Category Archives: Translation

Swedish Poetry



I would like to give my heartfelt thanks to Robert Gard for his conscientious labours in single-handedly translating every poem included in this Swedish poetry supplement, all the more so as I have been trying  for several years now to find translators from any of the Scandinavian languages.


Robert Gard is a translator based in Cambridge, England. On indefinite loan from his home state of Alabama, he completed his B.A. at the University of Pennsylvania, subsequently taking graduate degrees in Classical Arabic from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Cambridge. Meeting his Swedish wife led to an interest in Scandinavian languages from which he has yet to recover.


Edith Södergran: Eight Poems

Edith Södergran


I am no woman. I am neuter.
I am a child, a page and a bold decision,
I am a laughing ray of scarlet sun …
I am a net for all voracious fish,
I am a vessel for all women’s honour,
I am a step toward chance and ruin,
I am a leap into freedom and the self …
I am blood’s whispering in man’s ear,
I am a fever of the soul, the flesh’s longing and denial,
I am an entrance sign to new Edens.
I am a flame, searching and brash,
I am a stream, deep and fearless,
I am fire and water in forthright union, free from
xxxxxxxxxxxxxconditions …


Stay the course against superhuman currents,
the whirling brink of madness, –
stay the course against the fall’s exultant waves,
they destroy.
Be careful – here you no longer matter –
life and death are one before power’s frenetic joy,
where “slowly”, “carefully”, “try” are banished.
Stronger hands grasp your oar in their flight.
There you stand, a hero of reborn blood,
ecstatic in the stillness, a pyre of joy on radiant ice,
as though death’s command weren’t written for you:
blessed waves bear forth your keel.


On foot
I had to transverse the solar system,
before I found the first thread of my red
I now sense myself.
Somewhere in space is my heart suspended,
streaming sparks, shaking the air
for other boundless hearts.


My iron heart wishes to sing its song.
To compel, compel
this tide of man,
to shape, shape
humanity’s great mass
into a joy unto the gods.

Swaying easily in the saddle we come
anonymous, without care, strong.
Is it the wind that bears us forth?
As mocking laughter our voices ring from
afar, afar …


Stars ascend! Stars throng. Singular
A thousand hands lift the veil from the face of the
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxnew age.
The new age gazes down at the earth: molten
Madness flows slowly in the hearts of men.

Gilded foolishness embraces humanity’s threshold
xxxxxxxxxwith the passion of fresh tendrils.
Humanity opens its windows to a new
Humanity forgets all here below to
xxxxxxxxxlisten to a voice singing from on high:
Each star casts with brash hand its pittance
xxxxxxxxxupon the earth: jingling coins.
From every star contagion draws over creation:
the new disorder, the great joy.


I sense death’s shadow.
I know our fates lie heaped upon the
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxNorns’ table.
I know that not a single raindrop sucks itself into
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxthe earth
without being written in the book of eternity.
I am sure as the sun shall rise,
that I shall never witness the breathless moment,
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwhen she reaches her zenith.

The future casts upon me its blessed shadow;
it is nothing but streaming sun:
pierced by light shall I die,
and having lain sheer chance beneath my feet, I shall
xxxxxxxxxxxxxturn away from life smiling.


Are these poems? No, just rags, crumbs,
everyday scraps of paper.
Tantalus, fill your cup.
Impossibility, impossibility,
dying I finally cast the wreath from my
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxhair into your unceasing emptiness.


I live red. I live my blood.
I have not denied Eros.
My red lips burn upon your cold sacrificial
I know you, Eros –
neither man nor woman,
you are that force,
which sits crouched in the temple,
and rising, wilder than a scream,
more savage than a flung stone,
casts striking words of exhortation
from the door of the almighty temple.

Edith Södergran (1892-1923) was born in Saint Petersburg to a Swedish-speaking Finnish family and came to epitomise the triumph of art over the dire circumstances of its creation. Her work, though poorly received  within her lifetime, came to be hailed as effecting a literary breakthrough, with her first collection, Dikter [Poems] (1916), being among the earliest exponents of expressionism in Swedish and the first written wholly in free verse. Shortly after her debut, revolutionary upheaval saw the family’s finances ruined, precipitating their settling in the Karelian village of Raivola (modern-day Roshchino). The region soon became embroiled in sustained armed conflict. However, despite a climate of violence, ever-worsening poverty, and a profound artistic isolation, Södergran produced three more books of poetry before succumbing to tuberculosis.


