lay in my hand
by the river
an aspen leaf
In 1993 Rachel, the two girls and I came to the Indal valley in northern Sweden. We couldn't afford it, but my grandmother was lying in the hospital in Sundsvall and I wanted us to see her before she died. It was the end of July.
My parents were already at the cottage. Rachel and I slept in the outhouse between the woodshed and the toolshed. Kyli and Carmen shared a tent in the garden beneath the big silver birch that I had watched grow taller for many years. It already seemed old when I lay in the kitchen sofa, aged thirteen, and gazed at it after letting up the blind in the morning. Then it looked like a three-branched candlestick with green smoke, but now the candlestick was a mere emblem at the base of a hundred feet of foliage.
Once on the journey we pulled in at a lakeside. Many mosquitoes fell upon us as we tried to spread butter with a plastic fork. Clouds heavy with rain bloomed in the south. It was about 20:30. I watched the lake and saw how much it had in common with other lakes I had stood beside in other summers. Its pale gold surface seemed eloquent to human beings, and these evening scenes were frequently shown on postcards that I liked to keep as bookmarks. Yet this eloquence by saying one thing withheld another, for it distracted us from envisaging the cold creatures that drifted or swarmed on its other face. Later, I wrote this poem:
The lake is so still,
You could throw in it twelve wine-sweet cubes
& make a large, mild jelly.
Or rather, an aspic;
For the big pike would lie in suspension,
The pike you can't hook,
Would be caught in surprise.
In our damp, unheated house, renovation having ceased for lack of money, Rachel used to cry out against us going to Sweden. She always cried out as she resisted her plunge into depression. She argued with furious energy, knowing that I would not consent, knowing that she would consent, fearful of my grandmother's death. Then she would plunge, grim-faced, staring at the dirty walls. Everything was hopeless. The necessity of going to Sweden had fixed itself in my mind: it was for us, not for my grandmother. Only if we all go shall I finally belong to you: that was the kind of sentence I put together in the long, mistrustful silences.
And it had been a bad journey. A flickering electrical fault in Rachel's car had brought us prematurely to the credit limit. Somehow, I was still excited. At four in the morning, when the light seemed to have stalled from gathering strength, I fell asleep at the wheel and swerved. We were nearly at Sundsvall. Frightened, I puttered the car down the stony track to Fläsian, shaking the family awake. I walked down to the beach and walked back. Rachel roused herself and we drove inland. The road was instantly thick with mist, and nothing could be seen of the famous valley and its red and white villages.
I was watching the transparent shallows of the river, where grey and pink boulders threw the water into glassy curves. I thought I was alone, but then...
Berries in the river
That is an accident
Floating, lost to sight
Sacrificed to the god
The river scudded out of sight between lofty banks bristling with conifers.
In the garden of our cottage the trees were pine, birch, willow, rowan and aspen. The aspen were easy to recognize at eye-level because their boles were spotted with yellow lichen. Where the trees had been thinned out, the ground was covered in flowers. In the short summer most plants bloomed at the same time, although we never arrived early enough to see the lily-of-the-valley. There was zigzag clover, tufted vetch, spreading bellflower (which the Swedes call ängsklockar), harebell, catsear, ox-eye daisy, and the two kinds of cow-wheat that it had given me such pleasure to distinguish. In my first hour at the cottage it was necessary to observe these cow-wheats and to refresh my eyes with their different tones; then I had to walk into the wood and rediscover the lesser butterfly orchids (nattviol). If possible I liked to extract a whiff of scent from their fading flowers.
In our culture flowers are associated with fancy, with play, frivolity, festival, transience. Our conception of trees is different. We say that they "stand" or "shift", we consider their silence.
In nature, most are used to what they do.
So the trees bend & hiss in the breeze
A young sapling, an ancient denizen
(some such castellated word comes out)
Appear to our minds to follow similar laws of age
To our own. & hence we love trees,
Though what they resemble is idealized,
A man or woman alone,
Staying silent in company,
Massive, statuesque, unmoved or only swaying,
Grave, like a long-held philosophy
That defines virtue,
& makes you look after yourself.
Thinking through each impulse, which might hurt you.
