No. 4 & 5


H. C. ten Berge  

Translated by Paul Vincent  



From Het vertrapte mysterie / 
The Trampled Down Mystery (Amsterdam 2004)


Often it’s
the placing of objects
on a table
  someone wrote in a letter.
The waterglass, the hairpin,
a rose in a bottle,
freshly sprinkled, the water

How you begin
is a question
that matters each time anew.
No end yet in sight, the path
you follow innate strategies,
conflicting bright ideas, supple
or unbending,
and all contained by the rules of an enigmatic game.

The fact you begin, each time
anew, though you don’t matter yourself.
And what it’s about
is less important than music
in the street, a deserted station, a pain
that permeates life.

Shadow and light fall, lucid
feelings of, thoughts about,
an object of friendship, of rapture or hate.

Only seldom now and with no illusions
do you conjugate
to invoke (invoked, had invoked).

It comes down to
birth and death, between them some love
that lives briefly and fades.
Commonplaces, forever
on a seedy terrace in a dismal back street.

Yet each time anew there are still eyes that shine.
You drink in what you see, you refill the cup.
The end is in sight, the path trodden, a poem
almost done
you know hardly anything matters—

You sail on a ravaged planet
through a doomed and indifferent space. 


‘Where to begin,’ someone wrote to you once
    in a letter.
Often it’s close by:
a creature by the roadside (the armadillo
that blindly crossed), a landscape, a fox
on the barn, a sparrow
in the hedge, an empty house
at the edge of a wood—a squall of rain
lashing the plane-trees.

Perhaps a hare
summarily riddling a sleeping
hunter with buckshot.

Or like here,
glued together, eyes half closed
   a couple dancing the tango
on a street corner at night.
The café poorly lit, plastic chairs
   on an empty pavement.
He furrowed, serious, in hat and well-worn jacket,
a silk scarf around his neck.
She, a derelict beauty
   in a tight dress with a slit,
who has just executed
a sweep of the leg
in passing it seems, a fraction delayed,
with finesse:
Raw and intimate this dance
a poem
that with casual mastery
surpasses all else.


This hole in the wall, nothing more to be done:

Perro with mange at the door, a battered
saloon, their life’s
on the pavement with absinth, front-wall paint
green as bile
flakes off into the glasses.
Look, Felipe’s sucked off at the bar,
Mary Jane, bobbysocked, gets eaten over a table.
Backpacker from the States, long ago
was stranded here
   when a tango brusquely
bit deep into her soul.
And no one drinking or dancing
can foresee
that the lovers like mangy dogs
will get to the end of the film
of the book
—matured by experience, struck dumb with pain—
only in cruel isolation.

Mary Jane Reed: Self-Portrait, or
What a Sexy Tango Did to Me.


Someone asked a question about someone
who as a dipso dancing master tried to get something started

Someone asked a question about someone
who couldn’t get anything started

Someone asked a question about someone
Who just kept asking questions back

Whoever did not know the answer
found a sliver-thin question served up for his breakfast
that even a dancing master got stuck in his throat 

Someone asked a question of someone
who was always getting left out

Whoever was asked everywhere
could find nothing to ask about someone
who always got left out
and just waved empty notes about
that he had first paid in 

Whoever asked why he was never asked
had his nose put out of joint or got no change at all
so that he turned up for coffee
with egg all over his face
an at last they had a good laugh

Whoever did not grasp the question
passed it on to someone
pretending to be Mescalito, the sliver-thin dancing master

Then someone asked a question about someone
who might himself be the answer 

as long as over his plate he did not choke
on the question
of a pious, dipso prophet of hope


The physical universe
  of a couple dancing the tango—

Tango is Tao:
banished chaos
nature subdued

Thus it begins every evening anew:
The bodies a fraction apart
  yet inextricably
The man in the well-worn jacket,
the woman with a rose in her dyed black hair
  move severely and daringly
through the light
on a grubby street corner.

Music sucks the dirt
from invisible wounds.
Reined-in love bolts
from the hole in the wall.

The shoes are as shiny as ever.
Shoes are the pride and dignity
  of those who have almost nothing.
This dance is a closed domain.
A one-on-one bound for oblivion.
Elsewhere a private shrine awaits
with plastic flowers and the smile of the Holy Virgin.
To be like Her for a heavenly hour
  and yet to be mortal flesh.

Seldom fit, infinitely tired, not yet
worn down by life
with measured steps they pivot through the night.

Deep song. Bandoneon.
It ends with the body and the earth.
It ends in the quarter, the street, the bar.
Bitterness and sadness in the heart.
  El cuerpo y la tierra.
Bitterness sweetened by pain.
¡La calle Piazzolla en mi corazón !



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