Bertel Gripenberg

Poems by Bertel Gripenberg (1878-1947)


Lyric Poetry

Mosaic made from fragments of emotion —
A tiny drop of elixir, gold tear
Pressed from life’s dark and obscure potion —
A whole from what true wholeness cannot near —

A cipher game played with the best jewels chosen
From language and shy dreams, light, silver-clear —
Child of the present hour and of the notion
The poet creates — words’ happy, blithe fakir —

A footprint of the moment’s flying glimmer,
Of music no ear ever heard, a tremor,
A mirror-image poured on glistening floods.

An arrow shot high in the sky, ashimmer,
A drop of blood poured out from veins that simmer —
Behold your essence, poetry, game of gods!

The Lattice Gate

You call a sonnet poets’ vain self-esteem,
That mingles emptiness with glittered rhyming,
But locks life within narrow walls, confining,
Extinguishes the hearth-flames of the dream.

A tracework gate that ends the wanderer’s road —
The sonnet; but a blossomed bough is hanging
Above the wall, and through the gate comes thronging
A far-off murmur from a far-off world.

‘Thus far, no further,’ softly the wind whispers.
So stop here, wanderer, by the gold gate’s lattice.
You’ve seen enough, no more’s vouchsafed to you.

Outside that portal which, never opened, rumbles,
You may give ear to muted song that trembles
With greetings from that world you’ll never view.

The Nightingale

When pain seemed merciless and never-ending.
When torture’s bed was hot and dark and tight.
Outside my window then I heard it sounding.
The nightingale’s clear singing in the night.

He sang to reconcile me with night’s suffering,
Cool as spring water, pure, his carillon.
And all that summer’s night his notes kept filling
The shadowed white of the magnolia’s crown.

Another Orpheus in the realm of shadows
He seemed to me, and magic, without likeness
He filled my balcony that roses dressed.

Away from fever’s anguish and night’s torments
On cool, fresh waves, on silver planks of dreaming
I was encradled to the land of rest.


His singing was the summer night’s fair legend
About the park’s dark kingdom that was his.
He sang of silver clouds that slowly travel
In moonlit radiance through the dark blue skies.

He sang of how night’s velvet moths go darting
Round the magnolia in a capricious dance,
He sang of how the thicket’s scented breezes
Stir faintly in the rosebeds’ crimson crowns.

He sang about the shade that heals the weary,
About the tears of dew in the narcissi
Around Artemis’s white statue in the park.

O nightingale, with thanks I want to praise you,
For in your ditty welled the opium of rest’s poppy
That made pain flee my sickbed in the dark.

The Song is Best

The song is best that never sounded
In tones, but was gloriously dreamed.
The drink is sweetest that, offered, foamed
In the goblet, but was never downed.

The word is best that was not said
But only tremblingly presaged,
And the happiness glows most brightly whose splendour
You spied in your dream in the distance.

For songs that never were let to ring out
Never grow tuneless or cracked,
And the intoxicating sweetness never runs out
In drink that has not been drunk

Around words of love that no one hears,
Around happiness that can never be won,
In eternal beauty that never (lies
The dream’s entire nimbus is spun.


How sweet it is, how sweet it is to sleep!
In dreaming’s darkness distant the bells ring,
Tidings of rest so long yearned for they bring,
A gospel telling of the gift of rest.

Now each pang dies away, no torments sting,
And quiet voices, whispering and muted,
Promise the weary oblivion’s paradise.
Now sorrow drowses; snapped, pain’s fetter-rings.

And in the twilight nameless flowers shimmer,
In the shadow green lights of glow-worms glimmer,
On soft wings shy dreams go hovering.

On a dark island out in sleep’s black flood,
So far away from life that we sense death,
Repose’s bells far distant, distant ring.

Before All Winds

Before all winds my craft must fare
To distant sea and unknown land.
Let the waves write the legend of my wanderings
With light ripples in the sea-floor’s sand.

That glow, of whose torments I cannot be free,
Must billow up on distant seas in flame
And, blazing, sink like the sun’s disc
To rest among the clouds far at the heavens’ rim.

On all the sea’s waves let my craft be tossed,
Let all the winds sing in my sails,
Let every coastline greet me as a guest.

In no one’s land, with no one I will stay.
I’ll go on board with forehead festively adorned
And sail away when my joy’s at its best.

Autumn Wind

In the fields the corn stands gathered,
And the woods glow like a brand,
From the trees the leaves are whirling
Like gold from a wastrel’s hand.
I feel, when the wind is howling,
[bat the wastrel is myself,
And the gold all my life’s minutes,
Adrift down time’s flooding shelf.

In the autumn wind clouds are racing,
And the air is cold and blue.
A murmur of songs and legends
Fills the aspen’s crimson hue,
A sound of wild geese surging
In the scented breeze from the north.
All space is thundering and ringing
Supreme over frosty earth.

And I am the fool and the wastrel,
Wasting the gold of the days.
And in the thickets I wander
For the sake of freedom’s joys.
And in the woods I’m the hunter,
And the hunter on field and fell,
Never hardworking or faithful,
Doing some duty well.

A murmur fills trees and thickets,
Where the flames of autumn leap.
The dance of the wind and the leafage
Is like the wolves’ hunt for the sheep.
And the days of life that go flying,
They are the golden leaves pressed
By a soughing frost-wind that drives them
Towards a distant rest.

And I am the fool, proud madcap
Who smiles at the days’ dancing ring,
At the years that have been wasted,
And the sere garland of spring.
In the wood there is murmuring and soughing,
There the hunter’s the honoured guest:
Fervent and faithful he dances
At the booming dance of death.


Why did you sing only of the moment’s pleasure,
The joy of the hour, the second’s radiance?
Why did you say nothing of the happiness that for long years
Most quietly, purely burns — did you forget its existence?
Why did you sing of darkness, loneliness and death,
Why did you sing the frosty destinies of the defeated?
Be silent, questioner! Brief, glowing as sparks
Mv moments of happiness flew by.
Ihe words of love that soon grew silent only lied,
Brittle was the crystal of my joy, volatile the wine in it.
Mine was only the blinding illusion of dream-seconds,
The twinkling fall of shooting stars, the hurrying splendour of feasts.
Everyday happiness, the ordinary, warm and quiet,
Never laid its head upon my fevered brow.
The day of work is long and longer is the night of suffering,
The winged laughter of happiness is hut a swift-spent lightning bolt.

