A Tour through the Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, by Gösta Ågren


History is thought, a
pattern that conceals the
true story, where
the swallow grows bloody
from flying through the
murky bombast and
facts stand like a higher
race above the souls’
morasses, and the annals
challenge in vain. The object
of this wild conversation is
the community, a magic behemoth,
a togetherness with no other shield
against the fire than ashes.



The sunrise resembles
a religious idea; so
helpless is our existence.
Sometimes the sparse death
thickens to war. Then
the names sink away in
their own mass. Outside
society awaits bondage,
where the slaves’ sick hearts
at last pound themselves
apart. But in here the freedom has shrunk to
decrees, and words are now so
clear, they signify only
sound. The silence is silenced
by music, but here
too you must



God is a simplification
and the word soul says plainly
that human beings are only
symbolic, as if
there were houses without
emptiness. Alas,
nothing is compensated
in the eternal accounts. The
murdered are chosen,
the whipped still
burn. A rival overturned
Theagenes’ victory statue, and came
finally first to the finish, crushed
beneath its weight.


Spiritual Laws

That which is limitless cannot
be seen. It surrounds you
with its emptiness, which
slowly dissolves you like
a carnivorous flower
its prey. Only the quest
sustains you. Without
ideals no one can keep

their memories pure. Without
certainty and actions
the laws of matter take
over and turn
this wild event
into something lost.



Love is a message
from the skin. Hands
begin to long for their meaning.
A story awaits, but
the one who has nothing
to lose does not dare
to losing that,
too. Only the one who has everything
to gain, is not afraid
of his courage. He has been
pitiable. Now
he turns
against himself. The heart pounds
like a helpless child,
but he writes his
bad poems. They cry
as wordless
cranes cry
in spring.



Words of command
remain like a direction
in the silence. We must
obey or refuse
to obey. There is
no choice.
When words are clumsy
and hesitant like unfamiliar
footsteps on parquet,
they say something. When
they are handsome as enemies
they hide something. Do not
play with them: they are
laden. Only
friendly words say
nothing special.
They contain only
friendly words.



Between the high years we glimpse
the ocean. Yet we must
arrange our life in a line,
for the present is merely something
constant; everything else
changes. We have control
of memories and plans,
two branches without a trunk,
but both require courage, great
as fear, and the steady
rhythm of the heart, that does not
constitute a symbol but is
a gymnast in the world of
the senses, whose only routine
consists in keeping the powerful
tree running.



Heroism is a state
of cruelty, the hawk’s sudden
line towards earth. Then all
that is cowardly risks fading, as though
history were something different
from life, and the days merely
sand beneath the weight of years.
But when the hero flees to the deed,
beside himself with contempt, trembling
like an engine with fear,
cowardice protects the seed as though
it were a sensitive emotion
in the sea of weeds, and thereby
keeps the escape route open for
the true route.


The Oversoul

The soul is a daydream
outside our name, a garden
for the god, where mind
and will hysterically
degrade. Afterwards, the present
is too big; we dare not
fall asleep. Who can sleep
with a god in his soul,
an oversoul, that uses
us to be, and is itself
free? We should be operated on,
but no knife cuts him
apart, and never will
the spiritual heal
its victims. We ourselves



The circle has no centre:
it is a demented cell
that swallows everything, even
the emptiness that assails
feelings and days,
and the forgetfulness that
preserves everything. For
the essayist the circle is

life, but for the poet only
a horizon without habitations,
where people conceal themselves
by being, and the everyday
is inscrutable as a ritual,
the meaninglessness
a strange


The Intellect

The intellect is a room without
years and walls. You have to imagine
them. Well-worn footprints
point to principles, but
they are old now, prisons
waiting for their prey.
You have to go as
a stranger would go
into your brain and there
declare all the accumulated
commands invalid and expand
it to a lifetime without
the altar, a chapel where
you can think as though
everything was sacred.



How could decorative
messages compete with
Altmira’s bulls? They stand
in the darkness, sketches

of the body’s drama. Art
is magic, but the light
in the museums glows as if
they had nothing

to hide, and the young
rebel against rules
as if form possessed
meaning. When the artist

fought the pictorial creature
in faltering torchlight
he was wild and pure
as arrogance. The journey

was towards the inner creature,
his real strength.,
that waited for him,
patient as his shadow.


