Wednesday 30 November 2011

Short poem by the Dutch (and Frisian) writer Tsead Bruinja

a choir sings

a choir sings
and compassion makes the air around us
as thick as syrup

then the record stops
all the entrails
fall out of the song

we are looking at
as if our first manger
was a guitar case

Tuesday 29 November 2011

A poem by the Danish Romantic poet
Schack von Staffeldt

By the lake

– And while all the waves are borne off apace,
I feel as if I there too had my place,
And staring into the image-filled lake,
In some strange longing my parting would take.

From still azure depths me greeting, I spy
A different nature, different sky;
All is ethereal there and ideal,
Like things in their pristine form more real.

My very first I from the purest blue,
My once purer self then whispers anew:
Why did you leave me, just leave me and go?
Oh, how I do love you, I love you so!

How strangely afraid and aching I seem,
My spirit escapes to more than a dream:
There appear to be gods and humans who
Embrace and mingle in depths of pure blue.

From Digte (1804). To see the original, go to here.

Another Swedish-speaking Finnish poet: Edith Södergran

The world bathes in blood

The world bathes in blood that God should live.
That his glory may persist, all else must perish.
What do we humans know of the eternal one’s pining
and what the gods drink to renew their strength.
God will create anew. He will reshape the world into a clearer sign.
Therefore he girds himself with a belt of lightnings,
therefore he wears a crown of flaming spikes,
therefore he envelops the earth in blindness and night.
Therefore he observes cruelly. His creator’s hands forcefully squeeze the earth.
What he creates no one knows. But it passes like a shudder
through half-awake minds. It is like giddiness at the sight of the abyss.
Before rejoicing choirs break out in songs of praise
it is quiet as in the forest before sunrise.


Sunday 27 November 2011

An early poem by the Swedish writer Gustaf Fröding

Guitar and accordion

Two neighbours reside in my dwelling
– the one sentimental in vein,
– with loud voice I hear him declaiming
of sorrow and life’s pain.

At times he is gloomy and bitter,
and melancholic, bizarre,
at times soulful, quite elegiac,
and sings at times to his guitar.

The other is sprightly and cheerful,
bucolic and coarsely burlesque.
For him are all sorrows and troubles
distortions, mere fancy, grotesque.

He broods not at all – for life is
a joke he just chortles on,
and whistles and sings while playing
his old accordion.

– You soon tire of hearing such antics
– and yet I’ve grown used to the pair;
the one quite resembles my present;
the other my past laid bare.

And sometimes, when sadness oppresses
and days to me seem too long,
I write down in music notation
small snatches of both their songs.

And should people say that the music’s
melodically poorly turned,
and isn’t quite all that it should be
where harmony’s concerned,

it comes from the fact that guitar song
and accordion song can quite
often both strike up at the same time
and come from left and right.

To see the original poem, go to here

Friday 25 November 2011

Poem by the Finnish writer
Johann Ludvig Runeberg (1804–77) who wrote in the Swedish language

Joy and sorrow

Joy and sorrow both
resided in my heart,
joy in the one chamber,
sorrow in the other.
irreconcilably separate,
first the one ruled
then the other, solely.
Since the one and only came here,
she’s opened, it would seem, the door
and has united both,
for my joy is sadness
and my sorrow bliss.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Translation of a poem by the Swedish poet Esaias Tegnér (1782-1846)


I stood where my life’s slopes had reached their summit,
Where watercourses strain and would untwine
And with their foaming wave would downwards plummet;
There it was clear, and standing there was fine.
I gazed towards the sun and all its planets
Which, after setting, in the sky did shine;
I looked down at the earth, so green and fair,
And God was good and man was honest there.

An evil spleen-filled elf appeared, who merely
Bit without warning deep into my heart;
Lo, all at once the world was void and dreary,
And sun and stars quite suddenly went dark;
My once gay landscape lay autumnal, weary,
Each grove grew dun, each flower stem broke apart,
All vigour died within my frozen mind,
All joy, all courage shrivelled up and pined.

What’s it to me, reality’s dead matter,
So dull, oppressive and so coarsely raw?
How hope’s once rosy hue has, ah, grown flatter!
How memory once blue, ah, clouded o’er!
And poetry itself! Its idle patter,
Its tight-rope saltos I would have no more.
Its vain illusions none can satisfy,
But skimmed from surfaces of things nearby.

