Poems from Years Like Leaves (1989)
A little before four, in November
when the field’s snow turns blue
the woods grow black, the sky grows deep,
life comes to a halt.
A lamp-post among the trees
lights up a shovelled courtyard
that awaits the son’s arrival.
Then the day is done,
the hoar frost on the trees
sinks into the darkness, and on fields
where a road stands empty
the wind begins. Palely in the west
the red sun has set.
Each distant lamp reflects
the sense of maybe coming home.
Against a cloudy sky
the trees’ bare boughs can scarce be seen.
A little before four, in November
the twilight deepens
like a feeling in its waiting
before anxiety violently cuts.
Five minutes later it’s all over.
Someone draws his finger over the table’s surface.
There in the mirror inside the heavy wardrobe
visible for a moment are the vague features
of a stranger who held up the threadbare gannents
in a darkness full of naphthalene and tobacco.
Years have mouldered. This silent room
stands waiting as though it still
might heai someone calling over his shoulder:
‘Everything here is just as it used to be — fantastic!
Wait…’ Then, the voice, uncertain and low:
‘Someone has been here. Look.’ Footsteps moving away,
silence like a cobweb of dreams.
In empty rooms someone has always been,
someone has always come visiting
and changed it all.
The old man asked: ‘Are the oaks still there?
There were woods in my day. Are they still there?’
He sat in a mini-house in Monterey,
could no longer remember any Swedish, spoke a few words of Russian.
He sat like his own shadow and saw
with unseeing eyes the cruelly burnt garden —
the sound of the sea was scarcely audible here, gave no coolness.
‘They used to dance, the farm-lads, when it was Saturday.’
He cleared his throat, his hands moved uneasily.
‘Bagpipes? Or something like that, can’t remember,
the trees, them I remember, the mighty oaks, the woods,
it’s as though they still could give coolness…’
He looked at me with an almost angry gaze
as though he had guessed the truth. I replied as he wanted:
‘They’re still there, it’s good to rest under them.’
There was a pause. Then, far away now, he said:
‘When the wind moves through an oak-wood you remember it, always.’
The light has grown colder, the words fewer.
People rent other rooms, die or survive
but you know nothing of them, not even from hearsay.
They keep away. It may be that on a windy street
you suddenly encounter a smell, a sound
that makes you stop, turn round:
there is only an old woman in a scoop-hat
disappearing into a stairway, an eddy of dust.
Was there something you wanted to say, note down,
something that evades you, incomprehensible signs
on an old wall next to the locked door?
With a key you did not know you had
you go inside. On the stairs you see precisely nothing.
Those who come towards you have already passed,
the woman is gone, what you were about to say
someone else has said; you are too early
or too late, you wait. You are too late.
A fireball, they say, may be
a bird that has been struck in the crown of the tree
and transformed into a burning sphere
of soot, bones and feathers —
many experts do not believe this at all.
Children who have imagination and read, they say,
dream about these birds transformed into spheres,
dream about fire, and every sound,
every voice from the kitchen, the rattle of pails
is the lightning’s boom of death and fire.
The image of the heaven’s stars as glowing spheres
leads the children’s thoughts to this:
dead birds eternally hurled towards the deeps,
distant, white as wind and bone,
giddying, frail small bodies.
The wise talk of children’s far too lively imagination.
Better to see the stars of space, their beauty
for what it is, and the earth a moon
full of children who cannot sleep,
who lie with open eyes in the silence’s fire.
As you step across the border between seen and realized,
between Always and Never Again,
do you perceive that you have given up, the dead
turn away from you as though they recognized you?
Do you believe the garden will never again bear fruit?
That people are swept like dust along streets
where the asphalt sparks with splintered glass?
Is there a mirror in you that repeats
you who turned away, after you said goodbye — is it
a fleeing thief you see, afraid of becoming pocket-moneyless?
You think you have lost your face, sit
in rooms that are foreign and judge existence
according to them: empty rooms. And not even a chestnut tree’s light
among shifting tracery of leaves can tell you anything,
or the cries of children, inaccessible, swift as swallows.