Between the door of a Swedish cottage and the garden there is a bron. This is a verandah, a roofed platform where benches surround a table. It is where everyone meets to drink coffee on sunny mornings or on evenings when the conversation was of smoke: its success or failure in repelling mosquitoes. It is not a room but a piece of stage scenery designed for encounters and for drama, in short, for society. To sit on the bron is to claim a share in all transactions. It is to remember the thrill of clambering on a stage after a play or speeches. Alone on the bron when everyone else had gone away, I became conscious of my surroundings and of myself with unusual purity. This is one of the poems I wrote:
It's a rainy night. The light is on on the bron. All I can see on the black ground is a tangle of shiny grass.
Lights in the houses look sad, for the people do not go out, but relax alone. They accept it.
A sweet smell rises from the wet earth. My throat is sore, I'm afraid I'm getting a cold. I too am trapped.
I shall not see any more tonight than the gleaming grass in the garden.
And the other poems? Well, one of them was:
There are yellow spots before my eyes
For I’m looking at an aspen trunk.
And another one began:
To be in nature, is no more than
To have a vase of flowers on my desk
For now I am writing
Of a child laughing, & a woman crying,
& many, explaining their meanings,
In crowded red cafés in crowded streets.
The words are like blows...
We drove down the valley and into Sundsvall to visit Mormor. We hugged and kissed. She was confused by names: "Carmen," she murmured wonderingly, "Carmen" as if the strange name recalled something and she could fix it on her tongue at least for a while. "Kyli" she could not say. She was sleepy at first and later grew tired. I watched her with love and sadness while my mother chatted peacefully. Those who could understand smiled and laughed when funny things were said. Rachel watched her body language. "I think Mormor wants to sit up," she said. They cared for her.
In town we went shopping for clothes and fishing tackle. Muted gaiety filled the street, every year there seemed to be fewer people about, nevertheless it was still sommar, the boy in the village still rode his BMX around the plot all morning.
I paused to watch some singers...
Praising God in the marketplace!
With guitar & tambourine.
They are young, foolish, earnest.
I see my lover's fag-end
Burning in the doorway of a shop.
I drop mine & follow her inside.
I too was once ablaze with virtue,
I too praised the Lord, & I
Tremulously shooed the moneychangers
But in the end smoking & wanking
Led me away from that.
In the end I was too straight.
We went to shower in my grandmother's empty flat, one after another taking up residence in the bathroom. I became lost in Mormor's photograph albums, decades of pictures, many faces in the older ones, horizons were wider, parties and trips, I didn't know them. Gradually they all gave way to us, it became a record of us, the only daughter and her English family, our summer visits to Sweden, Mormor's autumn visits to England. And what about those older people? Were any alive or had they left any children? When were they last thought of or named? Where had they been when the men were spinning their hats on their sticks by the sea, or when a dark-haired mother helped her daughter to stand upright with tiny hands around fingers?
In one family picture, not so many years since, I stood next to a stranger. I puzzled - then recollected. How surprising that she should end up here! She had little to do with Mormor, or anyone now; all that part of my life had been forgotten.
The photo of myself in a beard
Walking in Sheffield Park
With a woman I don't recognize
Detains me. So that was you!
It is like seeing you for the first time
Not as you were
But as you were with me.
How neatly you were dressed (your shoes & stockings
- & that pink cashmere)
& how relaxed you seem!
You believed in us. I never did,
But looking at this picture
I see our lustrous appearance
The way you conceived it.
One drab evening
You signalled me to untie your bathrobe.
Oh! you were resplendent in white lace.
Yes, it was all appearance.
You wanted that to last.
I banned you from my house while
I tussled with that "damned thesis".
I drove home & flopped on the bed.
Nick was in. He was drinking heavily.
Later, after we'd split,
You screwed him & I went mad.
