Image of Heavenly Life cover 
Norbert Hirschhorn

Heavenly Life: Selected Poems by Ramsey Nasr

Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer.  Banipal Books.

ISBN 978-0-9549666-9-0. 169 pages.

Human Music

Ramsey Nasr tells a revealing story: in Ramallah he presented a poem about a breakup of a love affair in which the woman “cuts off all his senses one by one until he stands in front of her like a lifeless figurehead and she can rest”. Nasr took his poem to be “domestic and mundane”. The audience, however, heard an allegory of two nations in a throttling embrace, and wept. “The meaning of a poem”, Nasr realized, “depends on the person reading it and much less on the person who wrote it”. Or as Jorge Luis Borges aphorized: “Art happens every time we read a poem”. Thus we read Nasr with care. His lines mostly parse the syntax and most often use little or no punctuation. He presents his work in lower case, which provides a spare Zen look, one that requires the reader to move slowly over the verse, the better to absorb its sound and meaning. (The award-winning translator David Colmer must be applauded for his lyrical rendering.)

Nasr was born in Antwerp, son of a Dutch mother and Palestinian father. He is now Poet Laureate of the Netherlands. In his Selected Poems we discover the artistic path that has brought him acclaim and honours from his countrymen.

Nasr’s love poetry, for instance, burns with orgasmic fever. In “Silly Juliet” the speaker will “keep ten toes for you/ and both my heels will shoot out light-blue gas . . . my bones explode like hot swamp gas/ I am radiant . . .” In an excerpt from a longer poem about Orpheus “a tender kiss on her little toe” causes a “deep-dark blue/ and cold blue flame” to flare and light the other toes like candles, or sparklers. Orpheus dissects and empties Eurydice’s body, now “a mass of seething magma” and enters it in perfect union: “when I step into your waiting pelvis/ both my legs just melt away at once”. This breathless arousal reminds me of Nijinsky dancing Le Sacre du Printemps. More chaste but no less erotic is “psalm for an origin”, a passionate appeal to the god-within-us, echoing the Song of Songs.

Some poems are experimental, and charming. A hangover is portrayed in “my aching head” where the poet and the reader “see stars”: “my * aching * head *** like * lumps”. Others aren’t so charming, such as the overly precious “the true lover”; or the language-poem, “credo”, (“confection-crapping a true Vatican box full of chocolate liqueurs”) ending abysmally with “compared to liberian rebels gang rape is poetry too”. And although the Dutch poet Victor Schiferli observes in an introduction, “the question of Israel and the Occupied Territories is a constant thread through Nasr’s work”, there is only one poem dealing directly with the matter. In “the subhuman and his habitat”, Nasr bitterly recounts a Palestinian welcoming a guest with instructions on how to get through and around checkpoints – even as people in wheelchairs and cancer patients must, “because that’s the whole idea”.

However, the jewels in this collection are the operatic treatments of the lives and art of Dmitri Shostakovich (Stalin’s “holy fool”) and Willem Mengelberg (the “Boss” for fifty years over the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra). Each tried desperately to keep his art as the enduring and only truth, even in the face of cruel, ruthless regimes – Communism in Russia and Nazi occupation in Holland. Each poem is tuned and organized to the movements of major compositions: Shostakovich’s “Sonata for Viola, op. 147” (his last work before his death in 1975); and Gustav Mahler’s “Fourth Symphony”. Mengelberg worshipped Mahler, the Jew, and his music. He tried to protect the Jewish musicians in his orchestra, but finally acceded to the Nazi de-Judification of all art. Nasr has Mengelberg explain: “I am an artist/ and an artist must not/ get involved with politics”. These gorgeous poems do justice to the music. And what is poetry but the language form of human music?

From Banipal 43 - Celebrating Denys Johnson-Davies

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