the process and material for sealing joints and seams, is a leitmotiv in this section of the poem. The death (thanatotic) and sex (erotic) instincts often coalesce: ‘electric piano erotic whinnying’. This is a city of industrial decline and general stagnation:

 

Suddenly halted iron construction

no-longer-clanging

loud howls of idle cranes and

b u r i e d c i t y

 

One wonders if there was any possibility that Eliot might have caught sight of van Ostaijen’s work prior to or at the time of depicting his ‘Unreal City’. A ghostly nostalgia haunts this city:

 

broken carcass

port whores staring hopelessly

Feldgrau poor substitute for princely sailors

where are the old days

Hopeless cranes

Howling Whinnying

 

 

streetwalkers lay soiled flowers by the Christ of the Dyke

Wilderness with withered cranes

city centre moved to

a few boulevard cafés cinemas

 

(‘Feldgrau’ is German for ‘field gray’, the colour of German uniforms). Sex is depicted at its most seedy and decadent against the backdrop of metropolitan impotence:

 

Brothel

Sprawled worn-out brothels

e m a c i a t e d

YOO-HOO! Steinlen

in a filthy pubic triangle

rain and darkness

and a policeman

occupied-city-brothel-street

dank rotting fruit

reeking

from a greengrocer’s

grimy violet

 

The contemporary privation is juxtaposed with the biblical aphorism: ‘as if for ration books/ (man does not live by bread alone)’. ‘Zeppelin’ appears in a thick black almond shaped font like a brand name, and ‘good bye Piccadilly/ farewell Leicester Square’ (the English marching song, ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’) comes sardonically underneath. Van Ostaijen’s filmic inclinations come to light again with the phrase ‘Empty Cinema’ emphatically underlined, and we’re ushered into the airless darkness of projected escapism replete with live musical accompaniment:

 

pianist plunking away

plunking through to the end

 

This is clearly a Western being shown:

 

z______________________A

to a gallop

some warmed-up

beans

warmed-up beans

warmed-up beans

beans

beans

 

It is either a synchronicity of the intellectual and spiritual sensibilities of the time, or Eliot was indeed aware of if not partly inspired by van Ostaijen’s experimental work, since, in the following passage, there is so much that is proto-Eliotic: the repetition of ‘hollow’, the Catholic image of a ‘rosary’, and the general sense of desolation and emptiness:

 

Nomenclature of Deserted Things

deserted EXISTENCE

deserted city

deserted square

deserted cinema

cinema cracked coffee cup

hollow harbour

hollow people

weary people

tired people

tired trains

jolting jarring standstill sown in landscape

deserted buffet

deserted bar

deserted barman

deserted barmaid

UPRIGHT PUPPETS

dejection deserted BAR

feeble morning

tired noon

faint evening

naked night

houred rosary trolley

broken tram s topped

silent

 

As with Eliot, van Ostaijen depicts the civilisation of his time as essentially moribund. Van Ostaijen uses colours symbolically in the following flourish:

 

Last vignette on a catchpenny paper

e.g. all vignettes light

red pink yellow royal blue

the last vignette a heavy lump of black

or darkness

iridescent green showing fast fall into dirty oxide green

last vignette stiffening motionless

the text below relates deserted castle wicked fairy success

the whole story

and all the happy colours above

damsels pages orange and penny-chocolate pink

are dragged

 

Once more, so much in this part of the work predicts Eliot’s poetic triumph of the following year in terms of images –note, for example, ‘violet night’, prefiguring Eliot’s ‘violet hour’ i.e. the end of the working day:

 

Outlandish houses in occupied city

deserted city of a thousand and one nights

deep violet night all houses

oriental style

or are they giant cakes Youth

at the caliph parties of my

representing the newly conquered city

two tall cakes and the street is the table

the guests have disappeared

and now this mute cake-table stands in the night

bove the table hangs an arc lamp

and now these cakes backlit

a flat set piece

(the evil spirit catchpenny print did not forget this last lamp

DELIBERATE: desolation needs this misplaced lighting)

