Over the Water I Walk, by Pia Tafdrup (1)


My poetry comes into being between two poles: between hunger for life and fear of death, between excitement and thought, language and silence. The process is never the same, but – stretched quivering between extreme points – it contains a compelling necessity which seldom allows itself to be explained in any other way than: I can do nothing else, so I must do it.


Before the poem, a restlessness arises: spontaneous, unreflected and completely irrational phases, in which unknown energies are at work. Sleepless nights and convulsions, momentary irritation, melancholy, aggression and other conflict-ridden states. Seldom is it a harmonious situation that releases the poem. Very important, before the restlessness, a position of waiting, and endless patience. This period may last a long time, but may also be decisive in its invisibility. Associated with the patience is a humility, which is perhaps the real beginning?


The phase of pre-articulation with its different stages may easily be undervalued or quite simply overlooked, but what happens here is crucial as to whether the amorphous state will be released in a poem. Or: there are seldom poems without this phase, for what is involved is a degree of attention that is almost intolerable. It may be short or long, be scarcely perceptible, but it is here that there is an openness for anything that wants to find its way under an irritable layer of skin, here that sudden plunges under the surface of thought take place. Only afterwards does it become clear that the restlessness was the beginning of something new that was on its way. The state of pre-articulation may have so strong a grip that when I do eventually write, I no longer have any sense that it is me. Like an anaesthesia, an intoxication. Someone else or someone else in me, something else or something else in me acts, while I look on. Something that is more than me, or something that also exists in me,writes. What happens cannot be explained – thence the dizziness, but it is a question of reaching that point in the process where one forgets one’s own personality and is able to eliminate the private.

Inspired by French symbolism, Paul la Cour called this phenomenon depersonalisation: ‘In all great poetry there is an element of depersonalisation. It will not master you with individual soulfulness, but will shine into you with impersonal spirit.’ Inger Christensen has called the phenomenon derealisation. Both definitions aim at the same thing, they touch on a fundamental relation in all poetic creation: a generalisation of the subjective. In Mallarmé’s sense the depersonalisation is an aesthetic and metaphysical dimension in which the intellect leaves the space in the poem in order to let its own universe emerge – or as Rimbaud says of the poem’s subject:

Car je est un autre. Si le cuivre
s’éveille clairon, il n’y a rien de sa faute. Cela
m’est évident: j’assiste à l’éclosion de ma
pensée: je la regarde, je l’écoute: je lance un
coup d’archet: la symphonie fait son
remuement dans les profondeurs, ou vient d’un
bon sur la scène.

And elsewhere:

C’est faux de dire: Je pense:
on devrait dire: On me pense.

An attempt to take the direct route to the representative will only lead to poems that are vague. Only when the personal sets itself out over the private can the general emerge. It is not our emotions but the patterns we create from our emotions that are the essential thing, as T.S. Eliot pointed out.

I say: the angel dwells on the other side of subjectivity.


A man once said to me at an exhibition, where we were looking at paintings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: ‘Your body is so classical. As I look at these pictures, I can recognize it everywhere.’ What he meant by this inverted declaration of love was: these studies of the body contain all human beings – or at least a half of mankind, all women. An artistic representation of the body is more than the individual body, it’s an expression of the body’s essence.

The poem must likewise be more than the writing subject. It is the movement inwards that leads past the subjective and towards the universal, like Jung’s ideas about the collective unconscious. There exists an expectation of the general place that poetry must reach, but at the same time the poem exists by virtue of its specific character. If it doesn’t smell of skin, what use is it?


There can never be talk of art unless the private material is worked over and even the darkest events or most shocking experiences transformed into light. The poem has no value of its own until I leave it. It must be possible for it to be read independently of my individuality, which means that I must not be present as a private person. The partial must not oppress the universal. The poem only becomes real to the reader when it is possible for the reader to enter into a relationship with it.

The fact that I must never lock the poem does not mean that it is only valid if it has breadth: it’s better to reach a few people and affect them deeply than to reach many only superficially. Universality and breadth are two categories that are qualitatively different.


Inspiration is an invasion of forces that reach far beyond what is generally known, both physically and mentally. I have seen violent, almost superhuman energies manifest themselves in people shortly before they died. Although those people were ill and drained of strength, they were suddenly able to perform huge physical tasks such as the moving of objects that are normally immovable. In its own way, inspiration is likewise an overwhelming physical transformation. It can also have certain points of equivalence with the most searing love, with sorrow or fear, but unlike these instances, the energy is channelled into something else.

Whether the forces that break forth arise from within or from outside cannot be ascertained. Sometimes the possession lasts a few seconds, at other times it’s a question of long intervals. Something wants out, but why through me? And why do I want this something out? Sometimes what I try to summon fails to turn up. Instead something unexpected arrives. The process always contains an element of the miraculous. I am not an instrument for something, but the place where this something can grow. In that state I may have the experience of the poems writing me.

In the moment of inspiration I don’t only see further and more clearly than usual, but also differently and LIGHT-awake. This state exposes the microscopically small extent of what is normally seen and perceived. But to open the mind in the dimension that is part of inspiration is something that can only be done for a short space of time.