Fly, My Dream

Fly, my dream, fly over frozen plains,
Fly over the dead trees of woods in winter,
Soar to the distance on star-embellished nights,
Never stop, keep soaring ever further.
Burn, my longing, like an eternal flare,
Burn in dark where all seemed snuffed out long ago.
To long perpetually is to live, to dare,
Fire that leaps till ashes veil its glow.
Understand that for one who never reached a goal,
Never rested slackly on the shore at last attained,
There is no death for the hot fire that burned,
There is no measure to his longing’s blue lands.
My heart’s pursued by longing after longing.
Ever anew towards an unseen coast it veers —
A poet’s longing does not obey the laws of space,
The land of dreams has no frontiers.

A Deserted Manor

Snow is falling. And a dog howls.
It howls like the song of mourners.
The darkness is dense, And a wind blows,
Whining around the corners.
The big house stands in silence and dark,
A solitary lamp is burning.
And over the floor a mighty snake.
My own shadow, is turning.

The doors to locked-up chambers creak.
And black windows are gaping
Darkly at the winter night.
And shadows’ fingers go shaping
Pictures that move, pictures that fly,
Pictures that smile and threaten.
It is a night with no sleep or repose,
With woes that no one can straighten.

Deserted house in deserted wilds.
Past is the splendour and feasting.
Where is your lineage of noblemen now,
And where are your proud guests resting?
They are sleeping under stone and turf,
Alone and unremembered,
And others live now near the noise of streets,
Serving and struggle-encumbered.

You are past — you are past — proud lineage.
Whose head was ever unhowing.
You are past – O bygone time, who recalls
The furrows of your ploughing’?
Deserted house, you are rotting away,
Decrepit, unremembered,
On a restless night I dream alone
About that vanished splendour.

The doors to locked-up chambers creak,
In the roof there’s a clatter and thunder.
Like a forgotten sentinel here
Alone and awake I wander.
A lost castle in a lost land:
Perhaps I’m its last defender,
Standing my lonely ground alone
In a land our own people surrendered.

A Solitary Ski-track

A solitary ski-track trying
To escape to the forests’ deep,
A solitary ski-track winding
Away over ridge and steep,
Over marshes harried by blizzards
Where squat pines stand in sparse array —
It is my mind’s thoughts stealing
Further and further away.

A frozen ski-track vanishing
In the forest’s lonely rows,
A human lifetime dwindling
On paths that no one knows —
Far away they are, the answers
To the questions my heart nursed —
My wandering has been a winding
Across the snow’s white crust.

A solitary ski-track ending
At a sudden precipice
Where wind-torn firs are stooping
Over the edge of the cliffs —
How coldly the stars are blinking,
How shadowed the forest looks,
How lightly the snowflakes are falling
Over the snow-covered tracks.

Fragrance of Lilacs

Fragrance of lilacs, glitter of June nights,
Of darkened gold on inlets mirror-smooth,
And love that was won in triumphs of delight
And gates thrown open on worlds far removed —
Glory of lilacs in white and violet,
And shadows’ depth against late clouds’ red hue —
O, happiness, that life prepared for us
Once long ago, and never will renew.


O land that gave me in this life
The rest that I dreamed of,
When with my heart riven to shreds
I came to you in flight,
When I came like a wild beast of the forest
Looking for a corner in which to die,
0 land to which I have been faithful
Through changing snow and thaw,

How strange — although born a stranger here
I put down roots with you.
You healed the worst of my sores
With the salve of oblivion.
In the lonely years of torment
And the fire of oppressing thoughts
With fine, soft threads
You bound my heart to you.

In Norsemen’s veins there runs
A drop of Tavast blood —
In my heart there burns a glow
Whose origins I did not understand.
Among voices from east and west
Which call from all directions
I hear the strange accents
of mighty Tavast trolls.

And the trolls’ song entrances and lulls
In a murmuring minor melody:
‘It is land, it is ground that you need,
It is earth in which to put down roots,
It is the peace of lonely villages,
It is the calm of silent abodes,
It is the radiance of glowing clouds
On a soughing evening in late fall.’

When my cart rolls slowly
Out along the roads empty of people,
Where the hillocks of Tavastland
Stand serried crest upon crest,
When I let myself be slowly led
Further and further from the threats of life,
Then I feel my soul is touched
However hard I struggle against it

There a mist rises from the fields,
There’s a sighing in sleeping trees
And the twining belts of the lakes
Stand gleaming in a lead-grey light —
And lulling murmurs the song
In a murmuring minor melody —
I am taken, bewitched and captured,
I cannot, I will not be free.

Against Wind, Against Rain

Against wind, against rain the hunt goes on
Across fields stretching bare.
A storm is roaring in branch and trunk
And the sharp squalls tear.
The hunter’s cheeks smart in the blast,
His boots are stuck with clay —
October rain, October wind,
Nordic October day.
Against the shore lashed waves are hissing.
The sky’s clouds, driving, form
A black and threatening ghost procession
Before the squalls of the storm.
The dog stands breathless before the game,
Around him rain is tumbling,
In dark the rifle’s lightning flames,
But the wind drowns its thunder.
Every life is a hunter’s life,
A struggle with storm and squall.
Every throat’s menaced by some knife,
And Fate lies in wait for all.
Lucky who, alone, has found happiness
Out on life’s acid clods,
And walks a free and unbowed man
Down the world’s wide roads.

Falling Star

Three people sat out on the verandah
One velvet blue summer’s night.
Each of them was sitting
In quiet, twilit thought.
And two were young and in them
Longing hotly blazed.

But the third had been a witness
To the world’s long years and ways.
There breakers rolled on the shoreline
And quiet the forest stood,
Beyond the bay the horizon
Stood dark with a rim of blood.
From the firmament quietly glowing
A star fell in a curving band,
And the first raised up the goblet
That he held in his hand:

‘I wish for gold and honour
Upon earth’s sphere, and power!’
The second said: ‘Love only
Is what I wish at this hour.’
The third raised his hand up
To bring his brow a cool breath:
‘I wish for the prize I shall conquer —
Rest, oblivion and death.’

translation © 2010 David McDuff

Standing Here, by Gösta Ågren

Standing Here


Oh! dreadful is the check − intense the agony ­
When the ear begins to hear, and the eye begins to see;
When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again;
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the
EMILY BRONTE: The Prisoner




That first night of winter
the rabbit froze to stone
in its cage. Through the netting
the stars’ netting is visible.
The cold slowly penetrates
the body, whose darkness
can do nothing against
this light. The cat sees
with his two glowing
souls of metal, and goes
on his way. Crouched
around its heart the rabbit dies.
The morning was great and empty
as a beginning.


