Elmer Diktonius

Poems by Elmer Diktonius (1896-1961)


A seed is sprouting in my brain,
sucking life’s marrow and its flow.
My cask will have blood’s hue,
I know that I will end my days insane.

My grave will bear no flowered wreath,
 no Christian cross with words of light.
Wind from the north. A winter’s night.
But under ice the sap will seethe.

I will walk through the rye

I will walk through the rye
that sways in the wind
with lead-heavy ears
I will lie in the grass
and stare up at the sky
that arches deep blue
with swallows that glide
I will put my ear
to the sun-warmed earth
and listen to voices
that from the soil whisper:
all’s living, all’s living
becoming, becoming
and you’ll be what all is
when it dies:
a swaying rye-ear
a gliding swallow
a lump of soil
sobbing and whispering.
And I’ll stare at the sky
and the swallows that glide
and feel I’m already
what I shall become:
a part of the whole.

The Jaguar


From green leaves protrude
red muzzle,
eyes with triangular gaze
whiskers undulation claw paw –
you  fly! my heart’s jaguar!
so fly and bite and rip and ravage!

Biting is necessity as long as bites give life.
Killing is holy as long as corruption stinks
and life’s ugliness must be savaged
until beauty and wholeness can grow from its remains.
Thus are we, the two of us, my poem and I, one claw.
One will we are, one paw, one fang.
Together we are a machine that strikes.

We want to kill the cry of the indifferent
the compassion of the heartless
the religiosity of the sceptics
the impotence of the strong
the evil weakness of the good;
we want to give birth by killing
we want to make room
we want to see
sunspots dancing.


Do you think
strong paws feel no pain?
Do you think the jaguar has no heart?
O he has
father mother mate, young.
The wilderness is great
cold is the wind of autumn
in the jaguar’s belly dwell
loneliness despair.
The jaguar can kiss a flower.
He has tears;


Waterfalls murmur long.
The jaguar is asleep.
An ant is licking one of his claws.
Who is whispering:
the morning is coming
sunspots are dancing?


Sunspots are dancing! —
All is numbly whirling.
In a single bound
the jaguar hurls himself over
the crests of the spruce trees —
hear the laughter of stars in his roaring! —
a lightning-volt in the air:
like an arrow deep in the earth’s breast.

The Sea and the Rock


Questions die
problems shrivel up
interests approach zero point:
there is nothing but the sea and the rock and I
who am writing about them.


The sea knows:
if it wanted to
it could drown the world
(If it blew its nose
Mont Blanc would scarcely show
more than a few inches above the pool.)
But it’s good-natured
like its love-hated rock.
It allows the human mould to ‘like it’,
it frolics
when the spring-tide
licks the legs of weaklings
and when an impudent upstart
writes poems about it
it just sings in the night
as now

Threthias St Merryn, Cornwall, 7 September 1921


Fröding’s nonsense
about the seawind in the pines.
The sea cannot abide pines! —
nor stones, either: it wants
mouthfuls of rock;
wants greenly to see its serious eye
even though it come stealing
like grass,
cravenly bowing its head
in submission
to the salty discipline.


(The rock shouted:)
I am.
I am defiance.
Send them in,
your 5-storey apartment houses of flexible steel! —
perhaps they’ll stick their noses
into my navels
(the thousand caves) —
out they’ll rush
with the thunder of a 12-inch calibre gun
somewhere high up
foam will dance
like white snow —
I am!


I don’t know the names of them all
snow-anemones molluscs mussels,
some of them stared at me out of the starch blue of the swimming pool,
others were killed by my foot on the rock as I walked to the sea.
The sea carted its diamonds into a cave:
fragments of glass scoured matt-clear by the salt water (blessed bottlenecks!) —
I delighted in their radiance
and stuffed some of them into my pockets until I got hungry
(a hint
to all treasure seekers).


Never have I felt the immensity of power
as I did one stormy day on Cornwall’s coast.
Not a streak of light
from the cornflower blue of the clouds
the law of gravity scarcely keeping me
on my feet
deep below me the two love-hated ones
fighting their struggle of giants.
Roaring rushing
tossing splinters of foam around it
cold green with venomous malice, the one;
stiff-leggedly defiant
with lacerated face
laughing derisively
from broken ribs, the other —
my soul howled with the struggle’s sweetness
and the cliff quivered where I stood.


But they can also caress each other.
Then the sea tickles the knees of the rock as my soft writer’s hands might tickle
the knees of a woman.
Strange words broken sentences sobs kisses two lovers
in the same bed.


