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

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