Rabbe Enckell

Poems by Rabbe Enckell (1903-1974)

I cannot imitate
time’s grey patina.
I love all that is new and inimitable.
I paint the earth
in the brilliant varnish of the spring torrent.
The sharp odour of freshly painted wood
will not quickly leave my works.


The sunny mass
of the Acropolis
does not frighten me.
I have seen
the Finnish knoll’s
grey barn,
its temple-like
towards the infinite expanse
of the spring sky.


The calf of one summer surveys the earth with glistening eyes.
In his great black eyeball swim the cloud and the brook’s foam and the springtime’s colourless gnat flits from the green birch leaves
to be reflected in it
as if it were one of the forest’s blind pools.


Miniature Poetry’

The morning dew has placed small weights
in the dew-cup’s bowl — the scales are even.
With quivering blades the lawn checks
the weight of each drop.
But the sun dips his finger in the dew so that nothing is left. And the nettles in the ditch know full well
that the dew’s weights are merely bunglers’ trinkets compared to the gigantic river in Pernambuco.


I am the springtime’s deepest
filled with water.
I am keeping quiet.
But one day
the forest will talk about me.



Here in the forest’s
dry-muzzled summer
my thoughts were aroused to defiance,
the heat threw into my senses
a shadow all too dark.


You smile at
my little matchstick poems.
Their harmlessness has become legendary.
But it is better to have a box of them in one’s pocket than to sleep with ten fire extinguishers in the house. They have made do
with brightly illuminating my face when they are lit
– and then going out.


We wander in your light
in order to grasp your impossibility.
It swings
like an arc lamp in the storm
sending giant shadows dancing
over our motionless houses.



I am an over-civilised
Take me in the flat of your hand,
feel how I twitch and tremble
with nerve-reactions.
its cats’ waltz
in my ear.


I have only one thought.
If life picks up its scent
it will crush me.
My soul is nothing but trust.
If it lets me down
I will have spasms of hunger in a flourbin,
will leap unprotected by instinct
straight into the fire.


I am greedier for my welfare
than the ant is for the grass-blade.
If anyone’s hand comes too near me
I spew ant-piss.
My whole being cranes up on two legs with quivering antennae.
My abdomen bends forward in a bow.
Under the lens you can see my spite in all its glory.


The Goods Wagon

I have been shunted onto the wrong track
and stand, a lonely wagon at the buffers.
Grey, I look in at the yellow edges of the forest.
I stand in the rain — the twilight dilates
but I will never reach my destination.


What I wrote
was a romantic compulsion.
I wanted to be imprisoned in
the dying shimmer
of a word,
to raise the echo of a past emotion.
I wanted to escape
to the world of the forest,
its dark meditations,
to find
satiety in a beast-like dream.
But luckily imagination’s silver ring
fell from my finger.
The horizon of flying images
has grown dark.
In the mirror of a magic lake
the light grows fainter and will not return.
Only thought lingers,
doubly dear to a freed eye.



A bird’s warble flies
like a swivel-bait cast over waves.
A splash of the morning light’s gold leaf
around giddying rotation
spun out
into the very fibre of disappearance.


In Rome

In Rome the heat strikes rings in lime-dry air
the eye is blinded
and the soul’s dust cakes one’s eyebrows.

In the shadow of the arch I stand as on a mountain’s shoulder
facing the sea of sun, and the fountain’s splashing reaches me
with noise and voices from the dark, much-changing faces of life.

All the gaudy baroque droops like chrysanthemums in the heat.
Imperceptibly time boils dry
like the moisture in the marble basin — sucked up and forever renewed.

There behind drapery the coolness of a church’s nave
and the body’s yearning slinks in like a lizard over chiselled stone.


As distant as the sun is from the winter blaze in a red cloud,
as distant as —! Day has altered to evening and the rosy shimmer
becomes magic darkness. Silently memory still tours
along roads whose dust
constantly recalls things that are lost.