For you, mankind, I should be praises saying,
You in God’s image made, how apt, how true!
Two lies though you are guilty of displaying,
Woman is one and, by her, man makes two.
Of faith and honour the old song needs praying,
Best sung when we deception would pursue.
You heaven’s child! What’s true, I would maintain,
Is, branded on your brow, the mark of Cain!

So legible a mark, writ by God’s finger,
Why did I fail to notice such a sign?
Through human life a corpse-like stench does linger
Which poisons spring’s air, summer’s pomp maligns.
That smell comes from the grave and seeks to injure;
Graves are walled up, by marble guarded fine.
Alas, though, foul decay is on life’s breath,
No guard shuts out its constant reek of death.

Tell me, you watchman, how the night progresses!
Is it unceasing, will it never end?
The moon, half-eaten, through the sky’s still presses,
The tearful stars still through the heavens wend.
My pulse beats fast as in my youth’s successes,
Hours of affliction though it cannot mend.
Each pulse beat’s pain, how endless and how raw!
Oh, my poor heart, devoured and bleeding sore!

My heart? Within my breast I none discover,
’Tis but an urn wherein life’s ashes lie.
Show pity on me, Hertha, you green mother,
Oh, let that urn be buried by and by;
In air earth’s pain erodes but still will smother,
In earth, though, surely it must cease its cry,
Perhaps time’s orphan, when earth’s school is done,
Will see its father – far beyond the sun.

To see the original, go to here.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Maybe the best-known Swedish poem!
C.M. Bellman's 'Gubben Noach'

            No. 35

            Old boy Noah ://:
            was a decent man.
            Once the ark had grounded
            in the fields he founded
lots of vineyards, lots of vineyards:
            Noah had a plan.

            Noah rowed out://:
            from his ancient ark,
            bottles he bought plenty,
            maybe more than twenty,
meant for drinking, meant for drinking
            in our green new park.

            He ne’er doubted ://:
            that all humans are
            by their nature thirsty
            like the beasts, so first he
planted vines, yes, planted vines, yes,
            growing near and far.

            Old girl Noah ://:
            was a decent wife;
            she let him drink early,
            if I’d such a girlie,
I’d get married, I’d get married,
            ere you could say knife.

            She ne’er scolded ://:
            Oh, you naughty man,
            put that pitcher down then,
            No, she didn’t frown when
at one draught he, at one draught he
            quaffed wine by the can.

            Old boy Noah ://:
            Had hair thick as thatch,
            chubby chins and goatee,
            cheeks so pink and rosy;
he could down it, he could down it,
            Cheers and down the hatch!

            Times were good then ://:
            on our earth so fair;
            food and drink ne’er lacking,
            no parched throats a-cracking,
all sat glaring, all sat glaring
            at a spread so rare.

            Formal toasting ://:
            people gave a miss;
            no one said at leisure:
            May I have the pleasure!
No, you drank it, no, you drank it
            at one go – like this!

Monday 21 November 2011

Poem by the Danish poet F.P. Jac (1955-2008)

i’ve been on the booze

i’ve been on the booze ever since i could make head or tail of myself,
a late-flowerer i refused war threats abstained from being for or against
christ and began to take my own pictures straight from the skin, dis–
appeared at every crucial moment so as to find peace at some outer place,
find value perhaps next to a girl’s temple that clearly reflected orgasm.
i had to get away from noise with a finger in my mouth and flowers in my hair,
find a corner and down a massive finger of gin while the leaves came out on all
the trees i mean i’m best on the whisky and porter boundary,
and no picture will be able to surprise me in my window haunt at night,
nix i’m a drunk but i carry around with me one of the biggest and the
tenderest of earthly hearts i’ve innumerable black cats on that, just ask the
girls on the street they know what state i’m in they know how i like to have
my neck caressed they know how the tongue’s to be laid out along the nose,
they will be able to attest to my decline be able to light up the beauty,
they will be able to admit that i am the last thing from the aesthetic universe,
i’ve been on fear longer than the tulip would probably put up with,
i have loved more glitter pictures than most people could possibly understand
in sorrow and confusion i have seen the rooms fall down like artificial ice,
i was on the booze long before the poem and love ever became
a possibility and i have seen a mother who changed her nature while she cried,
i have seen them dying emptying themselves while they called out in desperation for a
father who did not exist i have seen the pulse completely open one early morning
and i don’t want to get out of it don’t want to be subdued i bloody want to see the
girls when they entrust me their genital opening and ask me to clip,
let me be a damned sight more precise i want to radiate the seamy side i want to make
everyone beautiful and they are all to come and see the flower shoot from the very
lump of shit there’s no difference between soil and fertiliser there is life,
no one’s to deny me my boundlessness i belong to a cultural pause
i belong to an empty space inside the world i belong of a world,

The poem really does end with a comma! For a review, go to here.