Elmer Diktonius: Seven Poems

Elmer Diktonius


There is little
I wish to take with me
to the other side –
just a child’s face.
And when he has finished his thunderous sermon
on my heretical thoughts and my
hellish way of life
I’ll bring forth from my heart that worn medallion
with the dark-curled youth
and stick it
in his frail hand.
Those bushy eyebrows
still quivering with rage
will be lowered and raised and lowered
and raised until he says:
we are both
two sentimental old asses –
go in peace my son!


Men move
along the icy metal roof
50 meters over the ground.
With heavy zinc sheets
in frozen fists
nimble as cats
they press their feet
against the steep-sloped surface,
hop over abysses
where death lurks
in the guise of thin air
and gravity –
on a foot-wide ridge of roof they walk
with blue-frozen faces grinning
in the red winter sun.
Gods? film actors? prophets
who fashion new miracles
for modern bibles? –
no: workers
who do their jobs
for a pittance.


The white night is coming.
Or it won’t come – it is here. Imperceptibly it has come, hush!-tiptoe-creeping – heaven’s forge just now glowed a castrophic red – I look up: sunless, yet it’s light, the light is here, cotton-light.
Things now have soft corners. Quietly I take forth my direst howling memories, all the heart’s poisonous centipedes – I dared not touch them in the sharp light of day – but now, now everything is forgiven, and everything forgives.
There are no shadows, just a gloaming. Yet even in the white night the twilight gleams like the chiaroscuro of the great brethren of colour; the murderer on the prison pallet lies enhaloed, and the Christ child’s cruel cross is set with dull stars.
Neither lust nor pain stirs my blood, neither can I throw together questions nor answer them with poetry – a heap of warm, transparent white fog I float passively joyous through everything, not evil not good – a piece of the white night.
A rustling in the treetop, a breeze over the lake’s silken surface – and contentment washes over me, fills me like warm wine, casts the old I in my lap newly-washed – and with it one more memory, a hopelessly sentimental yet hopelessly dear stump of verse from another white night long ago:

xxxxxxxxxxxxx How fun and free is it to live
xxxxxxxxxxxxx when white nights spread forth their light
xxxxxxxxxxxxx and trembling mist from mires drawn;
xxxxxxxxxxxxx How fun and free is it to live
xxxxxxxxxxxxx one wants to die – but with soft sigh
xxxxxxxxxxxxx o’er the earth steals life’s new dawn.


Just now –
in this hellish heat,
in this cascade of sun
which cuts down, sweeps away,
almost slaughters everything
in its benevolent embrace –
some workers
bearing heavy brick burdens
on their shoulders
along precarious scaffolds
floor after floor
They are barefoot
and their naked feet
leave wet traces
They hardly think.
They are but sweat
and a strength that carries.

Yet I think:
it’s good you stengthen yourselves –
for the task to come.
Good that your tanned bodies
are muscled and hale,
good that you learn to walk,
bearing such burdens,
You do not think –
but you are a symbol,
an image, a sign
of mankind’s progress
through the working class.

When the hellish heat ends,
in your steps,
from your sweat,
shall life’s flower bud
as never before.


Tonight I shall sing,
news of the dawn I bring:
brothers –
Red sun draws nigh
and with creator’s zeal foments
all to utmost fervor.
But this I tell you:
beware the red mist
preceding the sun’s approach!
It sows confusion
and slips the foolish seeds of the fanatic
in your all too fiery
Keep cool heads! –
only sharp eyes
see through the smoke phantasms
the future’s form.
Set with steady hands
that bridle of ice in the creature’s mouth –
and the earth shall finally be plowed.


A boat,
a cloud,
a sun-polished inlet.
You, sea,
and I,
and something youthfully violent,
Timeless and time.
How my wise ears
softly detect
the echo of maturity.


The poor dragonfly
struck a branch and lost
a wing.
And crawls, the wretch,
up the blade of grass
with helpless feet.
And falls down
glittering –
Jesus Christ:
never have a dragonfly’s
wings so shimmered!