Memory’s veil, at first transparent as the wave of heat above clear fire,
grows heavy and opaque as the shadow in a ravine.
The sheer ravine of time
plunges straight into our souls.

Beaten in the iron of terror they intercept a sound
that echoes in our hearts’ pulse; where and when?
The horn of Roland calls
deep within the light-branched, leafy forest.

Bust of Juno

Eye cooled by day, hair bound by marble
Junonian sun and the forehead’s vault:
a mask for the depth of Hades’ oblivion,
an underworld with river-waves
frozen in onyx and life’s cyphers
dispelled like a dream —
Nothing will paralyse the power of the dumbness
unjoined by commanding times far hence upon the marble. Nothing will kindle the fire
in her eyes; with her soul turned away,
swathed in the mantle of time’s distance
she meets, powerful in resemblance, day’s sun.


Longing appeals at heart to the change in all things.
The deed, once lofty and sun-illumined
is turned to a vessel consecrated in the darkness of the obscure past.
And the life which still like Pallas stands forth from the god’s helmet
will soon radiate from a world, metamorphosed by visions, embraced by death.
Time, forever ready to create
in our place the greatness that evades us,
makes us all, on the front we occupy,
into stubbornly silent deserters, happy in longing.

The eyelids stiffen. Liver-brown shadows gather
under the eye.
The heart
pumps the aching blood of fear. A void
expands infinitely —
In the brain, a windless murmuring.
The eye looks in a mirror
as sick and smarting as a salt steppe.
A movement! And chaos
floods through your veins, shrouding
your body in a veil of blind pain.


The poverty that came to me
in silent years of childhood
is the treasure I covetously hoard.
The wheel-ruts of the slow roads,
the drying-hurdles steaming in the evening sun,
the mist over the lake
conceal what I hardly know how to miss:
conceal my sense of loss itself.
O rich inheritance of poverty.
Out of loyalty’s unequivocal heart
the star has risen.
Its name is constancy.


Towards Ithaca

In sleep he is borne by waves
homewards where night and north
sweep space and immovably
the constellation of Heracles
raises its lever.

Is borne away by complete oblivion,
rich, powerful, weaving patterns of sound
squandering the nets of time
swell sinking
beneath its own fate.

He is borne so he shall not be
where flames lick up from Eos’ dawn;
only homeward and nightward —
the sleep of gods
‘most akin to death’.


High in November day flames your golden trumpet.
o herald, many times before now
your sentinel’s cry has summoned men
to strife — and proudly kindled
the fire in their minds and their impatient fighting spirit:
Still in your cry
the banner of revolt flutters before the rebel,
the clear voice of lofty obedience
is announced
to willing hearts.
— Borne far away across the dying coxcombs of the echo
on the dizzying hunt for fortune
you are
the first message to strike home;
at the door of pale suffering and treachery,
the last warning —

The Heart

The longer life continues
the more like a dream
it becomes.
Heart, sore pressed,
soon you will rest unburdened beneath
oblivion’s heaviest garlands
with the sparing blossom of memory.
All will exist only as the guest
and closest friend of death.
Yet — undying ivy will guard
the room of your pain.


compelled to poetry!
The blind satisfaction,
recognition sweet as the scent
of lily-of-the-valley, gentle but numbing, said nothing to you.
You, that lived
on sparing, inaccessible insight:
bitter roots
of a soil dragged
from afar as though in defiance
of the nearness of that sea
stingily tended to earthly needs —
You, fishermen by a storm-heavy coast,
faces flushed with cold,
day-labourers of uncertainty,
patient tillers of poetry’s Aran!
Your table unacquainted with victuals
that are not the product of your spirit’s power.
You, poets
of the difficult school!