The Poet

The seventeenth century was everywhere
but some still escaped
as though they were
in disguise, and only
needed to think in a
hitherto unknown way
in order to become empty
and pure as strangers.

In their poems form protected
many weak
lines, but suddenly
a verse could vibrate,
desperate as a wing
seeking its bird.



What we leave undone
is a part of our action.
Without the dreamed ship
the bark boat would capsize.
Without all that we merely
pass by we would never
get there. Even
the boredom is laden

with existence. Its emptiness
is only a form of
patience. The work
waits like an adversary,
and the footsteps begin
to point again.



The events are small, but
the chains endless. There is
a wildness in every name,
an I that wants to go and leave
the shackles behind. But flight

too is only a link:
the chain cannot be broken.
Where you go, into the latent,
you always meet
the same figure.



Long ago people saw
that seriousness threatens small talk,
and began to smile the silence
away. Many

also sought protection in
phrases, but phrases
are words, and cannot
be revoked. At last

fellowship became sheer
politeness. They understood
finally how important
it is.



A giver tries to grow
greater, not with the help of
the recipients’ gratitude
but by diminishing them

with his gifts. Fame
or beauty work in the same
way, even if all they give
is their aura! When

a gift has permeated
the inscrutable defence
and reached the entrails’ warm
hatred, the recipient

convinces only by making
his face and voice
manage on their own.
He himself goes. His back

is stiff as a shield
and his clothes do not hide him,
they reveal him. At
the roadside another back

sprouts when wings unfold.
It shimmers like blue
metal. Only the beetle is
its own present.



The cattle’s language has only
one word. They think with its
meaning, an older and
wilder pilgrimage than ours:
it can only continue
and the goal is the beginning.

October burns like
a palace. Fate is larger
than in May, all darkness
higher. We approach
the lower, ruling
layers, where conversations

are dark chambers,
the arguments without other logic
than their existence, and the bodies
simplified to pilgrims while
the cries merge to become
a single word.



The word power means
violence. The words of the laws
are not symbols but
real. In the ruins of Ctesiphon
the state remains, a rainbow
of concrete. We are

masses; we have no
other choice. When we seekingly
look around us, we meet
only Medusa’s poor,
cold gaze, but turned to stone

we still manage to think
our dream, the only finished thing
in the crude sketch
in which we live.


Nominalist and Realist

Whoever denies the real
confirms its power. Revolt
is hard. Whoever affirms
reality drains it
if death encounters no resistance
it is merely a clump of dust
where we slowly gather.
With theories as wings
we fly with no other
direction than away. But here
on the tenth line I begin
to hesitate. The denier has
perceived that if everything exists,
nothing else exists;
the affirmer says deep withiin
that perbaps everything
is something else.


New England Reformers

There is an indifference,
empty and dead as strict
demeanour. It surrounds us,
a pain relief, which those
people who fight apparently
refuse. Yet they are
totally dependent on this
poverty. Without it

reality would
conquer them with its
limitless masses, where
the individual is only
a throat, turned
towards their teeth.


A Resumé

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote
his two volumes of essays
in order to become calm. Thoughts
are an unease that seeks rhythm.
They must be turned into waves
through the opinions; if
they harden to principles
they will be broken
apart on the shore’s
reality. They are not
incorporeal: the metaphors
make them visible, brutal
as walls or gentle
as sleepy hands,
but every time we sense
that the description
is incomplete.


this translation copyright ©  David McDuff 2017

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

Standing Here, by Gösta Ågren

Standing Here


Oh! dreadful is the check − intense the agony ­
When the ear begins to hear, and the eye begins to see;
When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again;
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the
EMILY BRONTE: The Prisoner




That first night of winter
the rabbit froze to stone
in its cage. Through the netting
the stars’ netting is visible.
The cold slowly penetrates
the body, whose darkness
can do nothing against
this light. The cat sees
with his two glowing
souls of metal, and goes
on his way. Crouched
around its heart the rabbit dies.
The morning was great and empty
as a beginning.