 

Violet continues as a leitmotiv:

 

Above in the

VIolet sky

dark v i o lE T

phosphoresces

 

There are some images and turns of phrase randomly ploughed up by van Ostaijen which are made all the more striking for their suddenness, as below, while the poem maunders into Sunday mundane:

 

rosary beads

the tram detonates the everyday

consecrated Sunday tolling

mothballs and bourgeois women

the sharp

edge of

a dull

Sunday

opped

no Destination

only

the Dull Dance of the trams on

m__y____h_i_g_h________________w__ire___________nerves

stretched-out nerves

dance to the music

of dry drear y

r

o

s

a

r

y

b

e

a d s

 

Once more the Eliotic content is uncanny, even ‘nerves’ being mentioned, then another Catholic image.

 

Then, all of a sudden, what appears to be a fairly normal poem, at least, in terms of presentation on the page, appears under the soft-sounding French title ‘Sous les Ponts de Paris’. This beautifully phrased poem appears to be addressed to Christ (as the capitalised Y in ‘You’ corroborates) in all his iconographic guises; it seems the Saviour is being depicted as tantamount to a display dummy in a shop window, which is a profound and sublime juxtaposition:

 

A cry goes up from all the places

they have put You on display Your pain

They have hung You up on the corner of every block

 

to catch pennies in an offertory box

Still with the people You commune

they plunge their arms into your wounds

 

We put our hands in Your warm wounds We are deaf

and blind in faithlessness

Your Corpse has been defiled by popes and priests

 

Your wounds have taught our hands belief

They have raised up churches like mighty halls

Silver and gold drip from the walls

 

But van Ostaijen settles on ‘Harlequin’ as a depiction of our public icon of Christ, as in this stunning couplet:

 

You are displayed on every corner HARLEQUIN

with your beaten attitude and Your suffering

 

That serendipitous semi-rhyme in translation almost replicates a slangy Americanism: ‘Harlequin/ sufferin’’. The second numbered section of this striking poem has some particularly resonant images and rhyme-endings; it seems to change in tone and to depict the Son of Man as an abandoner of humankind in the post-Nietzsche godless universe, a marked absence amidst spiritual emptiness only made more emphatic in its triumph by the ravages of war:

 

2

Your final incarnation is for the rabble alone

I saw You deserting from the front

 

They did not gather up the weapons You cast aside

Holy Deserter, those relics were not convenient

 

In such times all churches should display

Your deserter’s guise and the weapons You threw away

 

I saw You staggering from town to occupied town

weak worn-out nerve-wracked and beaten down

 

In my occupied city I have seen You often

when You walked into the dance hall the music stopped

 

its slow waltz the rhythm of Your face was SO

much stronger in its sorrow than a broken cello

 

The occasional end-rhymes in this poem may well be the accident of translation but they work spectacularly well, especially that of ‘SO/ cello’.

 

and the gigolos and bar girls danced their slow light WALTZ

to the sorrowful rhythm of Your FACE

 

It seems almost as if Christ has stepped down from one of his high perches and become flesh again and merged into the human throngs:

 

I saw You standing in a stinking alley

a Landsturm man to keep you company

 

You moved amongst the press-ganged unemployed

long trains to Germany full of ragged men and half-grown boys

 

You kept watch on top of the dyke

with cold streetwalkers through the rainy night

 

Now You are worn-down and exhausted

stuffed full of sorrow once more

 

Reading that last couplet one cannot help but think of Eliot’s ‘stuffed men/ Leaning together’, and van Ostaijen’s choice of words here, ‘stuffed full’, certainly does make one thing of a scarecrow, or perhaps, again, a shop window dummy.

