After translating a short prose piece by the Dutch weekly author of ZKVs, A.L. Snijders (a pseudonym), about a man who comes with wood and with whom the author engages in conversion that even includes a discussion of writers of great poetry but with highly unacceptable fascist views, I come across a poem by Lars Gustafsson with which I am unfamiliar. Its title is ‘Svenska Vitterheten’. Odd word, ‘vitterhet’. I look it up in dictionaries of the Swedish Academy – the closest is the French belles-lettres. But Gustafsson’s title is that of a book by Lorenzo Hammarskjöld dating from 1818-19, the intriguing accepted translation of which is ‘A History of Polite Letters in Sweden’.
The poem seems like a collection of tiny fragments, brief images. I translate:
Ett randfolks dova sånger,
is under björkarna,
brunt gräs som vinden tar,
gammal grep som händer slipat
och i skuggan av det stora trädet
fjädrar av en duva höken slog.
A History of Polite Letters in Sweden
Borderlanders’ muffled songs
ice under the birch trees,
brown grass the wind catches,
an old hand-smoothed digging fork
and in the shadow of the large tree
feathers from a hawk-downed dove.
The last two lines are troublesome. They almost form a haiku. And the last line, which I translate first as ‘feathers from a dove the hawk has downed’ doesn’t feel right. Although the rhythm stays close to the Swedish. So I change it, after several attempts, to ‘feathers from a hawk-downed dove’.
And now it sounds completely right to me. And I don’t know why. There is this Da-da-da-da-Dum-Dum-Dum at the back of my mind. I can’t place it. It keeps on insistently recurring as the day passes.
Just before I go to bed I think of Snijders and his mention of Ezra Pound in his short story. Ezra bloody Pound! His famous two-liner:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
During the poetry translation process the mind sometimes floats free, in neutral. Da-da-da-da-Dum-Dum-Dum – indelible traces.