The Romantics and their successors maintained that inspiration is the making visible of a whole. I would say: if not a whole, then at least a glimpsed connection between things that normally appear to be separate. The Romantics were able to set their sights on an order that was already given. The task today is, for a moment, to create order in chaos, for no whole is any longer apparent.


It is almost becoming a dogma that art must arise from within. In certain cases, though, there is a freedom in allowing oneself to be bound by an idea that comes from outside. Someone wants something of me, and this expectation can sometimes take me further than I myself would have dared. There needs to be a dialectic involved: I must be able to illuminate the idea. Thus in a way to work outwards from inner stimuli…


I can adopt a seeking stance, or try to summon something forth, which is the same thing. If inspiration is to be present, what is involved is a sharpened attention, a special way of living. I write because I cannot help it. Either through fate or unwittingly, I have spent my whole life preparing for this. I am seen. So there is no way back.


Either I go out of myself and let myself be swallowed up by the alien other, or I receive the alien other into myself. The first movement dominates mostly in childhood and youth, the second in adult life. The ideal is to be able to do both, and what is involved is of course only a spiritual dimension. To devote oneself to the world is a precondition for being able to create a world. I receive the world into me at the same time as I exist in the world, and I produce a world at the same time as I exist in the midst of the world.


Without a beating heart, no poetry. Even the poems that express absence or emptiness are like the moment of falling in love — if not an expression of the imparting of meaning, then at least an attempt to keep meaninglessness at bay. For falling in love and the situation of writing contain something inside them…


In all talk of aesthetics, the birth of the poem is a principal consideration. Writing about how a poem announces itself is very different from what happens when a poem appears. In addition, each poem has its own subtle history, which complicates the whole matter further. It is only afterwards that the reflections are of interest. Why did I do this and not that? Only by standing outside the process can it be described.

On the one hand I may have the sense that the whole thing – or at any rate part of it – was already there before the poem itself came into being, it was just that I couldn’ t see it. As though the words were simply waiting to be brought forth. On the other hand, I was the person who put these words together, who gained mastery of new images which I will understand only later, or will never really know where they came from, for that happens too. I have written poems I actually did not understand, or where the process of their becoming visible was unexplained: the sense that something had suddenly been given, something I had to continue on my own.

As a prelude to one of the sequences in my collection Intetfang (Noembrace), I quote Rilke. He described the gaining of mastery as a process that begins before one is aware of it, in a phase in which sense-impressions invade the mind before concentration takes place, and when thoughts and expressions come shooting forth:

Werk des Gesichts ist getan,
tue nun Herz-Werk
an den Bildern in dir, jenen gefangenen; denn du
überwältigtest sie: aber nun kennst du sie nicht.

These lines could be about any of the poems I’ve written since the angel broke its silence. For it was in that first book of mine that I discovered poems need not refer directly to something that is already familiar. One of the paths in that first volume is built of poems which are based on familiar material, but as poems they’re not interesting, because the aesthetic manoeuvring in them usually blocks new perception. The other path is the one I subsequently followed and took as my starting-point in many directions — the one that involves a surprise, the momentary quiver of something that hasn’t been seen before: why did I suddenly write this, and where did it come from? It’s about trying to do more than what one thinks is possible, about hurling oneself out into the most challenging places. It’s in those places that one has the sense of fear and being overwhelmed, the sense that anything may happen, but it sometimes happens in a region where one almost cannot bear to be.


I don’t know who whispers the words, and I don’t always know what is being whispered, only that the words announce themselves in order to be written down. I write without inquiring. It is always too late to turn round. There is nothing to hold on to except what already exists in myself, and what is thrown over me in waves as I write.


The poet’s work is linked with an ability to lose himself, to temporarily set himself outside society and history. The writing of poems is a matter of authenticity, of forgetting about other things and other people. And of being oneself, with all that this requires.


There are situations where for a moment the material takes control of the writer. And if the control is not won back, one goes insane. Or worse: risks death.


The sensuous and the emotional are not enough to create a poem. At most a diary. It was only when I read Edgar Allan Poe that I realized the degree to which self-restraint and a methodical approach are involved in the poetic principle. The fire must be met with cold.

In “The Philosophy of Composition” Poe comments on the birth of his great poem, “The Raven”: ‘It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referrible either to accident or intuition – that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.’

These lines express a modern approach that jettisons quite a few myths, as there is a widespread belief that poems only come into being in a state of intoxication, madness or headlong ecstasy. I’m especially familiar with the enabling energy that is a first step in the process, but at some point self-oblivion and direct outreach must be replaced by a very high level of self-awareness.

Poe’s method is to set certain goals for himself in advance. That is why there is so little mention of intuition in his writings. I doubt that he is right in what he says about spontaneity. At any rate, I don’t have an explanation for every device I have used. Although I like the idea that an essential part of the process is a dispassionate overview, not everything in the process can be explained.

