The European Constitution in Verse
Can the European Constitution be rewritten in poetry? The original European Union's constitutional treaty, completed in 2004, may have been a carefully crafted political compromise, but it was also a huge tome full of technical language and political jargon. Many people failed to read or understand it, or they simply didn't care about it. After it was voted down in referendums in France and the Netherlands, the project was eventually completely abandoned.
A literary group in Belgium called the Brussels Poetry Collective - coordinated by David Van Reybrouck and Peter Vermeersch - wanted to see whether they could come up with an alternative version. The aim was not to popularize the institutions of the EU, but to reclaim Europe and to put the debate on Europe where it belongs: among the free citizens concerned. What's more, they wanted to create a European Constitution that people would actually read.
To achieve this goal, they worked with more than 50 poets from all EU member states and a number of writers who had recently immigrated from outside Europe, people who had been forced to leave their native countries because of their opinions or dreams. The list includes well-known figures such as Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney and Cervantes Prize winner Antonio Gamoneda, but also young voices from smaller countries such as Petr Borkovec from the Czech Republic and Louise Rosengreen from Denmark. The result is a collection of new and cutting-edge contemporary European poetry. But it is also something more than that. Individual voices from all the corners of the continent speak about their common heritage in contrasting ways. They are critical as well as passionate, serious as well as satirical, enigmatic as well as political.
In Greek mythology, Europa was the daughter of a Phoenician monarch who was abducted by Zeus, the supreme god, and carried off to Crete. Even in this story Europe started outside Europe: Phoenicia was where Syria and Lebanon are now. The Belgian sculptor Koenraad Tinel made a monumental sculpture of the abduction of Europa in sheet steel. It serves as the emblem of this new Constitution.
Read some of the poems below.
ARTICLE 19: ON THE NATURE OF RIGHTS
We are born with our rights inherent
Inscribed under our skin as capillary traces,
As blood-vessel lace – they adorn us!
And inspire us for life – irrational and rational!
When we die – the right to be silent and misunderstood remains
To grieve in the pond of existence
Like the shadows of water lilies.
(Liāna Langa. Latvian, transl. Margita Gailitis)
ARTICLE 20: THE RIGHT TO BE IN-BETWEEN
This article enshrines inalienably the right to alienation
for those who want it: Republicans of the in-between,
celebrants of the glorious prefix trans and all its panoply
of cognates: cousins, second cousins, siblings, half-siblings,
in-laws and out, the neither/nor, the both/and, the none
of the above, the signatories of the dotted sideline,
citizens of the hard-shoulder, the terrain vague,
the inside-out and outside-in, the bi-, the semi-, the demi-,
the ambi-, the half-blood, the half-cast, the rainbow-shades
of grey, the entre-deux-guerres and the entre-deux-mers,
the slipstream and the tributary, the river that changes its name,
the visa that’s all in the vista and the port that’s all in the passing.
ARTICLE 65: FREE MOVEMENT OF PERSONS
Thanks for the money, the box, your ever good ideas.
But come now! Visit us. Life’s wonderful here
unlike where you are. What’s stopping you? Avoid the fastest
roads, they look as if they run straight on but they take
strange turns. Find your way under your own steam. We
will wait for you. While you scramble across poles and wire, walk through
forests and the outskirts of cities, march and salute the legions of
corncobs, grasses, grains that stand nodding along the old
Roman road. Know this: we’re expecting you, we’re ready,
seated behind the wide-open arms of our kitchen window.
(Eva Cox. Dutch, transl. Judith Wilkinson)
ARTICLE 69: URBAN PLANNING
call her a calamity
a maze of rails and narrow streets
a shadow you take for a swarm
she continues stubbornly to make our winters
with shop signs, agencies and opera
with graffiti and skaters and wallpaper
with polaroids and dawn light and marzipan and pain
she smiles at your frozen white strain
save crusts for her wild ducks
throw the evening at her feet
what if we turn to crumbs
in her metros and in her Thursdays
she holds everything fast
she preserves us in her concrete hands
she treasures us, she squats
(Peter Vermeersch. Dutch, transl. Kate Ashton)
I was blind as a tombstone until one day I saw in the world true hands.
Not hands but a way of uniting without touching like leaves in the forest.
Now I know that the only song, the only dignity of old songs, the only poetry is
what speaks its love to this world, to this loneliness that maddens and forsakes.
I keep quiet, I wait until my sorrow and my hope are like what walks in the street,
until I myself can be in the body of all humans
until it’s possible to see with closed eyes the sorrow I already see with eyes open.
(Antonio Gamoneda. Spanish, transl. Frank Bergon and Holly St John Bergon)