The body is that strong
sentry who in the end
kills us. The soul knows everything,
but it is free; it says
nothing. Beyond them
is a room, an island
in the screaming opera.
There the blind one leads me
in the darkness. The mute one silences
there my loose chatter,trembling
with proclamation. The illiterate one
makes there from his silent creatures
poem after poem.


Here she came, through the motion­
less Sunday of old age.
In headscarf and long dress
she came, a tall bird
of clothes. She wondered in
the sunshine outside the woodshed
how she should arrange things
so she could die. I must
write about this. For it happens
everywhere, and there are no
questions to answer. But to
ask is already insight. Only
those questions that are never asked
require answers. I remember
that her hands were no longer
part of her. Idle
they lay in her lap. She saw
with her eyes only darkness
and light. It was silent. I
thought: the silence is creeping
through her body. Soon
it will reach the heart. Soon
I will be alone




To remember is
to let the future
intervene in events.
Everything is settled. Even
chaos gets a name. No one
offers any resistance. Fate
wreaks havoc in vain.


The one who makes good use of his time,
it is true, squanders
the day, but the one
who whiles away his time
squanders the chance
to merely while it away.
Such is life; it must be


‘A man said: “I fled
into solitude. One day
I realized that I did not
like human beings. That
day I became free
and I returned
to them.”‘


If strength is never
to break down but always
to struggle, that strength constitutes
a burden that demands
great strength.


When the silence begins to feel
people ought to talk to one another; otherwise
it will stop.


To travel is
to reduce Samarkand
to reality. In the end
nothing else
remains. But also
the decision to stay
is a departure;
the corn yellows into fire
and knowledge becomes wordless
autumn. In the end only
Samarkand remains.


There are poems
so great and deep that no one
can write them. The proof
that they exist
is that they have not been
written. We
feel at the wall that
hides them, but find no
opening in the white paper.
Afterwards our poem­
attempts, fingerprints on the wall,
prove that it exists.


Memory is our protection
against pain. Even as
our wounds bleed hysterically
we begin to remember them.

No, in reality we begin
to forget them. We do not
remember our memories, only
what happened. We remember,

because we cannot forget
in any other way. We do not hear
the clock; we remember it

and when the ticking stops
and it becomes quiet in the room
it has already happened.


The one who does not accept
his defeat is




Motionless as a spaceship
Easter Island stands in the infinite
sea. The people sought protection
behind tall stone faces
which they turned outwards towards the sky
and the ocean, not to
observe but to be dazzled
by nothingness. But locked­up
people have no protection
against consciousness, which is
sickness; a fever with no answer.
There was war on the island. After
they had locked out eternity, that
immense defeat whose cooling freshness
makes it possible to live,
people began to kill one another.
The truth, its subjugating
dust, escapes no one.


In the midst of the summer’s warm
violence it is clear that this
life­machine is only a part
of itself. In autumn
we see the reptiles stiffen
to metal. Their life is now
to be dead. In the winter
the winter never stops. It is
that white screen on which the films spring,
summer and autumn are shown.
In spring the birds come
helplessly north. They find
their wide­open nests, a few
grassblades, simple symbols
of grassblades. Being
is distinct here. Living is
as in the south
a farewell.


He seeks in his life,
but finds only
his life. Everything that is used
becomes an object, even
a life. Helplessly he turns the pages
of the unwritten book.

In the middle of the night he wakes up. Dark
sentries surround the bed;
in vain he unfolds
his wings. To use life
is to deny it. He ignites
the light’s white salt, but sees
with his closed eyes, listens
with his open hands. The years
darken. Someone is approaching
in the gloom; a being
is leaving its source. The hour
is nigh. The hour
is always nigh.




Of his strength there still remains
its calm. He has risen;
with his back towards his life
he looks out across the plain
of wordless thoughts. No, he is
not wise, only silent, only
picture. Yes, I know that wisdom
vibrates with splendid silence,
but in grandfather’s picture silence is
truth, a quiet speech.


