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 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?