For the Tree’s Sake, by Karin Boye


I am sick with poison. I am sick with a thirst
for which nature has not created any drink.

From every field leap streams and springs.
I stoop down and drink from the earth’s veins
its sacrament.

And the heavens overflow with holy rivers.
I stretch up and feel my lips wet
with white ecstasies.

But nowhere, nowhere…

I am sick with poison. I am sick with a thirst
for which nature has created no drink.


At last I stand near the mountain of the fates.
All around like stormclouds
crowd formless beings, creatures of the twilight,
Shall I stay? Shall I go? The road lies dark.
If I stay peacefully here at the foot of the mountain,
then no one will touch me.
Calmly I can see their struggle like a play of the mist in the
myself merely a lost eye.
But if I go, if I go, then I shall know nothing more.
For the one who takes those steps
life becomes legend.

Myself fire
I shall ride on coiling snakes of fire.
Myself wind
I shall fly on winged wind-dragons.
Myself nothing,
myself lost in the storm
I shall fling myself forth dead or living, a fate future-heavy.


You call for people of great stature. What gives great stature
to a person?
To become nothing and forget oneself for that which is greater
than she.

The unrepentant call out. They themselves would grow into giants
the moment they bowed their knees in the shadow of the immense

But raise your voices until the gods awake, until new gods
rise up and answer!
When no one asks for people any more, then your people will be


Also you, who suffer the agonies of everyone’s condemnation,
also you are called to your place among the cherubim –
with lion’s feet, with wings of sun,
with venerable human head:
They call after you: ‘Impure, impure!’
Because they were never afflicted by purity.
Flame, gather your sparks out of the corners,
the forge awaits, and the hammer that welds you to lightning
will teach you the lightning’s swift purity
and your name among the cherubim.


No breathless summer night sky
reaches so far into eternity,
no lake, when the mists lighten,
mirrors such stillness
as that hour –

when loneliness’s limits are effaced
and the eyes become transparent
and the voices become simple as winds
and there is nothing more to hide.
How can I now be afraid?
I shall never lose you.


The night’s deep violoncello
hurls its dark rejoicing out across the expanses.
The hazy images of things dissolve their form
in floods of cosmic light.
Swells, glowing long,
wash in wave upon wave through night-blue eternity.
You! You! You!
Transfigured weightless matter, rhythm’s blossoming foam,
soaring, dizzying dream of dreams,
blindingly white!
I am a gull, and on resting, outstretched wings
I drink sea-salt bliss
far to the east of all I know,
far to the west of all want,
and brush against the world’s heart –
blindingly white!


Yes, of course it hurts when buds are breaking.
Why else would the springtime falter?
Why would all our ardent longing
bind itself in frozen, bitter pallor?
After all, the bud was cover all the winter.
What new thing is it that bursts and wears?
Yes, of course it hurts when buds are breaking,
hurts for that which grows
and that which bars.

Yes, it is hard when drops are falling.
Trembling with fear, and heavy hanging,
cleaving to the twig, and swelling, sliding –
weight draws them down, though they go on clinging.
Hard to be uncertain, afraid and divided,
hard to feel the depths attract and call,
yet sit fast and merely tremble –
hard to want to stay
and want to fall.

Then, when things are worst and nothing helps
the tree’s buds break as in rejoicing,
then, when no fear holds back any longer,
down in glitter go the twig’s drops plunging,
forget that they were frightened by the new,
forget their fear before the flight unfurled –
feel for a second their greatest safety,
rest in that trust
that creates the world.


A stillness expanded, soft as sunny winter forests.
How did my will grow sure and my way obedient to me?
I carried in my hand an etched bowl of ringing glass.

Then my foot became so cautious and will not stumble.
Then my hand became so careful and will not tremble.
Then I was flooded over and carried by the strength from fragile


You are the seed and I your soil.
You lie in me and grow.
You are the child expected.
I am your mother now.

Earth, give your warmth!
Blood, give your sap!
An unknown power requires today
all the life I have had.

The flowing warm wave
knows no dam on earth,
wider it wants to create,
breaks its way forth.

That is why it hurts to the living quick
inside me now:
something is growing and breaking me –
my love, it is you!


If I could follow you far away,
further than everything you know,
out to the world-loneliness
of the outermost regions go,
where the Milky Way rolls
a bright dead foam
and where in dizzying space
you seek a home.