The body is that strong
sentry who in the end
kills us. The soul knows everything,
but it is free; it says
nothing. Beyond them
is a room, an island
in the screaming opera.
There the blind one leads me
in the darkness. The mute one silences
there my loose chatter,trembling
with proclamation. The illiterate one
makes there from his silent creatures
poem after poem.


Here she came, through the motion­
less Sunday of old age.
In headscarf and long dress
she came, a tall bird
of clothes. She wondered in
the sunshine outside the woodshed
how she should arrange things
so she could die. I must
write about this. For it happens
everywhere, and there are no
questions to answer. But to
ask is already insight. Only
those questions that are never asked
require answers. I remember
that her hands were no longer
part of her. Idle
they lay in her lap. She saw
with her eyes only darkness
and light. It was silent. I
thought: the silence is creeping
through her body. Soon
it will reach the heart. Soon
I will be alone




To remember is
to let the future
intervene in events.
Everything is settled. Even
chaos gets a name. No one
offers any resistance. Fate
wreaks havoc in vain.


The one who makes good use of his time,
it is true, squanders
the day, but the one
who whiles away his time
squanders the chance
to merely while it away.
Such is life; it must be


‘A man said: “I fled
into solitude. One day
I realized that I did not
like human beings. That
day I became free
and I returned
to them.”‘


If strength is never
to break down but always
to struggle, that strength constitutes
a burden that demands
great strength.


When the silence begins to feel
people ought to talk to one another; otherwise
it will stop.


To travel is
to reduce Samarkand
to reality. In the end
nothing else
remains. But also
the decision to stay
is a departure;
the corn yellows into fire
and knowledge becomes wordless
autumn. In the end only
Samarkand remains.


There are poems
so great and deep that no one
can write them. The proof
that they exist
is that they have not been
written. We
feel at the wall that
hides them, but find no
opening in the white paper.
Afterwards our poem­
attempts, fingerprints on the wall,
prove that it exists.


Memory is our protection
against pain. Even as
our wounds bleed hysterically
we begin to remember them.

No, in reality we begin
to forget them. We do not
remember our memories, only
what happened. We remember,

because we cannot forget
in any other way. We do not hear
the clock; we remember it

and when the ticking stops
and it becomes quiet in the room
it has already happened.


The one who does not accept
his defeat is




Motionless as a spaceship
Easter Island stands in the infinite
sea. The people sought protection
behind tall stone faces
which they turned outwards towards the sky
and the ocean, not to
observe but to be dazzled
by nothingness. But locked­up
people have no protection
against consciousness, which is
sickness; a fever with no answer.
There was war on the island. After
they had locked out eternity, that
immense defeat whose cooling freshness
makes it possible to live,
people began to kill one another.
The truth, its subjugating
dust, escapes no one.


In the midst of the summer’s warm
violence it is clear that this
life­machine is only a part
of itself. In autumn
we see the reptiles stiffen
to metal. Their life is now
to be dead. In the winter
the winter never stops. It is
that white screen on which the films spring,
summer and autumn are shown.
In spring the birds come
helplessly north. They find
their wide­open nests, a few
grassblades, simple symbols
of grassblades. Being
is distinct here. Living is
as in the south
a farewell.


He seeks in his life,
but finds only
his life. Everything that is used
becomes an object, even
a life. Helplessly he turns the pages
of the unwritten book.

In the middle of the night he wakes up. Dark
sentries surround the bed;
in vain he unfolds
his wings. To use life
is to deny it. He ignites
the light’s white salt, but sees
with his closed eyes, listens
with his open hands. The years
darken. Someone is approaching
in the gloom; a being
is leaving its source. The hour
is nigh. The hour
is always nigh.




Of his strength there still remains
its calm. He has risen;
with his back towards his life
he looks out across the plain
of wordless thoughts. No, he is
not wise, only silent, only
picture. Yes, I know that wisdom
vibrates with splendid silence,
but in grandfather’s picture silence is
truth, a quiet speech.


Early in her life she became
ancient, a teller of stories.
She bore children and she tended
dying folk, gave them tenderly
to death. For her it was
the same act. She knew
that no one can forgive
the violence that is called birth.
Lovingly she touched her children
with their names. She told
mysterious, protecting stories
in the darkness of the cottage, the dungeon
below night’s castle. Thus
she taught them reconciliation
and they left her
and vanished in the future’s
dim blue human crowd
on the way towards their memories.


There they stand, seemingly without
secrets, for years and poverty
have made them distinct. Yet
the camera lies, like all who
say nothing except merely
the truth. He did as others do,
became a father, built his house.
She helped sick folk, practised
kindness. But all his movements
were fingers of ash, fumbling
as the cold floor­draught
willed. Her kindness resembled all
other: a sternness that never
exhorts, but demands. Early
she knew it was
her only protection. So
it may have been, but perhaps
our life is only a line
in the poem about our life. Perhaps
we are not the name
we write, but
the nameless hand
that grasps the pen.


The picture is true, with its
painted background that conceals
her life. She sits
there, waiting to become
a picture, in large, simple clothes.
Yet she is not visible, for the photo­
graph depicts the mother,
a figure in the old songs
that were written for woman’s voice and
the nineteenth century’s melancholy wind.
She looks out over the twentieth century’s
ruins. The price of the future
is high. It consists in the fact
that it never comes.
Mother, I am homesick
for this house, where I dwell,
and this short autumn day,
when I live.


His face became clear
in Penticton. In the pictures
from Lippjärv he is still hidden
by his youth. In Vancouver
he laboriously bears his heavy
strength. But finally
he emerges before death’s
camera. With large, wide­open
spectacles he looks at me. Yes,
now, afterwards, it is I
who am death. Someone else,
who might look at him,
does not exist. The face
belongs to an emaciated bull.
Dark and immense with calm
he enters the sun
of the arena.