Elmer Diktonius (1896-1961)grew up bilingual in Helsinki, but his reputation rests on his Swedish output. As a young man he studied to be a composer. However, the critical rejection of his musical settings of 19th-century poetry coincided with his finding an artistic mentor in the revolutionary socialist Otto Wille Kuusinen. Imbued with revolutionary idealism, having also become an early admirer of Södergran, he devoted his life to writing. His early work displays a radical anti-aestheticism, typified in his debut collection, Min dikt [My Poetry]. In 1928 he founded the influential, albeit short-lived, literary journal, Quosego (1928-1929). Suffering from long-standing alcoholism and Alzheimer’s disease, Diktonius passed away in a psychiatric hospital in Sipoo.


Gunnar Björling: Nine Poems

Gunnar Björling


The world like a spring day, – white islands. Quiet willow and haze horizon. A grouse amid the thaw; sparrow and river.


Roar: one blood-stilled! The leaves in resurrection light. As brides in myrtle and red the October maples. God’s slaughtering sun beams low like an airplane; my cliff’s edge bears lambent icy triumph. Hymns the leaf-thinned lindens.


A cluster of rowanberries. A steaming autumn sea, a shroud that trembles and breathes. Sun strikes the bier covers. Sighs follow the shore. Golden radiance darkens around anguish-brown islands.


Sea and elm.
xxxI am an autumnal sea with sun which conceals itself and through the crevice of the clouds is reflected in the waters’ wide herring trough. I lie darkly deep and the sun’s reflection.
xxx I am a bare elm, a network of nerves: man, etched into the sea, extending atennae, protesting, and nobly mute.


And all was extinguished, and my gods burst into pieces.
I came to you, I know not who you were.
I came like the night’s breeze;
I came, like you: you had come!
I came as the God of joy when answers are doused
and a question burns.
I came as a storm, as a deluge I came
and bitterly you lit
the new morning for my eye.


Grotesque is your armour. You lie in drops of blood, a fish washed ashore, and say: my gills see the sea. And you burst your gills.
The fish see this: in endless gills is the sea.


Lucent, snakelike
man like a white
in his red pullover. Geometry
has drawn up confusion.
in everyone’s mouths,
jazz, you teacher
with rose-red free regret!


In you
hell is tendrils of light.
On Satan’s spavined horse you rode into paradise.
– Herr Jesus let Satan’s tumbril roll whip humanity
like carthorses!

You fire-mad rider.
Bellows more windless heave ash and powdered blood,
wash yourself
with swine bile!
Thick-hided rider
like a rat pup!


No one’s
mouthful of laughter,
great sorrow.
See the woman and the policeman hot dog cart child,
what crazy eyes you paint
with your feet.
To be packed into a triple-sized crate sent
to the final railway station
to a place for what becomes of us.

Gunnar Björling (1887-1960) was influenced by his philosophical studies at the University of Helsinki. He subsequently became a schoolteacher and worked as a telegraphist for the Whites during the Finnish Civil War before committing to writing. Working from his basement apartment in Helsinki, Björling reflected the influence of  expressionists such as Södergran and Diktonius, the moral-relativistic concerns of  Henri Bergson and Jean-Marie Guyau, and the philosophical mysticism of Tolstoy and Nietzsche. His first two collections, much like Diktonius’ early production, tended toward the aphoristic and proved challenging even amongst his peers. As the avant-garde author and critic Hagar Olsson said of his work: “Björling doesn’t write Swedish, far from it: he simply writes Björlingese.” His open homosexuality likely furthered this existence at the margins, both artistically and socially.


Rabbe Enckell: Seven Poems

Rabbe Enckell


Each night all mankind go to rest,
remove their clothes,
stand naked before themselves.

Each night as by witchcraft a cloth is spun
to be borne,
and none know how the shirt was worked into
desire and pain,
into cold and warmth,
how it was woven of chains and light
into a single piece.

And the garment shall be borne
till every bit is worn away
till thread by thread every pain, each desire
frays apart.


At your berth you lie at anchor.
Yet already you have raised the ensign high
and await the wind and weather.

You wait, squint into the distance,
searching for signs, when suddenly
you feel
how imperceptibly you are borne by calm,
drift without wind and current,
drift with anchor cast,
out upon endless calm.

And you call after sailors who lie
safely in port with sails furled,
but they too drift imperceptibly
out upon endless calm.