I know: it is impossible.

But when from your baptism
shivering blind you rise,
all throughout space
I shall hear your cries,
be new warmth for you,
be a new embrace,
be close to you in a different world
among things with unborn names.


Blonde morning, lay your soft, smooth hair
against my cheek and breathe undisturbed in your silence.
The earth opens wide and wider your giant chalice,
born anew in closed darkness.
On bright wings
the Miracle lands like an immense insect
to lightly graze against unsuspecting
awakening pistils.

Morning on the seventh day…


Ripe as a fruit the world lies in my lap,
it ripened last night,
and its rind is the thin blue membrane that stretches
and its juice is the sweet and fragrant, streaming, burning
torrent of sunlight.

And out into the transparent universe I leap like a swimmer,
submerged in a baptism of ripeness and born to a power of
Consecrated to action,
light as a burst of laughter
I cleave a golden sea of honey that desires my hungry hands.


I would like to have woken you to a nakedness like a naked
evening in early spring,
when the stars brim over
and the earth burns beneath melting snow,
I would like to have seen you just once
sink in the darkness of creative chaos,
would like to have seen your eyes like wide-open space,
ready to be filled,
would like to have seen your hands like flowers unfolded,
empty, new, in expectancy.

You are going, and nothing of this have I given you.
I never reached to where your being lies bare.
You are going, and nothing of me are you taking with you –
leaving me to defeat.

Another farewell I remember:
we were hurled from the crucible like a single being,
and when we parted, we no longer knew
which was I and which was you…

But you – like a bowl made of glass you have left my hand,
as finished as only a dead thing is and as changeable,
as without any memories other than the light imprints of fingers
that are washed away in water.

I would like to have woken you to a formlessness like a
formless flickering flame
that finds at last its living form, its own…
Defeat, oh, defeat!


Now I know how much you hid and kept silent about.
That was your shell.
But why have you hidden yourself so well from me?
The thought grinds still.

I know. I remember: one single case,
where judgement was mine to wield –
and then your inner world’s enchanted land
was forever concealed.

As long as our love has one chance left,
if even only one,
that long will our love be a closed hand –
and to us justice be done.


My skin is full of butterflies, of fluttering wings –
they flutter out across the meadows and enjoy their honey
and flutter home and die in sad small spasms,
and not a grain of pollen is disturbed by light feet.
For them the sun exists, the hot, immeasurable, older than the

But under skin and blood and inside the marrow
heavily heavily imprisoned sea-eagles move,
broad-winged, that never let go of their prey.
How would your tumult be in the sea’s spring storm?
How would be your cry, when the sun annealed yellow eyes?
Closed is the cave! Closed is the cave!
And between the claws twist white as cellar sprouts
the nerves of my innermost being.


There grows a tree beneath the earth;
a mirage pursues me,
a song of living glass, of burning silver.
Like darkness before light
must all weight melt,
where only one drop falls of the song from the leaves.

An anguish pursues me.
It oozes out of the earth.
There a tree suffers deeply in heavy layers of earth.
Oh, wind! Sunlight!
Feel that agony:
the promise of fragrance of paradise miracles.

Where do you walk, feet, that tread
so soft or hard
that the crust cracks and yields up its prey?
For the tree’s sake, have mercy!
For the tree’s sake, have mercy!
For the tree’s sake I call you from the four points of the

Or must we wait for a god – and which one?


Our eyes are our fate.
So lonely you become, poor eyes,
with stars that refuse to have mercy
in a living, earthly way.
Had I seen less,
I would think other thoughts,
and an outcast grows slack,
abandoned to the just.

Holy, holy, holy
is the truth, the terrifying,
I know it, I bow down,
and it has a right to everthing.
But flesh and blood shiver,
the living seeks life,
and warm is humans’ company
and cold their contempt.

And praying I wander
among freezing light-years,
seeking for help
ro rise from my grave.
Remember with ardent tenderness
eyes far away,
also those that are lost
in the sea of loneliness.

Then I cannot complain.
Then I must give thanks.
With them I have shared
what I know, what I remember.
And through the darkness I sense
home and company.
Beloved sister eyes!
You existed. You exist.


Never meant to be a rebel,
and yet it was forced on me.
Why is my fate not private?
Why can I not let it be?
Or, if now I must fight,
why is there torment there?
Why not with sounding music,
when at last I am forced to dare?