When Mormor came to the cottage we set chairs at intervals of a few steps up the path that rose past the door of the earth-cellar to the steps of the bron. The chairs sloped uncomfortably as if they would tip; they were not much use and she didn't stop for a rest. With her daughter's arm around her she walked with majestic slowness. I thought of her walk later as my father, Kyli, Carmen and I descended the vertiginous wooded slope to the river, carrying our rods pointed backwards like the bobbing tails of birds. We emerged from shadow and crossed the river road onto the warm rocks that were almost islands; we dreamed and fished for a couple of hours. I spent one of them working along the bank to free a snagged spinner, passing my rod from one hand to the other around alders and willows. My father wanted both the girls to catch a fish during their holiday. Kyli had already taken a pike at the hidden lake, so when he felt a pull on the line after his cast, he said to Carmen: "Could I have a go with your rod, please? Mine just needs reeling in." Kyli and I were downstream; Carmen hurtled over the rocks, wild with excitement, to show us her grayling suspended from a bent withy. But on the way back she said quietly to me: "I didn't really catch my fishie. It was already caught but grandad didn't know and he gave me the rod." I said that pulling it in was what mattered. That was called "playing" the fish. "He put up a tremendous fight," said my father. "I've never seen anything like it."
Rachel had been sketching Mormor but she wasn't happy with her drawing. My grandmother's face had become lopsided since one cheek had been drawn out like an insufficient length of curtain material when a growth had needed to be removed. Her face no longer expressed her character in a simple way, but distorted it a little. Rachel couldn't understand why we had chosen to desert Mormor on her only day at the cottage. I couldn't explain myself or excuse myself. I had never even properly learnt to speak my grandmother's language. We were really strangers in this country.
A hammock slung between a birch & pine.
See how the birch emulates the pine,
Ascending along a nearly parallel line
Between the earth's pull & the sun's light.
But the poor birch cannot avoid
A few bends & curves, true to its nature.
I do not know if the birch is humble.
Often my family did not do anything really new during their stay at the cottage. There was a program of work that needed to be undertaken, especially on arrival and when packing up. At some stage a bonfire would be needed.
There was also a ritual series of visits. Some were to neighbours, but these were becoming rarer because people moved or died. Others were to places that were heavy with family tradition, beautiful places but they had taken on a significance that made the beauty unimportant.
Here too there was change, and we no longer went to the dam at Sollefteå to see logs crashing through a narrow chute in rainbowy spray, or big shadows of salmon flicking their tails in the tanks. Timber wasn't floated down the river any more. Here too there was change, the pattern of visits changed, but their main purpose was to celebrate permanence, which could be shared.
This is how those of us who stayed behind in England would eagerly question the others: "Did you go to Norrsjön? And Döda Fallet? Did you catch trout in the stream?" A conversation would follow in which we would discuss which of the lakes was which, and whether what one called Återsjön was what another thought of as Nöttjärn. Or Näveråstjärn - no, that was the name of the hidden lake - no, that was called Brännostjärn. But which was Näveråstjärn, then? Inadequate description would follow, and the one who stayed in England would say, sighing, "I don't think I have ever been to that one." It was comforting to invoke the instant and vehement denials, the assurance that you had been there many, many times, and caught fish there. We went back to these places because all of us had been to them.
The lakes were really very difficult to describe, because the land and vegetation were unvaried above the valley. Perch, cloudberries, bilberries, sundew, boulders, trees, dark water. Only memory could discern the different atmosphere of each spot. It was years and events that made distinction; when the ceps flourished, or when someone lost a boot in the boggy fringe of a tarn.
In this spirit I took Kyli and Carmen with me to Norrsjön, to a promontory visited only by us and hard to locate from the timber road. It was one of our oldest shrines, more than twenty years since I first went there, and I had to look for a reason - yes, it was a good place to swim. So I swam, but the girls didn't. It was cold and rainy after all. Unusual rain fell this year, and we saw the lingon berries in a few places rotting before they ripened. But rain never seems to last when you are outside.
After a shower,
The kitchen window looks scribbled.
It gleams with a complexity of sun & leaves
& silver spots.
Showing nothing clearly,
It promises a clear evening.
The rain stops & the sky clears
But at night the Indal makes its own weather.
A great cloud of mist rises white over the woods;
There's no view from the bron, & it's bedtime.
The sound of Rachel in the outhouse,
Pumping up the double mattress,
Water still dripping slowly from the roof,
& a dog barks.