Early in her life she became
ancient, a teller of stories.
She bore children and she tended
dying folk, gave them tenderly
to death. For her it was
the same act. She knew
that no one can forgive
the violence that is called birth.
Lovingly she touched her children
with their names. She told
mysterious, protecting stories
in the darkness of the cottage, the dungeon
below night’s castle. Thus
she taught them reconciliation
and they left her
and vanished in the future’s
dim blue human crowd
on the way towards their memories.


There they stand, seemingly without
secrets, for years and poverty
have made them distinct. Yet
the camera lies, like all who
say nothing except merely
the truth. He did as others do,
became a father, built his house.
She helped sick folk, practised
kindness. But all his movements
were fingers of ash, fumbling
as the cold floor­draught
willed. Her kindness resembled all
other: a sternness that never
exhorts, but demands. Early
she knew it was
her only protection. So
it may have been, but perhaps
our life is only a line
in the poem about our life. Perhaps
we are not the name
we write, but
the nameless hand
that grasps the pen.


The picture is true, with its
painted background that conceals
her life. She sits
there, waiting to become
a picture, in large, simple clothes.
Yet she is not visible, for the photo­
graph depicts the mother,
a figure in the old songs
that were written for woman’s voice and
the nineteenth century’s melancholy wind.
She looks out over the twentieth century’s
ruins. The price of the future
is high. It consists in the fact
that it never comes.
Mother, I am homesick
for this house, where I dwell,
and this short autumn day,
when I live.


His face became clear
in Penticton. In the pictures
from Lippjärv he is still hidden
by his youth. In Vancouver
he laboriously bears his heavy
strength. But finally
he emerges before death’s
camera. With large, wide­open
spectacles he looks at me. Yes,
now, afterwards, it is I
who am death. Someone else,
who might look at him,
does not exist. The face
belongs to an emaciated bull.
Dark and immense with calm
he enters the sun
of the arena.




A storm rages, locked up
in its narrow hours. Blood­red
the palm of the hand rests above the forest
of spears. Her death was
too great. What happened
only happened. It was morning
or evening. The birds fumbled
on the surface of the sky. The very
great does not happen; it is.
Near my writing hand
I sit now, motionless
with yearning, but without sorrow.
She died, only died.
And the storm abates;
it is free again.


The headscarf’s black bird
kept its protecting wings
about the cheeks. The clothes were
the only caress that reached
their bodies. They moved about
the village, they wandered around
in ankle­length skirts, inside tall,
alien women. Yes, their
existence on earth was visible, but not
their lives. They already travelled
in regions beyond their names,
figures in a hymn without words,
wanderers in darkness, seeking
the night. Every pause was empty,
every word the last. But they said
wordlessly this: if a riddle
lacks a solution, then it is
the answer.


To die is a victory that demands
long struggle. The children thought
the old men were evil.
We did not know that they were pro­
tecting their deaths against the life
in us. Our jeering laughter was
bright with innocence. We did not
know that death must be protected
as one protects a flower
against feet, a melody against
shouting. We rushed outside. Our
games were about the next war.
We had already been wounded. In
the silence of the bedroom the old man
lay down to rest. He
no longer opened any door
with questions, and none was closed
by answers. He looked up
at the clouds in the immense
church, and fell asleep
and slept.


Nine years old I run forever
home through the forest. Its
tall, dark creatures are waiting
for me. It is thirty
below zero. In the face
up there stars are beginning
to flame. My body grows slowly
severe. It surrounds me
like something else. A shoe
bursts. I walk in the fire
of the cold; I pray to what
will happen, but all shivering
freezes to iron when that
immense breast opens
on nothingness. I came home
at last, but it was
too late.


Who is shouting, closed up
inside the creature? Who is
silent inside the tree
when it falls? Who
is coming? I remember
my questions still, and reply
now: It was you who shouted, heard
your own silence. Nothing is
only a poem, not even
this message. It is you
who are coming, not


The stallion stood like a tower
against the clouds. For a second
he was unconscious
with strength. I ran
home in a cascade of footsteps,
still without a poem between myself
and nature, the howling of God.


As a child I once found
a dying god. He lay still
between his wings, waiting
for them to let go
of him. Man is
dust; only gods can die.
In the dawn he had descended
on a mountain that now quivered
under heartbeats. Only the path’s
cord held it together. High
in the east glowing entrails welled
out between the clouds. I realized
that a god employs the whole of
reality as a body
when he suffers. Afterwards
he resembled a dead bird,
but I knew that no bird
can die so profoundly.