The birth of the poem is not only determined by expressive impulses, but also consists of contemplative states. Emily Dickinson encapsulated this type of inspiration in the following image:

On my volcano grows the Grass
A meditative spot


Strictness and wildness are irreconcilable dimensions that must be reconciled in the process of writing.


The precondition for writing poems is to be able to rise, let the dream move one’s body. My best writing times have always been accompanied by dreams of flying, in countless variations. I can stay in the air for ages, and can travel in this foreign element without any trouble at all.


Writing is a longing for the present, a longing to be allowed to exist. It is about being captured, daring to devote oneself to opposites. Pleasure and pain mingle together, and there is no more damming-up of the words that flow out ineluctably. Writing poems is above all being in the present tense, while also simultaneously being aware of other times and tenses.


At times when the moon and the stars are especially favourable, everything points to what is being written. The work on a book is not very different from falling in love. I am sensitive and receptive in a new way. Things that are apparently indifferent can’t avoid having significance asctibed to them, and coincidences arise between the strangest phenomena. Words are – at least temporarily – in chaos. What before were chance events now become signs.


In absorption things change. Most often it is a slow process, in which only small details alter. At other times there is an overwhelming vitality, and suddenly something shockingly new and unexpected is on the paper, something that now and then anticipates what I will develop years later.


What forms the beginning of a poem often ends up being deleted, either because the poem grows, and overshadows the beginning, or because the starting-point is possibly too private. Only when whatever it was that gave rise to the poem has been crossed out does something that is worthwhile begin.


The process of the poem belongs to the moments when I think: that is why I am alive… On the other hand I also know the dread of beginning, because there are periods of writing when I must enter places that are full of dread.


The poem is brought into the world and is thereafter, in principle, accessible an infinite number of times, while I become aware of my own mortality, but also of the fact that with each poem I am left with a remnant, that after the poem I am also confronted with something that could not be written into it. The poem stands there shining, and every time I will be whirled into places from which I must drag myself, empty and exhausted, back to the same darkness, the same inarticulate sphere. Once the poem begins, there is only one thing for it: to give up everything else and hurl oneself into what is taking place, without compromise. A process has begun. It can go only one way, and that is forward. Neither life nor poem nor society permit any slowing down.


It is essential to be able to endure prolonged uncertainty and doubt, as a poem will never allow itself to be forced.


Creation is not the possession of all the wisdom in the world, but the ability to be constantly born. ‘I am not yet born, but bearing am redeemed,’ Sophus Claussen says.


Sometimes I cannot gain access to the receptive space where I can forget everything, and the poem can be given birth, where I can form a shell around myself and be at peace. I may try to do so from many angles, but I will not succeed in finding the entrance to the room I know is there.


The process of the poem is a being-alone-with-oneself.


The poem sometimes begins in a dream-moment, of its own accord, or when two words collide and instantly set off a larger movement:

Between always and never
it is that things happen
in a breathless second
when one least expects it
the world changes.

Something that was not there before and contains a new being in itself, appears. Or the process may begin almost imperceptibly with a sound, a rhythm, a musical motif, a fragment of something almost forgotten or a misreading. Even the experience of absence may set language in motion.

A modern physicist would say that atoms have always existed, that something has always been given. Something is there, but whatever it is, it can be extremely diffuse. There exists a material, an amorphous structure, which by means of transformation is brought to take on a number of forms, but most importantly: poems are not created from nothing. Something is. Just as at birth we have the impressions of nine months already behind us.

The thing that was the poem’s original starting-point, and is often discarded, exists nonetheless as an invisible place, and has its special function in the poem.


Poems occupy themselves with the impossible, with the writing down that of which one cannot speak. The opposite to Wittgenstein’s Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen. But this is precisely the barrier that poetry seeks to cross, by writing out new universes. All that about which nothing final can be said, and which reveals new, unspoken aspects each time something is formulated. Poems set words free. They constantly move the limits of language, and yet are never able to say everything…


While the draft of the poem is coming into being, I feel that I have been put outside of time, although that phase has its beginning and its end. The place I am in is forgotten, as is my identity. A state of seeking, almost weightless. Like a pure floating.


“Storm and stress” is often considered a virtue, but stands in contrast to meditation or absorption. If I am absorbed by the outside world all creation is rendered impossible, because in that case it is the world that uses me to act. In the process of the poem precisely the opposite becomes true: it is I who am the agent. A bombardment of impressions may be sometimes be of importance, but in the phase of writing the direction goes from inside to out.


All the handwritten revisions, the basic sensuous experience of moving a pencil or pen across the paper are incredibly important, as are the subsequent fair copies, because they have the character of being finished, and therefore call for corrections and improvements in a way that is different from the first hasty sketches. A rationalization of the process would not produce more good poems — at most, it would give rise to a great many bad ones.

Between the individual sketches hours, days or weeks, sometimes months may lie. One can’t bully a poem, or it locks up and will not obey. Where a poem is concerned, it is not the writing down that takes time. On the other hand, the intervals between the productive phases can be of long duration. But during the time that the poem is resting, something happens. Or I am given new eyes to see with.