And there comes a wind which fills
your sails and you weigh anchor with spirits raised,
and yet, you feel how you drift, drift
out upon endless calm,
far away, bereft of aim and meaning.


I had an arrow
yet never found a bow to shoot.

So I took the arrow, tied it to the stem
of a young plant
so to support its delicate shoot
against the light.


sun-drenched colossus
doesn’t scare me.
I have seen
the Finnish hillside’s
grey barn,
its templelike
toward the spring sky’s endless


Rain’s grey vespers ring
in the forest.
My lantern burns
like my heart.
The evening answers with a great stillness
which leans in.


In moon-soft stillness
winter’s whispering plow tills the forest.
Yet in the air – bitter as resin –
is discerned a waft of spring – freely perceived.


In Rome the heat circles in dry limestone air,
the eye is blinded,
and the soul’s fabric disintegrates at the hem.

In the shadow of the archway I stand as on a buttress
against the sea of sun and the well’s splash reaches me
with din and voices from life’s dark, protean
xxxxxxxxxxxxx faces.

All the flaunting baroque sags like chrysanthemums in the heat.
Time evaporates imperceptibly
like the marble basin’s moisture – absorbed and constantly
xxxxxxxxxxxxx renewed.

There behind the drapery a church nave’s coolness
and the body’s longing slinks in like the lizard over chastened
xxxxxxxxxxxxx stone.

Rabbe Enckell (1903-1974) released his first volume of poetry, Dikter [Poems], in 1923. This and other early works reflect a preoccupation with observations of nature. Beginning with 1935’s Tonbrädet [The Sounding Board] his verse began taking greater recourse to motifs from classical antiquity, a development which reflected, in his own words, his “love of myth’s profound humanity and a wish to relate personal experience via its objective forms and deep-seated truths.” This aesthetic shift became further manifested in the release of Orfeus och Eurydike [Orpheus and Eurydice], the first of several classically-inspired verse dramas. In addition to composing verse, Enckell engaged in considerable critical polemic in his later years; upon the death of Björling in 1960 and Diktonius the following year, he felt a reponsibility to defend the legacy of early Finnish-Swedish modernism against its dismissal by a younger generation of artists. In addition to writing, Enckell worked as a visual artist and became the subject of a retrospective exhibit in Finland shortly before his passing.


Pär Lagerkvist: Five Poems

Pär Lagerkvist


Plagued by visions
I seek the dark.

Yet in the darkness
haunted by the white

bones which snake
within my body;

gleaming they ascend
from my feet,

and crooked creep
over my chest,

a ghost groping
within my flesh.

Anguish, O anguish!
Thus grope the dead

about their graves
rotten in the soil!

Devil! these my limbs
you need not fatten,

for within me
you have given death!


I know that beyond that which I dimly suspect
are new things, more strangely sublime
than those I held astonished in my hands.
I know. And I am wealthy like no one else.
These cryptic things I hold in my hands,
whose brothers await me in hidden lands.


The world is just you and me and earth.
I wish to live for your great beauty’s worth.
For all your garden’s quiet lillies’ worth.
The world is just you and me and earth.


My wanderer’s stave has broken,
my wandering days are through.
I dwell among my fellow man,
another amidst you.

Towards desolate, lighted summits
I was guided, but by whom?
From there I glimpsed the fair world.
I turned back to my room.

In the fields the proud rye ripens,
and the people reap the grain.
I harvest like these others,
and draw my plow again.

Worn by my hand and broken
this is my wand’rer’s stave.
I have made my peace with him
who such a thing once gave.



The lion’s pelt over his shoulder cast
man goes forth to an imagined triumph.
Yet bare, blasted is the arena of late
and in ruins Caesar’s colosseum.

Once lauded, now by the world forgotten,
the hero struck down by Achilles’ fate;
his deed forgotten, the savage beasts slain,
one thing recalled: the martyr’s te deum.