The body was formless and heavy
as though it had created itself
in solitude, without help,
and then waited in the shadow
under the trees, until the face
came fluttering over the meadow,
a butterfly without a body. Thus
did they meet, but now the yearning
face wanted to fly
away again. The I
always betrays
the ashes.


This poem? It shall
be about Blaze’s soul. He
ran, that spring day when he came,
on three legs and a spear
of pain, but his head swayed
like a flag and his eye looked
out over the endless expanse
as though it was there. We were
not worthy of his great
existence; we killed him.
Now only his soul remains, that
heraldic silence in which all
has meaning. That is what
the poem shall be about. It
begins here, and ends.


She was born. Reality was
hungry, and received her
in its jaws. Its black teeth
stood out against the blood from
the slow trial
in the evening sky. She closed
all the doors to protect herself
against solitude, but no one
can exist outside their
solitude. Another being
began to speak with the help of
her body. Someone wanted
to be born; someone was ready to meet
herself – a courage that must
always alter everything, the cruel
graffiti we call history,
as well as the poem we had no time
to write, and the empty
room when we have died. Out there
people are walking past. Who
was it who died in here? Was
someone with us for a while, and
altered everything?


It was difficult to be, not
for the human in him, but for
the animal, which had not the strength to carry
the leaden weight of consciousness. The knowledge
that he was alive prevented him
from living. It formed
a sleepless face that looked
at his emotions until they crept
away like actors
from a bad performance
and that thought that he thought,
until each thought deepened to
nothing in this cold light. He
was himself the enemy, and wrote
books in order to defeat himself,
but in such a battle the only
possible victory is too great.
He won. In the silence
afterwards came a few
last fumbling words.


Early self-portrait

I am a silent sword. Blows
and kicks hammer against my
steel. I expect nothing
else. I am invulnerable. The jeering
laughter drifts by, howling
like autumn wind in darkness, but I
am the darkness; teeth are bared
in vain. I hate no one,
I have killed everyone. I am
lost, I am invulnerable.


Their knives ached
with spite. Their open
hands were traps, ready
to close around the prey.
They looked like human beings,
but reality had
made them, their cruelty
was the mammal’s, their death
was emptiness’s yearning
to be emptied. One
morning one of them heard
deep inside the hymn
a song. He tried
to hide in the light
from the immense smile,
but in vain. For if God
exists, then he is
only everything. There was
no other way
but the way.


To be born is a sentence. One may
no longer keep one’s life.
Thus does he think, and it is quiet.
Far away the century shouts.

It is not pessimism; he sows
in the desert! True, it is
sand that he sows, but he thinks like this:

It is senseless to sow
seed-corn in the desert, where
nothing sprouts. Grains of sand
sprout nowhere; they can be sown
in the desert!


Kindness came to the cottage
and took the poor man’s
poverty. After that
he owned nothing.

Kindness is
man’s way
of enjoying
his kindness.


A few walking children.
Nothing happens. Life
is a recapitulation,
not a story. In
the south the Kursk Bulge darkens
with thunder. Sicily waits;
it is all about to happen. Someone
recites the Bible from memory
in Treblinka: ‘The Lord’s day
is a darkness and not a light.’
The screams from Golgotha seek God
in the centuries’ darkness, searchlights
that pursue not those who flee,
but the camp commandant. They burn
in vain. Reality has
no name. The words cover
only a part of the poem.
Above the road towers
high summer, the North’s
temple, and the children
walk towards the river.


I wrote two poems about her
before I learned how to do this
work that is aimed at speaking
in such a way that one does not shut in
what one says but opens
it to all that is wordless
in words. Yet there is in these
two poems the script
of her life, the drama
in which she herself played one
of the lesser roles, a wandering
woman. The only dialogue
was spoken by the murmuring forest.
The play was about us all,
our loneliness and hunger. When
at last her silence
fell silent, and the dead body
was carried away through the villages and
the forest on the painted scenery,
no curtain fell; the auditorium
was empty.


