Wednesday 29 June 2011

Poem from the collection of the same name, Ormens tid (1992) by the Swedish poet Lennart Sjögren

The age of the snake

Sloughed our skin like the snake
and thereby survived one more year
but the art of sloughing is worse for us
than the snake.

Human skin does not slip off so easily
nor are there any deep heaps of boulders
where even the harshest of winters
can be lived through.

We must protect our lives a different way
when the heat is fierce
and apart from the outer wars
the real mutilation also
takes place within us
wherever we creep
we find fires and fires that have charcoaled.

To turn a deaf ear
and give oneself up to a coarsened cornea
that provides a certain legitimate blindness
only helps intermittently.

We call then on the snake
but the snake’s sleep has already begun.

There are other Sjögren poems on the blog, about a calf, pike, fox, crow. As well as a famous cycle of poems about bird-hunters, at a link from the poem about the fox.

Tuesday 28 June 2011

Unpublished poem by the Danish poet Emil Aarestrup (1800-1850)


Du var den fine Rose,
Blegrød i Sommerluften,
Og jeg var Atmosphæren,
Som fyldte sig med Duften


You were the rose in flower,
Pale-red in summer’s radiance,
And I the air around you
That filled itself with fragrance.

Another Lars Gustafsson poem from the same collection

Cartoon of the man with the cut-off shadow

Early one crisp September morning, with mists
lifting and dispersing, a line of migrating birds,

a man is waiting on a railway platform.
His shadow falls diagonally across the tracks.

It is very like him. It is his.
He ought to shift position. When the train comes...

(There is a type of humorous drawing
where this actually occurs – irresistably amusing)

Rubbish! A shadow is not vulnerable,
a shadow is something negative, is nothing at all.

In other words, a shadow can’t be cut off.

But this fear, what does it mean?

That half of reality is giddiness and dreams,
a utopia that follows us at a suitable distance, invulnerable.

While the war grows, the storm increases, our invulnerable shadow
of fictions, expectations and interpretations follows

close behind us, observing. It is like us.
But lacks every connection with the life we live.

And not even Plato, with his double worlds,
knew how right he was!

Cut it off, cut with heavy wheels!

And finally the train comes round the curve.
He gets on.

And takes his shadow with him.

Sunday 26 June 2011

A poem by Lars Gustafsson, this time from 'The Wright Brothers pay a visit to Kitty Hawk' (1968)


The small tin-boxes that contain screws.
The small tins with their worn-off trade marks,

originally intended to contain something else,
now contain screws. And nothing else.

A late autumn day, in a strong gale the magpies come
a whole dozen, flapping at the roadside.

The philosopher Plato, aged like a primary teacher,
in an unwashed jersey, considers them dispassionately

and knows that the archaic language they speak
is a dialect of the Ionic. Incomprehensible.

The world of ideas does not exist in rainy weather.

Once I too had a form to see with
and then understood the visible world.

One of these tins, small tin-boxes, has a picture on it,
one in fact of a gold medal in Amsterdam.

It now contains screws. Nothing but screws.

What other birds do I know of?
The wren. The wren of soundless stealth.

In the dusk between the hills and the houses.
Pauses for a moment at the edge of the ditch.

Utterly silent in flight.

Friday 24 June 2011

Back to 1600 and Theobald Hock once again!

When certain people get wise

Spaniards get wise in fitting guise –
Before the deed has time to speak;
Italians, rather, wisdom seek
Flagrante; Germans stay unwise
Till deeds are done, when passions rise.

That means, at best: Please be my guest
when dinner’s done – not bad advice!
The knock-kneed steed you’ll wait for twice
Before it comes. Don’t bolt the stall
Until the cow is gone withal.

If only, once the harm was done,
We could immediately get wise,
It would be easy to advise
And help us. Here, though, vain will be
Example, warning, rod or plea.

Others surmise they first are wise
When forty, they deserve full praise
Since they’ve had time to mend their ways
Or made at least a honest try,
Themselves have bettered by and by.

Others by shoal lack time and goal
To search for wisdom, for their part
They tarry in the fools’ great cart
And say: ‘When times lack rhyme and rule
Only th’unwise won’t play the fool.’

Many surmise they must be wise
Like fathers in the past have been,
In nature and in rank and mien,
Or since their views are roughly those
Their much-deluded masters chose.

Or in a daze and empty haze
Think lineage and ancient stock
When taken in one solid block
Will make them wise without a doubt
As if inherited, like gout.

How people and what’s more the land
Are shielded to a great extent
One clearly sees! Where fools are sent
To market, dealers profit much:
The wise world’s full of fools as such.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

And one more - the Swedes are nutty about rose-hip soup!

Rose-hip soup

The cool, cool rose-hip soup on the verandah.
Cream (if there was any) in the middle,

like a tiny cloud, a nebulosa
that grew at uniform velocity

in all directions. Perhaps an emerging
planetary system. Never the same way twice.

The grown-ups impatiently waiting:
Why does the boy refuse to eat?

What was it this cloud was trying to become?
How hard with one’s spoon to

introduce a dreary entropy
into this tiny universe!

And the grown-ups:
If you don’t want your soup, then I’ll have it.

Monday 20 June 2011

Another poem by Lars Gustafsson

Aimlessly wandering in a landscape
that is quickly growing dark and changing

The grass of December is as brittle as glass
and readily splinters underfoot.

