Saturday, July 28, 2012

Wild apple-tree - Karin Boye

How is it possible?
How could it spring up, such lovely multiplicity,
such a fresh, fine and airy crown of flowers,
such a forest of wild, twisting branches,
such rugged bark, green with lichen,
the whole lot, all
from the same one little dark pip?
There it all lay –
stem, boughs, leaves and bark and bright flowers,
crowded together, within a heart-shape.

But we are the apple-tree’s reflection in the water.
From abundances without limit or bottom,
from our younger days’ airy, pale fruit-blossom,
from the hundred-ways forest of interwoven branches,
from the plain bark of an ordinary life,
we accumulate slowly,
till everything lies still, close, and sealed
within the heart’s core...
How is it possible?

(Karin Boye, from The Seven Deadly Sins and other posthumous poems, 1941)


This, along with the poem in my previous post, was what I translated during my recent week in Sweden.

It's curious how you can live with a poet's work for so long and then suddenly get an entirely different view of it. I have always accepted Karin Boye's five collections as a total body of classical work (in my head, if not in print, I've compared them with Horace's five books of Odes). It was only while working on these two late poems that I grasped what a dramatic stride forward the poems in The Seven Deadly Sins amount to. If anything, I had rather neglected this final collection. It was put together after her death, and, knowing this, I suppose I had it down as, comparatively, rather a ragbag. But now I realized that there was an intensity of connected thought in these two small poems that stood out as new to me. I'd read the poems before, of course, many times; I only saw the comprehensiveness of this vision when I started to translate them. Both poems describe a process of gathering total experience and mysteriously, in some inner chamber, bringing one's identity to birth. Boye now saw the psyche as a multiplicity, a store. The identity was a totality. There was also a terrific and terrible "breaking open" involved in this conception. It is impossible to detach the clarity of this vision from her suicide soon afterwards. While immersed in my translations I had always found the distinction between our identities starting to break down and merge; I welcomed that, it fascinated me. It was only now that I felt a tremor of fear. A feeling that I might not want to get too close to Boye's insights, that I do not want my life to end up too closely resembling hers.

Reading poetry is fantastic, but there's always a danger that it might bite back. Poems don't simply be: they mean stuff.

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