MIPN 2002, 13-16 juni
Rhyme or Riesling
As a member of what Horace called 'the touchy tribe of poets' I was recently invited to Maastricht in the southern tip of the Netherlands. There were thirty of us and no sign of touchiness save the occasional sideways mutter, but then we were continually and liberally pacified with fine food and wine. The Maastricht International Poetry Nights are held biennially, this year from 13 to 16 June in the impressive domed Bonnenfantenmuseum, which was designed by Aldo Rossi and looks rather like Hieronymous Bosch's Beehive with Crotch Monster. The museum is named for the 'good children' of earlier centuries, left in the cloisters nine months after the noblemen of the Netherlands had co me south for the hunting season. Maastricht or 'Maas crossing' grew up round a Roman bridge over the Meuse or Maas River. It is a town of many sieges and has passed to the Spanish and the French, then back to the Dutch, with the Belgians staking a late claim, so it's a confluence of cultures and languages. The local dialect is a mix of Dutch, German and French, with a longer, more melodious lilt than you hear up north. This is as far as the icesheet came so you might say south begins here.
Being early summer and hot already there are tables and chairs under the linden and lime trees in Onze Lieve Vrouweplein, and all are packed with locals, tourists and mugs of beer - Jupiler, Duvel, Maes, Westmalle Trappist (a strong, silent brew) and the lighter, fragrant Vos. The square empties towards nightfall, which is not until ten-thirty or eleven, and the Middle Ages seem to impend in the thirteenthcentury city walls gentled by dandelions and in the fortress-like Basilica of Our Lady with its Romanesque blind arcading. The few people drifting by seem insubstantial; as the Dutch poet Rutger Kopland writes, 'It is not time which passes / but you and I who pass. ’ He is one of the poets speaking and reading this year in Maastricht.
The evening performances are bilinguaI, with the poems read by each poet in his or her language after the Dutch translation. There are some extra versions in English and I can follow the French and Italian readings but this still leaves about twenty-three readings in which I can only guess at the poetry by the person, and by the sound patterns and audience reaction.
The next night at Gadja Mas we have rijsttafel-rice table, a tradition here, with ikang bali, babi ketjap, sambal goreng, oedang, satay, kroepoek. Then the first of the Poetry Nights: a lecture, an interview and several readings. The audience particulary warms to Tonnus Oosterhoff who gives us his website address; he has a fluid, open attitude to the poems he posts there: words in each line regularly slip away to be replaced by others, a playing with chance and serendipity. Frieda Hughes from the UK has learnt the language of pain early and can make of it a poetry healing for her 'Three Old Ladies':
Beaks open magiccracks
like eggshell in their dry throats
Breakfast under the chandeliers of the Hotel Beaumont takes a good hour and is the main opportunity to talk shop with, for instance, Paulo Ruffilli from Treviso. He tells me his work is influenced by Taoism (he has translated the Tao Te Ching into Italian verse) and that he aims to create his poems as spaces opening onto further spaces, which sounds rather like Chinese boxes raised an octave.
He was fired and free.
I can also follow William Cliff from Brussels who is afflicted by nasal polyps. They make him sound like Jacques Brel. He tells me that’s ni consolation. As I expected, he is sardonic and provocative: 'Why do we buy gas from the Hollanders?’implying in the French ‘Why must we cop hot air from the Dutch?'
He moves through the labyrinth
Peter van Nunen offers to take me with Gennadij on a tour of the Old Town. We start on the Rive Gauche, the newer part of town, reconstructed ten years ago. Under the thirteenth-century water gate there is a crow picking over a white-bellied eel. Peter points out the spire of the City Hall copied by Peter the Great for the main monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church. We follow the walls to the Gate of Hell; just inside is a slightly tawdry Dico Heaven. Nearby is a potent anti-sculpture- a glassed-over hole in the wall of a new building just where the old wall would once have passed. And a plaque: Ik ben niet zo als ik was -absence given a voice.
The last evening begins with a Dutch smorgasbord; the writers who have already done their turn are drinking strenuously; we have been given a liberal supply of drink vouchers as a part of the hospitality of our hosts, notably Hans van de Waarsenburg in his Aristide Bruant hat. Performance styles vary widely, even Ulrike Draesner from Germany upstages her translator with a gangly puppy on a long leash. I am waiting for him to pee on the mike but Lily, the treasurer, stalks up and leads him away. Chouchanik, gathered into herself, reads hypnotically in French, half-veiled by her long dark hair; surreal images thread each other in nervous acrobacy: 'Anima, sad animal of crystal, your gesture is desperate. ’Le style c' est la femme. Rutger Kopland reads many of his poems in English as well as Dutch. He reminds me a little of Wallace Stevens in his balance of questioning and measured reflection.
After the young Dutch poets' session on the Sunday afternoon there is a pizza party in a ferny garden under a wisp of moon. André and Snezana, who like my quince poem, insist that I should try their palinka, Hungarian quince brandy.
On the way do the station later I stop at a patisserie for a pyramid, a grenache and a frangipan, then have to eat them at one sitting on the train to Utrecht as it is a humid thirty – three degrees and the chocolate is melting. I am going back to my friends Marian and Frits in Wijk bij Duurrstede with its horse-chestnut trees and doves and moated castle and thinking of that Hole in the Wall and Rutger Kopland’s 'Outside cour thoughts there is no time. ' I don't know, it's as good a concept as any for how things change. Among the thirty or so poets reading at Maastricht there would be thirty different theories of time. Along with 'the self' it’s our obsession. Heidegger reckons time is the horizon of being, but we still keep trying do see beyond like hopeful little tadpoles mouthing the meniscus. I sip at the the last of the cakes, which is dripping with cherry liqueur
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