The only way out is to direct into the darkness
what belongs to the light. Hopeless has no hope.
You know it. One more spring, dirty and mute.
And yet: to the sight this fragrance of high sky,
to the ear the blackbird’s echoing song!
It is as if in spite of everything your prayers had been answered.
There a hint of approaching summer,
somewhere low voices one warm light evening,
there are Once More and the beloved, near.
Here is a field with spring dew,
a view to the south, a cloud
that stops, moves, stops
like a heavy carriage.
The light is changing over roads worn out with travel,
as though they had borne all life’s lumber.
Sunlight gleams in the water that has gathered
in the mud’s meandering tracks,
but swiftly fades.
You take a few steps towards the dark wall.
The cold wind barely moves the trees.
The darkness falls as though it rose
out of the ground and surrounded you,
leaned over you as once the mother
over her child
submerging it in sleep.
The bumble-bees that increase and diminish their stubborn song
increase and diminish the heat as well — their anger
stops up the window of the sky, divides the ground into sun and shadow.
Sleep on a day like this is confused, in the dream
the room is locked and you will never get the key —
the number is forgotten. The sun moves slowly into clouds.
It is quiet, as in the graveyard of the winds,
where each tapering trunk stands with its back to you, hiding
the meandering path. You did not think
the twilight would fall so quickly?
You thought someone would meet you before the dark?
Years are forgotten — you go trackless and listen no more,
not even to the echo of songs out of black thickets.
When you wake up you look at the window.
Even the violent light there is a sign of darkness.
There came a voice, it said:
because you are silent this is secret,
it remains between us like silence.
You will live on without noticing it,
you will see and experience many things,
rejoice, mourn, go among people
and no one but you will notice it,
there is a wind from the sea in the evening
that has brought you out to the open heights
and you see lights from the city, voices
that carry over the water, see yourself
among those who seek their way down the harbour,
but you are outside the harbour, you hear a voice,
it says: I have been waiting for you,
you are here, there is nothing between us any more,
you are on the move, are free, finally nameless.
‘They have no use for me any more.
They turn away when I say:
I speak not of truth, but truth.
It is the speech of the gods that says in me
that the day is loftier than the night,
that light shall prevail.
The light conceals and demands neither name nor honour.
It is the water that rises to the trees of the shore
and unfolds like shadows on the leaves,
those mute lips: it is not the trees that speak
but the breeze that moves through them.
So also does time’s breeze move through me,
I must stay awake, so that it leaves me open.
Fire there is, also, torches in the blood
but the true makes muddy: best is clear water.
Thus says Pindar. His goal is mine:
the highest beauty, that is the true.
Beyond that is merely conftision,
not mine but theirs who cast me out
into torments of loneliness.
Thus is the truth preserved unbroken within me.
In deepest darkness the morning is hidden.
To no one is this of advantage except to him
who sees torment’s counterbalance in the noble,
that which like a tree turns its crown towards the light.
Invisible am I
and what they see of me is indistinct, undeciphered.
But the song possesses endurance, rises like a bird
for a moment sun-illumined, and this light
remains eternally. I saw it, the song,
saw that it does not return.’
They move under the earth mile after mile,
the meadow rests green, then withers
and leaves moulder, roads
stretch through the darkness,
the roots go so deep, fossilize,
migrate inward towards the towns,
asphalt bends and cracks,
in great heat a shadow burns
against the wall that has struck root —
the roots twist together,
what those who see call crown
is for those who know root,
its sap flows like a dark river
through sun-bright tracery of branches,
roots move up there above
in the wind that sweeps
over the city’s roofs and towers,
out towards the sea, the mute deeps.
It is silent and empty in the world.
Good to have not a thought in one’s head,
only, beneath closed eyes, quivering of a life,
not to gather it but to lie awake,
remember, forget, see the water flow,
not step in but oneself be the water,
the night and the faint dawn.
It is silent and empty in the world.
What has been said is silent, is empty in the world,
and a winter, snowless, mild as the spring
says that summer, autumn and winter
are sinking away in the silence, and the years
alone are there, without demands and heavy darkness.
He who keeps watch alone dreams alone.