Vanity, sea,
empty folie de grandeur
to believe oneself something
without being you.
Hourly to produce — as I do —
poems about eternity
or Faust or 9th symphonies
or to explode
in Van Gogh orgies of colour —
brilliantly suited for insects —
until we see you until I saw you,
saw our powerlessness
the bankruptcy of our fragility
the ten-yard flight of our souls
above imagined abysses
(the seagulls are laughing).
Jokes we make noise we make
until we hear the murmur
of some of your
most lightly bursting bubbles;
the ‘just you wait’ of your nocturnal threatsong — until we become

What was I?— was I?
Something great pressed me
I expressed tiny
But I know:
to life’s big-city sahara
I shall take with me
a concentrated ounce of your explosive) power-sea.
And when my soul’s tongue is drying in its palate and all the lemons have been squeezed
it will be seen
that I have sucked at your salty breast
that I possess your foamlashing energy and fury
and I shall struggle struggle
to the end of my days (0
it will never come!)
like you


The memory of you:
a giant conch shell at my ear. It sucks and murmurs.


I remember:
the broad alleyway
in Kensington Gardens
describing the great city
with its three lines;
a summer’s night
outside Baron’s Court Underground Station
where the Piccadilly Line sticks its nose
out of a black fissure in the earth.


I have found a pawnshop in Hammersmith
which is in agreement with me
on the subject of my typewriter.
Smiling wordlessly
I fling the precious object down on the counter
in the 100-year-old hovel
smiling wordlessly
the man gives me my 3 pounds.
He knows that I will soon be back —
I know that I will soon be back.


Strawberries strawberries
buy buy!
buy souls
buy shawls buy trousers
try this wristwatch!
at one streetcorner
a mother is auctioning
her 12-year-old daughter —
at the next a spiv is whispering about ‘china’
(he probably means opium).
Buy gods buy corn-patches
buy love buy murderers! —
buy this tramcar! —
buy this street this district this city —
buy Westminster Abbey! —
the price is marked on everyone’s forehead
and I too know what I am worth
in this haggle-market.


But at the intersection of the streets
the Salvation Army man
is speaking about Jesus Christ our saviour.
A small crowd is staring dully
at his businessman’s gestures,
a boy spits chewing-tobacco
at the box the man is standing on. ‘Sins’ ‘blood’ ‘cross’
tumble embellished with saliva from the pathetic prophet’s throat —
the crowd is grateful for any kind of entertainment.
And when he speaks of ‘deliverance’
 the neighbourhood whore thinks
 of all the deliveries she has experienced.


At last, on the track of the mystery! —
Now I know what it is the paperboy whispers
in the ear of his customers
when the coin slips into his hand:
it’s the name of the favourite
in the afternoon’s next horse race!


There are many
who curse you and your name — but I bless you.
You were me: poems, hunger, love.
You taught me
that ugly faces grow beautiful
when one observes them close to.



gave his voice a mighty volume and called:
give me the most beautiful song!
And from every corner
of the universe
music streamed to his throne
songs of innocence songs of praise songs of faith —
saints and martyrs all dashed off
their best,
the angel orchestra turned on its pièces de résistance,
 there was a muddle of beauteousness
of dewdrop clarity
a most eminently heavenly
texture of euphony,
and all those present felt goosebumps
crawl up and down their spines.

But in an utterly dark niche of creation
on a little planet of uncertain rank
an insignificant worm raised
its head proudly,
pointed to its own and its equals’
festering wounds
and squeaked with its wretched mouth:
‘look, your marks of destiny!’ —
and cursed God and the whole of his heavenly retinue in a coarse earthly language.
No one heard it — except God.
Wearily, with heavy hand
he tapped the rostrum
bringing the orchestra of beauty to a halt
right in the middle of its most radiant climax and told his subordinates
to note down the lovely main theme
and put it on the shelf
together with the other music of Zion.
And he wept — but no one understood why.


A city.
A lane.
A beggar.
A whore.

This scurvy-ridden mouth!
This lank hair!
This vodka-babbling voice!

Then you come; silently.
You kiss that mouth.
You put your hand on the hair.
You go; silently.

The voice falls dumb.
The leer dies.
But I shout:
Wherefore all this?
Tomorrow it’ll all be just the same!

But it’s not all the same.
Your memory lives on,
your Christ-gaze,
your Christ-silence,
in all of us whom you caressed,
in all of us whom you kissed
little brother


The tale of the lame man.
The tale of the man
who shuffling forwards on his crutches
climbed Mont Blanc Gaurisankar etc.
The tale of the crippled man
who after myriads
of centimetre agonies
(and they are the worst)
at the summit
kicked away his crutches
and flew
(with his crippled limbs and with
the millstones of suffering around his neck)
higher than
all pilots put together.
The tale of the man who fell
(as seen from the present standpoint
of soul-aeronautics, of course)
without being crushed
in his fall
describing a line
from pretty high to pretty low

The true tale of the supermanly man
 the eagle with earth on his wings.

Arnold Schoenberg

He mumbles to himself,
and gnashes his teeth:
he laughs into the distance
makes the whites of his eyes dance:
he plucks notes here and there
and thrusts them together;
he makes yum yum out of ugh ugh
and ohoho out of ah —
he — Arnold Schoenberg —
the wild boar in the garden of music.


Knife-marks of pain
at the corners of his mouth —
in profile
always in profile
his eyes hard to find.
Trombones, pizzicati,
a silver grey waistcoat —
the violins rush towards the heights
narrow shoulders acquire a giant’s breadth
thin fingers
in ecstasy
scratch screaming notes to blood —
a drop on his forehead
fascinated eyes stare blindly —
but I cannot see them:
knife-marks of pain
quiver at the corners of his mouth.

