Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Moonlight coldly calling


I think it was Dylan Thomas, in a boozy interview near the end of his life, who defined poetry as whatever made his toenails curl up and his hair stand on end. I'm not sure about my toenails, but Gunnar Ekelof was one of the first writers to make my hair stand on end, back in the days when I had hair. Ekelof may be overshadowed by his compatriot Tomas Transtromer, winner of this blog's greatest living scribbler poll, but his mixture of Eastern mysticism and brooding Scandinavian imagery still leaves most native Anglophone poets in the shade - that's the conclusion I reached, anyway, after encountering a long-lost copy of Robert Bly's translation of Ekelof's first book down the back of a sagging bookcase a couple of days ago.

I know Bly is an excitable fellow who likes to run around bare-chested in the woods banging drums, but I reckon he got it right when he introduced Late Arrival on Earth forty years ago:

Some of Gunnar Ekelof's poems are made of linked successions of thoughts that are not easy to follow. We have no one like him in English or American poetry...He is an uncomfortable poet; he tries to make the reader conscious of lies and of the uncomfortable and shifty nature of the human ego. His poems float along like souls above the border between religion and witchcraft...

Here's a poem I particularly liked when I first read Ekelof as an eighteen year-old:

The Moon

The moon passes her hand softly over my eyes,
Wakes me long into the night. Lonesome among the sleepers,
I lay wood on the fire, fuss about with smoking sticks,
Move quietly among the shadows, shadows flapping high
Above the brown logs, richly
Decorated with glistening fish-lures...

Why did I wake? Lonesome among the sleepers,
Backs turned to the fire, I open the door quietly,
Walk around the corner in the snow, tramp on the clumps, see
Moonlight coldly calling me over the snow...


This poem is at once easy and difficult to grasp. We don't have any trouble seeing the scene and actions that Ekelof describes, but we may well ask ourselves what exactly they are supposed to mean. I always imagined that 'The Moon' was a poem about alienation, about an individual's exclusion from the mainstream of society, and of the necessity, perhaps even desirability, of that exclusion. I thought of the narrator of 'The Moon' as a sort of Swedish incarnation of Sweeney, the wandering, lonely, vision-prone King-in-exile who haunts classical Irish poetry.

When I read 'The Moon' to Skyler tonight, though, she decided immediately that it was a poem about death. Rereading it, I can see her point. It's possible I based too much of my reading on a few scraps of biographical information. Gunnar Ekelof was born into one of Sweden's wealthiest families, but his surname became infamous in Stockholm after his father contracted syphilis and was sent to a lunatic asylum to die. In the chapel of his posh private school, young Gunnar began a lifelong rebellion against Christianity and bourgeois society by mouthing the phrase 'Om namah shivaya' silently whenever he was required to join in a mass rendition of The Lord's Prayer or some holy dirge.

In the 1930s Ekelof was one of a group of young modernist poets who were associated with Sweden's left-wing workers' movement; he even published some of his work in the press of the Communist Party. But Ekelof never really felt understood by any section of the Swedish public, and eventually withdrew into the life of a recluse. He became obsessed with mysticism and the occult, and went so far as to claim that the poems of his last years were dictated by the ghost of a medieval Kurdish prince.

Dissatisfaction with the strictures of socialist realism may just possibly offer some sort of explanation for this poem in Late Arrival on Earth:

Monologue with its wife

Take two extra-old cabinet ministers and overtake them on the North Sea
Provide each of them with a comet in the rear
Seven comets each
Send a wire:
If the city of Trondheim takes them it will be bombed
If the suet field allows them to escape it will be bombed
Now you have to signal:
Larger ships approaching
Don't you see, there in the radio! Larger ship
in converging path. Send a warning!
All small strawberry boats shall be ordered to go into the shore and lie down

- Come and help me, please, I am disappearing. That God is in the process of transforming me, that one in the corner over there, that one whispering in the corner


Go figure. For my money, the strongest poem in Late Arrival on Earth is the hypnotic 'Trolldom in Fall', which reads like TS Eliot under the influence of some of the particularly potent magic mushrooms which reportedly grow near the Arctic Circle:

Trolldom in Fall

Be still, be silent and wait,
Wait for the animal, wait for the sign that is coming,
Wait for the miracle, wait for the defeat that is coming,
When time has lost its saltiness.
It soars with dead stars past burning skerries.
It arrives in dawn or dusk.
Day and night are not its time.
When the sun sinks in the loam and the moon in stone it shall come
With dead stars on burnt ships...
Then the blood-stained doors shall be open for everything possible.
Then the bloodless doors shall be closed forever.
The fields shall fill with unseen steps and the air with unheard sounds,
Cities shall tumble down punctually like chimes of a clock,
The shells of the ear shall explode as if deep down in water
And the infinite meekness of time shall be immortalised
Deep in dead eyes, and in extinguished candles
By the miracle that grazes their houses.
Be still, be silent, and wait,
Without breathing until the morning dusk opens its eyes without breathing until the evening dusk closes its eyes.


How are those toenails?

11 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think stuff like this is simply helpful. It's just pumping pyschic pollution back into the atmosphere. I'd rather read a positive book with an inspiring life stiry, or go for a swim (in the sea) or even write a haiku or play with the dog! Sorry.