I leaned against a pine
That caught the red sunshine
High up on its trunk
& was stained pink.
Across the valley, sunset
Is wavering at
The crest of their hills.
It sheds light through the walls
Of nothing & mosquitoes
That whine from the shadows
Of bilberry leaves
& cranesbill leaves.
Trudging home at night
I had started to forget
That the homeless cannot
Repay another's debt.
Birch, pine & spruce
Are dark beneath the stars:
Lean near to giant stones;
They are like the earth's spines,
Or like unfinished homes,
Cement & beams,
Things that someone planned
Who now sleeps on the ground.
Spruce, birch & pine
Divide around a stone.
They march to the valley
As I do, but more slowly.
They brood. These hosts
Have crowns on their chests;
They come to a lake
Or a lorry park;
They make places to live,
& at night feed the stove.
The birch does not know
That it fills the window
That its leaves fill the glass
Like water in a pool
Agitated by bathers
That a length of its trunk
Splits the space into two
The birch knows
It must fill the air
With sunturned leaves
To drink the daylight.
It knows little of the people
Who let it grow up
This close to their home.
Sneezewort is tranquil.
Its ray-florets are like
The crinkled hem
Of a soft pillow
Kept in the quietest cupboard
Long after the children
Became men & women.
Its grey-downy buds
Narrow to grooved stems.
The leaves at the junction
Of stem with stem
Bend back to sun themselves.
There is gracefulness in the later age.
For a few years, it's just
Like a day in late August.
In that time
Narrowness is fineness.
There is something overpowering
About wood-vetch by the timber road.
The flowers seem too heavy
For the plant that bears them.
I am trying to remember
What they are like,
& I haven't remembered yet.
Was it pasta? Was it blouses?
Or a big summer wedding?
I have looked once more
& they seem different.
I do not think my memory matters.
It is evening in the woods
At the moment when darkness
& a heavy footfall
Warns of an animal
Larger than we are.
Now that could be bear
Though it's probably elk.
We do not speak.
Above the valley
We reached the flat ground
Where pines grow among moss.
As the light faded
We found lesser twayblade
& lost the path
From which we had wandered.
(Rachel is thirty-six
& I am thirty-four.)
Where there are two
There is a civilisation
Although it is tiny
It is enough
At the moment when darkness
I thought I had escaped
& life seemed to have no meaning
Above the struggle
Above the tension
That knots our stomachs
There is my element,
Those dark, turbid waters
Borne along by fear
By dank toil in the weeds.
There, life has meaning.
But here, we hauled life from the waters
Shining on shining lures.
The river's long run
Has acquired what perhaps it caused:
The tragedy of the crofters on its banks.
Beneath the froth of laughter, weddings,
There is a strong deep current
That is unhappy,
That steers to disaster.
Sucked into one's own mind
Between insurmountable banks,
& weary, angry & sour,
Alone, one screams & gestures,
Curses, blasts & hates,
Lanced through the stomach
As one struggled uphill
By the reasonable ones.
See deep through the froth;
It is not froth but
Tumbling flakes of shit
You swear them to the stars
You see them in the scrubby
Beetle-shredded alder on the banks
This time you will escape,
You aren't yet blackened enough
To be dignified by the river's cruelty,
To set out oarless
With no part of your soul
Held in reserve.
The promise of joy
That we encountered in youth
That was an illusion
It was promised by no person
Who could make good the boast
They had nothing to give after all.
I don't know why
I remember the promises
With fondness for the dead
& lust for the absent
Not as they are now
For we are all departed
Nor as they were then
When all they managed was a promise. A casual, shitty lie.
But as if the promise came true!
In the never-was never-will-be
Dream that I make out of sensuous fragments
That my heart collects
No-one but I
Remembers these concoctions.
Don't turn to nature.
Heartless, mindless nature:
What can it give you?
The beauty you imagine there
Is composed of symbols
By your own creative eyes.
What good are symbols
To the needy?
But turn to people;
Though their minds have little knowledge
& their hearts have little love;
Though it's only with reluctance
That they give you anything
(For it's more pain to them
Than it's happiness to you).