Blood of my blood, that judged me harshly
and cast me out into shame,
I knew when I was ejected,
that I broke on a whole all the same,
felt a sacred communion
behind the condemning words,
knew with anguish: you are I –
and was bowed down to the earth.

But as I lay and believed myself mute,
I heard the darkness whine.
Souls from the same torments’ room
were breathing by my side.
I heard my own cry for help
rise up from deserts void,
knew with dread: I am you –
and could not be quiet.

Cowardly, cowardly, thrice cowardly,
All the same, I must fight,
be struck to the ground and rise again
with all my nerves snapped.
must feel like branding irons
the judgements of the stark –
and obey and obey a scorching fire
that blossoms out of the dark.


Merciless one with eyes that have never seen the dark!
Liberator who with golden hammers breaks blocks of ice!
Save me.

Straight as thin lines the flowers’ stems are sucked into the
nearer to you will their calyxes tremble.

The trees hurl their strength like pillars towards their glory:
only up there
do they spread out their light-thirsty leaf-arms, devoted.
Man you drew
from an earth-fixed stone with blind gazes
to a walking swaying plant with heaven’s wind about his forehead.
Yours is stalk and stem. Yours is my backbone.

Save it.
Not my life. Not my skin.
Over the outer no gods dispose.
With extinguished eyes and broken limbs
he is yours, who lived erect,
and with the one who dies erect
you are there, when darkness swallows darkness.
The rumbling rises. The night swells.
Life shimmers so deeply precious.
Save, save, seeing god,
what you gave.


Young wills whine
like masterless spears.
Fear has hurled them
into space’s spheres.
Trembling with battle
and strength in surfeit
they seek targets to strike
they seek powers to worship.

But wills that ripen,
they become trees and strike root,
ready to shield
a land at your foot,
a small stretch of ground,
but necessary, like life,
where something precious grows,
torn by the winds’ strife.

If the glade seems narrow
against space without end
and the tree perhaps lifeless
against spears that blind,
then forget not the leaf
with its life-green colour,
and forget not the sap
that seethes through the marrow.

Be not afraid, be still
that harvest night,
when the voices say:
‘Your bounds are set.
You too shall be silent
among the watching faithful.
You also shall strike root,
and become tree, and ripen.’


Too many times have I passed through the doorway.

It rises so high and is erased in sunlight,
and under the arch one hears passing
eternal winds in eternal spaces.
The threshold is made of promise-stones, the staircase to an
to which he slips through who consecrates himself to a gift
with his past time and his time to come
and a will that is whole.

Too many times have I passed through the doorway.

And yet I pray:

Watchman at the door, lord of all beginning,
let me through! I still have strength.
As truly as I never hid anything away,
take, but take to the last fragment.
The day I divide, the day I reckon,
bar my way and cast me into the melting-oven.
All is a door. All is a beginning.
The axle of life is in your hands.

Whole I pass under the dizzying arch,
and eternal winds in eternal spaces
drink my gift.


Your voice and your footsteps fall soft as dew on my working
Where I sit there is spring in the air around me from your living
You flower in my thought, you flower in my blood, and I wonder
that my happy hands do not blossom into heavy roses.

Now the space of the everyday closes around us two, like a soft,
gentle mist.
Are you afraid of becoming a prisoner, are you afraid of drowning
in the greyness?
Do not be afraid: in the everyday’s innermost depth,
in the heart of all life,
there burns with quietly humming flames a deep, secret festival.


For the hour of great humiliation I would also give thanks,
the hour when one sees that one is naked
and without a muddying vestige of pride
lets oneself be arranged
like a speck of dust in the gleam from wondrous worlds –
wondrous everything, wondrous health and life,
wondrous shelter, bread and water,
and more than anything wondrous the undeserved favour
of a human being’s eternally established trust.


Transparent, bright and ardent,
beautiful mantle, flare,
slip your way close as water
round my body, waiting here.
I stand bound and quiet,
have no unshed defiance.

Have no resistance left,
no futile strugglings.
Thus in anguish without air
comes the peace that waiting brings.
Here all hope is laid over,
wants nothing other.

Like an aspen leaf my body,
my soul like a flickering flame,
and there far away inside
I am free all the same.
Great silence moves me
beyond all that destroys me.


