SCOTLAND’S CLIMATE WEEK: New translations of Kjell Espmark by Robin Fulton Macpherson

The Glasgow Review of Books is proud to publish these translations of single, untitled poems from Hemfärd till glömskan (Homeward to Oblivion) the last, posthumous collection by Kjell Espmark, acclaimed as one of the most important poets of the 20th century.

All translations from the Swedish by Robin Fulton Macpherson – to whom we owe thanks for his generosity in sharing this work with us and our readers.

I am the Sami who was laid in his rock-grave,
arms and legs cushioned in birch bark.
Bear-spear and skis by me.
To reach down in the dark of the fathers
I have to give up
the glitter of the reindeer along the hillside,
the sparkle of the river
and the light of my woman's glance.
But how do I give up the Northern Lights
that fumble out heaven for me?
And how do I say goodbye to the snuffling bear,
my brother and my prey   -
for in his eye lives all my wonder. 

As if we could leave history behind!
The past hisses and bangs
like a rusty radiator in the present.
The house, built in 1908,
is here in the house where we breathe
and lays its old parquet floor
for steps that think they improvise.
On an uninsured summer evening
a swallow flies from the eighteenth century
right into the hall.
And Anna Ström still stands at her easel
in the room with strict north light.
Raphael's colours
have just entered hers.

The lost time is summed up
in the children sitting on the step,
both in blue and white T-shirts.
They play a reflection on Svensson's barn
to make the world tangible.
In their concentration they don´t hear
the blackbird's pinched warning.
And therefore don´t notice how
the woman behind them has just been erased   -
the open door is suddenly empty.
The scene has almost faded out,
a recollection exposed to years of light.

Time for departure.
I close and lock the barn door   -
never got round to mending it.
Winter can see to the roses.
I sweep a supervisory glance through the rooms,
that depth of white with grey-blue niches,
and a darkening mirror in the background
an insight painted by Hammershøi.

                     . . . High above,
plough after plough of migrating geese
leaving themselves behind themselves
                                   behind themselves.
Do you know the country
where everyone and no-one are simultaneous, 
alike as berries?
The country where oblivion has assembled its own.
There are no houses there,
only house-shaped absences.
And forests, mountains and sea
are painfully in place
by strength of their non-existence.
And of course there is whiteness everywhere.
The sky, lost in oblivion, is white.
And the rails running to nowhere
are white as the plain they've been erased from.
One can imagine humans as a kind of print -
their absence subtle and widespread.
The wind that's an absence of wind
breathes mercifulness.

The train is standing still,
frozen fast in history.
Small icicles hang from the power-lines.
The compartment gets colder and colder
as if for a long time
no-one had seen anyone else.
The landscape outside white in white.
Whoever hesitates a moment longer
in the parenthesis called life
and stares through the grimy windows
suddenly remembers
the first half of eternity -
just when he's thrown into the second.

Imagine a timeless moment, 
a fragment of August beyond August,
and love like a fugue of swallows
with no substance but only their flight   -
a sketch by Bach.
His notation foresaw everything,
also love beyond each substance.
Two flocks of swallows crossing each other
swerving abruptly and veering back,
sounding like a quick sneeze,
no thin screams, no wing-beats.

The late autumn evening is empty,
not even memory
of August or of evening.
But the fugue of weightless swallows.

Biographical notes

Kjell Espmark (1930-2022) was Professor of Comparative

Literature at Stockholm University (1978-1995) and member

of the Swedish Academy (1981 onwards). His poetry and

fiction have been translated into over twenty languages.

Robin Fulton Macpherson has spent fifty years in Norway.

His poetry has been gathered in two collections from

Marick Press (Michigan) and two from Shearsman (UK), and he has translated many Swedish poets, including

Harry Martinson, Tomas Tranströmer and Kjell Espmark.

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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is an online journal which publishes critical reviews, essays and interviews as well as writing on translation. We accept work in any of the languages of Scotland – English, Gàidhlig and Scots.

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