The return of Orpheus

Issue 4/1992 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

from Hid (‘Coming here’, Söderströms, 1992). A Valley in the Midst of Violence, a selection of poems by Gösta Ågren translated by David McDuff, was published by Bloodaxe Books of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1992. Introduction by David McDuff

No poet can endure
being dead, a sojourn without
meaning and method. He needs
order and rhythm. His poems
are really laws. He
always turns back
from the underworld, which resembles
the everyday.

The darkness hides the screams
around him, when
the way begins. The sun is
only black heraldry, only
a cavern in the sky
of stone, and he sees
it, without being blinded.

Then he goes, through the way’s
immobile, invisible lattice
from horizon to horizon.
An occasional whirlwind
of consciousness moves
through the journey, which is
what will remain.

The figures he meets
are shadows that remember
all that could have been.
Broken illusions are what we call
the only space in which we
are always free, can
always breathe, but those who
do not give up for lost what they have lost
will never attain it. He passes
a gateway, and continues in its
long, invisible arm. A gateway
never stops; it waits.
The darkness expands until it is
obscurity, no longer threat but
depth for all. Orpheus is like
a lonely child in a poem.
He is afraid. Perhaps there are
no dangers. Then there is
no protection against them

Then there is only

That is why he is not afraid
when the smiles begin to gleam
in the darkness, a swarm of knives,
slowly approaching. He knows
that he must go towards them
in order to escape them. In that
way we flee from all
that we cannot flee from:
by seeking it out.

In vain do we ask for names.
Only the myth can answer.
The particular is too
general. Orpheus runs
through the crowd of indistinct
demons created by that
reality whose innermost,
subatomic particle’s name
a scientist’s trembling hand
will one day write: Emptiness.

Now he is threatened by the total
consciousness, which exists
in the darkness in his body.
They strike him as
hatefully as though they
were striking themselves, his image
within them. He flees
by enduring. For
he must write his
poems. Only thus can he
silence them. When he
at last lies alone
by the roadside in the underworld
he gets up finally,
as though he were abandoning
the figure lying there,
and continues, continues
the journey.

The wordless autumn wind
puts people’s grief
into words. They themselves cannot
do it, for it is existence
that grieves, a nothingness
inside everyone that compels us
to torment, and be tormented,
so we shall exist so
intensely that being
drowns out the grief. Orpheus
sees the enemy, a
helpless one, and strikes him
in order to be freed from the blows
he himself has had to accept.
It was thus he became
their prisoner.

To walk through the north wind is
like pushing one’s way forward
between the ice-cold atoms
in a knife blade. What is it called,
the helpless voice that shouts
in the cold without doing so?
Love? No, love is never
helpless. It is an immense
bath-sponge that sucks into itself
everything, and thus, imperceptibly, becomes
everything. The one who holds fast
to his name cannot
accept life in any
other way than by
hating it. Orpheus is
helpless, but he is
Orpheus, and while

the sun thunders against the rockface
he meets Christ, here
and now a beggar
whose task is to
save people from
their insight that nothing
can save them. The kindness
his misery compels them to
shows that something else is
possible, if only
as the void in which it
does not exist. Thus may a haze
of mercy be wrapped
over facts. The ragged
figure walks slowly
onwards, total as a blind
judge. But Orpheus knows
that kindness is only part
of suffering, and they pass
each other without a word
while the sun burns
above the centuries.

His footsteps echo in the silence,
a monotonous leitmotif that
has got stuck. To
continue demands weakness.
His heart beats without resistance,
but Orpheus himself is strong.
He stops, he
turns round.

Who is she who is dimly seen
and vanishes inside
his gloom?

Now he knows: She is
a legend which no
narrator will tame. The
form he loves
he has himself sculpted.
Only if she becomes
real can he become
free. When one has waited long
the meeting
is a farewell.

The night closes society
and opens the stars.
Even in the underworld,
whose starless night
surrounds Orpheus’ brain,
fatigue can grow
into grace. That is why the
sparse band of people
he meets is peaceful
as a landscape,
but stubbornly, mechanically
as a series of copies
of himself, Orpheus
walks in the opposite

The gateway’s vault of clouds
and pillars of pines are
invisible. One sees only clouds
and pines. He walks out
into the unproven theory
that is called reality,
into the village where faces
turn towards him like
lanterns in the gloom. He
thinks of a poem about what
he is thinking of: these
people who move
through the village, dragging long,
impassive shadows. Now
they know again the result
of today’s work: tomorrow’s
work awaits. To endure
is a way to get strength
to endure. So
he thinks, and that is why
he does not shout that the one
who has walked long through
the underworld can only reject
everything, even this
meaningless gesture of
rejecting everything.

Instead the poem ends
like this: He comes home.

The air is motionless in the cottage.
Slowly, with movement after
movement, mother peels potatoes.
Is it poverty and illness
that stand still in here?

No, but she is choked
by an unsung song
of sorrow, our chance
to live.

That song aches like a child
without words. It is so hard
because sorrow demands love,
that immense hand
in our breast which no one
can reduce to fate.

The evening’s black, swaying
trees are the hams of slowly moving
herds. Inexorably
everything journeys.

Orpheus sings
of sorrow.

Translated by David McDuff


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