The material or the emotions may pile up, ideas and images grow out of proportion, the potential may assume dimensions which cannot possibly be of any benefit. There is nothing to be done except to overcome one’s resistance and carry on. Poems demand will, a fact that conflicts, perhaps, with many an old myth, but the poem does not come into being with the wave of a magic wand. In a society, the will is one of the most invisible things – there it is always the finished result that counts, or the final product that is presented. But will, which is not to be confused with mechanical toil, apparently exists on a perfectly equal footing with other instincts, and should not be undervalued. Will and endurance may go very far in determining my fate, but they are not sufficient to create art. At most, these forces are a forward operating base.

Lastly, the exertion must not be detectable in the finished work. ‘It’s from diamonds like yours that I know the sweat they are silent about!’ Per Højholt writes in The Moon’s Gesture. A Sophus Claussen Identification.

Anyone can experience inspiration, but few have the courage and discipline to go further. It is above all here that the artist stands out from others, who let happy ideas evaporate the instant they are born. It is the stubbornness that is enigmatic, like the will to life. Where does the strength to go on have its source?

At the times when I am preoccupied with a poem, I cannot be the person I would like to be. I wound and offend, I demand the impossible, or do things I later regret. I can see what I am doing, but cannot act differently. All my strength moves in one direction: towards the poem. All my passion is gathered in one single point.


Perhaps the poem needs me?


The poem ‘Meditation Fountain’ in Bridge of Seconds speaks of two forces that are present at every birth, a gathering and a spreading. Creation and destruction are aspects of the same process, and so destruction is an important element in art. Nothing comes into being without something else simultaneously being destroyed. Rejection and precision are deeply interconnected.

There is a paradox in the sense of being enriched after deleting, word by word, the thing that at one stage one tried to persuade oneself was a poem. It’s a happy experience to have written a good poem, but at least as happy a one to have avoided writing a bad poem..


‘Poetry can be defined as a series of encounters which have chance as their fundamental law’, Per Højholt writes in Cézanne’s Method. The degree to which it is chance that determines the encounter can be debated. Is an external compulsion involved, or is it an inner necessity? Is it I who grasp chance – or does chance draw attention to itself? It is sometimes hard to decide where the borderline is between two such contradictory quantities as miracle and chance. Our birth may, for example, be said to be determined by a very predictable encounter, but why that particular ovum and that particular sperm cell and not one of the other millions of possible ones, and why that particular lovemaking that day between just those two people… Does the poem approach me or do I approach it, that is the question. Of course the process goes both ways, and it is a matter of indifference whether as a writer I am fertilized by Providence or chance. Holy ghost or ovulation – what does it matter, as long as a poem comes out of it…


Where does the poem open? It opens where the unknown starts. If I only write about familiar material, I limit myself and present an obstacle to all the things that could be written meanwhile. New perceptions must always be able to come up behind me, impulses that bring me to an unpredictable place.


A poem must close. It has its own end built in to it, but must at the same time point beyond itself. It is only when the definitive move is made that the ending becomes visible. In what the definitive consists cannot be said, as each poem has its own move, which points towards closing.

While it is far from invariably possible to explain what started a poem, the decisive move can as a rule be made clear during or immediately after the work. Later it is probably forgotten, but the fact remains that beginning and the end must be in a supple relation to each other. A poem can be so short that it does not manage to develop, but can on the other hand run the risk of being so long that it loses precision or becomes diffuse.

A poem must stop in a convincing way, so that it can start in the reader.


The title of a poem functions as an orientation point. I don’t remember numbers, they don’t tell me anything. Number-blind, I stumble about in the dark. But a title is important, because the poem is recalled by it. On the other hand, titles should not signal too much. They should be more in the way of hints than titles which make the poem top-heavy. It’s a relief when a title gives itself, for usually it is the title that causes the greatest difficulties. This is especially true of book titles, which ought to be a miniature of the whole work. The strange thing about book titles is that they converse with one another. The title I gave my first book has had direct consequences for the others. Like names in a group of brothers and sisters.


Visible or invisible poles exist in my poems, but the number three is the magic one. It hides everywhere in their composition, and in the books’ inner conversation.

Springtide and White Fever constitute two poles, while Bridge of Seconds became the third quantity, which could not have been devised without the preceding ones. Viewed like this, the three works are related to one another as thesis – antithesis – synthesis. The poem ‘Moving sculpture’ in Bridge of Seconds is a hidden poetics for the three books mentioned here: King, Queen and dauphin. The dauphin is an unexpected result, which again must mark off a new figure which lies outside the material that is given. A continuous dynamic praxis.

The figure three also plays on another motif. The poems do not merely articulate an I-you relation, a poet-reader relation: a third instance is present between the two.


In the poem the limits of the unsayable are investigated. Not everything must be made visible, for when the mystery vanishes, obviousness and the one-dimensional begin. A poem’s mystery should not be exchanged for a hard shell of something unapproachable, nor with unnecessary mysticism or chronic sentimentality. The hermetic, which alone shuts the poet in and keeps the reader out, is not desirable, but on one level poetry is always an oracular monologic discourse: the possible transformations of expression, all the many layers and structures that demand repeated readings. A good poem has an inborn character that calls for movement and continually steers towards greater understanding.


