January 2009

Olivia Cronk

poetry

The Dream We Carry: Selected and Last Poems by Olav H. Hauge, translated by Robert Bly and Robert Hedin

“There is nothing so scary/ about grasshoppers sharpening scythes./ But when the troll’s flea whispers,/ be careful.”

Oh, Olav Hauge, sometimes I get bored when I read lovely lines made in and reflect insistently beautiful pastoral setting. Sometimes, I am tired of simple meat and the breath of seasons. But when I see within a line the gaping horror of the existential abyss, rendered miniature by a poet’s loving handling of language, well, then... I can buy that. Word.

Olav Hauge was a Norwegian farmer and gardener. He had an orchard in the town in which he was born, Ulvik. He read hungrily many types and tones of poetry. He translated. He labored on a small bit of land. In translator Robert Bly’s simple and respectful introduction, Hauge is portrayed as a man of gentle stuff:

During his late twenties, he spent some time in a mental institution. At sixty-five, he married the Norwegian artist Bodil Cappelen, whom he met at one of his rare poetry readings... He died in the old way; no real evidence of disease was present. He simply did not eat for ten days, and so he died... A horse-drawn wagon carried his body back up the mountain after the service. Everyone noticed a small colt that ran happily alongside its mother and the coffin all the way.

From here, the book begins. Bly is actually a co-translator with Robert Hedin, and they both have interesting stylistic idiosyncrasies -- part of the endless conversation about translation and creation and documentation. Can we simply jump languages? No. Do languages shape the way we perceive reality? Of course. Does this complicated mess have something to do with the insides of Hauge’s brain? Yes, yes.

This nice edition (bilingual, cleanly designed, soothingly severe) makes much ado about the connection between Hauge and the Chinese poetry he read and translated (i.e. “wrote”). I think this connection makes a lot of sense, but there are things here that are so distinct that the comparison slights both parties. Another notion that, to me, seems very useful is to consider the artwork of Andrew Goldsworthy (see some work here) who plays with the passing of time in pastoral setting, the knowing of place through its patterns, and a luxurious kind of minimalism.

Still, though, I struggle with this poetry. I feel like I haven’t read anything truly shattering in months. I worry that poetry is too easily turned into pillow-covers and crappy gift books. And I think our culture just loves to misinterpret the work of people like Hauge. We like his plainspoken, good horse-sense. “I, too, have stars/ and blue depths.” “These poems don’t amount/ to much, just/ some words thrown together/ at random.” “I stock firewood,/ keep my poem short.” See? It’s a little boring.

But, then, I think of these poems in a context. You can read Hauge’s work as a kind of guidebook, a manifesto. His life seems so tender in its thoughtful and excess-less trajectory. Bly’s introduction stresses this warm, pre-commercial lifestyle, this wonderful sense of the world as it truly is -- and the poems sit on that shelf. I don’t think there is any American season quite as vile as November to February, with our holidays and gout-like consumption, our ugly packaging, and our self-entitled pleasure-seeking. I would like to think that poets like Hauge gift us something a little better, something with troll fleas. I read this book, actually, on a holiday flight, unnaturally floating above the lower Midwest. I thought it was kind of hilarious to do such a thing. “One’s warmth/ collects/ in a small pocket.” I don’t know why humans haven’t progressed in the direction of the gift economy. Why don’t we use friends like Olav Hauge -- and Emily Dickinson and Lorine Niedecker and bower birds and wind -- to negotiate the abyss? Why do we accept false realities? Why don’t we barter with arts & crafts and song?

This is the dream we carry through the world
that something fantastic will happen
that it has to happen
that time will open by itself
that doors shall open by themselves
that the heart will find itself open
that mountain springs will jump up
that the dream will open by itself
that we one early morning
will slip into a harbor
that we have never known. 

Well, shit, I just don’t know. While “[l]ife is merciful,” blinding us and “provid[ing] illusions,” it is still, for all of us and for Hauge, a hunting for the grave. The grave “has no small window to the stars” and “a deer hoof/ would barely/ trip over it.” So, what we’re left with is probably just the need to mark things. Writers are part-Kilroy, part-storm; they show us how language and existence violently and hopelessly twist around one another. “Let us slip into/ sleep [Lat oss glida inn/ i svevnen], into/ the calm dream [i den logne draumen],/ just slip in [glida inn].” Can you hear all that? That’s Olav Hauge knocking at your door. He’ll turn your sleep into a loaf of bread, and he’ll arm the moon with a bloody blade. 

The Dream We Carry by Olav H. Hauge, translated by Robert Bly and Robert Hedin
Copper Canyon Press 
ISBN: 9781556592881 
128 pages