Poems by Solveig von Schoultz (1907-1996)
30. XI. 1939
That day, too, became night.
The light our lantern threw
Past house after empty house
Shook on asphalt, empty and blue.
We walked on windows’ torn corpses,
On a broken splintering seam
Carefully, as if somewhere
There lay hidden a scream.
But the street was already dead.
Walls from wounds grown grey
Stood with grief-dimmed eyes.
Here children stood yesterday.
Acrid and alien
The smoke from fires passed us there.
The window nearest our lantern
Gaped speechless and bare.
Curtains stiff with soot.
A night wind made them roam.
They lifted like black wings,
Birds without a home.
My Time Is Brief
The holy disquiet knocked at my door.
‘I haven’t the time, I’m baking my bread,
the dough is rising, the oven is red.
Wait, as you’ve had to wait before.’
The holy disquiet went from my door.
The holy disquiet tried my lock.
‘Don’t come near me, my child is fresh,
It’s sucking my blood, my marrow, my flesh.
Leave me alone with my son, I say.’
The holy disquiet went away.
The holy disquiet stood in my house.
‘The chimney is smoking, haven’t you seen?
I’m sweeping my neighbour’s kitchen clean.
My children are crying. But nice you should call.’
The holy disquiet turned from my hall.
The holy disquiet sat by my bed.
‘Oh, is it you? I’m too tired now,’ I said.
‘I would have loved you young or dead.
Was there something you wanted? My time is brief.’
The holy disquiet left, trembling with grief.
The Water Butt
The water butt by the corner
has an eye that I love.
In the morning it laughs
when the aconites borrow its mirror
adorning themselves for the butterflies,
in the heat it lies shadowy, out of reach,
talking to the honeysuckle’s leaves,
sometimes it plays with the children
curling pygmy waves for their bark boats,
but only at night, when children and grown-ups are gone,
does the eye come wide awake
grow clear and listen,
open itself to the darkness above the pines,
in a cool lap girding
Accept it, God.
I give you my defeat.
Take in your strong hands
the knife that cut.
cut bolder. I am said to be hard.
Prise my shell loose,
the dark shell I carry.
Force in your knife
and tell me, God: is the kernel there?
I close my eyes, await the knife.
Linger, bread, between my hands,
Give warmth of life, O you, divinely generous,
and let me put my cheek against your rough bark,
How happy your brown scents are:
corn grown sweet in sun, dark kiln, the rattle of grain.
Blood has flowed into you from the earth’s entrails,
Pagan women shaped you with their spells
and Christian crosses set a ring around your holy bed:
dark weapons were surrendered before your eye,
Venerable bread, you that saw the origin of the ancient families,
you, born from soil, interred in soil and born again,
do not forsake us on the last day,
Like a woman, hesitant and caught
amidst life’s blond and downy-feathered years,
a mother, bowed at low beds, who forgot
to look up where the midday sun appears,
she upped and left her warm and twilit nest,
now grown too small for all her brood and her.
She found a truth where she’d refused to trust.
She found that summer had stepped far, O far.
Her feathers were still sleek and brilliant,
her breast still soft from nights of harmony.
And suddenly she knew just what life meant:
one brief, hot summer, woman, you have left.
One brief, hot summer. Hurry. You are late.
And then? The journey that is mystery.
A day in early autumn — clear, mercy-bereft.
The Woman of Samaria
At the sixth hour our thirst enlarged
and the man in my bed bit my heel
and said: water.
And I sounded hollow as my pitcher
and my throat was sticky as from sacrificial blood
and my loathing was like sweat.
And I bore my pitcher to Jacob’s well
throughout years of clear, red hopelessness:
to thirst in the midst of thirst.
And lo, a stranger sat on the well’s stone rim
beneath the merciless dark blue
wrapped in the folds of his rest.
And the man’s voice sank into my pitcher’s clay:
if you drink this water
you will thirst to eternity.
That was at the sixth hour. The sun was absorbed
into his eye and grew as narrow as a spear
urgently burning its path.
And the man stepped into my gaze
and men stood concealed there, he touched them
and walked past their ashes.
That was at the sixth hour. And my thirst
lay exposed as a riverbed, dark brown
in its arid immensity.
By the panting furrow he bent down:
I will give you the springing water
I will give you living water.
And the coolness sank from my throat to my heel.
I hear the aching tremor from deep within me.
My brim is dark with moisture.
I will rise and go. I do not know where.
A sea has been born in me. I do not know how.
One thing I know: living water.
We gave her seed; not much,
but enough so she would not grow tired;
water we gave her, a thimbleful,
to remind her of the source.