Where art is concerned I do not doubt for a moment that fidelity is a necessity. It is not imposed on me. I choose it myself as the only valid way of relating to poetry. It is a precondition in all seeking for a true artistic language, it is the condition for creation that steps beyond itself. Fidelity is an openness that obliges, but also a risk, for with it I stake everything.


After the poem: a violent exhaustion, but also an inexpressible relief that this something has found its way out. For a time, a great happiness… Or a hibernation-like state sets in, a physical condition in which all sense-impressions glance off or are neglected. If there was an element of something that growled like a beast of prey in the pre-articulation phase, now the beast scratches behind its ear again.


The condensed energy or trembling nervous state that exists before the words appear returns again for a time after the poem. I find myself indeed in a place of whose existence I could not possibly have had any idea before the poem, but am again hurled into fear and darkness, once again alone with what is greatest.


The insightful poet must be able to parody himself.


What decides if the poem is a successful poem? Time.

translation © David McDuff 2011

The Cities, by Gösta Ågren



Let us therefore not condemn that which has made us vulnerable,
made us fall out with life and brought us face to face with the thieving brats of reality.
The wound proves that there was something
which went beyond the bounds of necessity, something
which demanded more and found less,
was a squandering of energy until reality
converted it into blind weakness.

Rabbe Enckell: ‘O Bridge of Interjections…’






The cities stand out against
the evening sky like inhabited
ruins. Mankind journeys
towards its goal through the evening’s
lingering ceremony. Europe
darkens beneath the thundering
plane. A migration towards a goal
must have an end. Millions
of people are already bowing
under the weight of this thought.
High up there in the plane
a man asks: ‘What
remains?’ A woman
answers, or does not answer,
by saying: ‘We must
continue. The murmur of forests is wider
than weariness; poetry is deeper
than thought. There is always
something greater.’ He resolved
to continue, to begin
again. Down in the depths the night
tautened to a dark, nameless
people around the besieged,
burning cities.





He is cycling north towards
Jakobstad. Before him
waits the journey; behind him
waits the freedom to return.
But freedom cannot
be used; that is why
it is freedom. Like a swan
a swan flies past. He knows
what the bird sees: distant blue
pillars, spewing out paths
of dark smoke towards the future.
He already knew it all. Insight
does not console, but it is
a passion, and therefore gives
the afflicted one strength to endure
his insight. He knew
that this imprisonment in
the primordial journey
was his only alternative
to earth and clouds.


On his knees in the drainage ditch beneath
the pain he saw it clearly:
a creature that resembled
a grey smile with its teeth sunk
in his back. He was completely
motionless; the clocks went on
ticking into the future
and it grew silent. Alone
with his body, this
sudden, stiff animal,
he helplessly awaited
its decision. It came, a
cry. He had to open
his hands, so that they heard
his comrades’ questions, and
had to get up, with the help
of the pain. He had to climb
up out of the deep ditch, that
long grave they were digging
for themselves. He lost
his spade, but continued
towards the future. Only that way
can it be postponed.


The street fills with people
at four o’clock. For a while
it is eternal as a river,
this evening migration homeward
from the temple. That word
is poetry. We only
make things. We do not
build a church as a protection
against God. We do not build
like the Greeks a temple
in order to conceal its emptiness.
No, we fill the emptiness
with things, just as we ourselves
fill the street at four o’clock
and then leave it
empty again.


The shift­worker serves
at night in the factory the
automated altar.
He is lonely. He is thinking
about something else. It is a matter
of drowning out the loneliness
that in reality is
life. We live, he thinks,
inside a mighty God who has not
noticed us. We must ourselves
punish ourselves for our sins
and we do it by
committing them. We defile everything,
death by killing, life
by living. He stares
into the clattering of the nail­machine.
The man in me is only the thought
that he is, not this animal
that thinks him. He has succeeded in
taming it, and locking it in
here. So he thinks, but precisely then
it is all drowned out
by the dawn.


In wonder he saw how
the mourners hid the coffin
under flowers, the
transitory’s telegrams
to eternity. If
they could, he thought,
they would bury
the grave too, as
Pharaoh did
when he hid it
in the pyramid.


He was afraid of freedom,
for he wanted to be free to
choose it. He was afraid
of happiness, for he was afraid
of the time when the party is
over, also that part of the party
that consists of the time when
it is over. He was afraid of
life, for it lacked
secrecy, and therefore
mercy, and the reward

for living, death,
was not enough, for
he was not afraid
of it.


During the night­shift one man saw
God, mighty as a face,
and worshipped him, with
lifeless eyes and burning
foam round his mouth. An­
other was wordless, and therefore
full of storm. When it broke out
he had to drink day after day.
One prophesied. It is a matter,
he said, of enduring that one
endures. A day will come.
Everyone understood that he was speaking of
the day that will never come
and precisely therefore consoles us. A
man who always seemed calm,
told stories about the war. A shot
does not start in one’s index finger,
he said, but in one’s heart.
One was young, but was on the point of
waking from his waiting. He
looked at the others, and thought:
Life is a defeat that
demands struggle. It is important
not to win.