Pär Lagerkvist (1891-1974) grew up in the southern town of Växjo. Though raised in a devout household, he began to shed his faith during his adolescence, finding instead a passion for leftist politics and a burgeoning desire to write. A year at the University of Uppsala preceded a decade largely spent living outside Sweden. During this time he became acquainted with Picasso’s cubist works, an introduction which precipitated his primitivistic 1913 manifesto Ordkonst och bildkonst [Literary Art and Visual Art]. Lagerkvist’s poetry took on a more intensely expressionist character in 1916’s Ångest [Anguish] wherein he experiments with limited free verse techniques alongside rhymed, metrical verse. Employing traditional forms throughout most, but by no means all, of his œuvre, Lagerkvist served as a bridge between the post-Romantic techniques of the fin de siècle and the arrival of the formal avant-garde; the key to his being considered a modernist lay in his expressionst subjectivity and imagistic rigour which remained uncompromised by the compositions’ formal constraints. Elected to the Swedish Academy in 1940, Lagervist was awarded the 1951 Nobel Prize in Literature.


Karin Boye: Eight Poems

Karin Boye


Behold mighty clouds whose distant high tops
gleaming and proud rise aloft, white as snow!
They softly glide forth so to finally die,
slowly dissolve in a wash of cool drops.

Majestic clouds — through life, through death
sail smiling forth in a beaming sun’s spate
undimmed by concern in that clearest ether,
go with silent, sublime contempt for fate.

Would that I too were given to rise
and august stand above all earthly surmise
so to defy the storms of earthly quarrels
and bear the sunshine’s golden laurels.


I sought to paint some paltry thing
worn and workaday, spent and grey,
yet illuminated by that fire, which let
the world from the Creator’s hand spring.
I sought to show how what we hold cheap
is holy and deep, by the Spirit shod.
I sought to paint a wooden spoon so
that people could envision God.


When our gods fall
and we stand alone amidst the rubble,
bereft of foothold
as a sphere in the void –
you appear for a moment, great Beauty.
Then, and only then.
Stringent as fire you speak words of comfort:
“Whatever happens – I shall remain.”
O stay, stay, holy one,
redeem my soul
from the lie of a boundless sorrow!


Quietly I want to thank my fate:
Never do I wholly lose you.
As a pearl grows in the mussel,
so within me
your dewy being waxes lovely.
If finally one day I’ve forgotten you
then you are become blood of my blood,
then are we one –
that which the gods confer.


O sea, sea,
heady is the cup you pour!
Your vast depths
a holy lustration.
Your radiant embrace
a cool salve for mankind’s children, for us who                                                                                  xxxxxxxxdesire healing.

For you, sea,
beaming softly, with louring roar,
false, and faithful always,
a beautful reflection of beautiful things:
for the salt-strewn courses brave hearts chart through the world.


Night’s christening of the depths,
you, in whose waters
the spirit believes itself to touch
that sea called death –
rather it is life’s great tide,
life’s forbidding
other side …

Cede the mystery of your sleep!
Slowly I wade
into the stygian
misty deep
which unseen washes
our common roots,
which bears
our common foam –
from whose murk
rose awoken,
far beyond the realm of thought,
the body sanctified,
with glory wrought.

Cede the mystery of your sleep,
cleanse my soul of
the gone day’s withered
remains and blight!
Death, giving life,
let me plunge again
renewed into the light!


Along the darkening shore slips a lone
xxxxxxxwhite sail,
like a weary combing bird, seeking shelter
xxxxxxxfor the night,
and above in the deepening heaven a pale
xxxxxxx twilight’s cloud,
drifting aimlessly like one about to sleep …

We now turn back, we sleepy children, to our
xxxxxxx home here nearby,
brush from our brows our thoughts, our
xxxxxxxdeeds from our hands.
We leave them to fade like forgotten games, we
release them for that which is real
and rest with child’s blind faith against an unknown
xxxxxxxxmother’s knee.


No breathless summer night’s sky
reaches as far into eternity,
no lake, when the mists rise,
reflects such stillness
as the moment –

when the bounds of loneliness are effaced
and eyes become transparent
and voices speak plainly as the wind
and there is nothing more to hide.
How can I now be afraid?
I shall never lose you.