But turn & show yourself
In sorrow & dirt.
There is nothing elsewhere.
This time, you will try to speak better.
Laziness sweeps over me...
The long, slow sound of the wind
Reminds me of summery gardens in the north,
Bare feet on the lawn between the currant bushes.
& you are Guinevere, Patroclus & Time,
Beneath the dying birches.
You are lovely, half-sleeping as I am.
It is heaven, which is never very populous,
& I haven't the smallest idea what's in your mind,
Nor you of what's in mine.
Strange pit, stringy sweat,
Where the elbow beats on the moist sheets.
Heaven is not entered by the rich.
I am angry all the time.
I wish my body could be sacred,
Floating in the aquarium of your mouth
While my mind is cornered, killed & broken up.
Each spruce is like a maid or matron,
A little girl dressed up to wait at a feast
With many plates of fancies, with many arms.
But the spruce is sombre, though its shape is festive.
Behind the new green is the old green,
Which is heavy with lichen, & whose cones have fallen.
Underneath the spruce it's so dark
That there is only moss & a little coralroot.
Down there is the spruce's larder.
Yes, one must manage a little to eat
When one sets plates down, & raises spirits up;
When one jumps up, to bend down in an embrace.
After the restaurants & the cabaret
& the blackjack shuts down,
Then the liner becomes calm,
Ploughing the North Sea, the old line
From Gothenburg to Harwich.
Passengers begin to lose their inhibitions
& to sleep publicly,
Heads aslant, mouth agape,
In the seated areas.
They were still playing "Strangers in the Night",
Like when I sailed twenty-five years ago.
Does death come so slowly?
Do ages disappear over the horizon so slowly
That no-one sees them go?
The others in the cabin are sleeping.
We are at the front of the ship
Which has sailed into a North Sea squall.
I can hear the crests of waves
Spatter, or rather splatter, outside. The ship plunges,
I feel heavy & then light,
My body corkscrews with the ship
& I begin to feel scared.
I'm too drowsy to get dressed
Though I'd like to go out on deck:
Perhaps I would be refreshed
By the wave's explosive crest.
The body of the wave
Smacks the ship sideways
With a great deep clang, or rather a boom.
The wave slaps the ship on its hull
& flares ferociously white
In the windows of the closed club.
There is nowhere open to buy coffee now,
Just me & the sea.
One minute I'm exalted & the next depressed.
When musical instruments shine
That is a sign
Of the sharp clear sound
They would make if you could play
You must be starved of music
To hear its light
To hear it agitate
The dust in your heart
To feel your blood
As a sparkling cloud
23. Red Clover
We had a dream
To ravish the moon
To touch with our 3-fingered hands
The distant moon.
She is cold & pale, but
We would muffle her in red.
Where the trees grow
We cannot grow
Where the clouds fly
We ascend too weakly.
Our bodies exhaust us.
We scramble in the field
Until the snows come.
After digging down sewage,
I hastily rinse my hands
& come to drink coffee
Seems taken from the blackness of the stove,
It seems to be cleansing
- Yes, rinse away your passion -
No germs surely could survive this acid shower.
Its grounds are scourers.
It invigorates us,
Taken moderately in thin cups
At this time in the morning
Its hot bitter strength
Will hammer a timetable to the sunny day.
Music fills the garden
I look up from the bron
To see the children dancing
I hope they will go on
For it’s the opening statements
Of Brahms’ 4th symphony
Grave, sorry & splendid.
They dance the second melody
Like deer behind the rocks
& the third melody
Like hunters in the trees
But just as they are reaching
Kyli runs to the tape recorder
& rewinds (as if she was Brahms).
They dance again.
They dance all summer in the trees, rewinding the tape,
& the big bird never comes
With its huge wingbeats
The ecstatic drop
& the silence.
I hope they
Will go on
Partners play a game
Of making a home
With happiness inside.
How can it be inside
When it isn’t outside?
They comfort each other
but comfort isn’t joy.
Comfort is compensation
For joy that never came.
I pity you, my partner,
Scrambling in the woods
Like a pale little worm.
I am sick of playing the game
About comfort & joy
Which are not the same.