A storm rages, locked up
in its narrow hours. Blood­red
the palm of the hand rests above the forest
of spears. Her death was
too great. What happened
only happened. It was morning
or evening. The birds fumbled
on the surface of the sky. The very
great does not happen; it is.
Near my writing hand
I sit now, motionless
with yearning, but without sorrow.
She died, only died.
And the storm abates;
it is free again.


The headscarf’s black bird
kept its protecting wings
about the cheeks. The clothes were
the only caress that reached
their bodies. They moved about
the village, they wandered around
in ankle­length skirts, inside tall,
alien women. Yes, their
existence on earth was visible, but not
their lives. They already travelled
in regions beyond their names,
figures in a hymn without words,
wanderers in darkness, seeking
the night. Every pause was empty,
every word the last. But they said
wordlessly this: if a riddle
lacks a solution, then it is
the answer.


To die is a victory that demands
long struggle. The children thought
the old men were evil.
We did not know that they were pro­
tecting their deaths against the life
in us. Our jeering laughter was
bright with innocence. We did not
know that death must be protected
as one protects a flower
against feet, a melody against
shouting. We rushed outside. Our
games were about the next war.
We had already been wounded. In
the silence of the bedroom the old man
lay down to rest. He
no longer opened any door
with questions, and none was closed
by answers. He looked up
at the clouds in the immense
church, and fell asleep
and slept.


Nine years old I run forever
home through the forest. Its
tall, dark creatures are waiting
for me. It is thirty
below zero. In the face
up there stars are beginning
to flame. My body grows slowly
severe. It surrounds me
like something else. A shoe
bursts. I walk in the fire
of the cold; I pray to what
will happen, but all shivering
freezes to iron when that
immense breast opens
on nothingness. I came home
at last, but it was
too late.


Who is shouting, closed up
inside the creature? Who is
silent inside the tree
when it falls? Who
is coming? I remember
my questions still, and reply
now: It was you who shouted, heard
your own silence. Nothing is
only a poem, not even
this message. It is you
who are coming, not


The stallion stood like a tower
against the clouds. For a second
he was unconscious
with strength. I ran
home in a cascade of footsteps,
still without a poem between myself
and nature, the howling of God.


As a child I once found
a dying god. He lay still
between his wings, waiting
for them to let go
of him. Man is
dust; only gods can die.
In the dawn he had descended
on a mountain that now quivered
under heartbeats. Only the path’s
cord held it together. High
in the east glowing entrails welled
out between the clouds. I realized
that a god employs the whole of
reality as a body
when he suffers. Afterwards
he resembled a dead bird,
but I knew that no bird
can die so profoundly.


The body was formless and heavy
as though it had created itself
in solitude, without help,
and then waited in the shadow
under the trees, until the face
came fluttering over the meadow,
a butterfly without a body. Thus
did they meet, but now the yearning
face wanted to fly
away again. The I
always betrays
the ashes.


This poem? It shall
be about Blaze’s soul. He
ran, that spring day when he came,
on three legs and a spear
of pain, but his head swayed
like a flag and his eye looked
out over the endless expanse
as though it was there. We were
not worthy of his great
existence; we killed him.
Now only his soul remains, that
heraldic silence in which all
has meaning. That is what
the poem shall be about. It
begins here, and ends.


She was born. Reality was
hungry, and received her
in its jaws. Its black teeth
stood out against the blood from
the slow trial
in the evening sky. She closed
all the doors to protect herself
against solitude, but no one
can exist outside their
solitude. Another being
began to speak with the help of
her body. Someone wanted
to be born; someone was ready to meet
herself – a courage that must
always alter everything, the cruel
graffiti we call history,
as well as the poem we had no time
to write, and the empty
room when we have died. Out there
people are walking past. Who
was it who died in here? Was
someone with us for a while, and
altered everything?


It was difficult to be, not
for the human in him, but for
the animal, which had not the strength to carry
the leaden weight of consciousness. The knowledge
that he was alive prevented him
from living. It formed
a sleepless face that looked
at his emotions until they crept
away like actors
from a bad performance
and that thought that he thought,
until each thought deepened to
nothing in this cold light. He
was himself the enemy, and wrote
books in order to defeat himself,
but in such a battle the only
possible victory is too great.
He won. In the silence
afterwards came a few
last fumbling words.


Early self-portrait

I am a silent sword. Blows
and kicks hammer against my
steel. I expect nothing
else. I am invulnerable. The jeering
laughter drifts by, howling
like autumn wind in darkness, but I
am the darkness; teeth are bared
in vain. I hate no one,
I have killed everyone. I am
lost, I am invulnerable.


Their knives ached
with spite. Their open
hands were traps, ready
to close around the prey.
They looked like human beings,
but reality had
made them, their cruelty
was the mammal’s, their death
was emptiness’s yearning
to be emptied. One
morning one of them heard
deep inside the hymn
a song. He tried
to hide in the light
from the immense smile,
but in vain. For if God
exists, then he is
only everything. There was
no other way
but the way.


To be born is a sentence. One may
no longer keep one’s life.
Thus does he think, and it is quiet.
Far away the century shouts.

It is not pessimism; he sows
in the desert! True, it is
sand that he sows, but he thinks like this:

It is senseless to sow
seed-corn in the desert, where
nothing sprouts. Grains of sand
sprout nowhere; they can be sown
in the desert!


Kindness came to the cottage
and took the poor man’s
poverty. After that
he owned nothing.

Kindness is
man’s way
of enjoying
his kindness.


A few walking children.
Nothing happens. Life
is a recapitulation,
not a story. In
the south the Kursk Bulge darkens
with thunder. Sicily waits;
it is all about to happen. Someone
recites the Bible from memory
in Treblinka: ‘The Lord’s day
is a darkness and not a light.’
The screams from Golgotha seek God
in the centuries’ darkness, searchlights
that pursue not those who flee,
but the camp commandant. They burn
in vain. Reality has
no name. The words cover
only a part of the poem.
Above the road towers
high summer, the North’s
temple, and the children
walk towards the river.


