The Week Before the Festival: Felix Poetry Festival, Belgium

Symbiosis of Word and Sound

A Review of Michaël Vandebril’s New Romantics

/ by Jasmien Aerts

In his second collection, New Romantics, Michaël Vandebril explores romance in all its forms. The poet works with the typical motifs at the disposal of the traditional romantic poets (think Rilke and Baudelaire) and connects these with the yearning but hopeful sound of the New Romantics. Vandebril looks, together with his readers, for the subjectivity of human existence and does so to the soundtrack of the synthesiser-drenched New Wave pop music of the 80s. It’s a bold experiment.


In Vandebril’s romantic discourse, escapism is king, and is embodied by the inexhaustible water and the sea. The poet finds comfort in water, where he most desires to be and where he can freely be the many versions of himself. In the “Spiegelschrift” or “Mirror Shift” cycle, the title of which refers to Narcissus, he concludes: “Leave me the memory of a beach / that erases our traces every day // We disappear into the scattered sand as if we walk over water The low wind // in the face I'm not afraid to sink, / throw my ring in the foam and become a fish.”


The following page reads: “stmroend wtaer kan je niet vduasthoen” or “you cannot hold onto streaming water.” This fragmented quote from the poem “L'introuvable,” illustrates how the collection works as a whole. The poet provides hints, images and sounds that integrate in an intuitive way. He writes sensitivistic poetry, which one should not only read but also feel, see and hear. It is therefore no coincidence that the collection comes with a video clip that works exactly the way the poems do. Fragments of images of the “poetry brothel,” in which Vandebril sells a piece of himself, are accompanied by a somewhat mechanical and fading soundtrack (Filip Vandebril of Black Flower & The Valerie Solanas). The sensual, fragile and intimate character of the video, which is only generated by suggestion, is also found in the rest of the collection. For example, in the verses “I wait until midnight / on this body of water // I pick the ferns from your weakest side / until the heat comes,” from the poem “De Veerman” or “The Ferryman.” Or “my watery domain where seaweed / grows and avoids our legs // we pull over ourselves extinguish / the cloud with our liquid lips” in the poem “Binnenzee” or “Inside Sea,” in which the lust is tangibly present.


The “Gedichtengroei” or “Poetry Growth” cycle offers the reader a look behind the scenes. The fragments listed here seem to be the germs from which the other poems have grown. Strikingly, the verses “everywhere I go a poet has been / before me,” open and close the cycle. The quote, which may refer to Sigmund Freud or to Cees Nooteboom, has become a cliché (the quote is recorded on the website, emphasizing in particular the borrowed character of the collection. On the stage is a poet who constantly changes his pose. “I'm a lie” says the lyrical “I.”


Likewise, the artificial plays a crucial role in New Romantics: “I hide / a glass stone.” The “I” is not only the poet, but also the flaneur, the liar, the ferryman and the doppelganger. The importance of the façade and the severity assigned to it are also found on the cover. Here, the poet (Michaël Vandebril himself), dressed as a dandy with wig and ringlets, looks at his own reflection in the mirror very seriously. However, he does not want to be light-hearted or frivolous. His poetic self plays its role with the dramatic seriousness that is the romantic soul itself. In addition to the exterior façade, it also conceals intertextual references. Maurice Gilliams can stand next to David Bowie and Jean Cocteau next to Kraftwerk. Vandebril shamelessly borrows themes and impressions from fellow artists and reworks them into his own work.


The meeting between the different worlds comes to a head in the “New Romantics” cycle. In this most experimental part of this collection, Vandebril searches for the symbiosis between word and sound, thus digging for the essence of poetry. The cycle consists of twelve poems, to which an “instrumental soundtrack” needs “To Be Played at Maximum Volume (While Reading).” Still, the musical character of poetry goes beyond playing a song while reading. The words of the poem and the sounds of the music interact and the rhythm of both of them creates a sum that is much more than its separate parts. Both the music and the poem consist of repetitive parts, which create mantras that are both formally interesting and content-specific. In the opening poem, “Refrain for a City,” which belongs together with the “Theme for Great Cities” song by Simple Minds, this is perhaps the most striking. This poem namely consists of an introduction of two stanzas, a centerpiece that is made up of three almost identical parts, spread over ten stanzas, and a conclusion of two stanzas. The repetition of the verses, in which sound play is essential, is intriguing and, together with the content of the words, creates an atmosphere that affects the reader and becomes addictive. It is therefore no coincidence that the collection comes with a video clip that works exactly the way the poems do.


met de snelheid van een luipaard
langs warme natte tuinen waarin stenen


pauwen en paden zich als draden
gedragen van een cocon


langzaam opgegeten door struiken
en kruinen en het tergend trage


zwellen van schelpen in het vijverwater

slechts een voorbode


van grotere tuinen waarin stenen

pauwen en paden zich als stralen


gedragen voor een zon

langzaam opgezogen door struiken


en kruinen en het tergend trage

zwellen van schelpen in het vijverwater.


with the speed of a leopard

along warm wet gardens in which stone


peacocks and paths behave like

the threads of a cocoon


slowly eaten by bushes

and canopies and the painfully slow


swelling of shells in the pond water

just a harbinger


of larger gardens in which stone

peacocks and paths behave like rays


worn for a sun

slowly sucked by bushes


and canopies and the painfully slow

swelling of shells in the pond water.



In this escape into romance, Vandebril has rediscovered a poetic terrain that is worth exploring further. The symbiosis of music and literature makes the collection New Romantics exciting and intriguing, and leaves the reader looking forward to more.



Translated by Stefanie Van de Peer

Jasmien Aerts