The Moment

My book, The Moment, published by Splice, can be ordered here.

As when on holiday … (Wie wenn am Feirertage … )

     As on holiday, to see the field
A countryman goes out in the morning, when
Out of the hot night the cooling lightning had fallen
For a long time, and in the distance thunder sounded,
And the stream once again fills its banks,
Fresh green covers the earth,
The reassuring rain falls from the heavens,
The grapevine drips, and the trees
Of the grove stand gleaming in the quiet sun:

     So they stand in good weather,
Mastered by no one, but All-Presence,
So wonderful, holds in its light embrace
The powerful, godly beauty of Nature.
So when she seems to sleep at certain times of the year,
In the sky or under the garden leaves, or among the world’s people,
The poets’ faces are also sad,
They seem to be alone, but they’re always
Having a premonition, as Nature does when she rests.

     Now day breaks! I attended to its coming,
And what I saw my words must convey as holy,
For she herself, who is older than Time
And higher than the gods of East and West,
Nature has now awakened to the clashing of armies
And from the upper air to the abyss below,
According to fixed law, as once produced from holy Chaos,
The All-Inspiring
Begins to stir once more.

     And a fire gleams, as in that man’s eye
When he makes great plans; so
Once more, with signs for kindling, 
The deeds of the world
Stir fire in the souls of poets,
And what went before, barely noticed,
Is only now revealed,
And those who happily farm our land
In the form of workers are now revealed
As the gods’ all-living powers.

     You ask where they are? Their spirit drifts in song
When the sun of day and warm earth 
Grow, and storms in the air, and others
Prepared in the depths of time, 
Full of meaning and murmuring to us,
Wander between heaven and earth and among the people.
They are everyone’s thoughts together
And quietly find their lodging in the souls of poets,

     So that suddenly dazed, long familiar
With the infinite, exalted by memory,
Brought to the kindling point by the holy radiance,
The fruit born of love, the work of God and men,
The song succeeds in testimony to both.
So it happened, as the poets say, when she wanted
To see the god made visible, his lightning fell
On Semele’s house, and the one struck by God
Bore holy Bacchus, the fruit of the storm.

     And so it is the songs of earth, without danger,
Now drink the fire of heaven.
Under God’s thunderstorms, fellow poets,
We must stand bare-headed to grasp
The Father’s radiance with our own hands,
Wrap the heavenly gift as song 
And give it to the people.
For if only, like children, 
We have pure hearts, and our hands are guiltless,

     The Father’s radiance won’t burn us,
And, deeply shaken, taking the Strong One’s sufferings
As our own, our hearts will stand fast
In God’s high down-rushing storm as he approaches.
But woe is me! when of

Woe me!

         And let me confess

I approached to see the gods,
And they themselves threw me down beneath the living,
False priest that I am, into the dark, that I
Sing my warning song to those who can be taught.
There

— Hölderlin (via here)

W.S. Graham recites ‘The Nightfishing’

a toast to our daughter on her big day, that it may be the first of many,
and
so the moment was solved and we raised our glasses and clinked them
together with a lingering note that hung over the table, taking a long time to
fade
like the Angelus bell
which still reverbs in my head now, a single note ringing on in the
brightness of the day as if the whole world were suspended from it
mountains, rivers and lakes
past, present and future with
the whole moment so complete now and tidied away that we could
settle easily into each other’s company and turn to safer topics

— Mike McCormack, Solar Bones

How I missed the midnight sun

To Kiruna along the Torne River which separates Sweden from Finland, through the vast pine forests that spread out across this part of the world. The place names turn Finnish and I hear Finnish spoken on the bus. I spot a lone, confused reindeer by the road; probably looking for its flock, which are owned by the Sami here.

I’m surprised by how bright the light is. It probably won’t get dark tonight, I think. I’m too late for the midnight sun and too early for the northern lights, and haven’t booked any of the overpriced tours. I’ll get lost as usual, end up walking through random lots, but it doesn’t matter.

The next day a long hike along the Midnight Sun trail to the top of Luossavaara Mountain. On the way down what looks like a wolf appears on the path. I stop and prepare to meet my maker, but it turns out to be a large husky whose owner was hidden by a bush. You’re not the first one, she tells me. Around the corner I see a sign about wildlife. I translate it for S. in my head as if she were with me. Of course wolves are rare and monitored here, and not stupid enough to get this close to civilisation. The bears, moose and lynxes are elsewhere, but I don’t want to go further out in the wilderness to stay in a cabin with no electricity or running water. Or in a tent in two degrees on Kebnekaise, as a group I met did. They shuffle back to the hostels with tousled hair and stinking armpits.