Another poem by Nils Ferlin

Not a single

Not a single grey little songster
that chirps on a green-leafed bough
is found in what lies beyond here
and the prospect seems sad right now.
Not a single grey little songster
and never a birch that stands white –
But on summer’s most beautiful day I’ve at times
even so wished it were in sight.

A haunting poem, partly because of the music by Lille Bror Söderlundh to which it is often sung. The language of the original is extremely simple and difficult to capture in English. The author has deliberately introduced an archaic, folk-song like tone by adding an inflectional ending to the word for 'green'.
To see the original Swedish, go to here. To hear Sven-Bertil Taube sing a snatch from it, go to here.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Poem by the Swedish poet Nils Ferlin


Dedicated to Victor Arendorff, Högalid

In Arendorff’s day
skies were vast, never grey,
with the stars almost touching your hat.
People laughed til they dropped;
if at night you got copped
there was nothing so special in that.
And high spirits were there for the telling,
though a barrel made do for a dwelling.
And you starved and you froze
but you won by a nose.
There was nothing so special in that.

But now life is plain hard
in both street or backyard
in a pub or café or small flat.
You sit quiet as can be,
like a bust or a tree:
can you see something special in that?
No, in Arendorff’s day you breathed freely,
mixed with barons and counts ten times yearly.
If you spoke like a lout
well, you soon got thrown out:
There was nothing so special in that.

Times were quite debonair,
but with sleek head of hair
social levelling came in to bat.
We became, hardly odd,
just like peas in a pod.
Can you see something special in that?
People pay all their taxes, are civil,
but all recklessness shun like the devil.
Now life’s zest has been quashed
like a hat that’s been squashed.
I see nothing so special in that.

Yes, you live without pause
off the body that’s yours
and then whoosh, one-two-three, that was that.
And in some makeshift dray
you’re then carted away.
There is nothing so special in that.
Should a bird feel the urge to start trilling
at your passing, t’would be almost thrilling.
Though the vicar’s no bird,
mumbles hardly a word,
there is nothing so special in that.

To hear a snatch of the wonderful Sven-Bertil Taube LP, with Lille Bror Söderlundh's music arranged by Ulf Björlin, go to here. To see a recent YouTube version, with the old man still going strong, go to here. To see the original text, go to here.

Saturday 19 November 2011

And a self-epitaph by the Danish writer Johan Herman Wessel (1742-85)

The poet’s epitaph upon himself

He ate and drank, was never glad,
He wore his boot heels down one side;
Ambition – that he never had,
And finally just upped and died.

An epitaph written by Anna Maria Lenngren


Here rests Lieutenant Spink, a hero death did tear
away, alas, and to ancestral tombs dispatch.
His span of years was short, his feats though few could match:
he shot a sparrow once and rode to death a mare.

Another searching Swede! Johan Olof Wallin (1779-1839)

Where is the friend I search for without ceasing?

Where is the friend I search for without ceasing?
At sunrise, all my longing’s but increasing;
At sunset, still he does elude my yearning,
Though my heart’s burning.

I see his trace in every force revealing
In fragrant flowers, in ears of corn now kneeling.
With every sigh I take, each breath expended
His love is blended.

I hear his voice where summer winds are blowing,
Where woods are singing, rivers swiftly flowing;
I hear it in my heart most gently singing
And solace bringing.

Yet even so a mist from me obscures him:
My prayer but not my every gaze conjures him.
Ah, were I face to face where nought can sever,
Embraced for ever.

Ah, when in every vein of all creation
And life there’s beauty found in every station,
How beauteous then, with clarity eternal,
The source supernal!

Oh source of life, of peace, of bliss inspiring,
When will your wave so pure sate my desiring?
What can e’er lead me to your flowing fullness
But death’s still coolness?

My spirit, be consoled, hope, pray, stay fasting,
Your friend waves to you: you shall see, be tasting
How sweet he is and in his arms be sinking,
His mercy drinking.

Soon like the ark’s tired dove shall you be making
For distant shores on which no wave is breaking,
Like frightened lamb the shepherd’s bosom seeking,
And his safe keeping.