Oedipus at the Sea

Here on the shore of the shadowless
the shadow fly —
You touch me with unfamiliar hands,
feel my face as though you yourself were blind
and with a blind man’s groping fingers sought
someone. At your touch I am
like a child —
around unkempt, grey-grown beard
you flutter mercifully,
tug at it in play.
Why can I not see you? Yet see you,
see you, sensing your depth.
Gentle as the repetition in a nurse’s songs
with their more direct way
to the heart —

The misery of a human life
weighs lightly, 0 sea, in your embrace.
The two Nereids All Things Must Pass and Sleep While There is Time
strew your bed with windwashed asters and fragrant mint.
The mist kisses one of your eyes,
the sun the other.
The night manifests its reconciliation in golden text.
However nimbly the Fate spins her thread in the here and now
for you she will always be too late,
and her action in vain.
Here on your shore
with my feet finally tamed,
here I sense that the bitterness in my life
is not towards you, that it is not you
that sickens my spirit. All that flees
to you finds a refuge.
You: who bid complaint be silent
with your hand gently laid upon the lips of lamentation,
with a divinity in your depths —
I see in everything not what it is
but what it means.
I wish that I lived in some context.
I wish that words
would find their way to me: vermin huddled beneath a stone.
There is life beneath a stone and the form of the most high
dwells in all that there is room for in this world.
That which is inside is easy.
It is as easy as Ariel and the west wind:
goes sweeping through every kernel, every word.
From the underworld nothing can be saved.
But spring is a launching board for all that goes outward.
There death’s trademark is valid as any other.

O Bridge of Interjections…

O bridge
of interjections,
you that pass over half of life in silence
and half of death
and yet are filled with life and death,
you that like a river reflect the banks
announcing their depth
0without revealing or betraying
what is hidden by merciful trees
at the water’s edge,
I will go your way like a Moslem
who approaches the mosque with covered head
led astray neither by what lies to the right or the left of him.

I will adorn my ear with sounds
that are audible only at sunrise
or towards nightfall, when each star sets out its bowl
to catch a sprinkling of the inaudible.
And I will adorn my eye with light
disclosing things that can be neither hidden nor seen,
such as breathe their scent from a distance
and cannot be lifted up and placed here or there,
since they remain with me always
wherever I am —

Among those lofty things
there is neither you nor I nor anyone else,
neither love, passion, jealousy nor revenge.
There is absolutely nothing to lay us bare
or give us occasion for arrogance or humiliation.
Those lofty things soar towards us
on the wings of interjections, transparent as the dragonfly’s:
she glows with all that is behind her or ahead of her;
colourless in herself, each moment paints her anew.
They are like a tranquil air in which scents thrive.
One breathes them in as on a forest path.
But the sea, too, the rock and the storm are lifted
on the wings of interjections.

Whoever is versed in them
is like a skilful spinner: from matted wool comes flowing yarn.
O, is it really necessary to heap up facts?
Then I am lost. In facts I was imprisoned.
What speaks through me now is merely what
is present in any moment,
like rainwater in a crevice: it has gathered there
and dries up again in order to return.

Long we go bowed under the weight of circumstances.
One senses them everywhere — like the members of a jury
they judge us, acquitting or convicting us.
As long as we live we stand like prisoners at the bar.
O who can plead in his own defence other than
in a thoroughly inadequate fashion?
On whose side is the law, on whose true love?
These are questions that cannot be settled at once,
but must constantly be reiterated in the world of the halfhearted.
The defier and the conciliator
dwell in the same breast, in the same heart’s chamber,
forever pursuing the same exchange of opinions.
In the long run we all lose out.
For what we win we allow to slip through our fingers
and what we lose comes back to us again.
In the degree to which we give it up for lost, it returns.
It returns by way of the loss that makes us reconciled.
It returns by way of the loss that makes us dream purer dreams.
It returns by way of the loss that makes us think truer thoughts and will better actions.
Verily: no one can say ‘I have won!’
For no one wins in the end, but everyone loses,
loses until they are conscious of it and realise
that only by way of loss can the flood of things that are lost
be stemmed. It is so simple. Tears are the nervous spasm
of our desire to hold onto something, they are the child who refuses to see
that the sense of loss gives to life its deepest substance.