When I was younger a Finnish friend and I drove from Helsinki up to the Barents Sea in his mother’s car, and back down through Norway and Sweden. We slept in his tent in the forests along the roadsides. We bathed twice, in a lake by a cottage that his grandfather built, and in a public swimming pool. We were young then, we didn’t care. He taught me how Finns drink. I wonder what became of him.

The suburbs and bus stations tend to blur into each other. Where’s the station? No, that was the last town. Now a bus has dropped me in a village in Lapland, just below the Arctic Circle. Mist, rain, a beautiful church and deep silence. I like it here.

Funny way of travelling, this. You get sent a code to a hostel door, find the place on Maps and let yourself in. There are no receptionists. But the Swedes are proper, polite people, when you do talk to them. I like to try to speak Swedish, since they don’t understand Danish. We mostly understand each other.

The next morning the sun is high on a cloudless sky. I spray myself with mosquito repellent and walk around a lake. I can walk for hours now: I feel strong, free and alone. I’m ready to go further north.

Why do we travel? Perhaps because, despite everything, being there still makes a difference, still makes the virtual world seem like a mirage.

Why this pull towards unspoiled nature, especially the North? Because it’s impersonal. And what is the impersonal? It’s what points towards the holy. Weil once said in her hard, uncompromising way: ‘So far from its being his person, what is sacred in a human being is the impersonal in him. Everything which is impersonal in man is sacred, and nothing else.’

The impersonal is a kind of border that becomes more dangerous the closer you get to it. I did a hike in the forest today and it occurred to me how easily things could go wrong before you’re at the forest’s mercy. Say I broke my ankle on one of these rocks, I thought, with no signal, attacked by a million mosquitoes and ants. I think one has to be in that sort of landscape, be frightened by its indifference and one’s own smallness, to even begin to understand it. There were cabins there for campers. Could I ever camp in such a place, let alone live there? Probably not. I only enjoy it for so long until I want to get back to my hostel, a restaurant and a bar.

A neutral helper

Formulated as a question — is chance necessary? — is it in reality a needed working partner, a kind of neutral helper that, if we gain insight into its essence, could change our thinking, and therefore our lives, for the better? Maybe we could conceive of it as a kind of inexhaustible layer of white noise from which, in principle, music can always be drawn, just not always exactly when the individual wants it or feels that it’s necessary — more likely when the individual dares to let go, for the briefest instant, of his own feeling of being necessary.

— Inger Christensen, ‘The Regulating Effect of Chance’ (tr. Nied)

The condition of secrecy

There’s no sure way to determine whether a poem will be beautiful or banal, good or bad. The best we can do in practice is […] to read them while we’re writing them, and continuously revise them, until at last they reflect some kind of light, some kind of insight, as if they had been written by others, by someone else.

It may not be so hard to recognize a good poem once it’s there. But how can we find our way to it before it’s there? […] How can we get form and content to live and grow with and within each other, as plants, for example, grow in the natural world? […] Writing poems is always about being at square one and starting from scratch; every time, about writing the individual poem as if it were the first poem in the world.

[…]

Writing poems is […] a neutral miracle, so to speak, granted in advance, because in the process of writing we need to use language in its whole, indissoluble connection with reality.

[…]

It’s difficult to find our way into this condition of secrecy. Of course we dream of being able to say that it happens as easily and lightly as a plant sprouts leaves and flowers. So that the poem in the seed’s internal sky is lifted into its whole outer unfolding as exactly that plant, exactly that poem. In this condition of secrecy, the poet stands at the center of a universe that has no center. In order to raise the inner world to the outer we have to start in the outer, start in all that’s visible, everything that throughout our whole lives, in corresponding forms of visibility, has been preserved yet forgotten in our inner world. It’s unclear which has to awaken which, the inner or the outer, but it’s certain that — because we know how things have been connected with each other ever since we were children — our first and best help will come from random chance: maybe in the form of a spring rain or an autumn storm, summer’s bright nights or winter’s rime frost, any phenomenon at all that can set our inner world in motion to such a degree that threads, pathways of thoughts, are created, branching out and trying to find ways to fuse words and phenomena.

[…]

Choosing with care also means more than choosing among all random words. We have to choose exactly the random word that can be made necessary. To make a word necessary means to interweave or fuse it with its phenomenon. Not that the randomness is done away with, because even after we choose it, the word is still as random as ever. But in its randomness the word, along with the phenomenon, will enter into that condition of secrecy where inner and outer worlds exist together, as if they had never been separated.

[…]

When the first stations have been set up in this condition of secrecy, the poem begins to take shape, the landscape broadens out, and images begin, on their own, to keep words and phenomena together. Where before there was nothing, now there is something; and along with it something else that continues the process, because all the widespread outposts in the landscape start to report in, all the little enclaves of coinciding language and meaning that now are functioning as realities, everything that has entered into the condition of secrecy, reports back now.