He that showed you up the stairs,
opened the door to the room, then disappeared,
is no longer to be found, they shrug their shoulders,
someone else has booked the room you live in,
you’ll have to hide in a cupboard,
if you wait long enough perhaps
the man will come back, nod affirmatively: it’s your room,
always has been. He goes, locks the door after him,
you sit motionless on the edge of your bed, from the courtyard
voices are heard, cries, children and grown-ups,
sudden outbursts followed by silence.
Was this it, everything? All this, saying nothing,
abandoned when the time came.
There is a smell of floor-wax and you open the window,
see that it’s spring, hear someone coming up the stairs.
The woman in the corridor outside takes her key
and opens the double lock for the young couple.
‘Here I shall live with you to all eternity,’ he says.
She laughs: ‘Only until the next tenant.’
‘You’ll have to pay now, cash,’ says the woman,
‘the last tenant just scarpered, disappeared.’
‘We’ll take it,’ he says, ‘we’ll take it. A room’s a room.’
In the nights the trees murmur like water.
The day beneath your closed eyes is happy and pure.
You move freely, glide as on wind-filled sails
one summer when school is out and you are not sure,
you do not yearn, do not know if it is night or morning,
the skerries out there move slowly on water-currents
and rise up into the light, no one knows about you,
the day blows like dandelion puff no one knows that you exist
here in this secret clarity, like a light, high cloud.
Then I saw from the window the line of the coast
sink in waves, restlessly driven by the wind
but could not hear the booming behind the moist windows.
People were struggling out along the promenade
with heavy suitcases, as during the war.
Something was happening and was soon unbridled,
carts of lumber creaked mutely past
and the whites of the horses’ eyes gleamed with terror.
Then everything was wiped away by the mist of the sound.
When I got out the silence was near.
What I saw was hidden, as when the trees were hidden
by driving smoke in the rising wind
with the tang of seaweed and mud — all as before.
The only thing I could not hear was a living voice,
only the blare of an ambulance driving past.
What had happened was only a memory and therefore lingered.
At night I dreamed that I stood at the outermost end of the pier,
dreamed about black trees being hurled
into the darkness like glowing firewood at an open stove.
Far out to sea in half-waking a foghorn could be heard,
hollow cries from some ship on a counter-course.
The forest is flying,
haze conceals the trees. There deepest in the forest birdsong,
so loud, remote
in these quiet rooms
where the window’s curtains incline over the floor
like bridal trains.
All the windows black, swiftly sunlit,
all longing dead and new. It is so silent
where people have died, the imprints of their hands are hidden here
in things that have ceased to be. Come, see me,
like a bird, solitary,
clear and stretched
over the waters, the waters.
In the midst of a calm, bright feeling
there sometimes comes a bow-stroke of despair
as to the swimmer in summer water an ice-cold current
that makes the gaze alert, the day acute.
In the first movement of Sibelius’ Sixth
there is this astonishing, swift glimpse
down into those hidden torments
that are a part of the sea with its mirroring clouds,
and this gaze plumbs the deep,
plumbs the bottom’s wreckage and bones, cannot forget
what is deepest hidden in days of June,
quickly expiring, wind-puffs only.
Back one May evening, and the rooms silent.
Low-moving clouds in the twilight
shift the trees further away.
From the table light — not that a light stood there,
but out of the surface itself, out of that nothingness
that is filled by people.
So objects linger and begin to live
when the door opens, the fragrance of spring comes in
and keeps you company a while
and you remember who it was who said:
‘I shall return in spring, you will not escape me.’
In that which is seemingly mute
there is a mighty, unheard voice that lives there
like the tree in the forest, in the table, or
the dream in the act, the scent of flowers
before the flowers have bloomed,
before the summer has arrived.
The tree knows in the winter night that the spring is there
hidden in the hard earth, but says nothing.