 

Rain drips from Your filthy sopping beards of hemp

 

over the city

 

Dripping down with the rain on the city’s filth

Your halting rhythm

 

For the reviewer, this deceptively simple poem is so much more than a more formal pause in the otherwise explosive typography and cacophonic prosody of the work as a whole: it is its most accomplished summit. But in the next section we return to the more showy displays of font, explosions, too, of image, colour and wordplay:

 

Light in the room tints flickering violet to Black

on linen and paper

cafés =

unmoving armoured cars

light artillery

all windows see street through coloured glass

windows like German professors

blue-black sinking of extinguished things

Filling

deeper DARKness dim dismal street

Falling

 

Van Ostaijen certainly has a highly distinctive descriptive sense: ‘streetlamps creating velvet surround’. Most of Occupied City is what might be termed ‘concrete poetry’, and certainly it is a visual poem, and something integral is lost when it is presented as normal verse on the page, as I’m forced to do through this review; nonetheless, so acute and striking are van Ostaijen’s imagistic and verbal combinations that much is communicated in the text itself:

 

st_rai_ned n_er_ves

mist breaking

over them

creak of trolleys

muffled crackling

 

muffled echoes in mist

velvet carriage R A G

R A G T I M E

 

The mention of ‘Ragtime’ does of course date the work to post-war. Van Ostaijen offers some almost synaesthesic sense-impressions:

 

warm light

smell of guitars

sound of whisky and

wilted rose

your flower Musette

if it’s miserable outside

it’s lovely near you

J a a r s m a

warms well

 

for van Ostaijen life is a dance, perhaps a danse macabre, and ‘hair turns grey mid-dance’. The irony is certainly not missed that the monarchies of England and Germany –and Belgium– were members of the same family, and that the British royal line dating back from Victoria comes from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (swiftly changed to Windsor at the onset of war with Germany so as to deflect from their German origins), the same place that one of the Prussian Kaiser’s battalions hails from:

 

Good news from the front

immediately received W T by

the Ladies of Christian Charity (motto mine is mine)

a whole battalion of Feldgrauen

the King alone in the trench

Does he flee ? a king does not flee (very true)

Samson he takes the jawbone of an ass

Smites ½ battalion

the other 50 % turns tail

He then cleanses the jawbone of Boche blood

it was a battalion from SAXE-COBURG-GOTHA

 

A pithy couplet, ‘The Charlatan up on his Stand/ delivers patter to the Land’, introduces a poster-style page advertising the ‘Great Circus of the Holy Ghost’.

 

The next section, ‘Inward Circles’, continues the musical and terpsichorean theme:

 

Music Hall full

of

vague

desire

in its electric frugality

people in suspense

before the banal wonder

Music Hall a balloon

a

b

o

u

t

t

o

burst

 

In varying sized fonts with more than hint of Wyndham Lewis’s BLAST (‘BOOM’ is written particularly large) we get a concrete take on an orchestra evoking the blasts of battle:

 

BOOM

KETTLEDRUM

everything FLAT

h__________________________Oh

racing again violins cellos basses brass triangle

drums KETTLEDRUMS

 

There’s a kinetic feel to the alliteration:

 

drama in full battle tarts snakes throwing themselves at honourable

gentlemen the family falters the factory falters

honour falters lies there

all ideas go tumbling DOWN

HALT!

 

The impression is of homonymous free associations:

 

Drums roll drums rumble

drums thrum

BOM BAM

O -

r--a--n--g--e a-c-r-o-b-a-t-s

tee tee hEE

blossoming bloom blown

 

 

DRUM

hands that SLAP

Coffee Cups Dancing Along With The CrowD

d

an

ling ce

l et go

tinkling dome-breaking glasses

stiff standing

 

quand je suis grise

the rocking of the barge

that founders

that sinks

that goes down

sunk

THE CLUTCHING HAND

Jeanne

me

the others

ragged

vagabonds

the raging rattling of your flick

your dynamo

your hear

 