Karin Boye (1900-1941) was born in Gothenburg and later raised in Stockholm. She attended university in Uppsala, taking an active part in both student politics and the literary scene. In 1922 she published her debut poetry collection, Moln [Clouds], which was influenced by the work of predecessors such as Edith Södergran, as well as the writings of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Whereas, however, Södergran devoted herself entirely to free verse, Boye’s early work often adhered to a stringent rhythmic and metrical formalism (especially in her earlier work). In 1931, she was elected to the literary society Samfundet De Nio. That same year she helped found the seminal literary journal Spektrum wherein she published a co-translation of Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, in addition to the critical essay Språket bortom logiken [“Language Beyond Logic”] in which she reveals the importance of Freudian psychoanalysis to her poetic program. She also published short stories and novels. Of the latter, the autobiographical Kris [Crisis] and 1940’s dystopian Kallocain are most widely known. Having been previously married, she lived with her partner, Margot Hanel, until her death by suicide in a park in Alingsås.


Birger Sjöberg: Two Poems

Birger Sjöberg


“We herewith send you some
additional critiques …”
Opinion Delivery Service

Cloudy Monday gave a laurel crown.
Pride rose, as my blood grew brazen.
Twittering Tuesday I lost my mind,
cut by some comment, I tumbled down.
A tired wax image, to melting consigned …
Awoke plundered, mute and craven.

Leaves, which eddy, draw in the sand
short death-poems to join my voice …
Ashen, confused I snuck to land.
The string gave out, bloodied my hand.
Awaiting anew bad luck to glower –
I was crowned again some Thursday hour!

Good sun gods! Squander your brilliance!
Music resounds and voice conceives.
Not in vain I tramp the dance,
writer’s dance for the writer’s wreaths!
Heartfelt thanks for the cool, green leaves!
Free again to take an honest stance!

Friday turned woe-grey!
As now in victory dance I flail,
there stretches from the cloud a hand.
Down bombast hails – fingers and nails
rend my laurels, with their band
whereon the text in lightning written:
“Honor for lies is given!”
Stiffening I ceased the dance.
Paled, fell silent …

True Thursday gave me laurels twined.
Pride rose, as my blood grew brazen.
Friday, turned woe’s prey, I lost my mind.
Awoke plundered, mute and craven.


He was a respectable man of the straight and narrow,
who from the straight and narrow path was never tempted.
So as to gaze into those grey niceties,
steadfast nature endowed his eyes,
like sheltering in calm harbours
from a boiling swirl of deceit and caprice.

Round the world froth economic lies.
The company filing’s little honourable letters
are overrun with blue-scrawled signatures slung.
Like when a chessboard is overturned,
and games of speculation are laid waste
toppling pawns – kings …

Like children at recess firms now begin
pulling faces,
sticking out their tongues,
and empty their pockets to howls,
to the ring and ching of coins.

One soon waits for steeples to shout
through clouds and twilight at one another:
“Come, let’s exchange our bells!
We should scare the sheep with false notes!
Quickly though – see, the moon’s asleep! …”

And fragilities embrace each other
seized up, trembling during the fever’s ring dance.
One lets go – all collapse
amid tumult and roars. A Solidity,
its boots in the air, is launched in the lurch
against sharp corners. His good fortune smashed at once.
He crawls, with crushed possibilites
and bruised authority …
Look! Galaxies of medals small,
spilled in the dirt!

A friendship’s hand, seemingly made
of sheer marble or annealed steel,
is just dough.
For with one small, careful test-squeeze
the fingers simply fall with a thud,
like the fingers of fresh gingerbread men,
and are carried away.

At such times it is a rare gift to be
a lucid, respectable man of the straight and narrow,
with a splendid palisade about his character,
bolted and bound with principled nails,
and through whose embankment no waters
of unknown depth, where black fish lurk,
with fire in their jaws – passion’s sharks –
savagely break forth.

To go like a spirit among the scared houses,
and those whom ruin threatens bear away
to shame and forfeiture – go like a spirit
among the windowpanes, whose ashen faces
and folded hands give thanks:
“Thank God – someone respectable!” –

it is to cross a gangway stable, lithe
over a chasm where black serpents writhe

Birger Sjöberg (1885-1929) was born to middle-class parents in Vänersborg in west-central Sweden. However, poor grades and the bankruptcy of the family business compelled him to leave school at thirteen to seek work. Eventually, he found employment as a journalist, first in Stockholm then Helsingborg. Throughout this period, Sjöberg had held artistic ambitions and began composing songs. His first collection, Fridas bok [Frida’s Book], published in 1922, won him immediate acclaim. He then undertook two nation-wide concert tours, performing the songs to his own guitar accompaniment. A mix of exhaustion, stage fright, and boredom with the material, prompted a subsequent retreat from public life. In 1924 his novel, Kvartten som sprängdes [The Quartet Which Imploded], enabled him to become a full-time writer, but it is his third and final publication, Kriser och kransar [Crises and Laurel Wreaths], which is his greatest achievement. A radical departure from his earlier work, it sold little of its 5,000-copy run. Unfortunately, the awarding of the Samfundet De Nios grand prize, the herald of a critical reevaluation of this work, came too late for Sjöberg as he lay unconscious, dying from pneumonia in penury.