Invulnerable, invulnerable
is he that grasps the primordial saying:
There is no happiness and unhappiness.
There is only life and death.

And when you have learnt it and ceased to chase the wind
and when you have learnt it and ceased to be frightened by the
then come back and teach me one more time:
There is no happiness and unhappiness.
There is only life and death.

I began to repeat it when my will was born,
and will cease to repeat it when my will has ceased to be.
The secret of the primordial sayings
we acquire until our death.


All the cautious ones with long nets
meet with the sea’s giant laughter.
Friends, what do you seek on the shore?
Knowledge can never be captured,
can never be owned.

But if, straight as a drop,
you fall into the sea to dissolve,
ready for any transformation –
then you will awake with mother-of-pearl skin
and green eyes
on meadows where the sea’s horses graze
and be knowledge.


Here in eternal gales
dwarf pine works its way up from the stone,
bends wearily,
knots itself defiantly,
creeps subdued.

Black against the evening’s stormy sky
twisted ghostly outlines are drawn.
Monster is seized by loathing
for monster.
A groaning passes through the torn crowns:
Oh, to look one single time
straight towards the light,
to rise, a royal oak,
a boyish birch,
a golden virgin maple.

Hide your dreams, cripple.
Here are the outermost skerries. As far as the eye can see:
dwarf pine.


Around me float terrible mouths.
The suburban train is thudding.

These are mothers.
Mouths of predatory fish,
locked and tensed in greedy fear:
to eat or be eaten.
Themselves eaten away (no one has noticed)
they lug their entrails in string bags.
Dead eyes, dead fear,
mouths of predatory fish.

This is the lover.
Paint-swollen mushroom mouth
sucks for prey.
The shame of having given herself, the shame of the cheated
sucks for revenge of a thousand triumphs,
is never sated,
settles in layers of tortured impudence
around a wet mushroom mouth.

This is the pious man,
who with holy pursing
hides and denies his lips.
They cannot be seen, do not exist –
God himself cannot see them.
Why is he afraid of his lips?
What do they look like when he is asleep?

This is the happy woman,
she who became a possessor.
Among all those who struggle
she is the one who prevailed.
No lever will ever force open those jaws,
screwed tight around life’s prize.

But over there by the window,
flowers a mouth that captures nothing.
What do you breathe over the wide world,
so world-estranged?

When will you be scared down there into the deep
to predatory fish
and sucking mouths,
snatch wildly after hunted prey,
slash desperately at the others?
if you want to live.

So I will take my staff and wander
and seek another world for you,
a world where mouths are allowed to be flowers
and breathe like flowers
their life’s breath
and flow like flowers
from deep sources
and stand like flowers
happily open.

Around you snap our deep-sea mouths.
The suburban train is thudding.


Sea swell, come washing,
let me taste that sound’s round, salty flow,
the sound that was given me
as primordial name aeons and aeons ago!
Words that no mortal
lips can tell
lie hidden
in the fresh, cold swell.

Long, too long
I starved on human words too easily told.
I want to rise up,
I want to satisfy my mouth at my mother’s board.
Like a child in loathing’s remorse
lost far away to roam,
I turn hungrily round
to the songs of my home.

Let me drink
the speech of speech from a dull roar that never abates.
Let me clear
to your resting depth of light that creates.
Within soul and spirit
I hear your song.
Rise in my blood, and flower
in my tongue!


The way is narrow that two must go,
inhumanly narrow, it can seem sometimes,
and yet it is a human way, even so.

From buried things’ primordial slime
rise monsters woken by the warmth,
and bar the way where you would climb.

No flight can make you free at last.
They appear again by new waysides.
You have no choice. You must go past.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The way is steep that two must go,
a way of degradation, it can seem sometimes,
and yet is a way of victory, even so.

Lonely path goes round in rings,
the same mirage in the same sand,
the same thirst for far-off things.

For two that strive, one gain know I,
more solid, heavier than the hermit’s dreams:
the difficult growth to reality,

yes, all the way in to the innermost core,
where the person grows out of splintered nerves
and becomes a root and a mountain there.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The way is long that two must go,
a lost way, it can seem sometimes,
and yet has its goals and signposts, even so.

Has its angels, in lightning dressed.
They touch our dust with burning hand,
and heavy chains become breezes and mist.