What is going to happen has already
happened. Now all that remains is
to act it out. One can
take new decisions, so that everything
changes. One can stop
events by hesitating,
which is hardest and demands
resolution. Whatever one does
it is a part of the role. Yes, one
can break off the performance,
but that always happens
when it is over.


Pockmarked and pale the moon­brain
glides forth. The dark
forest can no longer conceal
that it conceals something,
but the open plain
preserves its secrecy.


He said: He who wants to forget
wants to be defeated. He hides the day
among the days. He closes
the doors until only death
is left, the only decision
that does not need to be taken,
the only movement that no one
needs to make. I said: Perhaps

the journey is by night, and everything
different. Perhaps
he protects himself
by losing.
Perhaps it is only thus
he can prevail.


I sat on a stone beside the road
in August and looked out across the years.
It was afternoon. The road’s river
of gravel stood still. The landscape’s
walls surrounded me, without a door.
I listened, almost in prayer,
to the silence, this mighty
insect that could be heard. I was
seventeen, unemployed and
ill. I began to remember
this empty, distinct moment
as one remembers a farewell
while it is still taking place. Nothing
happened, and therefore everything was
changed. Something
was coming to an end, perhaps
my life.


In the night train south a thought
whispers: Now life is beginning;
it is all over now.




The train came from the north, through
the spring, this slow
illness, and stopped
in the midst of the summer’s flowering
death. Soon I stood alone
on the autumn’s mountain and looked out
across time. In the east lay Lenin
and Stalin in shining coffins
in the night in the mausoleum. A third
body, between them, was invisible.
In the south, at Auschwitz, I looked at
the museum, in order not to
see it. In the west towered
the atom bomb; not even death
had any value any more. Only
the daily heaps of words prevented
people from stepping over
the border into the wordless realm
between them. I did not
turn round in order to look
north. Life was a
command; therefore
I did not obey, but already
listened to the slow waves
of heartbeats from the past
that still surrounded me. Thus
began my life’s
long vigil.


I got off the train. The opera’s
name was Helsingfors. On
Mannerheim Street, that river
by a hysterical director, I saw
the building that conceals
the House of Parliament. I listened,
but each opinion had been rehearsed
beforehand. The heart beat
or was silent; everything else
was notated in the score
and each face had the look
of being looked at. I walked
on, but the city
was invisible. Each house
was blocked by a facade that showed
how it would have looked
in finished form.


The rain was heavy, the snow
in the village was white. The forest’s
whispering movements left
nothing unsaid. Like slow,
ponderous spaceships the cows’
mooing rose at five.
Reality was not a symbol
of unknown meaning; it resembled
a consciousness.


If speech is banned,then silence
too must be punished,
for if one refuses to speak,
the ban becomes


When I was eighteen I read a poem
for the first time. Its words
had as their sole task
to protect the contents’
silence. That is why I write
now: ‘That is why I write now.
The poem is form; it has to
subdue everything, for the contents
must never consist of words.
Not even silence
must silence the poem.’


When the working day stopped
the land became clear, a
map of silent roads.
The squares tautened into eyes
on space; worn phrases
thundered with spring, the listeners
spoke with the help of the speaker
about the glory of work. We were proud
of being proud, a
sudden purity. We stopped
history as one stops
an animal, and began to converse.
A conversation is not explanations;
it is everything that does not need
to be said. Life became as distinct
as a swim in a boundless,
dead calm sea. I understood
that defeat is to continue
and that the victory must be protected
against its power.


I carried on an inner conversation, for
the language around me was a
body that touched me with thick
bellowing. ‘Do you think that this here is
the deepest reality?’ Yes.
‘But don’t you see the face
that is pressed against the grating
of lines in this poem?’ You

are I, the one whom I protect
with my fear. Without you,
that face in the darkness, that sees
me go through the primordial dance, all fear
would be meaningless, all hesitancy


You are sacrificed to the cell. Is this
breathing or dream? Between
burning barred windows and
thundering door you stand, conscious
that the poem will soon be finished
and that the words will
darken. Out there whispers
the spruce forest or death, the
truth that makes us endure,
locked into the ranks, compelled to
the insult that is called life,
and the lie that is called name,
shouting, for he who is silent
says all this, and
is punished. The grey light
of the cell is only a thin membrane
over the darkness. Your eyes
begin to look around them like
two creatures. You thought
that chaos was the part of
order that motivated it.
Now you know that order
is the darkness that conceals
the cries. That which is chaos
is radiant as the anger in
the morning sky, and growing
like the thunder from millions
of pulse­beats. A prisoner is a prisoner
for always, but you stand turned
towards this single, motionless call,
shimmering like a crown of clouds
above the last haven, which is
unattainable, and precisely for that reason
the last. The unattainable
cannot be attained. Only that way
can it be attained, and you walk
across the floor and sit down
on the iron bench
and close your eyes.