From Pictures (Bilder)

The Balancing Man, by Goya

You that sit there
on the outermost edge of the earth,
turning your moonsilveroil-suffused
face towards us —
Aren’t you smiling, Night, because we so suddenly
leave everything
for a while:
war, peace, love, unhappiness, money —
 as friends or enemies throwing ourselves prostrate,
dreaming, mumbling
like madmen in a trance,
in order to continue the next day
 in the same old rut?

Still Life, by Kandinsky

The apple is almost turning into an inkwell
and the background is almost a glass balloon.
Two lines quiver with passion
and make love in a red blot.
An X-ray photograph of a hand
and a torn-up playing card —
the Queen of Hearts! — ha! — it’s she who has caused all the uproar!

From Flash Portraits


You play the flute in a wood.
And the wood learns the melody
and turns into an organ.
And people hear its moaning
 and say: there’s a storm.


God’s weasel goes out hunting.
and meets beetle carrot
wig jazz.
And drops peppercorns
yum yum fox-poison.
The angels yell:
he’s chewing whistlepsalms
in the gateway of life!


Starcatcher! —
your net is glitter full
of godlike detonations
and the rustle of dead flowers. Unborn you saw everything; sick you cured the healthy.
No one bred poem-gnats as you did:
Light Ugly Beautiful Dark

Diktonius* is the name —
but I lie like everyone else.
It’s not songs that I sing
but concrete,
I have no thoughts —
 my interior is an iron skeleton
— My lines are those of an explosion
my heat that of a crater
 — if you seek coolness
 I will give you blocks of ice,
I understand much,
know hardly anything —
but what concern is that of yours?
* Dikt, the first syllable of the poet’s surname, means poem in Swedish.


Fire blooms in me! —
no buttercup: a crater!
Cataracts of fire and waterfalls of passion. Ash stones and coal.
lava lava.
The gravel ferments The granite comes to life rock cracks
continents shake —
man man
god god
fire blooms in me!

My face weeps in the darkness —
but I know I am made of granite.
The savage floods have ground me smooth but hard:
my soul has a strange smile.


No one sees
my gloomy passion’s
dizzying curves of joy.
But I know that my dark arrow
will penetrate the sun’s light lap
like dark lightning in brilliant day.
Then heavy-hearted weightless children will be born!


I slipped
and fell —
and became a human being.

God how I ran! —
like all the other rats.
That is what is called
the struggle for existence,
but is really only fear.

I am still
on the move
and am looking for the spot
where I fell
so that I may escape.


My rage! —
with flowers! —
Fields swoon in burning colours,
earth is out of breath sun streams
in torrents
goes precociously straight to the point.
My frenzy
makes light breezes hover
above meadows of voluptuousness.
I shout hurrah for every embrace!
My wildness
knows no restraints.


I am
the pointed entrails
of the harshest defiance
The screeching contact
with life’s satin skin
does not frighten me. I hate
the sun the moon all things
even you.
I love the sorrow of my heart
the darkness of my spirit
and my soul’s despair.


My poems are not composed in forms,
but in human flesh.
In all flesh there are sinews, cartilage,
ugly things, ganglia.
It can be beautiful — but cut it in pieces:
it’s ugly.
I am always in pieces —
no glue will hold me together.


They tore off the eagle’s talons and said:
look, it’s limping!
They smashed its beak and said:
strike, damn you!
They put out its eyes and said:
now see!
They broke off its wings and said:
now fly!
They stuffed it into a cage and said:
some eagle!

But an eagle is still an eagle
even if it’s a carcass!
Tear off its talons, smash its beak, break its wings,
put out its eyes, lock it in a thousand cages —
of such is the eagle’s great harsh fate composed,
of such is the air for the eagle’s great, harsh flight.


Far from me are all chivalrous grand airs;
I don’t contend, I fight,
irregularly and wildly,
with dirty hoodlum’s fists
and kicks that arc not allowed.
Many do not give me
their blessing.
But I sing
as I fight.
Not the glitter-stringed harp
is my instrument,
not the pining cello
or the oboe that coos
and cackles —
but the whistle that shrieks
between raw-frozen lips.
Yet I know:
it will set the train of the era
in motion.


Among dark spruce trees
a flower sprang up
Saw apparitions
visions ecstatically
lived through,
was lashed by suffering —
and God and raspberry worm and butterfly dust
in her
sang death and life
and the motley clothes of people.

It rose and rose
the stem ever thinner
and more transparent:
a pale thread,
star lace;
whisperings came,
spoke death
the moon.

Nothing broke.
Something hovered,
floated over —
two eyes became stars,
a tepid hand
smoothed away hunched-up passion,
loosened from the marble foot
the red satin shoe.


Tonight a hand brings
your satin shoe to my ear. 

O murmur of god and death and life,
raspberry worm-butterfly dust
and the motley clothes of people!

translation © 2010 David McDuff

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