In the land of the living

Issue 4/1996 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

Poems by Arto Melleri. Introduction by Maris Gothóni

The airship Italia

Farewell, darlings,
General Nobile's sailing in his airship
to a glittering death...
whoever knows the journey's end
as he sets out is there already,
wafted on his wing-stubs;
farewell, doubters smiles on your lips
                                          like the imprints of horse-bits:
'he'll never get there this way'
'get there' – as if 'there' were
some place;
in one day you can only manage a day's journey,
it's more realistic, far more, to get the measure
                                          of Perdition;
farewell, darlings,
I'm off with him, his scrivener, I'm stretching
over the verge of tears towards boundless laughter,
the dignified business of tarring and feathering,
I'm making notes: this is a dream, a single night's
a sound mind's storming of the Bastille;
farewell, you who always know better
                                   what should be done than the doers, and how,
you don't do, you know, you put your hat on a shelf
called History, 
General Nobile's flying over the craters of history
northwards, northwards, and the sun's
                                   scoopful of molten tin
is about to splash in the cold ocean,
and the moon's a ball of camphor-soaked cotton wool
wiping the smoking sky,
farewell, darlings, there, flashing ahead,
are the crystal shores of Ultima Thule

From Ilmalaiva Italia (‘Airship Italia’, 1980)

The utopias

Swan keepers,
in freedom's name you
rule the roost, you long to keep for yourself alone
those arc-necked evening reflections
in the subsiding water
... at night you take care of the turkey,
plucked, in a dented meat-tin –
your part for the festive dining
With night falling, the swans
take wing, and you fish the shattering waves
for reflections with your fine-meshed
net: far out on the lake already
the swans are calling with cracked throats, and, blessed with a bit
                                   of luck, you escape wetting
They betrayed you, their keepers, and what
could you expect: everything's weighable in the market
            like wool, so that the scripture
be fulfilled: a ghost is haunting Europe
                                  without finding a country, a people, it haunts,
a ghost

From Ilmalaiva Italia (‘Airship Italia’, 1980)

The marks of little dirty hands

I'm looking out of a window with no curtains
 where a child has pressed his little dirty
                      hands and stood
on a chair waiting for mother to come.
Tumbled down.

A spring day, a blinder.
Mesmeric suggestion maintains
world order: in the beginning
was the covenant with the Devil, at the end
the balance of terror.
The forest stands silent against a haze of frost.

I gaze out of a window with no curtains.
We’ve not hope enough
to squander it.

From Ilmalaiva Italia (‘Airship Italia’, 1980)

The times of the world

A spiral, a spiral
I’ve sung till I’m dizzy,
but slowly the mussels shift

in the damp sand,
unknown continents I’ve sung,
shipwrecks, the heart’s secret waters:
when a storm shakes us,
they slop over, the face is a sieve, it sieves
clear water through coarse sand.

A spiral, a spiral
I’ve sung, I’ve suffered from an echoing
earache in an empty house, when time’s hammer
has sprained my ear without striking the anvil;
and nothing repeats itself, nothing
is linear, geometrical –
a dash put in the right place
muddles the whole sentence, leaving behind
a net cutting the flesh, the ribs, like bars
they arch.

The sun’s not yet risen,
but the night sky’s a sieve already, sieving
stars, a distant glow; beside this
disappearing moment, on the stavelines
of a melody sung for a single time,
I understand how fast the times of the world
wear through, as clothes wear through,
and the galaxies flutter in the rip
And if the tears dry, the face
is an alluvial plain, a filled-in grave.

From Zoo (1979)

You don’t see it with the naked eye

Fate's a kind of crab louse,
            something we don't see,
 something protected by its
                        invisibleness, its ordinariness,
becoming so familiar, so close
we don't even ask what it's called
And so fate comes (with a small f)
out of the inconspicuous and insignificant
 the image of both its qualities
                                   in everything
So that we don't see it
            with the naked eye, on lonely nights
we feel it like an itch on the skin
If you're looking for something
forget the whole thing

From Elävien kirjoissa (‘In the land of the living’), 1991

Sura of the shadow

He who hath no
shadow in himself
          A shadow to retire to
from the crowd of men
          A shadow, a shade, a secret spring
quietly purling
          A spring whose water heals
 the spirit's fever
is lost in the wilderness,
blinded by the sun,
condemned to credit
every mirage,
and every moment the desert sand
shifts its shape,
the city vanished from the map
is far away as ever

He who hath no shadow in himself
          A shadow, a shade, a secret spring
quietly purling
          A spring whose water heals
the spirit's fever

Unhappy he who hath no shadow in himself

From Elävien kirjoissa (‘In the land of the living’, 1991)

Translated by Herbert Lomas


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