With burning feet they touch earth’s floor,
and create it anew in the morning glow
and full of health and solace and cure

and full of power over approaching fate
and intimate light, that two acquire.


You weigh with false balances
and measure with false gauges,
not before the qadi, who judges criminals,
but before Allah, Allah, blessed be his name,
he who has created life.

A thousand dates you buy for one small pearl,
but I, who hungered in the desert,
am weary of my pearl-sewn belt,
that gives no nourishment,
and I, who pined away in the sand,
will not recover the splendour in my dagger hilt,
decked with jewels
that slake no thirst.

Still in this city of minarets, far from the desert,
I will bow not before those proud portals,
those golden gates,
but before those lowly, those out-of-the-way wells
to where dusty herdsmen lead their herds,
when they bring milk in the evenings.


Your warmth, your tender warmth
I ask to share,
that streamed long before man
on earth was there.
In the deep primordial forest’s
downy bird’s nest
that same protective warmth bore
life’s founding rest.

From anguish-burning heavens
we sink down where
in the nest’s darkness, life
asks nothing more.
For the clouds’ games are a mirage
and mirror spray,
but all that is born and bears
is what depths give away.

Day dawns, and the skies resound
with rushing of wings.
The soaring bird rejoices:
On light I live! he sings
But hidden in the silence rests
his weal and woe.
Your warmth, your deep warmth
gives me a soul.


Over the city’s sighing towers
sank all the earth’s distress:
fire, plague and hunger,
war and sudden, cruel death.

The people thronged in the churches,
bowed their knees in fear,
heard the priests pray to God
for strength his penance to bear.

The mothers by the well
despaired, and help they missed.
‘For the children’s sake, for the children
mercy must exist.

Though in sin they were born,
to us they are very dear,
they are much dearer to us
than heaven’s glory in there.’

A white-haired stranger,
one step before the rest,
beckoned them to follow,
began to wander thence.

Swarming out through the gates
more and more followed on.
In the city’s midst stood a house.
A staircase there led down.

Hard-trodden floor of earth,
stool and wooden bowl.
Clad in a cloak of hair
a man knelt in that hole.

Humble veneration
burned in every gaze:
‘The city is wealthy yet!
Here a holy man lives and prays.

There in intercession
his face is upward-turned;
the marks in his careworn features
by our sins have there been burned.’

Bitterly the old one laughed.
‘What is it you behold?
A great, holy love,
and beyond that, nothing more?

A face’s open bowl
of patience, blessed, sane,
that rises up in hunger
towards the flood of pain –

an ardent spirit’s chalice
of bleeding rubies that shine,
waiting here devoutly
for the Lord’s wrath’s wine –

a desire to suffer
the beloved’s worst punishment —
and does no one see the lightning
down from heaven sent?

The city gave an echo
and in the same sound shook,
when he, the man strong in prayer,
his lord subdued.

Pull up all the poppies
that ask for springtimes of pain!
Cut down all the black trees
that yearn to bear tears’ rain!’

Then from the crowd there stepped
a man full of fiery dread,
felled the old one to the ground –
she fell and there lay dead.

They crossed themselves, they crept away,
the daughters and sons of men.
And up to heaven’s angry vault
the holy man’s prayers rose again.


An eternity long
our summer was then.
We roamed in sunny days
that had no end.
We sank in fragrant green
depths without floor
and felt no fear
of eventide’s hour.

Where did our eternity go?
How did we forget
its holy secret?
Our day became too short.
In strife we form,
In spasm we rhyme
a work that shall be eternal –
and its essence is time.

But still timeless drops
fall into our arms
at a time when we’re absent
from goals and names,
when the sun falls silent
over straws there alone,
and all our striving seems to us
like a game and a loan.

Then we sense that condition
we once received:
to burn in the moment
that living bequeathed,
and forget the temporal
that lasts and endures,
for creation’s second,
that no gauge ever nears.


Sweetly singing maidens, my limbs can no longer
carry me – o would, would that I were merely the kingfisher,
when, carried across the foam of the waves by the halcyons,
he soars with sorrowless heart, the sea-dark, sacred bird!

Note. The ageing chorus leader alludes to the legend that the
kingfisher, when he grows old, is carried by the females, the

Karin Boye: För trädets skull (1935)

-translation © David McDuff 2011