I wrote two poems about her
before I learned how to do this
work that is aimed at speaking
in such a way that one does not shut in
what one says but opens
it to all that is wordless
in words. Yet there is in these
two poems the script
of her life, the drama
in which she herself played one
of the lesser roles, a wandering
woman. The only dialogue
was spoken by the murmuring forest.
The play was about us all,
our loneliness and hunger. When
at last her silence
fell silent, and the dead body
was carried away through the villages and
the forest on the painted scenery,
no curtain fell; the auditorium
was empty.


When he walked past
he surrounded himself with a lamenting
song, for protection. Something
had happened, or perhaps
not yet happened: he was afraid
of his hands; they crawled a-
bout like creatures on his body.
Conversation was difficult. He heard
nothing, for he listened
so intensely in his anguish. When
he went, he had to force himself
out through the thickening
dawn. He gave an impression
of having turned round
and begun to walk back
as though he had seen a glimpse
of the future.


The cold increased. The air hardened
to glass. Reality
touched the cottage, and we
cowered in there, nameless
as foetuses before this
immense name. The sun raised
a red, sardonic eyebrow,
and set. The gypsies came.
I do not remember them. The years
already hide so many
faces. It is the pictures
I remember, those suddenly
opened doors. In the lamplight
stand the horses, dark in
the depths of their smoking steam,
enormous, naked hearts
on a journey towards their
limitless body.


Childhood is not a part
of life, it is a depth
under everything that happens later.
The life’s work that is not realized
has always stood complete, the
game of half an hour. The first
words still protect us; the forest
is forest, the mountains stand still. One
day we grow so tired that we lose
the cruelty required
in order to live. That day
my father whispered: ‘I remember
Åbacken.’ He was inside
the game’s magic ritual
again. He played
at dying.




To live is not perpetually
to live. I begin to understand that
again. I write poems,
which from the future, this
ending, observe and
sketch childhood’s raft
of days and nights, im-
mobile in flowing
time. I find nothing
but the everyday, our low
protection against the blood and the fire,
the emotions, great as animals
and clear as messages,
and the bosom to which I return
each time I have not the strength
to be born. I find
nothing but it, and it
is what I seek.


‘When I lie in my cell
I hear the spring.’ That is what I
wrote once. To describe
something is to reduce it
to description, to make
reality’s blinding
nakedness go dark. That is
how I


No, I no longer choose.
What happens is my choice.
All resistance is crushed. Neither
my life nor my death can stop
this journey that protectively
surrounds me. I am chosen.


To be young is to meet
the eyeless, staring
face for the first time
and hear it called
reality, though it is only
malice. It is to meet
with dazzled skin, in ecstatic
solitude; it is to efface
oneself with shouts, to resemble
one another in order to conceal
one’s alikeness. It is a matter of
learning how to live. Some


The oarsman’s bronze face
looks timelessly at the summer day.
A sculpture consists of darkness
that reflects the light. Accordingly
it is invisible. Really
only its existence exists, not
it itself. I know the oarsman
well; yet his face is
nameless. When a mountain breaks
among the clouds we turn homeward.
The black sound overwhelms
like the mother’s booming pulsebeat
in the foetus. There is no defence
against defencelessness. Through the rain
we see the church towering above the town.
They punish their unbelief with belief,
says the oarsman. They believe
in what does not exist:
a life after this
and death.


I will be forgotten,
he thinks. Oblivion is
a deep mother. No one
will touch you there; no one
will forget you any more.


Giving and taking are parts
of the same action. The one
who takes gives his
taking. The one who gives
thereby receives from the other
his own giving. Giving
and taking are the same


We are only creatures, helpless
as insects in the autumn night,
transfixed by the light from
the closed window. So
strong is love that
only our mechanical couplings
prevent it from growing
into hate. How could any victory
be possible except this
defeat? We know it
from the very start. Love
is immense as a touch;
it does not need its two
bodies. We subjugate it
by loving!


Freedom cannot be locked up;
it has no body, it does not
exist outside itself.
When a man is imprisoned
he must therefore part
from his freedom, and give it
to friends, as one gives
a folk song at dusk.
For freedom, too, is only
a song. It does not really
exist, like all that is


After these poems I know
that only the nameless
man is visible. I have
laboriously written a book about
him; pale and ancient
as a child he listens
helplessly to the story
of how he is slowly effaced
by time, that calming hand
over the manically seething
life. When it is all over
and someone wakes up because he is dying
and the strength, this faceless
creature, is lowered into its grave while
the tall ruins of the house
that was never built tumble
down, then, when only the name
is left, will the nameless
profile still be sensed in the red
evening light from
the abandoned

Gösta Ågren, 1988

translation © 2010 David McDuff

Clouds, by Karin Boye


See the mighty clouds, whose distant lofty tops
proud, shimmering rise, white as white snow!
Calmly they glide on, at last in calm to die below,
slowly dissolving in a shower of cool drops.

Majestic clouds – smiling onward they go straight
through life, through death in brilliant sun,
in ether so clear and pure, dark care unknown,
with quiet and grand contempt for their fate.

Would I were granted, festively proud as those,
to climb where the bustle of worlds does not tread
and bear the sunlight’s golden wreath around my head
no matter how angrily round me the storms’ roar goes.


Unlocked is the world’s copper gate.
High in its gate-vault here I stand,
and what I see is infinitely great,
and no sight is so without end.

However deep I look, however far,
my gaze receives no help beneath.
All that I know exists no more –
not great, not small – not life, not death.

One single step on pathways free,
and for me all return is closed…
Why do you quake? Up, follow me!
For the universe’s copper gate is forced!


Half awake the summer night broods
quietly on dreams that no one knows.
The tarns’ glistening floods
reflect a twilight sky’s
infinity, pale, morose,
Whiter grow the stars on high.
Afar, afar
the nightjar
sings alone her toneless, comfortless melody.

Never boldly, towards the heights she swings,
because of her lowness hovers low.
Downy twilight wings
seem bound to the earth,
by dust and soil weighed down below.
Woe to him whose wings in pair
cannot rise,
only linger,
helplessly drawn to the mud, whose colours they bear.

But the whitest of white among swans,
that travel in morning’s bright space
their royal lanes,
never cherished a yearning
such as the nightjar has.
None has a longing so true
for the distant and far
as the nightjar
for the ever beckoning, ever yielding blue.