One can survive the atrocious,
but only at the price of
surviving it. After
the concentration camp the heart
continued to beat, a blind prophet
wandering through deserted villages,
with no message. He had become
old, older than the words, and when

he spoke of bread and freedom,
he was really struggling against
the prison that is greater
than freedom, and the hunger
that is more real
than bread.


It is not I, it is
my garden that sleeps,
pulsating. I myself am awake,
under dark expanses, not conscious,
only awake. Such is
the basic condition, a closeup
of zero, an eye that sees
that it does not see.

The sleeper is total
and powerless as a god.
He is everything, and must therefore
be born. In the dawn
his face becomes


The door was unlocked. He sat
there, motionless as time, looking
at the wall. All the years
stood still in the wallpaper, days
and days. Not a whisper
quivered. Nothing interrupted
that last thought. He was
a part of it.


I remember a summer, dark
with leaves and roses, surrounded
by great, protecting years.
Then death was only a metaphor
for death, and I wrote:
‘Life must be completed.’
That summer I wanted to live
as though it were possible to choose
to live. I was strong,
but strength always consumes
its victim. In the midst of the party
I knew that this was all.
My smile stiffened to motion­
less metal. My casual
lips tried to hide it
by talking. All was
lost, for there was nothing
to lose. I fell silent,
even though I had not said a word
for several minutes, and then
I heard the birds ­ not
a message, or happiness, merely
a few drops of clear song.
Morning came, and autumn
came like a morning.




The Stockholm I remember,
no one has seen. It was the castle
Reality, far away in
the night in the radio. Shimmering
with existence the city towered
above the fairy­tale’s hunger and cold.

In the Stockholm to which I came,
in the demonstrations against the war,
I learned that powerlessness
is the only freedom there is,
that Power is not the tool
but the ruler, who needs

bodies. I have seen friends
become ministers, as formerly statues
became gods. Afterwards the statue is
only a captive god, the minister
only the actor who got
the part. That is why

the Stockholm I left
is not the city I remember.
To remember is to choose: not
what happened but its meaning,
not reality but
its castle.


I remember how the hatred began:
as a joke. The gravity of words
is hysterical; the joker too
says everything he says. In
every cell is the entire prison;
every word is exact, and therefore
total. We joked; we thought
that north of world history
there were unimportant events, for
example our lives. We
did not know that the body
is its soul. We did not know
that ‘hello’ is also a message,
and we used the primordial
everyday only as a meeting­place.
It was autumn or spring. We
lived in the city, outside
the seasons. We knew
nothing. When the knock
came at the door in the middle of the night
we still joked
about it.


During those winters
I did not doubt
the scenery was there,
the play took place. I
only wondered who
was playing my role. So
I evaded the truth:
the face’s empty oval;
the name that was only
a name; the flight
from which I constantly


The blind man sees with his soul.
His defeat is a landscape.
Between dark trees and deep
springs he journeys slowly.
Name and deed are destroyed
like every victory. At last
there remains only the blind,
mighty gaze.


There is no
consolation. Therefore
you do not need it.


Longing is not an emotion
but a memory. One remembers
one’s longing, but this silent
valley in the midst of the traffic
is followed by that screaming
second when one wakes
up, and understands
what one has longed for.


To grow old is to see
the dawn arrive, until
nothing else
remains of the feast
but the hunger. Then
one perceives at last
that life consists
of hunger. It is
not the piece of bread
the beggar is given
but the one he
hands back.


The strong man is dangerous if no one
will let himself be sullied by the immense
childish hand of his strength, if
everywhere he is met only by
empty Sunday. The lonely man
can never rest; every minute
is existence. Slowly, like
an animal, he looks around him

and kills. Murder is an
encounter, its brief oblivion.
Then his strength ceases, like every
illness. He runs away;
a foetus seeks its way
back to its death.


The action in my first play
aims at making the actors
perform a play about how they
perform a play. This one is
about the life of a petty clerk
and so the backdrop represents
a backdrop that represents
a post­office. But when
midway through rehearsals
the holder of the principal part
got a job at the post­office
this gave the chance of a
better solution, and the first night
was unforgettable. The sun
portrayed the sun itself
in the backdrop. The audience
took part in the play. The curtain
has not yet fallen,
the sun is shining


I thought: ‘Life
is too much. Film
should be simple as a
greeting, final
as an action, not
a swarming hole in
our darkness.’ Ten years
later I sold
the camera, for I thought:
‘Pictures and sound
are not essential; only film
is essential.’ This
poem is a film.


Childhood is still going on, like all
farewells. People journey,
seeking consolation, but the gods
are mannequins nowadays;
mysteriously smiling their figures
look out across the valleys
of the streets. Every animal must die,
every child must live. I
whisper ‘no’. Apollo is standing
over there in a window! His shoes
are pointed, and his tie
colourful. I protect the silence
in my decision as one protects
a message from explanations,
but the god hears, and I sense
that he will soon be ready. That
day he is going to open
his terrible eye
again. Shimmering with marble
he’ll step out of
his costume, and speak. The Pythia
is already waiting behind the counter
in this brutal existence
that will become
a temple.