A real 'evergreen' - a poem by the Swedish writer Dan Andersson

I’m waiting…

I’m waiting by my log-fire while the hours gently wander,
while the stars all are roaming and nights come and go.
I’m waiting for a woman who comes from far yonder –
the dearest one, the dearest one with blue eyes aglow.

I thought of a roaming and snow-covered flower
and dreamt of a teasing laugh trembling and slight,
Imagined my dearest came here to my bower
through the forest, over moorland one snow-laden night.

Glad-hearted I’d bear in my arms this my dream-love
through brushwood to there where my small hut lies near,
and cry out rejoicing to my at last seen-love:
Oh, welcome, you awaited these lonely long years!

I’m waiting at my coal-stack while the hours stray and wander,
while the forests are singing and clouds come and go.
I’m waiting for a woman who roams from far yonder –
the dearest one, the dearest one with blue eyes aglow.

To hear the original poem sung, go to here

Friday 18 November 2011

A poem by the Swedish writer
Kristina Lugn (b. 1948)

I want you to come now!

I want you to come now!
I want you to come right now!
Bring your pocket calculator with you.
And the Steinway grand piano.
Bring along elastoplast aspirins eau de cologne and sanisept
a bottle of Ramlösa a bottle of gin a bottle of whisky and
a toothbrush mug
a bottle of Ajax and a large packet of sleeping pills a pot plant and
a pizza
and a respirator.
I want you to come right now!
Just you are to come right now!
And take me by storm.
You’re to switch off the ceiling lights.
And light the candelabras.
You’re to pull the phone out of its socket.
And inflate the rubber mattresses.
You’re to dry my tears and speak sense to me.
When the sun sets behind the Opera House.
And it’s time to go home.
That’s when you’re to come to me.
With your heart.
And your shot-gun.
So I never lose my head again.
In a tastefully furnished living room..
So I never stand once more on the window ledge.
And seem a bit nutty.
With a briar rose in my hand.
So I never crawl once more through the subways.
With an awful song.
On my cracked lips.
You must come now, you must come right now!
Quite simply because I can’t stand it otherwise.
Quite simply because it’s so bloody insistent.
Quite simply because I’m a completely ordinary woman.
Perfectly healthy and moderately overweight.
Quite domesticated, helpful and nervous.
Nice and kind and very frightened.
With general interests and an unexploited literary vein.

To see the original poem, go to here

Thursday 17 November 2011

A previously untranslated short tale by
Hans Christian Andersen

The Potatoes

‘Sooner or later, whatever is good will be respected and revered!’ Grandma said. ‘Just bear in mind the potatoes – they could say a thing or two about that, provided they could speak, of course!’

They had certainly experienced not being appreciated. It didn’t even help when the minister preached from the pulpit that they were both useful and a source of delight – people simply didn’t believe it; even kings handed them out so they could be put down, but were they ever? Dear me, no! There was, to name but one, the great King of Prussia, who people called Old Fritz – now there was a man for you! – he took good care of the potatoes too, gave away a whole cartload to one of the towns in his kingdom and had everyone summoned to the town square to the sounding of the drum; the town council, no less, had to show people the new vegetable, and instructions were read out as to how it was to be planted, tended and prepared. But it all went in one ear and out the other – people didn’t understand what was being read out, and went straight ahead and took a bite of the raw potatoes. ‘Ugh, how terrible they taste!’ they said and threw them into the gutter, where they could see that not even the dogs would eat them. But there actually were some people who were willing to give it a try, and some of them stuck their potatoes into the ground, one here and one there, and waited for a tree to grow up so they could shake potatoes from it; others threw the whole lot into a big hole, where they all got tangled up into one great lump and went into leaf.
– The next year the king had to start all over again, but the idea only sank in very slowly. – ‘The same there as here!’ said Grandma. ‘People have failed to appreciate the best vegetable that’s ever come our way! But now the potatoes can stand on their own two feet! – Now they are appreciated. Whatever is good will be respected and revered, sooner or later!’

