Category Archives: Poetry

Nameless Ring in the Wood

Gustave Courbet, "Landscape with a Dead Horse"

The cracks and muted overcast-Fall greens, their forest turning black into the background like an open maw about to consume the dead white horse. This Courbet, which hangs in the Hermitage, is at once murky and clear in its anticipation and exhibition of death. The horse, contrary to the title, is dying; it’s not yet dead. If it was, it would be gone, and dark, and eaten by the trees. If the painting is itself unexceptional (as some say), I find it intensely emotional.

The animal’s light spills onto the ground around it, physically spilling life into the Earth. The tall tree on the left, rising above the frame, is a link to the spiritual realm. The tension is in the space between the horse and the tree: if enough lightness seeps into the ground that the space-between becomes light and the lightness touches the tree trunk, then the horse’s spirit will survive.

Look closely and see a human behind the horse. He, afraid of dying, retreats into death rather than witness the struggle of life. What do people know of nature? What is their connection with it? Retreat, dearest coward, and never become like the horse.

The most famous Norwegian literary figure in the rest of the world is Knut Hamsun: for his books (Hunger), his politics (he eulogized Hitler as “a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations”), and his talent (available in translation). Until this evening, I could name no other. Now I can name also Tarjei Vesaas, who, Wikipedia tells me, “is widely considered to be one of Norway’s greatest writers of the twentieth century and perhaps its most important since World War II.” I have not read any of his novels. Below is his poem, “A Nameless Ring in the Wood”, translated into English by Roger Greenwald:

You asked before it happened:
where is my tree among trees?
No one answered.
There was no time for more questions.
The clock chimed.
Suddenly things happened to you
when you were unprepared.

Strong juice welled up in force
under the bark’s rough skin.
A bird keeps watch
and everything’s in its place.

You are a part of this,
which you knew
even as you lived shut off from it—
with your dream,
with your quiet, thirsting aspect of loss—
where your roots were, and are, and remain.

Then it’s time. The past is forgotten:
For you grow light-handed, without warning
—you, who had such a firm grip.
You succeed. Your wish is fulfilled.
Succeed, succeed.
Everything you touch
takes form and succeeds, for two seconds.
No one sees it. No one understands
that this is the last thing
until it’s happened.
No one understands it then, either.

Now it’s over.
But the tree was yours.
Life takes its course under the bark.
You with your young sap become this ring,
which hardens into wood and plays its role.
Your young dying year becomes a ring in the wood.
When the tree grows tall and broad against the sky
and sweeps through the midnight with its strength,
then you are one among many in the wood.
Your ring is yours and lives your lives.

The poem could be about a horse. I think it is about a boy. This boy felt a connection with nature, or else did not and deeply yearned for one. He wanted a tree for himself. But he fell ill, when he was unprepared. Before his death, he felt a connection with a tree—one among many, his tree. For a time, this connection made him live as he wanted: connected: successfully. No one else saw what the boy felt. The boy died. He became and is a ring in the tree. The ring lives the lives the boy did not. The boy’s lightness reached the tall trunk of the tree stretching beyond the frame; the boy is the horse painted by Courbet.

Tarjei Vesaas był jednym z najsłynniejszych norweskich pisarzy. Pisał powieści, sztuki i wiersze. Na podstawie wersji angielskiej, przetłumaczyłem jeden z jego utworów na polski. Nadam mu tytuł: “Bezimienny pierścień w lesie”.

Zapytałaś zanim się stało:
gdzie jest moje drzewo wśród drzew?
Nikt nie odpowiedział.
Nie było czasu na więcej pytań.
Zegar zabił.
Nagle rzeczy się Tobie stały,
kiedyż byłaś nieprzygotowana.

Silne soki mocno się zebrały
pod szorstką skórą kory.
Ptak pilnuje
i wszystko jest na swoim miejscu.

Jesteś tego częścią,
czego znałaś
nawet kiedy żyłaś od tego zamknięta—
ze swoim snem,
ze swoim milczącym, spragnionym aspektem utraty—
gdzie były twoje korzenie, i są, i pozostają.

Więc czas. Przeszłość jest zapomniana:
Bo stajesz się lekko-ściskająca, bez ostrzeżenia
—ty, która zaciskała tak mocno.
Odnosisz sukces. Twoje marzenie jest spełnione.
Odnosisz sukces, sukces.
Wszytko co dotykasz
przybiera kształt i odnosi sukces, na dwie sekundy.
Nikt tego nie widzi. Nikt nie rozumie
że ta rzecz jest ostatnią
dopóki się nie stała.
Też nikt wtedy nie rozumie.

Teraz jest zakończone.
Ale to drzewo było twoje.
Życie zaczyna kursować pod korą.
Ty ze swoją młodą żywicą stajesz się tym pierścieniem,
zastygającym w drewno i odgrywającym rolę.
Twój młody umierający rok się staje pierścieniem w drewnie.
Gdy drzewo urośnie szerokie i wysokie na niebowym tle,
i swą siłą się przetoczy przez północ,
wtedy w lesie jesteś jedną wśród wielu.
Twój pierścień jest twój i żyje twoje życia.

Pasuje mi do “Pejzażu z martwym koniem” Gustava Courbeta, lecz myślę, że koń jest nim, a wierszu raczej zmieniłem płeć, by był dla M.

Tarjei Vesaas

L’Origine du monde

Gustave Courbet, "The Origin of the World" (1866)

Richard Alfred Milliken (1767- 1815) was an Irish lawyer, poet and playwright whose best-remembered work is “The Groves of Blarney”, pastiche of supposedly dreadful “Castle Hyde” by some or other traveling Irish bard. Its dark holes and pusses, breeding and mossy entrances, sweet fishy feather beds, and mud foll-oh-OH-OOH!-ed by flood obviously anticipates Courbet’s realist cunt:

[…]

For ’tis there’s a cave where no daylight enters,
__But cats and badgers are forever bred;
Being mossed by natur’, that makes it sweeter
__Than a coach and six, or a feather bed.
’Tis there the lake that is stored with perches,
__And comely eels in the verdant mud;
Beside the leeches, and groves of beeches,
__All standing in order for to guard the flood.

[…]

Milliken also wrote “The River-Side: A Poem in Three Books“, which, though slightly tedious to this one’s eyes, does have its loftier heights. Nature descriptions are a constant pleasure (but too much for a dirty mind!) and then there’s this call for peace and restraint:

[…]

In ancient times, when hot religious zeal,
Drew many a knight to Palestine’s domains,
To honor God by shedding pagan blood.
(More honour’d far who is the prince of peace
By deeds of mercy and restraint of war.
Philanthropy for all the sons of earth
And brotherly affection.) When the flame
Romantic caught from breast to breast, through all
United Christendom, her prowest knights
Assembled to redeem the holy land

[…]

Funny that in 1807 (or so), the Crusades were “ancient”, though it does lend them an air of legend. Funny also that the word honour is first spelt honor (no u), then honour in the next line. Still, it’s the thought that counts; and here the thought is the nobility and grace of peace amongst all. Who would have thought? A post that began with a giant vagina, ends with a call for global harmony.