Gunnar Ekelöf: Seven Poems

Gunnar Ekelöf


flowers sleep in the window and the lamp stares
and the window flickers thoughtlessly into the darkness outside
the pictures soullessly show the contents entrusted them
and the flies perch motionless on the walls and think

flowers lean toward night and the lamp spins light
in the corner the cat purrs yarn with which to sleep
on the stove the coffee pot snores comfortably from time to time
and the children play quietly with words upon the floor

the white-clothed table waits for someone
whose steps never ascend the stairs

a distant train which pierces the silence
reveals not the secrecy of things
but fate counts the seconds with decimals


xxxxfaces glid from the dark and gathered around the table perhaps masks that hid a secret or were hidden by their own secrecy. the lights shone dully and the tea weakly steamed but none sacrificed a word to the silence and the bloodless hands lay still and dejected among the cups and saucers. someone, wan and with a red flower in his right eye socket, gasped anxiously in a corner of self-annihilation by the window while twilight fell upon the street. in an ashtray lay a fuse burning. myself I swallowed and swallowed a sentence whose senselessness forced me to time and again draw it from my throat like a long long knotted thread: tomorrow the atom shall be sundered, death or drool … tomorrow the atom shall be sundered, death or drool …


night falls slowly wingless
birds extinguished in the air
wings falling to earth
silence opens up the breeze and the wings fall silent
stones close upon themselves
flowers slowly fade
the wind softens in the night and the stones cease

xxxxxx (when the crystalline dream opened your eye
xxxxxx you saw how the flowers
xxxxxx leant upon the stones)


my self inhales the heavens in anemic vertigo
and arctic nakedness with lungs like wings
my brain explodes and the arteries burst
and birds drown in the air I drink
let the blood spray forth and redden the clouds
till they begin to sing in the empyrean quiet
until in a distant detonation of color
the sun loses consciousness
and yellow trumpet blasts gleam
toward the copper horizon

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx where the setting sun smoulders with my will
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx where my hands shall strew shadows over the earth
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx whose approaching night is my eyelid
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwherein stars fly out from under my brow


the newborn mother wandered back and forth between tree and
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx snowflake
the father knelt in the kitchen and sang:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx “it’s hard to pray without ears
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx while some we win and some we lose …”
familiar melody on beer bottles rats in the pantry money for rent
the cheese rind chews drool the churchbell tolls quotidian hours and
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx on the ragged bedside carpet worn
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx shoes tramp on each other’s toes
the key thing is to never be born or die quickly beer and
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx hell now the rind is spent and discontent
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx eats holes through the soles while
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx some we win and some we lose …
weary steps on the way from pub or meetinghouse
weary steps on the way from pub or meetinghouse


