Paul van Ostaijen

I visited my most beloved second hand bookstore in Brussels, Het Ivoren Aapje (the ivory monkey, named after a book by Herman Teirlinck). The bookstore not only is situated on a very intimate and somewhat hidden beautiful place in the centre of the city, the bookstore houses a very rich collection of second hand books, and the owner is very kind, attentive and a silent smiler. The shop, the books, the owner make you feel at home. Years ago, I went there more regularly, but lost the good habit because of the arrival of the very fine bookshop Passa Porta (new books), concentrating on personal projects and buying books online…

ivoren aapje-0609

Once again, as almost everytime I went in before, I left the shop with some new literature. Second hand books that have already been taken care of, that have already provided their previous owner pleasure, smiles, thoughts.

And once again, I left with a surprise – a book I already had searched but seemed out of press: the collected poems of Paul van Ostaijen (1896-1928). I did not want to buy a ‘best of’ that is easily available, because I like to make selections myself, and my waiting has been rewarded!

Some info on the Belgian poet, copied from

Paul van Ostaijen (1896-1928) is the most influential poet Flanders has ever produced. Every avant-garde movement since the interwar years has drawn inspiration from his work, and yet at the same time he has developed into the most enduringly popular modern Flemish poet.

Van Ostaijen gained his place in the international avant-garde canon with the collection Bezette Stad (Occupied City, 1921). Written in Berlin, it deals with life in his native city of Antwerp during the First World War. After complete translations into French and German, an entire translation is soon to appear in English (in Jacket Magazine) of this partly dadaist, partly political-activist book that to a great extent owes its fame to its inventive rhythmical typography and cynically unrivalled evocation of wartime suffering.
Much more frequently read, however, are the poems that van Ostaijen wrote after his Berlin period. ‘Marc greets things in the morning’, ‘Bersaglieri Song’ and ‘Recitative’ are among the very best-known poems in Dutch-language literature. They are playful yet also melancholic poems about the persistently intangible facts of human existence: the awesome strangeness of the familiar, the communicative isolation within which each of us is imprisoned and the social conventions in which modern man seeks to camouflage all of this.’

His collected poems can also be found @ dbnl (database dutch literature)

Because of the expressionist character and the importance of sound & rhythm, it is not easy to translate his poems in other languages. I found ‘Baroque Account’ on the net:

– when the boats of their senses’ beat
against the ever-swelling cliff
of a fragrance that’s sti1l open
to fantastic beasts
and plants that
shot through with fear
between the sea’s blue and the blue of the sky
are a sheer metaphor –
sometimes desire flames up in people so high
that they tackle the flimsy boat
and take to sea
the wind plays a delusion in the sails
an old delusion that lies
in a slump beyond the horizon
till the wind has blown the hull to bits
and from the pieces wafts the wine of the delusion
this old delusion
None knows the SOS beyond the senses’ horizon
and that at the bottoms of our souls there are antennae
that pick up only the vibrations
from beyond
Sometimes the urge will force the dream into a shape
and the body turns to dream

Other poems integrate typography into an essential part of the poem, as in this fragment from ‘Music Hall’:

And now I’m diving into the wonderful wor(l)ds of van Ostaijen.
Thinking about ‘Vera & Ludo’, who acquired the book on Dec 24 1973 (or received it as a christmas present). I imagine them reading van Ostaijen and guess the book started a second life because they moved to a smaller place and had too many books, or maybe, they left the world. I’ll take care of their van Ostaijen – hoping the poetry still echoes in them, wherever they are.
Reading van Ostaijen, but not without telling everyone: if in Brussels, go visit Het Ivoren Aapje, Begijnhofplein, Brussels.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s