Thursday, August 8, 2013

Arjen Duinker

Arjen Duinker was born in Delft in 1956. He has published one novel, Het moeras (The Morass, 1992), and over a dozen volumes of poetry. He made his debut in 1988 with the volume Rode oever (Red Shore). In 2001 Duinker received the Jan Campert Prize for his volume De geschiedenis van een opsomming (The History of an Enumeration, 2000). Misschien vier vergelijkingen (Maybe Four Equations, 2002) was nominated for the VSB Poetry Prize 2003, while De zon en de wereld (The Sun and the World, 2004) won that same prize in 2005 and has been published in English translation. Together with the French poet Karine Martel he wrote En dat? Oneindig (And That? Infinite), which was published in Dutch in 2006. Recent publications include Buurtkinderen (Neighbourhood Kids, 2009) and parts 2 and 3 of the encyclopaedic dictionary The World of the Glassblower (together with Bernard Heesen). Duinker also published books in Italy, France, Portugal, the UK, Russia, Iran and Finland. He collaborates with Yang Lian and Kees 't Hart.

Parrots and Other Birds

Translated from Dutch by Astrid Alben


I get the impression
I am on an aeroplane.
Or in a parallel reality.
Or in a reality that is unreal
Or vice versa, although I’m not sure
There is a difference between reality
And unreality, or between a real unreality
And an unreal unreality.

I don’t care.
Hennie uses words
That were Dutch words once.
Most of them I’ve not heard before.
He travels across South Africa with tourists,
Talks history, at length.
They call him Hennie Wikipedia.

I’d read up on Stellenbosch back home,
Learned the names of the mountains by heart.
I mimicked the sound of the birds
And coloured their feathers.


Stellenbosch, I was in Bellville yesterday,
I visited the university, observed faces and postures,
Had a coke, talked with teachers, chuckled at phrases,
I felt at home.

We drove back and had a couple of beers among the vines.
I tried to imagine living here full-time,
But couldn’t.

My travelling companion mentioned
That he enjoyed visiting the Netherlands,
That he didn’t idealise it,
But admired it.

He also talked about making decisions,
About the future, about today
And about poverty.

The sun began to darken.
All around us people were eating,
We shared the colour of their skin.
I leave for Delft, I said, day after tomorrow.


Stellenbosch, I walked along the street to ask someone a question.
I saw women in cars, men on bikes.
I saw men in cars, together with women.
I saw a woman on a bike.

But she disappeared between two buildings
Before I could wave her down.
Luckily she reappeared moments later,
With a bag on her back.

She stopped when I raised my hand.
I asked: what’s your favourite street corner in Stellenbosch?
I don’t have one, she said, I have a favourite lover,
A favourite temperature, a favourite time of day.

I asked: this lover is he a rugby-player?
You know I think rugby is an amazing sport?
She said no, he’s a boxer and quite a talent,
I sometimes watch him train.

I said: one of my best mates is a boxer,
But I’ve never seen him in action in the ring.
Another friend also used to box,
Back in the days when birds could still fly backwards.

I also know a man, stick-thin he was,
Who fanatically bulked up his body with gymnastics.
He lived round the corner, but not anymore,
As is what happens with some people.

Yes, but joking aside, she said,
What brings you to Stellenbosch,
You’re Dutch, right,
Are you here looking for family?

By the way, am I easy to understand?
I said: yes, I can follow you quite well,
Sometimes when you go a little fast you lose me,
But that probably works both ways.

When people speak Afrikaans,
It’s like listening to a Scandinavian language.
I’m from Delft, maybe you’ve heard of the name?
It’s halfway between The Hague and Rotterdam.

A friend of mine lives in Cape Town,
Alfred, he was a bouncer in a club,
These days he works in construction.
Married an amazing woman.

I saw him earlier today,
We had lunch in the Botanical Gardens.
Nice place, she said, my Granny often went.
I said: have you ever been to the Netherlands?

No, she said, but my father has, for his job,
I’d rather go to Vietnam.
Have you been to South Africa before?
I said: this is the first time.

I am here to listen and to watch,
To wonder round and rest,
To meet strangers in the street
And to forget about myself.

What I really wanted to say is I was on the run
From sickness, money worries and loneliness,
But the burning sun and the burning green
Got in the way.

Don’t forget to drink wine, she said, and to breathe.
Do you like Stellenbosch?
I said: it’s noticeably quiet,
I sleep sound as a log at night.