the trees disrobe the stars begin to fall
cold yellows the leaves which lie strewn along the sunset’s
xxxxxxxxxxxxx great horizon
the withered leaves fall slowly over bloodshot eyes
xxxxxxxxxxxxx forever staring into heaven’s
xxxxxxxxxxxxx ruin
the withered leaves softly lie over the blind child’s
xxxxxxxxxxxxx eyes and over hands which fumble whilst
xxxxxxxxxxxxx asleep and hunt shells amid
xxxxxxxxxxxxx the shore’s stones
and in the sunset’s incest lives still the memory of the
xxxxxxxxxxxxxtime when I was blind like a child
xxxxxxxxxxxxx and my dreams were but a child’s …
it is now late upon the earth, and fate hastens to close my
xxxxxxxxxxxxxeyes yet dreams render me
xxxxxxxxxxxxx again a child hunting shells
xxxxxxxxxxxxx by light and lantern in the dusk which
xxxxxxxxxxxxx falls over the shores’ barren nursery
listening to the elegant waves which burst into tears against
xxxxxxxxxxxxx the shores’ blind stones
the world is void and waste before the sea and twlight
xxxxxxxxxxxxx casts a veil over my tired
xxxxxxxxxxxxx despair and the sea is distant before
xxxxxxxxxxxxx my feet
far below softly sleep the fish with their shells
help me seek help me seek for love’s sake
xxxxxxxxxxxxxand tears which have become pearls
xxxxxxxxxxxxx in the deep
the stars fall already astonished like questions from
xxxxxxxxxxxxx another world and the autumn wind answers
xxxxxxxxxxxxx with prophetic voice in the trees’ branches
xxxxxxxxxxxxx distant as the sea and stars
distant as a stubborn thought in the stones’ hoary heads
xxxxxxxxxxxxx which since time immemorial blindly
xxxxxxxxxxxxxponder the unseen
help me seek help me seek my own shell
xxxxxxxxxxxxx which I shall love blindly as a child in
xxxxxxxxxxxxx the hope of life’s pearl
help me seek before everything is over
my final breath disappears already as mist among
xxxxxxxxxxxxx kelp and starfish and my face
xxxxxxxxxxxxx becomes ever less defined as in a fog
xxxxxxxxxxxxx and disappears slowly as a wet
xxxxxxxxxxxx  profile in the sand
a bird falls silent and a half-closed flower whispers words
xxxxxxxxxxxxx from a wasteland in my ear which
xxxxxxxxxxxxxneither sees nor hears I fall and
xxxxxxxxxxxxx fall into infinity distant as the sea
xxxxxxxxxxxxxand stars
help me seek help me seek for love’s sake
xxxxxxxxxxxxx and tears which have become pearls
xxxxxxxxxxxxx in the eternal sea
my longing chases the clouds from the horizon’s
xxxxxxxxxxxxxtempel distant as the autumn wind or
xxxxxxxxxxxxx my last breath which vanishes
xxxxxxxxxxxxx among the stars distant as
xxxxxxxxxxxxx the stars in the sea
and the elegant waves which altogether are each other’s
xxxxxxxxxxxxxsisters wash away my footsteps in
xxxxxxxxxxxxx the sand and burst into tears against
xxxxxxxxxxxxx the shore’s blind stones
help me seek my own shell which has disappeared into
xxxxxxxxxxxxx the sea of infinity and the great
xxxxxxxxxxxxx undefined which I love blindly as a
xxxxxxxxxxxxx a child in the hope of life’s pearl
alone alone as a pillar upon the plain and blind as
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxa child whose loneliness the everlasting
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxmother slowly sings to sleep
weary and meaningless like an answer without question or a
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxquestion without answer …
the trees disrobe the stars begin to fall
it is late upon the earth


give me poison to die or dreams to live
asceticism shall soon cease in the moon’s sun-blessed portals
and although untold with reality the dreams of the dead shall
cease lamenting their fate.

father to your heaven I commend my eye like a blue drop in the ocean
the black world no longer genuflects before palms or sung psalms
but winds thousands of years old comb the trees’ unkempt hair
springs quench the unseen wanderer’s thirst
the cardinal points stand empty around the bier
and the angels’s muslin is transformed
by sudden magic
to nothing

Gunnar Ekelöf (1907-1968) was born in Stockholm. His early fascination with Eastern cultures led him to study Persian and Sanskrit in London and Uppsala. After university, he spent a year (1929-1930) in Paris studying music, where he was influenced by Mallarmé and Apollinaire, the surrealist pioneer Robert Desnos and the concrete art movement. Returning to Sweden, he published his first collection, sent på jorden [late upon the earth]. Immediately hailed as the first surrealist poetry in Swedish, the critical establishment deemed it not just distateful, but a provocation.    Ekelöf himself identified as a fellow traveler rather than a surrealist per se, ultimately breaking with the movement entirely by the early 1940s. Shortly thereafter he released his collection Färjesång [Ferry-Song], considered to be his critical breakthrough and which exercised considerable influence on the new generation of writers known as the 40-talister. A protean poetic force, prolific translator of French literature, and frequent critical essayist, Ekelöf was elected to the Swedish Academy in 1958.