Has anyone read the novels of Lars Gustafsson? Anyone who stops by Wuthering Expectations I mean. New Directions has published a half dozen of them, some with first-rate titles: Funeral Music for Freemasons or The Death of a Beekeeper. I do not believe I have ever come across an article about Gustafsson or review of his books written by anyone besides Michael Orthofer.
I did stumble across his poetry, which I recently read in bulk and enjoyed quite a bit. The bulk is not so bulky in English, just three tiny books of 116, 69 and 84 pages, and since these are books of poetry those pages are nearly blank.
I’ve always had a liking for fragments.
The shred of papyrus, threadbare, brown
as an autumn leaf in the park in spring.
A philosopher quoted only once,
and then imperfectly, distorted,
by a very grudging patriarch,
who can’t hide the golden glow
issuing from four words and a fifth
which is conjectural. *
Fans of Sappho and Heraclitus will appreciate that. Of course I picked a poem with a literary subject. Gustafsson is himself a philosopher as well as a poet and novelist, and was a longtime professor of philosophy at University of Texas – Austin. He often writes about his childhood in rural Sweden, but also about Texas, where
there was music in the humidity. It came from every
street. Ballads and blues and a special kind of
pensive jazz. It resembled nothing else I’d heard.
It came from warmer air, smelling of earth.
Never again to need my wool mittens,
sleeping like nice kittens in the closet! (“Austin, Texas”) **
Gustafsson frequently uses those unrhymed couplets. Or maybe they rhyme in the original, although I doubt it. All of the poetry was translated into English in close collaboration with Gustafsson. Christopher Middleton notes that some of the “deviations in the English occasionally led to changes in the original” (Stillness, xii).
One more complete poem tonight.
The Stillness of the World Before Bach
There must have been a world before
the Trio Sonata in D, a world before the A minor Partita,
but what kind of world?
A Europe of vast empty spaces, unresounding,
everywhere unawakened instruments
where the Musical Offering, the Well-tempered Clavier
never passed across the keys.
where the soprano line of the Passion
never in helpless love twined round
the gentler movements of the flute,
broad soft landscapes
where nothing breaks the stillness
but old woodcutters’ axes,
the healthy barking of strong dogs in winter
and, like a bell, skates biting into fresh ice;
the swallows whirring through summer air,
the shell resounding at the child’s ear
and nowhere Bach nowhere Bach
the world in a skater’s stillness before Bach. ***
I know, isolating “isolated churches” is almost too cute.
* From The Stillness of the World Before Bach: New Selected Poems (1988), tr. Christopher Middleton.
** From Elegies and Other Poems (2000), tr. Yvonne L. Sandstroem.
*** From Stillness, tr. Philip Martin.