There is autumn and sorrow.
An old hymn fumbles
at the immovable thought
that God is dangerous. St
George slays the dragon within
him in the church’s thundering
forest. I get up
and travel home to the
empty house that has long
been waiting. The struggle
is not over.




I arrived early one morning
in April. The houses were distinct as
drawings in the paper­white
light. Here I lived, but the years
went by. There is no use
in pulsating like a barbaric
engine. I learned that
at last. What is important
does not continue, it waits
as a shadow waits
for its body.


The music rocks like an incantation
in the darkness, in its mechanical
rhythm, where the beat is
the hook on which life’s
quivering flesh hangs,
dancing. I wrote this
in a tavern in Europe. How
old all that is happening is!
Life too, not only art,
demands form, to be in, to
fight against. Bodies
dance ecstatically between
hard hands. Death
is life’s form.


There have always been
some. Their names are unknown.
None of them has spoken.
They have listened to the silence of
the tears, and to the speakers who spoke
so loudly that they drowned themselves
out. They have studied
the blood’s unknown letters
in the sand. They have perceived
that life is barbarity, that the cloud
lacks a face. They have
vanished, as silent
as they came. Dying
was a gesture of politeness
to the executioner.


One morning I awoke here
and began to look at the scenery.
It portrayed security and
freedom. Someone had seen

that the truth is not a lie
but hope, the severity
that hides the emptiness, the
scenery that lasts


‘He tried to drown out
his life by living it
intensely, wallowing in
the days, an escape without a road.
But everything we flee from,
we drag along with us. The words
know it. They are stronger
than the poet. One day
he wrote this.’

‘But he was frightened of poetry’s
poverty. The conversations
it depicts are great as
landscapes, the words few. A
stern waiting surrounds them;
one must endure oneself,
day after day, speechless as a

‘There is meaning. This
incomprehensible poem we
live in contains some
lines so dark, so physical,
that they must have meaning. That was
what he feared. A meaning
in the sunrise renders it

‘He wrote that he was afraid of
his courage. How he has stopped,
an action that has been waiting
like an immovable rock. He could not
get past. Now he must
write poetry.’


The body grew great, but I,
the child, remained, hidden
in its gloom. When
one day the hands caressed
a woman’s breasts, gentle as
spring air, I suddenly noticed
that she was looking at me. The light
from her immense eyes was
blinding. Darkness and silence
are after all only existence, not
protection. All the same I endured
until those Byzantine eyes
grew dull in ecstasy. Everything
exists. The physical
is the depths. There I am still
waiting, a child with no body.
It is my longing
that exists. One day or night
I will rise from the ashes
when nothing else is left,
for it is I who will die
while life heals
to a soft
song, not he.


The children long for
the future, the grown­ups
for the holidays. The
old long for
childhood. They remember
the future.


I do not dare to forget. To
remember is to endure, even
if the most difficult thing, the darkness,
remains the bottomless lake,
of which only the metaphor
is visible: the bottomless lake.
Everything else is over. On the shore
rests the dance of the giants: petri­
fied bones, from which the steaming
flesh has dripped. They were
too great; their passion could not be contained
within them. Its cruelty forced its way
out, and became their dance, body
for thousands of creatures, but now
there is only the lake. Without mystery
or bottom its darkness


We do not need the truth.
Those people who hide
their faces in their hands before
the morning light, know it
already. The sexton’s
pain­racked body has endured it
long. The woman whose
face is slowly becoming a wound

knows everything. For these
only God remains, not
as another truth,
not even as faith
or hope, only
as song.


There is no evil;
the claws use
the cat. There is no god;
so mighty and invisible is he.
There is no sorrow; that word
does not suffice.

There is a soul; man
needs a name for the cage
he has been trapped in. There is
a peace, a continuation
without words. There is a
reality; it hides everything.


No, I do not seek peace
but a cry, more lasting
and stronger than the compulsion
to be born and subdued. I seek
the creature before it became child
and the child before it became prisoner.
The prisoner I do not seek, only
his longing before the days
came and he was


We are not going away; we are coming
home. No reconciliation is possible,
but we must find out why
it is so ­ the only reconciliation
that is possible. To be beaten
is like being born: one is shut out.
It is not possible blindly to return
to the blows or the womb. Neither
can you abandon a child
on the floor, under the coping
of faces, even if the child is
you yourself. You can only stand there
with the boy in your arms, a blind
poet who listens while
life moves by: a monotonous
song about the clock, a tawdry
opera about Saturday night. When
the hour finally breaks, and you
write this poem, your no
will not fall silent, but will become
impersonal, like the forest’s
murmuring silence, like all




The full moon stands like a soundless
roar above the village. Paper­grey
moonlight lies on the floor;
the wind flings itself at the house,
a groaning orgy. It is
autumn. The years are gathering
to a sum­total. All that has happened
is now all that has happend; it was
a storm, not a mystery,
Our memories become with time
the memories of memories. That veil
soothes our pain, it conceals
and preserves. So ends
this poem.

– translation © David McDuff 2011