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
chain.
EMILY BRONTE: The Prisoner

I

STANDING HERE

THE BEGINNING

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.

STRUCTURE

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.

STANDING HERE

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
here.

II

FROM A NOTEBOOK

TO REMEMBER

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.

TO LIVE

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
squandered!

STATEMENT

‘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.”‘

STRENGTH

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

ADVICE

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

TO A FRIEND

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.

THE ABYSS

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.

THE PRESENT MOMENT

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.

FINAL NOTE IN A DIARY

The one who does not accept
his defeat is
vanquished.

III

THE SEEKING

EASTER ISLAND

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.

LETTER FROM NORTHERN EUROPE

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.

THE SEEKING

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.

IV

THE PHOTOGRAPH ALBUM

GRANDFATHER

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.

GRANDMOTHER

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.

THE PICTURE OF GRANDFATHER AND GRANDMOTHER

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.

GREAT GRANDMOTHER

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.

UNCLE

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.

V

WORK BOOK

MOTHER, ONE AUTUMN DAY

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 OLD WOMEN

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.

THE MEN FROM THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

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.

FIVE KILOMETRES

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.

TO A TORMENTED FOURTEEN­YEAR­OLD

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
I.

THE ENGENDERING

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.

AUTUMN MORNING

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.

A WANDERER

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.

THE BIG HORSE

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.

INGA

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?

LEO, HIS LIFE

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.

PICKED ON

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.

THE BULLIES

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.

LATE SELF-PORTRAIT

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!

THE BALLAD OF CHARITY

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

Refrain:
Kindness is
man’s way
of enjoying
his kindness.

PICTURE

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.

HER

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.

HIM

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.

JANUARY EVENING

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.

FATHER, DYING

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.

VI

CONTINUATION

NOTHING BUT

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.

THE TASK OF WORDS

‘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
endured.

50

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

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
die.

A DAY AT SEA

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.

AT DUSK

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

COMMUNION

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
gift.

LOVE

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!

FREE

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
eternal.

AFTER THESE POEMS

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
wounds.

Gösta Ågren, 1988

translation © 2010 David McDuff


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