[…]

And at the happy moment when all decisions become part and parcel of the poem’s writing of itself, it may even be decided that what’s being written about is something we had never remotely considered writing about, something we’d completely forgotten, something we’d never spoken of, something that has kept itself hidden until now.

[…]

There is a schism between those who believe that we human beings, with our language, are set apart from the world, and those who experience human beings’ use of language as part of the world, so it becomes evident that whenever we express ourselves through language, the world too is expressing itself.

[…]

Especially since I’ve learned from meteorologists and other scientists I’ve met that they know about the condition of secrecy. They may not say that words suddenly take over, but they say that the problem suddenly solves itself; they don’t say that a poem writes itself, no, but they do say that things say themselves.

[…]

If we’re separate from the world, it’s because we have separated ourselves. We believe as much. But we mustn’t believe as much. We must know. That we already are in the condition of secrecy we seek.

— Inger Christensen, ‘The Condition of Secrecy’ (tr. Nied)

And what was I telling her?

And now, outside the station, I discovered that since my arrival in Jesenice I had been silently telling my girlfriend about my day. And what was I telling her? Neither incidents nor events, but mere impressions, a sight, a sound, a smell. The jet of the little fountain across the street, the red of the newspaper kiosk, the exhaust fumes of the heavy trucks – once I told her about them, they ceased to exist in themselves and merged with one another. And the teller was not I, it was the experience itself. This silent telling deep inside me was something greater than myself. And, without growing older, the girl to whom it was addressed was transformed into a young woman, just as the boy of twenty, in growing aware of the teller inside him, became an ageless adult. We stood facing each other, exactly at eye level. This eye level was the measure of the telling. I sensed the tenderest of strengths within me. And it said to me: “Jump!”

— Handke, Repetition (tr. Manheim)

I find myself in a hostel in Gothenburg. I took the train across the Sound almost randomly this afternoon with the only aim of heading north. I want to be up there alone again to let the head clear.

I’m not a planner. The idea of planning a holiday months in advance is boring beyond belief. Nevertheless, this is an odd feeling. I realise I’ve never really done this on my own: just packed and left for another country without a plan. The Faroe Islands was a trial run. And so is this. I’m not used to travelling alone in this way, leaving things more or less to chance. I feel like an amateur in life again. I bumble around, look at Apple Maps, google things, follow signs, ask for directions. I booked a room in the hostel on the train.

Strictly 21st-century tourism. I think of how and why people travelled in the past. This is hardly a search for new hunting grounds or settlements, a Viking togt, a naturalist expedition, an exploration of unconquered lands, a diplomatic mission, a flaneur’s amble… It’s more like a gap-year trip.

The next day I follow a crowd of tourists on a tram and take a ferry out to the archipelago. Ferries crisscross the waters between the islands like buses. I walk some paths through pretty nature reserves.

*

Time thickens when you travel. It seems to go fast while you’re in it but, looking back, two days of travelling can seem like a week because of all the new impressions you had to be alert to.

*

In the morning, after the usual confusion about directions and times, I take a train past huge cornfields, red farms and quiet suburbs to Mariestad. I’ve already covered enough distance to span the breadth and width of Denmark yet I’m still in southern Sweden. As always when I leave the city for the country, my mind begins to open with the horizon and I’m surprised by how blinkered I’ve been.

*

I feel guilty travelling aimlessly, spending money without working. I sense the voices of my parents in the back of my head, even now as a middle-aged man, in fact as strong as ever – as undercurrents that always go against what I decide. I do it anyway: if I’d done all they said, I would have been dead in the water years ago. It must be because I’ve been living with my mother. There was a reason why I fled as soon as I could when I was younger. Back then I made it look like a calm choice to go to Britain to study, but by then it was too late. They’d long since got their voices in me.

I’ve always protected myself against chance in cryptic ways. I’ve often thought that there are people who shouldn’t leave themselves too open to random events, for whom it’s dangerous. It’s chance you need to watch out for, chance is when you come up against the rocks of reality that can break you apart. Of course that’s why I chose Sweden, I now see: I secretly knew it would be safe, smooth and boring.

*

I seem to be spending half this trip on my phone, arranging the next leg. Most of the others are looking at their phones too. On Saturday I take a flight up north from Stockholm to a sleepy town called Luleå. At three in the afternoon all shops are closed, including the state-run off-licences. The streets are quiet. I check into the hostel, shower and find a British-style pub where I spend a tremendous amount of money on beer and gin while I look for trips to the archipelago and busses to hiking trails in the vast forests we flew over.