Olive Barbican

5:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well I read The Moon three times, and I'm struggling to find death in there, care to point it out Skylar? I'm thinking it's Herman Hesse's "look at all the townsfolk over there partying and having a good time, why am I not like them? why am I called outside by the moonlight, alone?" ie alienation, for want of a better word.

8:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The soul is being called. The soul leaves the body, the warmth of the circle of the bodies, and floats outside into the cold. As Bede wrote:

"The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he. is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed."

John (D'Olivera)
Sussex University

8:56 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, thanks for the Ekelof comments. He is an incredibly powerful poet. A poet of awe. I think of lines like these: "In each soul thousands of souls are imprisoned." "And breathe in so deeply that we faint, so deeply that the whole milky way blazes in our lungs." "The speech of the men who wander forever." Yes, a profound skeptic of the ego. But he has an amazing faith: "A freshness lives deep in me, which no one can take from me, not even I myself."
The connection to Transtromer is real. I am also reminded of Miloslav Holub, Ondra Lysohorsky, Paul Celan, and Rolf Jacobsen.
Wonderful blog. Thank you.
Jim Ellis
Auburn, NY

9:17 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Dont think about the poem - just read it - it is a music of words inter-vibrating and colluding in combinations of suggestive and deep- hinted 'meanings' which cannot be "understood"; only experienced.
Then one can perhaps make or take some kind of "take" on it; but each has his or her own experience of the poem.

Thus John's comment on here is also very illuminating - using the Venerable Bede's famous experience or story of the bried sparrow : "...of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed..."; this is not invalidated by my "dont try to understand it commet", it is a also a valid "way into" the poem of Ekelof.

10:44 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like a recipe for chaos Richard.

Ekelof's poetry, like all great poetry, is about truth.

Truth is an only child.

1:59 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

re Ekelof

Chaos is ok we have emerged from Chaos - what the Maori call Te Kore...

Saying it is "about truth" is really like saying his poetry is about bananas - meaningless - what is truth?

I defy anyone to even give a clear and unchallengeable explication of Keat's poem "Ode to a Grecian Urn".

However - Ekelof - while he utilises surealism etc is accessible to some analysis and parsing; and he is not entirely a "symbolist" or 'hermetic' poet...but much poetry can be 'understood' at deeper levels while one also sees the 'logical' or overall import or their "meaning" (ostensible) - this subject is huge. I have a degree (BA in 1994) in English literature so I know what I am talking about - also have been writing poetry since I was about 16 - but not continuously - I have been reading, writing and performing poetry most intensively since about 1989... - I also have 2 books of poety myself - three counting my first rather ragged book "Singing in the Slaughterhouse"...

In fact one of the first poems by an American poet I knew - and one of the few for about 20 years was a poem by Robert Bly. It was very beautiful. Later I discovered Ashbery and others. I thought Eliot and Pound were British poets in 1968.

Eliot's poetry is of course very great. As he said (much or most) great poetry "Communicates before it is understood" when introducing "In Parenthesis" by David Jones. This "formula" is not always true - but it has useful insights (or associated ideas). If Ekelof was only "about" truth he may as well have written philosophy - and indeed much philosophy is or can be construed as poetry and vica versa (see some of Charles Bernstein's essays on this subject) - but a lot of that poetry is (a la Derrida etc -ok I know he is a worry!..but... ) incommunicable except at very deep levels ...the great poet probes beyond simplistic realism or "meaning" - plodding and construed one to one interpretive meaning of poetry and art per se is for the dull - but of course all writing/art has semantic import.

If by 'truth' you meant HIS (Ekelof's) truth - I would give a qualified yes...

11:09 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Posthumus, du, som i din elektroniska stol
kan höra sorlet av det förflutna, mänskliga
såsom vi på en gammal 78-varvsskiva hör
vår ungdoms slagdänga alltmer avlägsen
under nålens ljudhinna av rasp i det slitna
knaster och knäpp över hack och sprickor,
eller som vi i radions program om etern får höra
Vintergatans brus . . .Hui Hui - Come! Posthumus!
Hör du mig som ett knäpp?
I det antika havets brus
där tiotusen slavars kedjor blir ett risp
och tiotusen korsfästas stön längs vägarna ett rasp
hörs också nöjets stön och suckan i en knäppserie:
Noëte, lumen, va, va, usque va, Noëte mitt ljus
kom, kom, låt det gå för dig! Havete transistores
balete transistores! Posthumus! Do you hear me?
Den antika skivan snurrar, vi måste hjälpa den över
återvändsskårorna där den stannar och snurrar för
sig själv
Mänskliga slagdängan tränger igenom. Yes
Posthumus
I am closing down now.

3:58 am  
Blogger Skyler said...

Swedish phooey. It's just nonsense words, as far as I'm concerned.

10:41 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Skyler -you know Swedish?

11:29 pm  
Blogger Skyler said...

Hopefully people who know me have realised that the above comment supposedly by me was actually from Maps! He was being silly and used my account while I had it open. I have some great swedish friends but unfortunately I can't speak swedish Richard.

11:23 am  

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