How often, when faced with much of what seems to have to suffer so badly in the world, have I not thought of the potatoes and Grandma’s words.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Poem by the Swedish writer
Anna Maria Lenngren (1754-1817)

        The wearisome world

        Our vicar I observed the other day
        one morning, while as yet he lay
        stretched out exhausted ’twixt two sheets.
        His cheeks were rosy pink in hue,
        his podgy arms well-marrowed too,
        his massive belly hid from view
        surged t’ward his chin’s full-larded pleats.
A table by his bed, where breakfast was laid out
        stood ready for this man devout,
with butter and with chicken, such delicious food.
        This did the reverend set about
        and judged the sweet liqueur quite good.
        After displaying zeal aright,
        with swig on swig and bite on bite,
on his soft pillow did he sink back in despair
and cry out: “Mighty God, what is this life of clay?
        A fight ’gainst vanity and sin’s foul snare.
        Oh Lord, Thy strength grant me I pray
        so wearisome a world to bear!”

To see the original poem, go to here

Monday 14 November 2011

Song from 'Fridolins visor och andra dikter' (1898) by the Swedish poet
Erik Axel Karlfeldt

Song after the harvest

Here dances Fridolin,
on sweet wine he is drunk but serene,
on his fields’ yield of grain, berries’ juice like champagne,
and the tune of a waltz wild and keen.
See, with tight-fitting frock coat and tails on his arm,
how he dances each girl at the ball so warm,
till she leans – like a poppy whose drooping stem wanes –
on his breast, tired and blissfully calm.

Here dances Fridolin,
and the wine makes his memory keen –
here his father and forebears found solace so strong
in the fiddle’s high-droning careen.
But you sleep now, old ancestors, on such a night,
and the hand that made strings sing is no longer light,
and your lives and your times are a murmuring song
in which sighing and joy both take flight.

But here dances Fridolin!
See your son, he is strong, lithe and lean,
and with farmers speaks plainly the language they know,
but with learnèd folk Latin's routine.
Through your new land’s bright gold does his scythe sweep apace,
and his joy is as yours if his barn should lack space,
and his lass he lifts high, like his kin long ago,
t’ward the harvest moon’s red saucepan face.

For the Swedish original, go to here
If possible, listen to the poem, with music by Wilhelm Peterson-Berger,
sung by Sven-Bertil Taube 

Friday 11 November 2011

A poem by the Flemish poet
Hugo Claus


Here the soil is most rank.
Even after all these years without dung
you could raise a prize death leek here.

The English veterans are getting scarce.
Every year they point to their yet scarcer friends:
Hill Sixty, Hill Sixty-One, Poelkapelle.

In Flanders Fields the threshers
draw ever smaller circles round the twisting trenches
of hardened sandbags, the entrails of death.

The local butter
tastes of poppies.

A poem by the Dutch poet
Victor Vroomkoning


Orange-red crêpe paper round
a cobweb duster on a stem
of grey-white hair, it stands
ablaze, aflame. Groaning
and tearing in the wind,
its skins hang in tatters,
you find shreds left over.

The seed is blown away
from within to help you
to another world, only to
return twice as profusely, to
set fire to verge and flowerbed
where as a shower of sparks cock-rose
family does her best
to resemble it.

For a pdf version of the collection from which this poem has been taken, go to here

Thursday 10 November 2011

Another one by Aspenström

The inchworm

I stretch out full length from my cherry-leaf
and gaze toward eternity:
eternity is altogether too large today
altogether too blue and endlessly vast.
I think I’ll stay on my cherry-leaf
and take the measure of my green cherry-leaf.

A poem by the Swedish writer
Werner Aspenström (1918-1997)

You and me and the world

Don’t ask who you are and who I am
and why everything exists.
Let professors go into that,
they’re paid for it.
Place the kitchen scales on the table
and let reality weigh itself.
Slip on your coat.
Switch off the hall light.
Shut the door.
Let the dead embalm the dead.

Here we are walking.
The one in the white wellingtons
is you.
The one in the black wellingtons
is me.
And the rain falling over both of us
is the rain.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Poem by the Danish poet
Johannes L. Madsen (1942-2000)

spilt out sputtering with acid

        spilt out sputtering with acid
and with all thoughts ignited flailing
                        in divided mandarins
                separated and fully ripe lapping
        in green light and flight
                        with indifferent touches
                                sucked through the minute
                        seething with juice and spilt out
                from hopscotch and mandarins
        hopping on the flower
                in clumsy circles above
                        mirror-like puddles into
                                a face of smoke and no
                        fire ignited sputtering
                of mandarins but a face
        smoking with acid flash
and corroding in someone’s corneas

For a comment on the translation, go to here

Tuesday 8 November 2011

The 'poem' that starts Dutch literature

all birds are a-nesting
save me and thee
why now do we tarry

For the background story, go to here