Friday, March 28, 2014

four words and a fifth which is conjectural - the poems of Lars Gustafsson

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.
Isolated churches
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.


  1. I've read his Elegies and A Time In Xanadu and liked him well enough to copy down two pages of him.

    "The old Mexicans sitting so still

    outside the rural bus station.
    What are they waiting for? The bus?

    Arriving or departing? Neither one.
    They are waiting for life, a gift

    Abruptly thrust on them, to pass."

  2. Never heard of him, but I like those poems.

  3. Miguel, I do think you would enjoy Gustafsson's poems. His public role is interesting, too - he is bit of a Diogenes, a burr under the public saddle.

    I will try a post on A Time in Xanadu soon, later tonight.

  4. Yes, Middleton is indeed an extraordinary translator; his Faint Harps and Silver Voices is one of the most treasured things I own. That book of translations is brimful with wonders:

    Erinna to Sappho

    'Manyfold are the paths to Hades' says an
    old song- 'and one of them will be yours to walk,
    have no doubt about it!' Who Sappho sweetest, doubts it?
    Doesn't each day say the same?
    But the living aren't likely to take such a saying
    heavily to heart… Yet strangely may heart took fright today, listen!
    …This hairnet you gave me, when next we celebrate the flowery feast
    of Demeter's sovereign daughter,
    I wish to consecrate to her, on my behalf and yours,
    That she may favor us (for she is powerful)
    That you may not need to shear from your beloved head too soon
    The brown curl, in mourning for Erinna. [Morike]

    Marveling at the Old Masters,
    who painted boulders as bones of the earth
    and thin mists as the skin of hills
    …Where is The Farm By The Lake, fanned
    by a chevelure of trees and grasses?
    And where, in the snow, filtered through mist,
    The Lonely Village In The High Mountains?
    Search behind the penfold of the fire.
    War has baked all things dry
    in its kiln of death. [Huchel]

    You cities of Euphrates!
    Narrow streets of Palmyra!
    Forests of columns in the desert plain,
    What are you?
    Fume of gods
    And fire stript off
    Your crowns as you crossed
    The boundary of breath. [Holderlin]

    While Nicola Pisano is carving in Pisa
    reliefs out of the baptistery marble,
    evidently he knows there is a problem,
    behind every image another one is lurking.

    The depth of this intensity horrifies us,
    and isn't it strictly prohibited to dream
    of standing face to face with a final image?
    Or perhaps we dream of a breathing space
    being enfolded for a moment in a single image...
    before the storm breaks lose again with full force.[Gustafsson]

    Grand beginnings, too,
    Can come to little. But day in, day out,
    God wears a garment
    Wonderfully for the favor of man
    And his face hides
    From cognizance, and robes
    The air with art.
    And air and time
    Robe God the Terrifier. [Holderlin]

    Who made this path? Charcoal burners, fisherfolk,
    … All of them, none of them. We make the path together,
    you too, on a stormy day, on earth,
    be the hour late or early:
    we write the paths and they stick;
    and the paths are more clever than us,
    and they know all the things we wanted to know.[Gustafsson]

    it is time to stop it
    and bring the world home into words,
    dream, entrusted to breath, even in sleep
    silence reached
    along the graveyard path of language,
    Time, to give
    cherries back to summer, azure,
    and to let the sea roll over us,
    a strong rain

    Time, to be silent,
    to be, among the things, wordless,
    listen, when the world comes near to our house, at night
    in the speech of armadillos,
    untranslatable. [Meckel]

  5. Now there is a book for the next big library run. I did not know it existed. Thanks!

  6. No music before Bach? Get that man some Palestrina!

  7. I have met several Bach fans whose rhetoric is not so different, even if they know that Tallis and Purcell and so on exist. At least Gustafsson has the excuse of symbolism, although I will bet that he also means it.