The next section of Occupied City is titled ‘Asta Nielsen’ and dedicated to Paul Joostens (1889-1960), a painter from Antwerp. The stream of consciousness continues in full tilt:

 

ASTA NIELSEN

ASTA

astra

star

empress Our Lady

Our Lady of Denmark

we carry you under baldachins

broad HOST

 

Asta Nielsen was a Danish silent film actress who, judging by photos of her online, happened to have an unusually elfin or pixie-ish face, and huge eyes arced over by statuesque brow and nose. Then comes perhaps my favourite passage in the entire work:

 

The greatest consolation for weary people

official reports Paris London Berlin Petrograd Rome

day in day out

rosary of reports

litany of dying cigarettes

when darkness emerges from light

and light from darkness

Thunderbolt

Starring ASta NIElsen

Queen of the Stock Exchange lady Eskimono first-class Carmen

DEATH in Seville

I still see the swing of your hips

beautiful with the camera movements

and your mouth

and your teeth biting the limp flower

 

The phrases ‘rosary of reports’ and ‘litany of dying cigarettes’ are particularly striking. Van Ostaijen marvels at the screen presence of this Danish silent movie star, almost depicting her as an ersatz Virgin Mary of the silver screen:

 

You have a way of entering

and gone

zIP!

too fast for the cameraman

and the screen in constant harmony

while you are on it

immanent CINEMATIC EQUILIBRIUM

therefore his prayer must be

A S T A

YOU

immaculate cinematic balance

 

The incantatory quality then lapses into all-out prayer:

 

pray for us

poor cinema-goers

the purity of limp hands dropping

pray for us weary people

the hearty laughter of a Sébasto whore

pray for us faded loins

smiling into a rainbow aperitif

pray for us men with no refreshment

ASTA more than all the stars together

pray for us who can manage without stars

asta more than the sun

since the invention of electricity

ASTA more than the moon

since loving couples became mere WAXWORKS

asta pray for us

without sun moon or stars

but not without cinema limp hands and aperitifs

asta deliver us from misfortune

Bad luck at the races

asta deliver us from sentimentality

C

I

N

E

M

A

but give us the Objectivity of your poised feet

ASTA deliver us

from gaslights in this age

of electricity

ASTA give us a kind gesture

and

keep acting in CINEMA

keep playing with your feet

but not with Ours

 

Asta the star is depicted as a potential saviour of the war-racked masses, the blitzed cinema goers:

 

this is no fantasy

YOU sustain us

more than Schopenhauer Bergson and the Farmer’s Union

Asta great passive A s t a

without sentiment

simply

swaying on a donkey’s back

l’apéro sur le sébasto

your broad face

your wide mouth

s

e

n

s

a

F

I

L

M

w

i

t

h

A

S

a s t r a

burst cherry of objective sensuality

bloody wound across your face

because you are very well made-up

black eyes

nothing suits you so well as black eyes

white fox as vulgar as it gets

black-and-white robe retroussée

CONTRASTS

 

This is, of course, all deeply sardonic and a satirical dig at capitalist entertainment and the blind adulation of film celebrity.

 

You are a good woman

with cheap tickets

you are everyone given individual imagination

that’s what I call the progress of science

the multiplication of woman

PAUL JOOSTENS

You and me coffee and cigarettes

and still able to afford

the sidereal oscillation of Asta’s legs

rigolo

apéro

sébasto

ASTA can do it all

Look

hola

night

blue

there she is it’s ASTA our ASTA ASTRA our asta astra astra nielsen

wallet lifter

elle s’approche sans méfiance

et tout à coup elle s’élance

slightly different

more imagination

ASTR A N I E LS EN

 

queen of the stock exchange with

sudden weakness for artiste

she becomes Spanish

such an enormous harem in this one ASTA

don’t you agree Paul J ?