When he walked past
he surrounded himself with a lamenting
song, for protection. Something
had happened, or perhaps
not yet happened: he was afraid
of his hands; they crawled a-
bout like creatures on his body.
Conversation was difficult. He heard
nothing, for he listened
so intensely in his anguish. When
he went, he had to force himself
out through the thickening
dawn. He gave an impression
of having turned round
and begun to walk back
as though he had seen a glimpse
of the future.


The cold increased. The air hardened
to glass. Reality
touched the cottage, and we
cowered in there, nameless
as foetuses before this
immense name. The sun raised
a red, sardonic eyebrow,
and set. The gypsies came.
I do not remember them. The years
already hide so many
faces. It is the pictures
I remember, those suddenly
opened doors. In the lamplight
stand the horses, dark in
the depths of their smoking steam,
enormous, naked hearts
on a journey towards their
limitless body.


Childhood is not a part
of life, it is a depth
under everything that happens later.
The life’s work that is not realized
has always stood complete, the
game of half an hour. The first
words still protect us; the forest
is forest, the mountains stand still. One
day we grow so tired that we lose
the cruelty required
in order to live. That day
my father whispered: ‘I remember
Åbacken.’ He was inside
the game’s magic ritual
again. He played
at dying.




To live is not perpetually
to live. I begin to understand that
again. I write poems,
which from the future, this
ending, observe and
sketch childhood’s raft
of days and nights, im-
mobile in flowing
time. I find nothing
but the everyday, our low
protection against the blood and the fire,
the emotions, great as animals
and clear as messages,
and the bosom to which I return
each time I have not the strength
to be born. I find
nothing but it, and it
is what I seek.


‘When I lie in my cell
I hear the spring.’ That is what I
wrote once. To describe
something is to reduce it
to description, to make
reality’s blinding
nakedness go dark. That is
how I


No, I no longer choose.
What happens is my choice.
All resistance is crushed. Neither
my life nor my death can stop
this journey that protectively
surrounds me. I am chosen.


To be young is to meet
the eyeless, staring
face for the first time
and hear it called
reality, though it is only
malice. It is to meet
with dazzled skin, in ecstatic
solitude; it is to efface
oneself with shouts, to resemble
one another in order to conceal
one’s alikeness. It is a matter of
learning how to live. Some


The oarsman’s bronze face
looks timelessly at the summer day.
A sculpture consists of darkness
that reflects the light. Accordingly
it is invisible. Really
only its existence exists, not
it itself. I know the oarsman
well; yet his face is
nameless. When a mountain breaks
among the clouds we turn homeward.
The black sound overwhelms
like the mother’s booming pulsebeat
in the foetus. There is no defence
against defencelessness. Through the rain
we see the church towering above the town.
They punish their unbelief with belief,
says the oarsman. They believe
in what does not exist:
a life after this
and death.


I will be forgotten,
he thinks. Oblivion is
a deep mother. No one
will touch you there; no one
will forget you any more.


Giving and taking are parts
of the same action. The one
who takes gives his
taking. The one who gives
thereby receives from the other
his own giving. Giving
and taking are the same


We are only creatures, helpless
as insects in the autumn night,
transfixed by the light from
the closed window. So
strong is love that
only our mechanical couplings
prevent it from growing
into hate. How could any victory
be possible except this
defeat? We know it
from the very start. Love
is immense as a touch;
it does not need its two
bodies. We subjugate it
by loving!


Freedom cannot be locked up;
it has no body, it does not
exist outside itself.
When a man is imprisoned
he must therefore part
from his freedom, and give it
to friends, as one gives
a folk song at dusk.
For freedom, too, is only
a song. It does not really
exist, like all that is


After these poems I know
that only the nameless
man is visible. I have
laboriously written a book about
him; pale and ancient
as a child he listens
helplessly to the story
of how he is slowly effaced
by time, that calming hand
over the manically seething
life. When it is all over
and someone wakes up because he is dying
and the strength, this faceless
creature, is lowered into its grave while
the tall ruins of the house
that was never built tumble
down, then, when only the name
is left, will the nameless
profile still be sensed in the red
evening light from
the abandoned

Gösta Ågren, 1988

translation © 2010 David McDuff