Edith Södergran (1892–1923) was born in St Petersburg to Finland-Swedish parents; she later lived in an isolated Karelian village on the Finnish side of the Russian border. She published only six collections of poetry, in her native Swedish, before her untimely death from tuberculosis and poverty at the age of 31. Her bold, intense, sensuous and visionary poetry has made her a classic of Finnish literature. Her letters to her friend, the writer Hagar Olsson, were published in 1955.
Violet dusks I bear within me from my origins, naked maidens at play with galloping centaurs... Yellow sunlit days with gaudy glances, only sunbeams do true homage to a tender woman’s body... The man has not come, has never been, will never be... The man is a false mirror that the sun’s daughter angrily throws against the rock-face, the man is a lie that white children do not understand, the man is a rotten fruit that proud lips disdain.
Beautiful sisters, come high up on to the strongest rocks, wer are all warriors, heroines, horsewomen, eyes of innocence, heavenly foreheads, rose larvae, heavy breakers and birds flown by, we are the least expected and the deepest red, stripes of tigers, taut strings, stars without vertigo.
What is beauty? Ask every soul – beauty is every overflow, every glow, every overfilling and every great poverty; beauty is to be faithful to the summer and to go naked unto the autumn; beauty is the plumage of the parrot or the sunset that bodes storms; beauty is a sharp feature and an accent of one’s own: it is I, beauty is a great loss and a silent funeral procession, beauty is the fan’s light beat that wakes the breeze of destiny: beauty is to be as voluptuous as the rose or to forgive everything because the sun is shining; beauty is the cross the monk chose or the necklace of the lady has from her lover, beauty is not the thin sauce in which poets serve themselves, beauty is to wage war and seek happiness, beauty is to serve higher powers.
When you saw the face of happiness you were disappointed:
that sleeping woman with loose features,
she was the most worshipped and the most often named,
the least known of all goddesses,
she who reigned over the becalmed seas,
the flowering gardens, the endless days of sunlight,
and you resolved never to serve her,
Nearer again to you with depth in her eyes again trod pain,
the never invoked,
the best known and least understood of all goddesses,
she who reigns over the stormy seas and the sinking ships,
over the life prisoners,
and over the heavy curses that rest with the child in the mother’s womb.
Happiness has no songs, happiness has no thoughts, happiness has nothing.
Smash your happiness in pieces, for happiness is evil.
Happiness comes softly with the morning’s murmuring in sleeping thickets,
happiness glides away in light cloud-pictures over deep-blue deeps,
happiness is the field asleep in the glow of midday
or the sea’s infinite expanse in the bask of vertical rays,
happiness is powerless, she sleeps and breathes and knows of nothing…
Do you know pain? She is strong and great with secretly clenched fists.
Do you know pain? She smiles hopefully with eyes swollen from weeping.
Pain gives us all that we need –
she gives us the keys to the kingdom of death,
she pushes us in through the gate while we still hesitate.
Pain baptises the child and awakes with the mother
and forges all the golden wedding rings.
Pain rules over all, she smooths the thinker’s brow,
she fastens the necklace around the neck of the desired woman,
she stands in the doorway when the man leaves his true love…
What more does pain give her darlings?
I know no more.
She gives pearls and flowers, she gives songs and dreams,
she gives us a thousand kisses that are all empty,
she gives us the only kiss that is real.
She gives us our strange souls and curious likings,
she gives us all life’s highest gains:
love, solitude, and the face of death.
Translated by David McDuff
Published in Complete poems. Edith Södergran (Bloodaxe Books, 1984, 1992), edited and translated by David McDuff