We opened the door a tiny way,
so the heavens would smite her in the eye
and we fastened a bit of mirror to her cage
so she could look straight into the cloud.
Quiet she sat, with flickering wings.
That way she sang.
Here, this meadow:
the small, bright clearing of awareness
fenced and fertilised, mown to the furthest corners
where the dog’s muzzle of night-scented herbs nosed round his knees
round the boot-strides of safety.
Intrusive rustlings around scant clearing
covetously bent black walls inwards
invisibly crawled and gorged
and eyes watched, claws sharpened, wings rose
hear the warning rattle, the raucous gutturals of fate.
But still his meadow:
the light bottom of the deep-murmuring well.
And like a glass-clear cube eternity shot
straight up with spiracles at the Plough
as it moved on its mighty wheels.
Woman Cleaning Fish
With my long brown arms
I hurl entrails into the sea
wind and perch-scales fight around my throat
seaweed washes my toes
the corpses yawn
— there! My heart quivering with white lumps of fat
has taken a nose-dive; a scream
— you, omnivorous stomach grinding down like and unlike
sway in the seaweed
I don’t want to see you
— you, yellow gall, you insult to the sun
may the old corpse-crayfish take you
take the snaking subterfuge of my intestines
the cowardly constipation of mouldy memories
— with my long arms
I hurl the seagulls’ brazen laughter
tear slimy membranes
snort my blood, I will scrunch and rinse
vomit out into contemptuous cold and salt-green:
neat white flesh and a few angry spines.
The Sewing Machine
Here, in a secret alcove between the laundry basket and the kitchen
the objects that were hers crowded together under a brown wooden cover:
the trusty, sharp scissors that cut dreams to ribbons, the infinite patience of the spools
and the small pins with the motley-coloured heads of countless worries.
Here her years ran along sprouting seams
smoothed beneath a dutiful thimble.
What held them together was this: patched-up sheets,
that the worn can old be made to do, that the hopeless can be rescued.
But slowly rescue became more difficult and meaningless:
the aching of the wheel, that had been there all along,
pressed up through this: this is how it is supposed to be,
and grew dark and turned to suspicious bewilderment
and she stopped her treading and saw she was alone.
Behind what you say there is something else.
The visible is crazed by alleyways.
Scent of prophylactic herbs,
grape hyacinths’ courage.
Behind your fragments all is whole.
Hidden horses on nocturnal meadows.
Smiles, alerted, at our ignorance.
Death is only a river flowing inward
towards the plain whose name is trust.
Loneliness and hunger are only now.
How will we recognise ourselves
in the hour our purpose is made known,
and there is nothing in vain?
Three days he had lain wrapped in his resolve
with dark stains in the region of his cere-cloth:
the eyelids: they had renounced everything,
lowered over stifled vanity;
the nose; its haughty monument
to evaporated memories of happiness
before the bitter lips dried up the tongue
repenting of its fluttering to and fro;
the ears: a final lock
behind which he was at last himself
in a cavern of astonished silence,
yet most silent of all his hands
with brooding knuckles: all is in vain.
Like a bulb beneath layers of the past
a memory wintered in his heart,
a small, whitish sliver of fear,
but even this was making ready to die.
When, through the caverns of silence, a blow reached him,
a trumpet of light, and he answered with silence
stiffening inside his averted shell
until the trembling lashed him again
the close pounding of alien light
and the sliver of fear swelled in his heart
and with his dead body Lazarus cried: No.
The trumpet of the command.
An unbearable pain
streamed in his limbs, a violent light
a death to light, the bursting of the stiff bandages —
There is no other way than to become more tree.
Make it up with the soil. The soil: eternally the same.
The stones the same.
The gravel the same.
Nailed for all time to this: immovability.
To move in the tree’s direction:
Can a tree that loves storms become a storm?
The tree can do no other than to rend its crown.
Be shaken through by cries
the tree the nailed-fast soughing
born to be tree
drives its longing inward
into the form of tree.
The dark-shadowed grows broader. Broad
the pillar descends and without vertigo sings greater
towards the cloud its heart of leaves
rest for all that travels
safety for birds and for the seeds
forever in motion
deep in its innermost wood.
There is no way than to become more tree.
I am the pike.
Yellow-ringed green and black:
To me unlimited power is given.
Who are you?
I took your bait.
Its seduction gleams inside me.
Never think I have regrets.
I wanted. I took.
True: it hurts
under my powerful heart.
But rarely: in soft spasms.
What do you want of me? Sport?
Do not think you have me.
It amuses me to come when you call.
Sometimes, to strike terror into your heart
with my sudden-stealing back.