One can find nothing in life
unless one finds those words
that are transparent with
what the spirit has in common with everything and everyone.
One can find nothing unless one is able to weave oneself
a net that fits every sea and every river.

In interjections I have found a strong thread
that has been dipped in the pitch of eternity in interjections,
which are born
like the spider’s web in the light of morning:
constantly at breaking-point, it often tries the eye of the beholder,
but it holds the spider, its creator,
as the world holds God. What does it matter
that much of it is torn to shreds? It matters nothing!
As long as the thread holds its creator.
I found the pitch-thread of eternity in the spider’s web and in those interj ections
which, dipped in my heart, held fast
even when its blood flowed hottest.

When the lover makes those long pauses between the words of love
those pauses that rest in the present like a butterfly on a hot stone,
without desire, need or purpose,
he is outside desire
and is in acceptance, in which his soul rests, open.
As after a violent downpour the sun shines more strongly
than it does on a cloudless day, so our lives are strongest
the moment we set ourselves free and stop thinking about purposes.
There is always something melancholy about one who is setting out on an expedition.

Why does the soul in his eyes seem to renounce
the result in advance? why does the moment of decision
make his stomach turn?
Where does this weakness come from? It creeps out of his soul, whispering: ‘renounce’.
Renounce! You must admit that — if, like a parachutist, you took the risk —
only then did you really feel free.

There is within all of us something
that is too fragile not to break,
too fragile or too inexpedient.
Are we therefore to condemn it?
Complete expediency would never
find its way to the life that is more than cause and effect.
Complete expediency is not possessed
by the ox under the yoke, not even by the machine.
The ox contains that which is animal and is not the beast of burden.
The machine contains the incomplete, which is the human being. Expediency can make no decisive contribution
to the argument about what our lives are worth.
No: sickness, want and hope —
that is life and its redoubts, never surrendered.

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.
To me the quarry is free when it is hunted
in mortal terror by a goading pack.

To me the murderer is free when, his soul on tenterhooks,
he awaits the ring at the doorbell,
the quite ordinary ring of an errand boy at the door with a delivery
from the grocer’s shop around the corner —
and then another ring, one quite out of the ordinary, one that mercilessly
shoots the bolts of existence, discloses
the next step as a ‘come with us’ — the soft purring
of the police car from the street sounds like something in a dream —
This is a freedom you cannot escape!
A freedom which leads to something greater, something inconceivable.
One that will perhaps finally release
the most intense delight a human being can attain: the smile that
nothing will be able to avert —

In the twilight of the jail
on the stone floor, pressed
against damp walls and with the cell bars
like a cool and indifferent thought, irrelevant,
I felt for my companion in misfortune the kinship
common shame bestows.
For in a cell there is no concealing
the obvious. In jail
a man goes free of condemnation and only
the unease of his own conscience examines
what is concealed
behind the ever more tightly knit
meshes of the interrogation. Fear and unease
about the inadequate weapons of cunning and watchfulness
construct a shared world
of hours that melt like hot tin.
Yet, when the fear grows less, even jail
has its view of eternity
and over its walls, dark with twilight, falls
the shadow of the peace that is granted
to those who rest under the open sky.

Never will I forget
how well we got along
over our games of chess: the squares
scratched out on the stone floor with a pin,
the pieces made with cardboard torn
from an empty cigarette carton. Bent
over those scratched squares we found
a peaceful crevice in the now,
a field for the tournament of thought
and at times we would forget
that the morrow had already been lost
before our surroundings let go
their grip on us.
The knowledgeable thief entertained us
with songs from far and near,
always came back
from interrogation having confessed new crimes,
always calculating
what they would cost him in months
of life; yes, truly
justice did not scorn
the widow’s mite —
Never will I forget
how dear hands sent me
the book about Watteau with its pairs of
silk-robed lovers in parks suffused
with the purple radiance from distant

Thus is our life — Vain
to try to set it on a course
for the better. There is
no “better” anywhere.
Fear and distress interrupted by
the occasional relief of
sleep and oblivion put man
in his rightful place. Whoever understands this
no longer negotiates with fortune
and the rainbow.

