Arno van Vlierberghe

- Belgium -

Arno Van Vlierberghe (1990) was born and raised in Brussels, but lives, writes and works in Ghent. In 2017 he published his first book of poetry, a collection of five long-form texts called Vloekschrift, which was nominated for the C. Buddingh’ Prize for best poetry debut. The Flemish critic Paul Demets noted that “few poets make their poetry debut with so little respect for the sacrosanctity of poetry as Arno Van Vlierberghe. His Vloekschrift is a manifesto against status-quo society and against all poetry that plays it safe.” His academic studies in contemporary Dutch and English literature firmly rooted him in several Belgian lineages of experimental writing. Shocked by the tragic death of the young American writer and activist Mark Baumer (1983 - 2017), fatally struck by a car during his attempt to cross the U.S. on his bare feet, Van Vlierberghe started writing his second book of poetry. Taking five years to complete, the project resulted in the book-length poem Ex Daemon (2022), which was nominated for the J.C. Bloem prize for the best second book of poetry.

Arno van Vlierberghe: ‘Writing like a blind dog yanking on a chain.’


In the context of contemporary Dutch-language poetry, Arno van Vlierberghe is not only an exciting new voice, he’s also an important ‘political’ poet. Artistically, he links this critical stance with the achievements of the neo-avant-garde, giving his work a strong international cachet. The characterisation of being ‘political’ refers not to a specific ideological agenda, but, rather – following in the example of contemporary philosophers – to a critical performative attitude, a sustained attempt to understand and put into words the situation of the individual in an increasingly complex world. This is a poet who juxtaposes the playful irony of the postmodern generation with a certain critical irony: he makes fundamental comments about our habitus, points to symbols of injustice and exclusion, expresses a desperate desire for change. 


The tone of Van Vlierberghe’s noted debut collection, Vloekschrift (2017), surprised readers with a tone that was far from intimate or autobiographical. Indeed, in an almost clinical, scientific tone, the poet presents his personal case as an ‘I’ who also refers to himself in the third person as ‘Arno’: his worries, his family history, his studies at home and abroad, even the state of his bank account and his sex life. This complex and sometimes precarious existence is documented, as it were, by a series of cameras, which observe and monitor the individual. In this way, Arno loses his character as a unique personality, becoming rather a specimen of his species, a template and even an indeterminate ‘it’. This end of the self-conscious I as the centre of the universe goes hand in hand with traumatic factors that have fundamentally impacted our worldview: the internet, the refugee crisis, political problems, the globalisation of the late-capitalist economy, the climate crisis, the anonymisation of humanity. These are all motifs that appear almost incidentally throughout the collection, but which are all symptoms of a larger crisis.


In the face of all this, the poet is forced to be a spectator and a victim, while at the same time being complicit. In this way, his critical analysis provides him with a certain lucidity with regard to his own situation, but ultimately offers no way out. Van Vlierberghe therefore resorts to vloekschrift. His poetry, which embodies both ‘writing as cursing’ as well as ‘cursed writing’, is already a performative act. 


Ex daemon (2022) goes much further in this unmasking of false truths and false values. Even the poetic text as a coherent discourse is now deconstructed. The collection consists of a single poem of over a thousand lines, but the text fans out in all directions like a rhizome. The compulsion of linear reading is challenged by the fact that each line is printed as an isolated chunk of text (perhaps even as single-line stanzas or individual poems). In terms of its subject matter, what stands out are the many dissonances, the apparently chaotic leaps in thought and the enormous contrasts between linguistic registers. However, in contrast with this centrifugal dynamic are the more or less elaborate anecdotes and a network of motifs that evoke the suggestion of a coherent plea that rests on repetitions, summations and variations. In this sense, Ex daemon continuously forces the reader to make connections or interpretative choices and, in so doing, to reflect on their own reading behaviour. Van Vlierberghe points out in his own text the danger of hypotaxis (subordination in sentence structure that creates a hierarchy between clauses) and the alternative of parataxis (the mere juxtaposition and succession of divergent statements).


In Ex daemon, too, the poet seeks to expose the ideology of the personal: the subject is not the centre of their own life, let alone the universe. The individual is nothing more than an intersection of discourses, a node in complex social and political networks, an ephemeral illusion to which people stubbornly cling in order to find and define ‘themselves’. In this desire the poet recognises both a narcissistic fixation and a liberal-capitalist fantasy. The personal is therefore inherently political and vice versa. Van Vlierberghe resolutely opposes the prevailing emotional culture and any belief in the possible social engineering of the world and humanity. In doing so, he takes aim at not only politics and economics, but also the cultural sector and mainstream literary conventions (including the literary institutions that embody the belief in an autonomous existence). Through numerous disparate remarks, invectives and imperatives, Ex daemon formulates a total critique that cannot, however, be reduced to a superior attitude on the part of the poet: for that he is too aware of his own limited and paradoxical position and the danger of succumbing to conspiracy theories. Van Vlierberghe fully realises that controversial, societally engaged literature is ultimately part of the literary ideology of expression and artistic freedom, but also that, as a human being, it is impossible for him to break free from language and the categories and hierarchies embedded in it. It is for this reason that his ‘demonic poetry’, as a partial alternative, aims to be both critical and vulnerable at the same time. 


In this sense, the autobiographical residues and traces of anecdotes remain crucial, even if the poet hardly gives empathetic readers a chance to identify with his poetic plea. The praxis of life remains the point of reference for all insights, at any rate. Case in point: Ex daemon kicks off in 2017, with the tragic death of Mark Baumer, an American activist-poet who was struck down by an SUV during one of his awareness-raising treks. It seems that this event (coincidence, fate, conspiracy?) is what sets the whole writing process in motion and keeps it afloat, in part as an attempt to keep Baumer’s ideals alive. Towards the end of the book, we find ourselves five years on, standing on the precipice of the present. The grand dreams of fruitful and influential activism have not been realised, let alone a changed attitude towards humanity, society and earth. Nevertheless, while the poet continues to hope for a change of direction, he has, more than ever, become aware of his own limitations and his own vulnerability. In the end, the traces of that arduous odyssey are at least reflected in a powerful poem that speaks to our time: a word, an act, a date.   


Author of the essay: Dirk de Geest 


Translator: Jonathan Beaton