I do Paul van O

she is so much so infinitely much

the many in one

the one in many

she is the gnostic par excellence

And so we sit sight sated

washed

by the waves of your divine acting

while the war news rolls over us

Berlin Paris London Petrograd

h

i

p

t

i

p

t

o

p

h

i

p

t

i

Apéro

Sébasto

Weib

Liszt

Asta Nielsen and Liszt

 

Van Ostaijen plays much with alliterative reverberations of ‘Asta’, ‘Astra’ and ‘star’. The final part of this sequence of the poem, ‘Mobile’, appears to depict a dance hall hit by a bomb:

 

Bandmaster orchestrion page

arm bowing

elegant gesture on side

answering cymbals

couples shuffle the square calmness from tables and stage

circling

into

the

d

e

p

t

h

s

circle turning in square

deeper and deeper

swirlin

g

couples turning

circle turning

yawning chasm

in the s qu

a r e

couples dash their falling sweat into the depths

black pearls

SteP steP to POPular songs HOP

big top hat the boss jigs away

joining in g g g

i i i

j j j

Stop everyONE says bowing page the dance is DONE

shuffling

square

Marie Plancher

Marie Planchée

 

According to the Notes, ‘Marie Plancher’ is ‘a variant from a popular song about a flat-chested woman’.

 

The first page of the section titled ‘Bar’ is quite comical as it is self-contradictory, with ‘The bar is empty’ at the top of the page, a vast blank gap, and then ‘and full of people’ at the bottom. Eliotic images of emptiness, barrenness and human simulacrums abound with associations of words and sounds:

 

nodding harlequins my mild likeness

naive idlers we desire emptiness filling our lifelong need to hide

bar hollow balloon about to burst and will never burst

toffs and tarts and toffs and tarts and toffs and

l on g emp t y h o u r s

 

There is some lovely alliteration:

 

hours girdling

idle

desire

queue queue queue

 

 

twirling Feldwebels Officers immer lustig bitte is laughing

a profession

 

The emptiness is never far away: ‘desire surges uncertain cutting through layers of emptiness’. This stream-of-consciousness and its juxtapositions of erotic and thanatotic images, which are very Joycean, are signature aspects to van Ostaijen’s style:

 

virgin at whoring daughter of private means perhaps

your clothes hooping wind whooping rushing

cold breaking your bones shell-flake stiff and flowing

rasping-scared disowned

light whip welts hoarse heat screams

lusting screams provocative dance

 

Oh the dance won’t rape

inextinguishable

nude desire quivers in your smile

 

‘FOLIES BAR’ is the next setting: the stream-of-consciousness continues, this time citing women’s names along with musical allusions:

 

you are wonderful

behind the bar as the patrons leave you say

in the melancholy of a grimy opal twilight

Francia play the berceuse from Jocelyn

or

Francia play Gounod’s Avé Maria

your face ecstatic in clouds of ether

separation of body and soul

tears rolling mechanically down your face

without effort and as many as you like

you are a marvellous tear dispenser

your detached soul floating off with Jocelyn

 

A bit rusty on my classical music nomenclature, I looked up ‘berceuse’: according to Wikipedia it is "a musical composition usually in 6/8 time that resembles a lullaby”. While on the next page, titled ‘The Morning Melancholy’, we get the term ‘orchestrion’, which is a machine that plays music in the imitation of an orchestra:

 

Swirling pallid orchestrion

str_________________etched

houses lining up

hoarse street stretched instrument

until long arms stretch it again miniature street

 

‘Accordion’ appears on the page twice in a handwriting font with the D capitalised as if a separate word: ‘Accor Dion’. Then a caption shaped as an advert or invitation:

 

C H E Z  G E R A R D

• à la réunion des Artisses •

 

Followed by:

 

nini Columbine whiteness tulle fading

whiteness in pearl-grey street

delicate image

 

In a square tilted to a diamond shape, the following text: ‘of a saint or/ Frost freezes legs to stiff posts crying/ standing broken in stretched street/ frost freezes the last girl gone/ street shrinks fi lthy rag to dirty Columbine costume/ as nini goes up she merges into the pallor’ with a large ‘or’ in its middle. Then:

 

square

____ weep on

 

Van Ostaijen makes some sport with alliteration and sound associations:

 

Cold in a Columbine Costume Cuts through the bar

Cognac I’m freezing all the men are gone

the room

will be full of cold

 

 

late

army boots

reduce

the

city

to

d

i

s

t

a

n

c

e

 

End of the Inward Circles’ is announced. Then comes ‘Withdrawal’. There’s a particularly striking image of music broken by war: ‘string snaps/ falls violin wood/ drenched kindling’. The words whizz and explode in a display of different fonts and formations:

 

red driving ripping rags locomotives

TB WHEEZE

threads hanging

from sleeves

tattered clothes shabby people

GAWKING

eyes

foreign

and

afraid

Basedow’s disease

hollow eyes strangled

requisitioned farmers

requisitioned wenches

all charity meat___________________

no stamp

 

Basedow’s –or Grave’s– disease is an autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid gland and has symptoms such as bulging throat and eyes. The images above depict much of war’s devastating privations: economic meltdown, rations, sickness, disease, trauma etc. Sound associations work particularly well in the trope: ‘Rout spouting pus on occupied city’. Not even language can manage to disentangle itself from the chaos and cacophony of war:

 

words growing waxing RAGING

murmuring

liPs SeiZing WoRDs

while restless

tick-tock machine-guns BROKEN Cadence

 

shelldrunk last resistance in ruins

dawn hawks up phlegm

lost heads

thousands of lost heads

sludge Ru i n e d Rib

Cage

rats ravens

fraying ribs

l i p s

seizing

words

bearing words forward in war’s furrows

dragging words into vague monstrance

the moaning

fermenting growing fermenting

GUSHING words

muffling the last weak sound of shells

words CRaSHing to PieceS on RoCKs

spurt ditch blood

WO R D

state street city soldiers

 

The use of the Roman Catholic term ‘monstrance’ is very potent in this context, it being the name for the receptacle in which the consecrated Host is exposed for veneration.

 

don’t go back Hell

mutter prayers

what will be

lips falter vague murmuring

GROWING

operetta screens reeling pinched smile

red

house teetering

breaking plaster

chalk

and yet

VOICE

word voice

waiting hollow

breath

L I E B K N E C H T

LAUGHTER

d o m e d r oom

 

Occupied City really picks up pace towards its close as van Ostaijen saturates us in sound-associations and stream-of-consciousness punctuated by names of countries and cities:

 

the doctors the bigshot doctors the bigshot professors don’t see

don’t hear

draw their homemade wisdom from the Belgischer Kurier

Victory Warsaw Grodno Kovno Brest-Litovsk Bucharest

and now and now

grain from the Ukraine ?

bread

hold out endure

and then

endure

brave Pomerania

victory goes to he who can suffer most

 

Van Ostaijen employs much alliteration or perhaps it’s the serendipity of translation:

 

all clocks gather speed

victorious defeated accordion

c’est la valse brune

exhausted beat and restless

sale of helmets bags of coffee machine-guns morphine

the imperial army emporium

Helter

good Catholics anxiously await

VICTORY TE DEUM

 

We return to the poet’s preoccupation with nihilism, a partly understandable post-war state of mind, and there’s a sense of mockery towards any persisting intimations of humanity’s innate goodness –one assumes this is an attack on bourgeois liberalism rather than more nuts-and-bolts socialism:

 

festivities in perspective Camelot Dionysius

N I H I L

long live nothing

Suzon

Wilson waxwork hero

ideology of vegetarian restaurants

man is good etc. etc.

that sort of thing

 

But then we enter into what seems to be a frustrated appeal to communism:

 

guzzling burgundy

NIHIL

that is the word

destruction

God religion metaphysics churches art brothels mind

don’t blather on so

destroy

HAIL THE SENEGALESE

blessed art thou Mary amongst women for thy womb

I S B A R R E N

Sister Anne can’t you see anything yet

no nothing at all dear

words can no longer convey

Oh our longing

for the ruination of all concepts

all hope

all idiocies

the red flood is not rising

the red armies are not growing

and nothing is breaking

and nothing is breaking

 

There’s a sense of expectancy of an atheist ‘red’ alternative for the future:

 

if all cathedrals fell

to be Chaos and able to create stone after stone a new house

a new table

 

But an air of futility infiltrates all:

 

I – can’t – help – it – either

there are no windmills

endless days banal antitheses

always this banging against the wall

we fall not the wall

 

We then witness juxtapositions of advertising and commercial images with those of religious anguish:

 

museum arsenal

library arsenal

and all of us arsenals

Amette – Creusot – Schneider – Baudrillart Ltd

Immediacy

is the apex of my desires a lexicon

now

a battering ram alone

a battering ram is the only tool to build

knocking down the makeshift

the caulked

death to the harlequin

Give me something lethal God I want to live

Helter

Skelter

millions of seconds of war fermenting

Hollow Heads wanted

Mannequins

 

Harlequins and mannequins point us back to the shop dummies, whether of fashions or failed gods, and a critique of the instantaneousness of consumer culture in the striking trope: ‘Immediacy/ is the apex of my desires a lexicon’. It’s difficult to imagine just how shocking this work must have seemed on its publication in the Twenties, especially when van Ostaijen infuses a kind of mock Catholic mass and associated invocations with phrases and images of brothels and prostitution:

 

lewd fluttering banners

officers offer their sex to the ecstatic mob a monstrance

priests sprinkle holy water

lewd Te Deum of

braying bitches in heat

organ patriotises

magnificat anima mea

all the women from Easylay

we’ll have the music you give us

bring on the potpourri

Ave Maris Stella

Vive l’Autrichienne

the Bavarians are withdrawing

 

Then van Ostaijen mocks the ectopic patriotism of post-occupation:

 

the occupation is over

the occupation begins

potpourri

because

we are

national anthems

national heroes

national colours

everything national

hip hip hoorah for the royal vulva

Vive la nation

ecstasy gentlemen

don’t forget ecstasy

cadavers rotting sewers

Tous les soirs grande manifestation patriotique

hopeless skelter the soldiers are dead

patriotic films

patriotic beer

patriotic lamb

 

And, at last, we crash to the close of this Dadaist-concrete epic with a fittingly resonant climax:

 

to work

why why why

don’t blather on so

life ah ah

everything is meaningless

now

crap

!

LONG LIVE THOSE WHO DIED LIKE DOGS

V I V E M A X

maybe some day

the need will grow so great

all the dykes will break.

 

Occupied City is an emphatic example of Dadaism, which was a radical aesthetic movement of the early twentieth century –part-inspired by the anti-art stance of Marcel Duchamp-originating at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Switzerland, then transplanting to New York and Paris– that encompassed visual art, collage, sculpture, cut-up poetry and other forms; ethically affiliated to the Far Left, it ‘consisted of artists who rejected the logic, reason, and aestheticism of modern capitalist society, instead expressing nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest in their works’ (Wikipedia).

 

It’s clear to see just how Dadaist is the sensibility both textually and visually of van Ostaijen’s masterpiece, in particular the random word-associative qualities, much of which is apparently ‘cut-up’ serendipities. There are, too, serendipities of translation, and that is a nice bonus to this first English edition of the work, in spite of an extensive quantity of German, French and Flemish (?) throughout. This work really must be read in its intended visual form and for that this beautifully produced volume is an essential acquisition and one well worth the £12 cover price. Smokestack is to be congratulated for unearthing and so faithfully reproducing this revolutionary work for a British readership.

 

Alan Morrison © 2017