There is something that has gone —
A cloud has gone, a light, a cloud and a star.
I stand staring at that patch of emptiness
where once it was: a cloud has gone.
I do not know why this empty patch in the sky
should bring forth such emptiness within me.
I do not know why: since the cloud disappeared
I have felt a thirst that cannot be quenched.

My lips are dry, my soul rocks to and fro
like one whose abdomen hurts.
I know full well that everything is an illusion
and that life builds cycles of illusion.
And that all transformations simply illustrate
that here have we no continuing city.
In spite of every transformation we are kept
on a diet that is far too restricted: it satisfies us before we have stilled our hunger.
Who but a conjuror could love reality for more than ten years at a stretch?
What comes after that is nothing but repetitions, which give us a certain degree of immunity,
but by no means indemnify us; on the contrary, although the symptoms grow less noticeable, the disease penetrates deep down.
Work, leisure, all that is measurable in purely external terms becomes more significant and the emotions are now the great stumbling-block we must overcome.
But we overcome them not at all, we merely conceal them,
conceal them from the sight of others and ourselves.
Increasingly we make life into a plan of action, a sphere of activity.
The most precious and sensitive instruments have been lost in the storm,
But we attempt to manage without them, we trust to our own eyes.

Can we hold the course? Do we care whether we hold it any more?
Chance and our eyes grow more and more closely wedded to each other.
In this magnetic field everything is simpler.
Even the oarsman, aimlessly rowing, has a regard to the wind and the waves.

Those who consciously describe themselves as corks before the wind do not become more so
than those who are, but are unaware of it…
To be poor is to be on the lookout —
We all stand in the queue ordained by necessity.
We do not know what it is we are queuing for, we join the queue without knowing what the goods are worth:
desirable or not, it is all the same.
The queue forms like an ice-pattern on a window
and is longest
when one is looking forward to what one cannot get. Patiently the days of our lives unfold,
frozen and wretched,
soon hopeless — and yet we go on with them
just for the enjoyment of waiting — and when we ourselves are no longer waiting
for the enjoyment of waiting with those who still are. We warm ourselves at the glow of hopefulness as greedily as the street-vendor at his brazier.

Toughness our most efficient stimulant,
a decoction of ‘perhaps’, ‘you never know’,
‘as well here as there’, ‘it could well be’.
Joined together by words and thoughts like a wire
the queue winds
binding our hearts somewhere
between belief and scepticism,
‘good luck’ and ‘that’s the end of that’.

Thus we are incapable of dying
and what we live by is what we are unable to cope with. It is so simple — in this greyness
dwell harmonies, sweet scents that make
our spirits tremble, our hearts hammer
obstinately — in painful contradiction
to all that we know —

To be poor is to be on the lookout,
on the lookout for life and death, to sense
how closely they follow each other
into our hearts, as closely as the windshadows on a flag.
Only the hunter knows the way the quarry moves,
the detours it will make, where he will find it,
only the hunter knows, and the hunter is life.
Our hearts are marshes on which shots ring out,
but we see nothing of the quarry that is felled.
That is the hunter’s secret and a secret too
is the deep silence that is death’s echo —

Like a roe-deer oneness had fled from me —
And where I walk the paths are muddled together
and all the trees look the same.
But however far I may have gone astray in the exitless,
to you, wanderer, it will one day be disclosed,
to you, that wander under happier skies
where confusion’s film of blood does not obscure your sight,
that here once the foot of a roe-deer left its imprint,
here in the valley of oneness and longing.