The wind blows indifferently, bushes stand grey
and as the days lighten it gets more and more difficult,
the concentration, the work, as though darkness were needed
for a necessary calm. Sparrows, restless,
look for fallen seeds by the fence
where mice swiftly creep out and vanish again
as though there were a city under the earth,
crawling, swarming life, and, like a threat
the moth-eaten squirrel’s leap up onto the bird-table:
everything threatening in broad daylight, all the dirt visible
under a uniformly grey sky, day after day
and just cold enough so that the snow does not melt —
then a voice says from a well-concealed room:
Be still! There is a language, you know it,
it is in league with days and dreams,
bright fields and mountain slopes the sun has left.
Remember it, wait.
When we went up the stairs we noticed
that there were no windows facing west,
towards forest and sea we asked the owner:
houses had been pulled down, wall had stood against wall,
that which had been invisible was visible now,
there were views, if we would follow him.
We began this endless upwards climb
on the dark spiral staircase with its worn steps.
We felt ourselves grow older the higher we went,
breathed pantingly — what was this, a fire tower?
This was after all a house to live in.
Right at the top he, whom we did not know
and saw unclearly in the dark we took with us,
opened an iron door. There was a large hall, whitewashed,
window-splays and loopholes through which bays could be seen,
far-stretching forests, in the inlets white sails
and, deep below, trees moving slowly.
It was as if they were trying to show us something, or warn.
We looked westwards. The sun was setting, there was still a glow
on a sheet-metal roof, a childlike churchbell sounded.
He who had led us here was almost black against the light.
He who does not want to be born
yearns when born for the timeless.
Where he is he hides,
what he says is his protection
and the dark clouds that follow him
he has shadowed and given weight
so that the ground from raindrops’ fall
may turn green, trees grow, graves
fill with unpenetrated silence.
He who does not want to be born
does not want to die, and lingers in life
as the shadow lingers near the smile,
near the unsuspecting life in the light.
After such long waiting so few words,
so few colours, such lonely sounds.
Objects illumined by harsh days,
as under a grey-vaulted sky
the voice of the sea, the hour dark,
the autumn near.
When he reaches for the glass on the table
there is someone observing him so keenly
that he quickly withdraws back into the shadows
and sees the face of a man who seems familiar
lean forward so that his cheekbones gleam white
while his eyes are hidden in darkness, that darkness he sees
through the window where people are hurrying by.
He feels it as though he had been weighed and rejected
by someone who in his turn quickly withdraws
and speaks to the woman who fleetingly
tums in his direction and then shakes her head.
It feels as though the whole sat-down pub were sinking
as a wire basket sinks beneath the black electric water
among hands and eyes that barely remember
he was there with his anxious heart
and his going-away shirt.
The autumn’s silence remains, the haze
between trees of air and gentle fragrance of water,
as once on a spring morning in a southern town.
And the spring is there with birds that raise the sky
with their song, blue-shadowed like the yielding winter twilight.
Summers there are with the stillness of morning, great and lonely,
your hand warm, your gaze open —; to later
say farewell is to take a step nearer the evening
when conversations grow softer and at last fall silent
and those who are visible on the road are going away, hard
soon to see them as they walk, shadows among shadows.
And the grass that has grown tall and has stopped having colour:
here there was a well-trampled path, eager feet, the children’s,
silvery waters that freeze and something uninhabited
in each and everyone’s inner town. You try to find your way out of it.
There is a silence outside you in every language,
something is being prepared, it is not you who is doing it,
there is a conversation outside you between hand and eye,
the air is still mild and the autumn’s silence a song
in all that is most inward outside you.
There was once a calm and timeless time
when deep dreams’ trees that now are dead bled
enclosing in the resin’s honey-sheen a flower
or a dark insect, centuries of eager life,
now just a jewel in your hand.
Is there still an echo of lofty music there?
Are within the stone enclosed your dreams
and the murmur of a cool and life-filled tracery of leaves?
A shadow in a stone, soon dead and nameless.
The summer came in May and was soon over.
June came and froze fast with water-pictures by the shore.
Later, after midsummer, the darkness fell more quickly.
Each day the earth was homeless, autumnal.
As although already now he wanted to hide himself away in winter
but was driven by anxiety and longing for the shore.
What he saw there had already been used up.
Clarity existed, but was mostly emptiness.
The winter came.
– translation © 2011 David McDuff