You are like the mollusc in chilly ponds
where sunbeams never get.
She never creeps out from her shell,
her prison she cannot forget,
she can only hide
her deepest essence
and dream of exploits great
among the waterweed,
but never wholly
and undividedly
empty herself into word or deed.

With irony your speech full spills.
You try to cover
with pretended cold
life’s warmth that inside dwells.
But your voice trembles,
is strangely weak,
A blush hovers
behind each pale cheek.
A sea of fire burns
in a secret place
that no one knows,
no one can trace.

You are too frail and too weak and tame
for all the discords that sever:
to wear armour you must endeavour
in life’s hard-handed game.
You are like the mollusc in chilly ponds
that never creeps out of her shell,
so unattainable,
so incomprehensible,
that no one will near you, ever.


Here I go not. This is not I.
This is a lying reflection alone,
asking, wondering where I have gone,
yearning one day to meet its reality.

The legend tells: far in a distant land
flows a mirroring flood from invisible source.
Thousands of beings, blessed, holy souls,
lean like lilies o’er the banks of sand.

Light without limit envelops their eye,
air trembles, sated by a beauty without like.
In this realm perfect spirits walk,
There stands in eternal light my true I.

The reflection is gone from the glittering surge.
It was once torn away by the angry stream,
wanders around, unreal as in a dream,
unfinished, broken, of itself in search,

Do I not hear the flood’s waves far away?
Deep from my inmost depths its water flows.
There, where life’s swell into day breaks and goes,
it waits for me concealed, my god-begotten I.


No time is like this one,
the evening’s final, silent hour.
No sorrows burn any longer,
no voices crowd any more.

Then take now into your hands
this day that is past, like a token.
For I know: into good you will turn
what I have held or broken.

Evilly I think, evilly I act,
but all things you heal and cleanse.
My days then you transform
From gravel to precious stones.

You must lift, you must carry,
I can only leave all things behind.
Take me, lead me, be close to me!
Show me what you next may intend!


Candles I saw burning, yes, holy candles on the eternal
Blessed ones walked there in a trembling mystic light,
radiant with God as with the sun the falling drops,
radiant with sleep in worlds where time was not.

Woe is me, my foot is too heavy for those giddying high paths,
woe is me, who was formed from clay and whose thought is steel and
Never will I find a place among those dreaming holy silent ones,
never will my head by seeing’s halo be crowned.

You will I seek, my God, in the simple, the grey, despised,
you will I seek in the world, in the everyday’s striving and
The sky’s golden stillness, to which my heart aspired,
is it better than your labour, your holy, burning fight?

Lord, your bliss is yours. You gave, and you took,
and you hide yourself.
Give what you offer – not peace, but your fight, and
your spirit to fulfil.
Lord, on the world’s battlefield like sword or bow I follow you.
Give me a throne, if you wish, or a cross, if you will!


The best that we possess,
we cannot give away.
we cannot write it either.
and neither can we say.

The best that is in your mind
no one can make unclean.
It shines there deep inside
for you and God alone.

It is the glory of our wealth
that no one else can gain it.
It is the torment of our poverty
that no one else can attain it.


This is life’s silent hour,
sunny and blessed,
laughing white in power-conscious peace.
The rejoicing and the songs fell silent,
for Joy overflowed the shores.
Hail to you, Joy, Joy,
in your silent, vainglorious smile!
You alone can plumb
the secret of the worlds.

O bubbles, bubbles, o foam, foam
are all our care, all our grief,
yes foam on measureless expanses,
bubbles on the ocean
is that which we chase and cherish and fear,
but Joy, Joy is the world’s foundation.

How do I dare…? And yet!
Do you think that life’s flower,
carved a thousand times by suffering.
would continue in darkest darkness
to shine in beauty in spite of everything,
were not its root and heart
heavy, yes, brimful of bliss?

O bubbles, bubbles, o foam, foam
is all our pain, our blind grief.
Joy alone knows more than others.
Yes, in its holy white hours
rests in the leaves’ quivering daylight
the reflection of godlike depths,
smiling, smiling.

Like tidal waves, like thunderclouds
day’s care will soon envelop me.
Let me remember in tears and greyness,
that clarity’s blinding moment
forced me to say to life and death,
to the whole world and even to myself:
‘Amen, amen,
happen, then!’



A veil-light mist stands over the meadow,
and pearl-grey dew sprinkles pale leaves –
a spring morning, cool and melancholy-glad,
when airy flowers unfold from humid groves.

In the grass narcissi dully gleam in rows.
From fragile chalices a scent of spring spreads down,
when over them with dreamy gaze there goes
a noble boy from Arno’s town.

A happiness of wonder rests upon his face.
His walk is full of awkward charm and pliancy.
A book he bears, as careful as a sage.

He scarce perceives the meadow’s paradise,
but stares foreboding-pale as the spring day
at mysterious distance, hidden in morning haze.


I would like to paint a meagre fragment
of the shabbiest everyday, so worn and grey,
but radiant with that fire that made
the whole world leap from the Creator’s hand.
I would like to show how what we disdain
is holy and deep and the Spirit’s attire.
I would like to paint a wooden spoon in such a way
that people had an inkling of God!


I broke my bread which others’ hands had to bake,
and drank my wine, which I did not prepare.
Those who had the toil never got to taste
its fruit, before they trod on dark roads there.

What I have sown, tomorrow you will harvest.
Oh may my seed an hundredfold bear deep!
They bear delight, who bear others’ burdens.
they harvest life, who others’ harvests reap.


My God
and my truth
I saw
in a strange hour.
People’s words
and commands were silent.
Good and evil
my soul forgot.
My God
and my truth
I drank
in the hour of my angxiety.

My God
was salt darkness,
my truth
hard metal.
Deeply I shook.
Naked I stood,
washed by waves
of cold truth,
cold, strong,
contemptuous truth –
my Truth
and my God.


Gold and pale copper! Hoar frost on fields of brown gold!
The wide and golden world is glittering cold.

Through the clouds I see rivers, of sun and gold they are made,
forcing through, laughing chill as their wills’ sharpened blade.

Smiling, defiant, breaking forth through the spaces it goes,
sunbeam-yellow and frosty round meadows and fields it flows.

Hear, sound it acquires, and the clear expanses rejoice!
Hear how, to reply, the whole world receives a singing voice!