Away from your evil eye
in tail-tenebrous whistle and whirl
nosediving into night
— my spawning-time’s shadowclear hunting-ground
my quivering small-fry my ripping jaws
my arrow-flight’s hissing will —
Tear your barb under my wild heart.
Is it death I have swallowed?
But will you take me alive?
Slowly the cloud came loose and drifted over the river,
the baleful cloud the landscape had dreamt.
It moved in melancholy towards another night.
In the dream the riverbanks had flowed out into the water.
They stopped, still afraid, in their flight.
Colourless light flowed in over low reeds,
sparkling in the meadow’s rough stubble.
A buzzard burst from the banks’ uncertainty and rose
higher, until he had conquered the meadow
higher, until he alone possessed the morning’s cries
and higher, until he lay down on his strength and floated
with the brazen sun concealed in his wings:
grey and brown quiverings of light.
This is the body’s joy this side of age and sex:
to curl one’s toes against a sooty wall
to stripe the skin of one’s back against a baking bench
to roll shadows around in the pit of one’s stomach
to be stabbed in the eye by the peephole, small, rage-boiling green
the frayed dotted curtain
the inquisitive clump of nettles
to snort at a hissing alder whisk
to gasp for blessed air by the steaming groan of the stones
distil guile from one’s skin
scoop innocence from the water butt
to be smoothed childlike and shining wet
to crawl glowing away from the little sootblack island
absent-mindedly chew sorrel
ice-cold whortleberry flowers
whistle at the wood-dove’s weeping music
and behind a bush perform one’s evening prayer.
The lantern is small
for those who must walk through the pasture at night
bobbing it lights
by glimpses and hardly at all
followed by unfathomable eyes
sends sudden beams quivering:
a coarse hoof gleams in the mire
a step away that which has no name
jostles in masticating darkness
moans, shifts dully,
crushing twigs beneath its weight
arches the whites of its eyes
the lantern lights by glimpses
when it has gone
the pasture will be dark as before
the millennia will continue to murmur
and the tangled spruce trees will rock to and fro
their view concerning the stars
You threw me off.
A hail of stones
lashed my face and your hooves
vanished in glowing embers.
I know you will return
And I shall mount you:
my spurs thirst for your hide
I shall mount you: tame your rebellion between my knees
and we shall travel forward together
tautly, silently stepping,
one for one.
The Room Overlooking the River
The only calm is to break one’s calm,
to know when the water grows stagnant and acquires a smell of death.
False is the calm on a windless shore
and the house of safety has closed-up shutters.
But give me this room of river-blue air
with walls that are still empty,
this naked floor of boards
running together towards one thing: the window,
open to the flowing water of night and day.
There deceit will be washed away
in small, wicked eddies
and day and night will sough away
small pieces of myself.
Until I am as naked and hard as the floor overlooking the river
until chance takes wing like clouds of autumn finches
until I stand open like a window
on the brown sun of change.
The woman stooped down and picked up her child
and her hair fell over her face
and inside her a little old woman
withered and clear-eyed
stooped down with trembling head
to pick up her knitting
and inside her
a young girl stooped down to pick up her doll
with tender hands
who would never see one another.
The head had a life of its own:
on a withered neck
it raised its tower of experience.
The roof of grey grown thin
crowned its weatherbeatenness
stared from networks of care
small elephant-grey stones
hard with wisdom.
The head had an age of its own.
The head: a tyrant.
The body: a subjugated land
the shoulders modestly young
with dry, white skin.
The body, delayed in dreams
of waterlilies and blood.
An Unknown Beak
An unknown beak pierced my breast
and there it stayed while the bird drank
and there I stayed
almost without pain
for as long as the bird sucked my blood with its beak sucked deeper
I did not know
if I had bled to death or become a bird.
Inside unhappiness it is quiet, everyone has gone past,
all doors are shut, you hear no sound.
Sparse furnishings, unaired darkness
face and body against hard floor
and a strange dream about God.
Thus far was he shown mercy
or its opposite:
at the moment he had heaved the boulder to the top
relief raised him up
straightened his back
forgetfulness filled his head
with a thin cool breeze
and this moment lasted just long enough
for him to regain faith and apply his weight
to the boulder again.
Gradually he learned it.
He was very seldom there.
Sometimes, when his head hit the wall
he would return to his body
and rediscover terror.
Someone had permitted his escape.
Perhaps it was God.
He travelled far and wide.
For forty years they had lived with each other
and the language was growing harder and harder to understand
at first they had known a few words
later on they made do with nods:
bed and food.
For forty years they had coped with the day-to-day.
Their faces grew calmer, like stones.
