Monday, August 14, 2017

waves of our native soil

Summer weather forecast for Vaasa, Finland


The oarsman's bronze face
looks timelessly at the summer day.
A sculpture consists of darkness
that reflects the light. Accordingly
it is invisible. Really
only its existence exists, not
it itself. I know the oarsman
well; yet his face is
nameless. When a mountain breaks
among the clouds we turn homeward.
The black sound overwhelms
like the mother's booming pulsebeat
in the foetus. There is no defence
against defencelessness. Through the rain
we see the church towering above the
They punish their unbelief with belief,
says the oarsman. They believe
in what does not exist:
a life after this
and death.

(Gösta Ågren, from Jär (1988), translated by David McDuff as Standing Here (Kindle Book))


Jär's epigraph is these famous lines from "The Prisoner" by Emily Brontë: 

Oh! dreadful is the check, intense the agony
When the ear begins to hear, and the eye begins to see;
When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again;
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain.

"A Day at Sea" subscribes to Brontë's argument against heaven: life is only meaningful in connection with our world. Brontë uses the word "earth" to express the latter concept. For Ågren, the boat rowing across the low waves of the gulf of Bothnia (Östersjön) does as well, the thunderstorm a mother's heartbeat. This being the life without which there is nothing for us, we are both as secure as the unborn, and as defenceless.

And the oarsman's face, holding still as the boat glides, with the sun shining on it... this face is a sculpture, because it is timeless and because it is immanent in the world, it doesn't belong entirely to Ågren's friend, who after all does have a name. 

(Ågren has also mentioned that he is an admirer of R.S. Thomas, which seems like a good excuse for a Thomas poem with a sea theme.)



It is a matter of a black cat
On a bare cliff top in March
Whose eyes anticipate
The gorse petals;

The formal equation of
A domestic purr
With the cold interiors
Of the sea's mirror.         

(R.S. Thomas)


Neither of these poems mentions waves directly. But this is sophisticated poetry. In poems of national pride and patriotism waves are somehow important.

           Britannia rules the waves!

Partly this is something to do with the increased visibility or thereness of a land when you are at its border ("White Cliffs of Dover"...).  A coast makes an unmovable topographical argument for the unique identity of a place and its people.  And then, ever since the Athenians and probably long before. the coherence of local identity often begins with the exploitation of the sea as highway, harvest and battlefield.

With my English-speaking head on, I deplore patriotism and I see states as mere systems of coercion, discrimination and injustice... And in fact I agree with Gösta Ågren's tart aphorism, "If states really existed, there would be no need for borders".

But with my childish Swedish-speaking head on, I'm a helpless sentimentalist and patriot. Which is why, earlier today, I was reading the traditional county songs that appear in Sjung Svenska Folk! And the waves danced and glittered, visibly testifying to the inherent living spirit of each place. 

Känner du landet (SÖDERMANLAND)

Minns du den stranden, där Mälarens bölja
Suckar av kärlek och dansar av lust?

Do you remember the shore where Mälaren's waves
Sigh with love and dance for joy?

Ostgötasång (ÖSTERGÖTLAND)

Så grant står Östergyllen i sommarfager prakt,
Och skördarna, de gyllene, de bölja.
Väl hundra vita kyrktorn på slätten håla vakt
Längs insjöstrand, som glittervågor skölja.

So fair stands Östergyllen in summer beauty's splendour,
And its harvest of gold that swells up.
And a hundred white church-towers keep watch across the plain,
Beside the lakeshore where the glittering waves lap.

Bohusvisan (BOHUSLÄN)

I Bohuslän det gamla
Drog viking över våg
Att segerbyte samla
På dråpligt draketåg.

In ancient Bohuslän
Sailed the Vikings o'er the wave
To win victory
For the mighty dragon fleet

Hallandsången (HALLAND)

Vår kust nu ligger fager
Vid Västerhavets våg
I tidig sommardager
Med böljors glittertåg.
Jag älskar böljesången
Med dur och moll uti
Och doften ifrån tången
Där vindar dansar fri.

Our shore extends so fair
beside the Western Sea's* waves
In days of early summer
With the glittering of the waves.
How I love the waves' song
Its major and minor melodies
And the smell of the bladderwrack
Where the winds dance free.

*i.e. the North Sea, as opposed to the Baltic.

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