O bright valley, resting always further away
than thought and eye are so quick to believe!
O bright valley, there you are, glimmering in daylight more clearly
each time the mists of vanity are dispelled.
The wearier grow one’s steps the more clearly sounds the purling of springs, the light across your meadows and the water of the unattained rock cools
the throats of those who succumb but never
lose sight of their vision —

Long I sat on the bench of life
looking as though I were not looking,
saw the columns, supply vans,
heard the rumble of tanks, the frenetic din of engines.
The man at the wheel: stone gods, totem poles,
isolated, exalted in their din, while the caterpillar tracks scraped out listlessly burrowing claws in the dust.
How long I sat there looking
looking as though I were not looking
looking as one looks at the crowd on a platform
keeping one’s eyes peeled for the one whom one is to meet, only for the one whom one is to meet,
seeking a voice in the tumult —
Among leaves that have lost their sheen,
among flowers that have lost their colour —
Within the perianth they have their glow
and decay has its incense
of the past — a gentleness without limits —
So listen inwards, to what does not believe,
does not hope and does not remember; a web
of dead things that have ‘ost their forms
and are merely air or nothing!
They have drowsed away from them, they have slept,
slept long, alas, even during their lives they were sleeping
a sleep full of dreams about something
that never was —
Someone is loitering outside,
creeping in at your doors —
in search of warmth and company,
bread for his hunger —
Why does he not just come right in and say what it is he wants? Why is he creeping about outside?
Drive him away: he has dark designs.
Chase him away! But he is not there. Where is he? Where has he
vanished to?
But I know there is someone creeping about outside, someone to whom I can give neither bread nor warmth — Is it hope, dark hope?

Strew ashes, abundance of ashes,
ashes on the hard-frozen field,
on the winter snow, so that it melts away
laying bare the brown earth!
For you have an errand to me as you have to others, sun!
All your mail has the word
Urgent marked on it.
Urgent— such a hopeful word,
so warm, when sent in your letters:
your beams!

How often the gold text in your stamp is borrowed
for things and communications of such little urgency! Your message passes through so many
bitter intermediary hands that
— when finally it reaches us —
we are unable to decipher the garbled text.
But sometimes it amuses you
to throw your letters down to us
directly from above
and then there is a scent as delicate
as marsh violets —

Spring comes so quietly:
all the herb-gardens already hold
their seeds — all the herb-gardens
the gardener loves before all else.
Filled with the tension of expectancy
the rustle of the seedsticks
in the bag — now they have come to rest
in the soft folds of the soil, sealed in there.
He loves them best:
the sharp and the soft,
the light and the dark.
He loves them for the sake of their bitterness
and for their sweetness —
abundance here is paired
with fine discernment
and an aroma as full as that of the rose
here has its nearness to victuals, the frugal necessities of life.

forgotten by sound
possessed by light!
You are the girl where she sits
in the arbour’s shade, bowed over the book that is making her heart flutter.
Now she averts her gaze, her eyes pause for a moment seeking coolness on roses and blue lupins
to avoid those pages that come flooding over her
with too great a confusion.
When the voice of her mother calls her to the table that is ready laid
her own voice answers in faltering tones —
She has been far away. Will she finally have the strength
to get up and push away
the soft branches — ?

Or: you are the youth, when during heart-tearing
exertion he shapes words on his lips, words he makes as humdrum as possible
in order to hide his insecurity, his fear, despair —

O interjections
you possess the shortest way to renewal —
you know corruption.
Light as butterflies
you steer from flower to flower.
So much trouble with the manifold
in order to attain the unique!
There is no shorter way
than you:
like the arrow quivering in the target you have already reached your goal
in the honey sac —
the cup of bitterness
O interjections, there you float:
keywords of chance, rinsed clean by the storm,
transparent from the wind,
butterfly-wings capsized on a stone cairn
merely commemorating what remains of
the flight of countless butterflies in the sun —

– translation © 2011 David McDuff