It is intolerably late to live in December:
darkness, dilapidated barns, rusting implements

fruit-trees being eaten by moss, this patient decay
that we naturally associate with the countryside

and that gives you a sudden pain in the midriff
the moment you realise that what you are seeing

is an image of the future, of the life of the unborn
just as much as of the past and of the dead.

Ever narrower the strip becomes that divides them.
Ever easier to see that we too are meaningless.

The large white winter hares streak across the fields.
Ever more quickly man’s image is erased.

It is time to go home.

But we are already home.

Thursday 16 June 2011

A poem from 'A Time in Xanadu' by the Swedish poet Lars Gustafsson


That cold green streak
that was morning
had nothing in common
with us.

And the proud plumes of chimney smoke
rose straight up.
To some god who liked
such vertical movements.

And the scrunching underfoot!
Oh that indescribable scrunching:

no one could approach unheard
that was for sure.

And the suspicion that life
perhaps really was meaningless

and not just in Schopenhauer
and the other daring old guys.

But here too
under the sky’s white plumes of smoke.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

An even shorter poem by the Dutch poet J.C. Bloem


Through desolate spring skies the sun broke clear.
A flight of birds dropped in a sudden sheer.
The thinly sown snow melted on the earth.
Heart, you are free: you had no grounds for fear.

Friday 10 June 2011

A poem from '1001 POEMS' by the Danish poet Klaus Høeck

        and now that i had
learnt all the poems by heart
        and had learnt all my
        poetry by mind
all that was really left was
        life itself and the
        swallows and the kiss
es and the wild lilac’s mid
        summernight’s dream and
        the rest of the words
and at some point further on
        of course there was death

 I have quoted a lot of poems by Klaus Høeck. All six of his core collections are permanently available at the Royal Danish Library website. Just go to here

Thursday 9 June 2011

A poem by the Dutch poet Joke van Leeuwen

A woman who was old as old

A woman who was old as old,
a hundred years or more,
kept far too much, so I’ve been told,
though where I’m not quite sure.

Those things that someone now forgot,
those things that no one saw,
those things worn out as like as not,
or things in some old drawer.

Those things deep in some antique chest
or in some hidden well,
those things that stuck out from the rest,
all bones or hard to tell.

Not like those found in secret dreams
and those too tired to care,
she’s taken them away, it seems,
though I’m not sure quite where.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

An anonymous Dutch poem from the 14th century


My breast is sore afflicted,
My heart torments me so,
By all thy love inflicted
The wound does ever grow.
Where’er I turn, where’er I go,
By night, by day no rest is given;
Where’er I turn, where’er I go,
By thoughts of thee my heart is riven.

Monday 6 June 2011

A poem by the Flemish writer Hugo Claus


Autumn. Listen. Crackling. Can you hear that heavy rattling?
It draws near in our clothes, in our hair.
Lice of sound. What is this leprous mumbling?
Child, its the poets outside, their teeth chattering.

The closer the poets get to their moment of dying
The more furiously they groan for the stars.
In the morning mist in which their images melt
The poets freeze in a recognisable jacket.

Hear how feverishly they explain their imminent demise
For their death rattle has to be transparent,
Cause their widow readers to sob.

‘Oh, our ego was too obscure!’ they complain.
‘Time required that, polyinterpretable like us!’
And look, they crawl out the swathes of their souls,
Their mouths full of croquet and prayers for mercy
For their prostates, their plagiaries.

Oh close to death the poets suddenly discover
The calming miracles of gods, aphorisms,
Aspirins, caresses. For the first time their love
Can read something of her love with her lips.

And before the poets, loose winter apples
Rejected by the pickers because undersize
Finally also fall in November
They want to fall for ever comprehensible to the
neighbours. In milkman language, bruised fruit.

They continue to listen bitterly to the crumpling
Of the newspaper than keeps on spelling their name wrong
And they do their crosswords
Full of anecdotes, fear and stumbling loves.

But too late, too deaf, the poets realise
That what was obscure and obtuse in their verses
Does not become clearer by wear, by duration,
But that it goes on decaying. Their house, their word,
The equator, the azure remain unfathomable.
Their surly dark remains as volatile as money
And as vulgar as death.

‘But, by the way, yourself? Yes, you! Did you not revere
Fission, ferment rather than the monument?
Also seek an epitaph in each motet?
Wring an emblem out of each injury?
Find your dented ego in each plate of thymus?’

- ‘Oh yes. Still upright I dream of the literal.
For sure. Until the end those worries, roses.
Paradises, radishes, dried-out likenesses. With
To this sheet of paper these corpses of letters.’

Adieu the poets write all life long
And greying like lavender in November
They continue - gangrene and jest and puzzle -
To pitifully beg for sympathy,
As I for the wear and tear on my ears and eyes
That loved you, love you.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Another poem by the Dutch poet Ida Gerhardt

The carillon

The people in the streets looked stricken,
their ashen faces drawn and tight, –
then something made their features quicken
and, listening, they seemed brushed with light.

For in the clock-tower when, resounding,
the bronze-chimed hour had died away,
the carilloneur began his pounding
and everywhere was heard to play.

Valerius: – a solemn singing
with bass bell’s tolling undertone
and flickerings of lighter ringing:
‘We raise our eyes to Thy high throne.’

As one of all those nameless people
who by the house fronts came to stand,
I listened to the pealing steeple
that sang of my afflicted land.

This speechless gathering, beyond us
the city with Dutch light above –
I’ve never for what’s stolen from us
felt such a bitter, bitter love.

War year 1941

For my own workshop process on this translation, go to here