A thousand times beaten and sacked and put to the knife
defiant she sings the songs of eternal desire for life.


Do I not walk here drunken with fragrance of roses
– yet no roses have come! –
Does not all tremble, wrapped in divine gossamer?
The reflected light whispers secret promises.

From far away a wind reached me lately,
light as a held-back breath,
full of a fragrance of shyly trembling expectancy.
Ever since then I have sensed a miracle.

I know nothing – walk as in a far-off land,
walk as in a dream, a dream of roses.
All is as before – yet all is changed.
Strange mystery over things!


If a star comes loose
and falls white through the air,
then, it is said, she answers our prayers, that reach
that short glimmering path.

I wait and wait. It is April,
a warm and sharp-eared night in April,
when the grass grows and the stars listen –
tonight they go so peacefully their way,
and not one trips and falls!

But if I fall asleep, it matters not at all:
if a star tears itself loose tonight,
then she must feel my prayer, where she descends,
even though I sleep –
for all the silent, silent night
all of wide, wide space
is completely full of my only wish!


O a blade,
yieldingly supple and strong,
o a lithely dancing blade,
proudly obeying the sternest law,
the rhythm’s hard law in the steel –
o a blade
I would be in body and soul!

You I hate,
you my wretched willow-being,
you that twine, you that twist,
patiently obeying others’ hands.
You I hate,
you my lazy dreamer-being.
You shall die.
Help me, my hatred, you sister of longing,
help me to become
a blade, yes a blade,
a dancing sword of hardened steel!


Cool is your voice as murmur of springs, and your being
tartly fresh as the autumn’s fragrant fruits.
Clear in your eye rests
high September’s chill merriment.

A fountain you are, whose sunnily glittering beam,
beautiful in its equilibrium, beautiful in its form-strict arc,
beautiful in its strength, possesses
the power to love limits and noble dimensions.

Hail to your playing calm, your springtime health!
Hail to your spirit’s sweet, godlike nobility,
drawn in your features’ purity
and the singing harmony of your limbs!


When the morning’s sun steals through the window-pane,
happy and cautious,
like a child who wants to surprise
early, early on a festive day –
then I stretch full of growing exultation
my open arms to the coming day –
for the day is you,
and the light is you,
the sun is you,
and the spring is you,
and all of beautiful, beautiful
waiting life is you!


Twilight over an unknown path…
Colourless earth-plants,
great mushrooms
sprout from the ground, where sound is choked.
Winding naked trunks
stretch up and vanish in the darkness.
Hear the fearful roar up there,
that never falls silent!

Just now in the sun
I sang on flowering meadows
Pan, Pan, the great Pan.
Scornfully whisper now
the marshes’ murmuring bubbles:
‘Here in the forest of the secret depths,
here too is his dwelling!
Do you still dare to sing
Pan, the great Pan?’

Help, my foot is sinking!
Quagmire is the ground.
Brooding lurk
black waters, half in sleep,
unmoving, unfathomable,
in wait for me, their prey.
The snakelike trunks of the alders,
grown out of the wet marsh,
twist wailing this way and that.
Fear stretches from muddy water
hands, black and gnarled,
like the damp-dripping
rotten branches on which the moss grows.
Help, oh, help, what secret
depths, that desire me!

Yet – is that not the scent of flowers?
All around above dark marshes
buds gleam,
white buds –
oh, they unfold, they shimmeringly unfold!
My foot finds a hold among white chalices,
and over the depths moves a light –
the sweetest mocking smile.

Bow down, heart,
bow down and pray!
Here in the forest of the secret depths
I sing Pan
I sing trembling
Pan, Pan, the great Pan!


When our gods fall
and we stand alone among wreckage,
as much without a hold for our feet any longer
as spheres in space –
then you are dimly seen for a moment, lofty Beauty.
Then, only then.
As stern as fire you speak consolation:
‘Whatever else falls – I remain.’
O stay, stay, holy one,
and save my soul
from the falsehood of a measureless sorrow!


Quietly would I thank my fate:
never do I lose you entirely.
As a pearl grows in the mussel,
so within me
grows your dewy essence sweet.
If at last one day I forget you –
then you will be blood of my blood,
then you will be one with me –
may the gods grant that.


‘Child!’ said Life to me one day.
‘How young you are! A little unripe fruit…
I want to teach you the adornment of youth:
modest discretion,
lowered eyes and quiet voice.
Go softly now – go on tiptoe over the meadows!
Silent, be silent – hold your breath and listen!
If Joy greets you, if Pain greets you,
don’t make such a dreadful fuss (you usually do)!
Be infinitely quiet! Listen! Listen!
Then perhaps you will
find the way home to my rose-garden.’


You who are called by the names of flowers,
now I want to give you another:
The Surgeon’s Knife.
A cold, hard name.
But so gleamingly hard
is your image in the silent hours.
I am doomed when I see you,
doomed like one who is sick
before your health of springtime morning.

It is good that one suffers and sickens.
You are refreshingly free from mercy
towards torments of pathos.
Afar, afar you smile mysteriously.
I would breathe your lofty air.
I would tread those dewy paths
where you walk.


I love those white mountains, the marble white
with foreheads rinsed by the heavens’ high blue repose,
and the storming glitter of the salt sea,
and Doric temples, and thought’s cool crystal.

But I have also lingered by doors left ajar
and seen inside, into sounding twilight depths,
where the shimmer of altar candles quietly rejoiced
in the face of trembling time, Advent,
while the winter morning stared dark through vaulted windows.

Those radiant saints, those who overcame,
could be sensed, blessed, beyond the darkness,
and God’s yearners
bent their knees in prayer, lonely in their hosts,
and saw with closed eyes the Only One’s brilliance,
the soul’s innermost worlds,
and mystical truths they learned listening.
If you have ever listened near burning altar candles,
then you will never forget God’s silent, blossoming gardens –
you will kiss the stone of the gate-arch and turn away.
White mountains, marble white in dazzling sun,
beloved, distantly-seen, my home in presentiment,
I come to you!
Life is to cut and to break so that something may grow.
Everyone is so many people,
but more than one road no one goes.


To lose the soul’s home and to wander far
and then be unable to find anything else,
and feel that one’s forgotten what truth is,
and fancy one is made of nought but lies,
be sickened by oneself and hate oneself –
yes, that is easy, that is very easy.
Sorrow is easy, but joy is proud and hard,
for joy, it is the simplest thing of all.

