The Idiot in the Bath
Each week, his shoulders hunched, his eyes pinched tight,
hastily stumbling, often tripping on the mat,
borne up by Nurse's arm, an ugly, awkward sight,
the idiot makes his way toward the bath.
The clouds of vapor rising from the froth
begin to calm him down: white steam...
and with each piece of clothing that comes off
he settles deeper into an old, familiar dream.
And as the nurses gently lower him in,
he folds his skinny arms against his chest
and like a baby lifted to his mother's breast,
he sighs, and curls his lips into a blissful grin.
His anxious face has now gone vacant and serene.
His skinny feet stick up like two pale flowers.
His pale and wizened legs seem full of youthful power,
half-visible, like trunks of birch trees in the green.
He drifts in this green water like an unborn child
who has not learned some fruits don't ripen as they ought.
He has the wisdom of the body, undefiled,
and does not need to understand the ways of thought.
And when he's taken out and wrapped up in a towel
and vigorously dried from head to toe
and feels them tugging on his stiff, hard clothes,
each week, he struggles and begins to howl.
And every week he is reborn once more
and cruelly wrested from his watery den,
and every week the same fate lies in store:
to have remained a frightened idiot once again.
I dreamed that I was living slowly,
More slowly than an ancient stone--
A nightmare: above me, around me, below me
All shook, twitched, sprouted. I alone
was still. I saw the urgent force
that split the soil as trees burst free,
singing in voices cracked and hoarse.
Each season flew off after the others:
a dizzying whirl of rainbow colors.
I saw the trembling of the sea,
its swelling and its hasty shrinking,
a giant gullet always drinking.
Day vanished into night and came
alight again like flickering flame.
Those gesturing things showed such intense
desperation and eloquence,
awoken from paralysis
to struggle, wild and merciless...
How could it be I never guessed,
I never saw the truth till now?
I must forget again—but how?
So many kinds of pain,
too many to name.
Just one: to say farewell and part.
And the severing is never
As hard as being severed.
A leaf is lovely still when its bare bones
weigh lighter than a moth upon the earth,
all essence, without flesh to pad their worth.
But between the veins of suffering, no art
remains to charm your absent heart,
only the gaps you left by going away,
still held together by a little sorrow
and growing larger by the day.
Hollow, and ashamed to be so hollow.
M. Vasalis (1909-1998), one of the best-loved Dutch poets of the twentieth century, worked as a child psychiatrist and wrote poetry that combines elements of free verse with traditional forms and metres. Vasalis established her reputation with three volumes published between 1940 and 1954, but declined to share her later poems with the public. A fourth, posthumous volume was published in 2002.
The originals of ‘The Idiot in the Bath’ and ‘Time’ were published in Parken en Woestijnen, Van Oorschot, Amsterdam, 1940;
‘Soto voce’ in Vergezichten en gezichten, Van Oorschot, Amsterdam, 1954.