But sometimes a chance interpreter appeared:
a cat, an unusual sunset
they would listen with an air of unease
try to answer
they were already speechless.
And then, when God had burned down on every branch
a Christmas tree bereft of needles
looking around in the daylight
something that had made him shine.
But when she looked at all those years
she found they had turned into dolls, with rigid eyes
some dozing, some wide and transparently awake
some dressed in finery, with undulating hair
some naked, with breasts and slender arms
but all unable to move, all in a row
she stuffed them into a sack and pulled the cord
now they are gone
now they are truly gone
The Poor Man’s Lamb
The poor man’s only lamb slept in the poor man’s lap
and was like a daughter to him
eating out of the poor man’s bowl near the poor man’s beard
warming her wool at the poor man’s sorrowful heart
roughly licking the constant hand that firmly
held on to his sole possession:
Hold her trotters firmly, the lamb is dancing in a dream
where? On the rich man’s farm where the lambs are many
the gambollings quivering-high and the air untrammelled
where the lambs drink muzzle to muzzle from the spring
and lie down with blissful trotters
on green meadows where they find rest.
Death is like King David
with his melancholy crown of gold
death gathers treasures and gives nothing away
but even death will have to answer
for what it has done to the poor man.
Only the lamb has rest
the lamb has escaped from her father
and the pen of her loyalty.
On my shelf stands a little angel of wood
with gilded wings and a halo like a hat.
I was given him once a long time ago
by someone who believed in angels
right then I needed
a guardian angel (it’s a need that has grown no less).
He has had a hard job.
He has lost
one of his wings, he has fallen off the shelf
during the struggle with Satan (not a stranger here)
and his gold paint has flaked off.
But his obstinacy
is as great as Satan’s, he goes on standing
here he promised to stand, a little angel
with a broken wing and a halo like a hat.
The Burning Glass
As when in spring
one focuses the sunlight in a burning glass
watching the heat grow narrow
the paper blacken
and a little dot inside
begin to glow
so also should despair
burn holes in silence.
The Pole Star
The pole star in the universe clings to itself
however much the earth may turn
however the stars may be confused
the pole star stands by its constancy.
So do I.
If I steer a steady course
nailed to the one thing I know
the uttermost and only thing I know
I can exchange glances with God.
In childhood’s days Good Friday fastened still
as did the sky above the hill’s strong pines
deep blue and brightly scrubbed and without end.
One wore one’s Sunday best, as did the sky,
and was constrained to silence, and no games.
Brown fronds of willow stood in glass-blown jars
whose water contained ice, first buds of spring
that waited to be free to shed their scales.
Beneath the stones on hillsides lizards lay
in frozen boulders waiting for the sun.
We spoke low-voiced, and our own waiting grew
in shining expansivity, and made
our long Good Friday more prolonged. No games.
It was so still one walked about on tiptoe,
listening. But what happened then occurred
So deep and still that nothing could be heard.
How can one not submit?
No gaze is so radiant and dark blue
penetrating everywhere, into the snowdrift
that, hissing, collapses into the ice
that waits with red lakes, and into the heart
where winter still holds out
how can one not submit?
What death lures us with: so easy to live
when one is dead. Simply to cease to hear
and cease to see. Simply to seal the chinks
around a dark, eternal mirror-calm.
O peace, O wondrous inward-moving peace
O lack of dread. To turn one’s eyes within
on depths that do not move, and never will,
and merely silently reflect themselves.
o to walk among all living creatures
and be dead.
This fearful leavetaking of winter
the pulse of revolt beating and beating
just as much inside us as outside us
already the willows are reddening
already the water is clattering under the snow
the light compels the transformation on us
unconcerned with what is dying
the ice is made to leave like love gone grey
there is no refuge
death defends itself and makes the cold more keen.
The lower the sun
the bluer the ice, keener blue sword-sharp
the redder the catkins of the alder
the harder the birch-buds in the smoke from the sauna
Rigid, the buckthorn clutches towards the stone
but the snow burns like cold fire.
No one heard the swans that night
but still the shore is white as outstretched necks
and the water on the melting ice dark metal
like the eyes of birds.
Out of the sea of seals rises the Easter god
with pike in his hands
dark brown from solar laughter
he breaks off a willow-fork
he plods heavily in the snow
he divines the water’s path.
he willow-fork wrenches itself downward
and stays impetuously turned
towards the secret things beneath the ground.
Where are the newborn lambs?
The ones that are newly broken forth
on high, trembling legs.
Let us see newborn lambs
now as the sun is deepened, hovering
low over the darkening ice on the lakes
now when the air is becoming a bubbling density
and the grouse are erupting over the floes.
– translation © 2011 David McDuff