But he that seeks for himself a home
must not believe that it exists just anywhere –
he must go wandering homeless for a time;
and he that’s made of lies and would be well,
must hate himself until the day he knows
of truth what others as a gift receive.
What point is there in grieving so for it?
Wait then, my heart, and have some patience yet!


If this life is the only one…!
Oh, these short hours…
An hour – how much an hour can become!
Those deep springs where no one yet has drunk,
the light-expanses no one yet has fathomed,
And we, we dully doze in cowardice.
Oh, these short hours…
O world of hidden possibilities,
O God in the becoming,
give us an undaunted piety,
a pure will,
and initiate us to the adventure of the spirit!


If you cannot manage one step more,
cannot lift your head,
if you are sinking wearily under hopeless greyness –
then be thankful for the kind, small things,
consoling, childish.
You have an apple in your pocket,
a book of stories there at home –
small, small things, despised
at the time, that radiated living
but gentle footholds during the dead hours.


The world streams with dirt, emptiness fills it.
Wounds that the day made heal when evening is at hand.
Calm, calm, I lean my head
on a holy vision, your lingering memory.
Temple; refuge; purification;
my sanctuary!
On your steps saved from the darkness
secure as a child I fall asleep.


Life acquires a different hue –
trembling, trembling it listens and is silent,
when like the shimmer from V„ttern’s stone in the folktale
the thought of you from the depths
rises wholly through-annealing all the world.
Newly-woken I see reality,
where aching dreams burdened me just now.
The air is living, life I breathe,
life from you, from you.


In your beauty submerged
I see life explained
and the dark riddle’s answer
made plain.

In your beauty submerged
I want to say a prayer.
The world is holy,
for you are there.

Endless with brightness,
I would die with you,
in your beauty submerged.


You are my purest consolation,
you are my firmest protection,
you are the best thing I have,
for nothing hurts like you.

No, nothing hurts like you.
You smart like ice and fire,
you cut like a steel my soul –
you are the best thing I have.


Hail to those warriors who bleed in the battles,
in spite of scars and wounds shining,
hail to their hard struggle,
hail to their dearly bought victories!

But O young tree, you blossoming maple,
you I love more than warriors’ scars.
Your unacquired, happy nobility
is greater than their won battles.

Fresh in life’s morning you sprouted from the earth,
fresh, fresh you grew calmly in sun and rain;
anguish you did not know, nor remorse,
nothing of all our sickness.

You blossom in gold and gold vine; in sighings you laugh,
when the wanderer kisses your trunk.
His kiss is a prayer to the eternal beauty
your lovely blossoms thought in the day.

Blessed be, blessed be, fair-growing maple!
You do not need the combatants’ victories.
In you is the repose of lonely forests.
In you is sun of divinity.


Dream vision, dream vision,
sun-clear revelation,
lit for my gaze by a single
human creation,

dream vision, dream vision,
sweet among fighters maimed,
sweet in a torn-apart
world of pain.

dream of a race
growing forth through the ages,
proud people, who play their way to
victory in battles’ rages,

flowerlike grown
unhesitatingly harmonious from each root,
trusting calmly in a holy
earth beneath each foot,

whose flesh is spirit,
whose spirit is flesh –
flowerlike grown
like a strange person I met.


The gods’ chariots
do not shake the clouds,
they glide silently
forward like rays.
The gods’ steps are
as hard to hear
as the grass’s scarcely
perceived murmur.

Cautiously, cautiously
follow those paths
that smell of their
healing closeness.
Call no names!
They will fly, they will leave you
in an empty world.


I see a glimpse of you,
O Carolina, my friend, behind the birch’s frosty twigs,
quietest light falls on my road
like sun in mist.

Stern and distinguished
you are like one whom life has given a protecting armour,
but by a sceptical mildness’s light
sprinkled over –

like an old man’s
smile of light, light snow and autumn-gentle irony,
thoughtfully, with warmth and wisdom underneath
and inside meek humility.


Deceit, deceit –
other was never my life.
All my shame,
pen, poor thing, write.
Write of roads far, far
from my truth away,
write of a wall round all that was best…
No, stay.

Threat of unfathomed darkness
fills my mind.
thunder-oppressive budding time
is still mine.
I want to be still,
wait and see a while,
wait for the sun,
softly smile.

What is happening in the darkness,
as I smile in vain?
Is my soul dying?
Will I never come home again?
God, God,
only keep secure
a glint of my intention
pure, pure!


I once asked for joy without limits,
I once asked for sorrow, infinite as space.
I wonder if modesty grows with the years?
Fair, fair is joy, fair also is sorrow.
But fairest is to stand on pain’s battlefield
with stilled mind and see that the sun is shining.


Sparkling creaking hard crust.
Lonely, lonely is the night sky over white roads.
I am filled with a angry thirst
for the winter sky.

Will you not soon leap up before my foot,
deep earth-cold water that sometimes chilled me,
O strong darkness that
my star conceals?

Then dizzyingly hard and pure
you will drown putrid lies as before you mercilessly did.
Where are you, bitter sea
of ice and truth?


When you are gone, then wildly hungers my soul.
When you are near, I yearn even so –
in despair I see,
stiffened, closed,
how empty and vain
the minute flows.

Your being’s proud, royal flower-scent fine
I would secretly drink, a holy wine –
but mortally heavy I stand
as in dreams,
with thirst like Tantalus’
in clear, bright streams.

In solitude’s time my tongue has burned
to tell you the beautiful things I knew and dreamed –
but in your nearness
my thought drowses, dumb.
my gate is closed,
and my heart goes numb.


Many things hurt that have no name.
Best to keep silent and accept all the same.

Much is secret, with danger obscure.
Best with respect and caution endure.

Best in the secret to firmly believe
And not to poke at the growing seeds.

‘Here thought never went out searching.
All-mother, guide me with sure exhortation!’

Good to heed one’s Mother’s voice near –
wordless concern receives wordless cheer.


Pray for one thing:
deep earnestness
– that which proved fatal to many –
But pray for one more thing more,
a thing that only the strong are granted:
taciturnity of heart.

Karin Boye, 1922

-translation © David McDuff 2010