Tomorrow I’ll visit Delft, near Cape Town, do you know it?
I’ve never been, she said, but I’ve seen it on the signposts.
I’m off to the gym now, then some revision.
I said: okay, and I’ll walk along street corners.


Rain. Parasol. Cigarette. Coffee.
Stare out at the paddling pool.
Note stuff down in an exercise book
So as not to have to read it back.        
List facts coolly,
Stroke the cat, whistle the tune
I normally whistle to Zwaan and Zazie…
Walk into the room brushing my teeth.

Looking in the mirror isn’t my hobby,
I much rather curse and throw on a shirt,
Evidence I couldn’t care less about more,
More about less, less about less or more about more.
I often cook up plans with Eltjo, practical plans
That will make us stinking rich.
A beauty salon in the capital of Kirgizstan,
A Laundromat in the Atacama, a tube station without the tube.

It’s good seeing Bart, we wait in the hall
For Paul and Sabrina Gympies’ car.


Annemie, Rentia, Stefan, Nathan, Ronelda,
Did you know Delft is also an island?
Part of Sri Lanka, in the Strait of Palk.
These days it’s called Neduntheevu
But the name Delft is also still in use.
Apparently there are remains of a temple,
And of a fort.

Then there is another Delft, a hamlet in Minnesota,
I saw it on a handful of foggy photographs.
Thom, an American friend, wrote to say
He once drove through Delft
In seven seconds!

My own Delft, I suppose, I know quite well,
Delft near Cape Town is ten times its size.

The Gympies live in Delft,
They drive us round, point at buildings,
Explain its politics, healthcare, the corner shops.
Murder, gangs, rape and local government.
Shacks, Township Housing, blacks, coloureds,
Indians, Congolese, Nigerians, families
Falling apart, unemployment, drugs and aids.

Bart has been here before.
I don’t know where I am.
There’s a mist hanging in my eyes.
Can you say one poverty is worse than another?
More without shame? More scorching? Chaste?

We also get out in Blikkiesdorp,
Twelve square metres per family home,
Alleys spanning no more than two metres,
Boiling hot in summer, in winter
A playground for the wind and rain.
Illegally tapped electricity.

I try to imagine this is where I live,
Among the alleys, the electric wires, the toilets
And all the inaudible voices, but I fail.

Next, a small neighbourhood with better housing,
Built with money from a bank.
The houses stand empty,
Look out on the poverty closing in
Day by day.

In Peace Park Nelson Mandela
Through the rain towards containers
Where we meet a bunch of women working at
The library, for Aids Support, for Family Support…
I breathe in.

We visit a high school with a young headmaster,
He addresses us in English with incredible calm.
One computer between twelve hundred pupils,
And the individual problems of the kids.
I breathe in.

We visit another building,
Where eight women talk to us in Afrikaans
About their activities, I listen,
Miss some of what they say, watch their eyes,
Their hands, their clothes, their will, their skill.
Rape, gangs, murder, aids, drugs…
I try to breathe.          

We visit the Gympies in their home.

Back to Stellenbosch after that
With a stopover in a shopping mall in Goodwood,
Paul and Sabrina treat us to coffee and a sandwich.

I don’t know what to say.


My voice comes back and I sing with Alfred,
Listen to Saskia, laugh with Heinrich and Liza Mirò,
Drink wine in Rozendal with professors, eat under a tree,        
Peer through the dark at a street sign
And strike up a conversation with a man concerned about me,
Ask after the name of a song,
Drink beer in a party tent, embrace Gert Vlok,
Listen to hearts break outside a pizzeria,
Order The Gypsy, watch German tourists
Fail at making themselves understood,
Spot a family across the street wearing crash helmets,
Including the baby in the pram,
Note down ‘Thermodynamic analysis of faith’.

God Almighty, this place is strange!
Fantastic parrots and other birds!
So much red and yellow and green and blue and white,
So little black!

You know what, before my father met my mum,
He had an affair with Rietje Contant
Who later married a Van der Stel!

Maybe I need a favourite street corner,
Maybe it’s a getting used to you.

Arjen Duinker wrote Parrots and Other Birds as a commission for citybooks Stellenbosch. citybooks is an initiative of the Flemish-Dutch House deBuren (the neighbours). In cooperation with international partners, deBuren invites authors and artists to reside in interesting cities all over the world. Inspired by their stay they write a citybook: a short story, an essay, or a series of poems. Each city is also portrayed in twenty-four photos and twenty-four City One Minute films. All the citybooks can be downloaded for free as an audiobook (podcast) of thirty minutes, as an e-book and as a web text in English, Dutch, French and the local language of the cities.

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