Troubled by joy?

30 September 1998 | Fiction, poetry

Poems from Boxtrot (WSOY, 1998)

Nine lives

So far nine lives only, and
all mine, like my head in my hands.
My first was curled up at the foot of a fir tree
in the autumn forest just at day-dawn
in nighttime's raindrops.
The resin's still in my fingernails.
My second was the scent of split wood by the shed,
and the circular-saw blade's horrific disc.
The gruel, track shoes too large, and President Kekkonen,
ink spreading across my notebook, and
the clank of the railway under my dreams.
Mayday's red flags, the neighbour's daughter
naked, and dead pigeons lying on the gravel.
My third life was the discovery of anger, blind rage
turning and turning me in its leather bag,
wearing the edges of my day down. Sitting at our schooldesks
being forced towards a goal that can't be named.
Seeing how they start drinking, drinking
into their eyes that black impotent rebellion.
I'm on the point of drowning, someone's traversing
the Atlantic in a reed boat. And if I did die,
it wouldn't matter who sneered. The stars in the sky
                     are watching us in horror.

My fourth life is when, quite clearly, I hear
the birds don’t care. And I begin to fly.
My first ‘you’ comes, fondles
my tonsillitis, reveals me, and we let
the eternal sand flow through our fingers. My mother’s plastic.
In the fifth life she’s already dead. I’m driving a car
along the forests and I decide I’ll
never start a factory. I decide to die like a cobbler.
When I can get my sons to make up a male voice choir.
When I’m a name, a lifetime and, if possible, a colour.
When I’m everything twelve times over.

My sixth life: and my goods have slipped into the sea,
I sit with my hands on my head.
In the firtree top a gypsy thrush
clutches Wednesday upright in its claws.
I start to grasp unclear speech, I decide
to concentrate on vanishing
and leaving a trail. I spray farmed foxes
to spoil their fur and make you
stop this school for the deaf and dumb.
I begin to write what’s not said.
I study how to say No
so that Yes may exist.

In my seventh I meet
my fifth wife who’s the first.
Neither of us can get ahead, we keep moving
on the spot. Did my mother birth me to kick
others? I write much faster now
less than before. This is the same.
You’re the same as you were before you were born.
The plastic card’s singing the same old tune.

Suddenly my eight and ninth lives
have got used to me, they shine a bright light
right in my eyes. I've so often read
the waters are poisonous, I can't
go to the shore any more. But now's the time
not to believe it. Today they won't cut
the electricity, your child benefit, or your throat.
You retain your throat, your electricity, your child benefit.
You can speak your mother tongue, Fatherland is sheer talk.
I write that A National Landscape is the name of a painting.
I write that the Defence Forces are ready for Attack.
I write that there's not enough God of their own for Everyone.
I write that in the Winter you can think about summer,
and when summer comes, before it comes
                     the snows melt off the bridge

and that a man can love a woman
                     without waving his arms about.

 

A prayer to small things

Holy Whole of the smallest things!
Thou the binary digit, manna and Lord God
of pencils,
matches
and paper clips!
Grant me the patience
to write one word,
just one word,
and if it’s inadequate
grant me at least the cheek
and the poker face
to set my hair on fire
and let my wisp of smoke
rise into a summer cloud.
Grant me the green wooden pencil
whose slim dark inwards of stone
contain everything I write to my darling,
grant me that minuscule match
that once swayed in great winds
under the blue sky,
and grant me a clip
to fix two ideas together.

O God who art infinite
and scattered
deep in the world’s coat pockets,
in the dimness of desk drawers,
coffers and pencil cases
and trembling fingers,
when the big battalions of large lumber
circle towards you,
show me your concentrated
power, clout and fury

and the hope that our hands
will never be empty.

 

Beautiful questions

Do you recognise the void that’s knocking at your door?
Did you owe something to the southwester?
Or perhaps you’d been misusing Vivaldi?
Did you bury your head in a dark window
when the bat whistled your name?
So why were you sitting on the stairs yesterday?
Or listening where the barking was coming from?

Pardon me for bothering you, but are you
going somewhere?
Would you mind letting me put the city lights on?
Are you interested in the enormity of the human population?
And what about those sentences from the one man
at the windy halt?
Where would the best place to wait be?
Can you see the red of evening striking
the round church tower over there?

Does little bother you?
Or at least a little something in it?

Do you cherish the world’s snow?
Has the trickle of a brook ever woken you?
What if we were to dig some mushrooms out of the sand?
Or what if you asked something of the mist?
Have you ever come across a gaggle of children clutching fistfuls of seashells?
Are you troubled by joy?
In the dark of the forest
do you hear small hearts pulsing?
Could you give a name to wonderful sounds no one can hear?
Have you held futility in the palm of your hand?

Have you stood on a rocky headland in an autumn storm
with the lighthouse beating through your head at five-second intervals,
and time just as short?
Have I fed you instructions about this before?

What carries weight is the thinnest of laths.

 

Septet to the Great Bear

Night's trailing its blue tongue,
     the lakewater's cracking its ice roof
                     with a vocal pulse
and, fallen from their path, a couple of clouds
                     are drifting the shores with snow.
A thin shriek,
     and a diamond writes
an icecrack like a sentence graved on a window

and the black signs on the earth's lines go silent

•

Manoeuvring three machines in a stone cleft
                    a caretaker's shifting
     the autumn leaves

•

The little one's sleeping.
     The eldest of the eider ducks has gone
          and come back again.

•

The littlest is eating her porridge herself.
     Most of it
          stays on the spoon.

 

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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