Melbourne CBD, Tuesday morning

Never here normally – not at this time,
when people whose lives have rhythms different to mine
disembark into days of meetings, close shaves
and private experiences in close-huddled streets.

Never here normally.
My day is suburban. My schedule’s the school bell.
On other days I walk with books and lesson plans in hand;
today the day is open.
Yet before the city opens
I’ll wander with these strangers
through a city waking up,

a thousand thoughts at traffic lights
blinking slow while phones alert,
and uniforms announce the trade
of souls whose days are not like mine.
Huddled in sleeping bags beneath the eaves;
scarf-clad, suit-clad, hi-vis: all this
says nothing more than glance can catch.

Catch this: the passing self,
the teenage dreams now thumbed to text,
executives touch-typing stress,
the arguments, the expectant dad,
these other selves not normal here.
What’s normal here? These souls whose days
are not – are just like mine.

Light and Momentary

True – but the wait weighs heavily now.
So many delays, and you can expect
more road blocks through the coming weeks
as rolling closures right across the north-west
make violent signs of little worth.

Light and momentary?
Perhaps; so, at least, we trust,
yet faith not sight must rule the game
if there’s to be more than witches’ hats
and traffic jams to show.

Yet think: soon, one day soon,
when the barriers roll back
and new lanes are revealed – then,
perhaps, we will say it was worth the wait.
Better by far the day when all roads,
all stones, will give way
to say, Make way.

Make eternal the way;
light now is momentary, yet when it dawns
none of our roadblocks will stand.

Meditation

If it had roots, the pulling-out would be easy,
but, being rhizome, it tangles its way far, far out,
as though sending emissaries, ambassadors;
but which way do they travel?
Do they depart or return?
The beginning hides sneekily under soil,
like a power-line, a waterpipe,
some subterranean transport network,
while the visible growth bursts
somewhere else,
a periscope greeting, a hand waving to the day.
Like me, it craves light and craves soil.
Hence this tangled network, this clump
of green and brown, like a jungle, like a weed.
If it had roots, the pulling-out would be easy.
Not so the rhizome; it is too much like me.

In Translation

mib14
Image by Ben Shahn http://voiceseducation.org/content/ben-shahn-lithuanianamerican

If you find them worth publishing, you have my permission to do so – as a sort of ‘White Book’ concerning my negotiations with myself – and with God.
(Dag Hammarskjöld, in a letter to Leif Belfrage)*

And so they sat together, the poet
without “a single word of Swedish” at hand,
and the translator, to find together –
to trace – the private markings of the public soul,
the one to give the language, the other the heart,
the rhythm, that “unexpressed dialogue”
without which language dies.

And what did they find, as
layers fell and layers grew?
A planned self-defence? The last
word to silence posthumous debate?
No, the heart’s x-ray more like it;
a confession; a line drawn around
the self’s ever-moving hand.

He knew no Swedish, but Auden at least
knew that movement well: the soul’s
duplex structure; the twin-tangle of light and dark
that makes the mess called Man.
The redemption too; he knew that as well.
The call, the answer: the Whitsunday “Yes”.
This too is in the soul’s true language,

spoken best in the gap between
thought and speech, seen best when glimpsed
eyes squinted open to light,
half-closed to self, half-
forgetting all we thought we knew.

In translation,
the soul is seen translating,
atom-swift. Catch it
as it propels to break new ground.

* Before his death, UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld left his journals to his friend and fellow diplomat Leif Belfrage. Poet W.H. Auden worked with Swedish writer and translator Leif Sjöberg to translate this diary into English. It was published under the English name “Markings”.

What we don’t know

It is hard for those who live near a Bank
To doubt the security of their money.

T.S. Eliot

Only those who have felt the cold
will remember to close the door.

Only those who are fallen or proud
will perceive the rule of law.

Only those who live far from the bowl
will know it means to need more.

Only those who believe they might win
will bother to check the score.

No Ordinary Sundays

Before you lies my strength and my weakness; preserve the one, heal the other. Before you lies my knowledge and my ignorance; where you have opened to me, receive me as I come in; where you have shut to me, open to me as I knock. Let me remember you, let me understand you, let me love you. Increase these things in me until you refashion me entirely.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity

We do not call these Sundays ordinary:
transfigured by revelation, by mystery,
they stand apart.

By these days we set
our calendars, and, in the old days, we said,
In Hilary term, or, Before Trinity.

Order is set by extraordinary.
Order in all things,
and yet, in all ordinary things –

some unexceptional people gathered,
music played, some prayers prayed,
some words spoken, some soon forgotten –

extraordinary creeps in, is always the silent witness.
What Augustine knew, we often forget:
community right at Godhead’s heart,

found, reflected, in our meagre parts,
a knowledge too rich for understanding,
coming, and standing,

where we stand. O hold us now;
for nothing else
makes sense unless You remake us.

Uncovered Gems #5: The Danish Psalmist

In the Danish Golden Age of literature and philosophy, there were three significant names that still stand out today: Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard and N.F.S. Grundtvig. The non-Danish world has very much heard of the first two but the third is as unknown as it is unpronounceable.

And perhaps understandably so. He is of much greater importance at home than overseas. Grundtvig (pronounced Groont-vi) had a significant impact on Danish nationalism and education, and his role in the Danish Lutheran church was profound. But outside Denmark he doesn’t seem so have had much impact. Nor is he particularly the kind of figure to easily win fans a century and a half after his death. With his formidable muttonchops, Lutheran clerical ruff and an almost permanently austere look on his face, Grundtvig does not exactly appear to be one to welcome 21st-century popularity. My first encounter with him was when ultra-right party leader Svend Åge Saltum quoted him in Danish political drama Borgen. Yet there is much more to Nicolaj Frederik Severin than austerity and Danish nationalism. Basically, imagine English church life without John Newton or the Wesleys and that would be the Danish church without Grundtvig. And the comparison’s a fair one, at least when it comes to his hymns, because it turns out that one way in which Grundtvig is kept alive and well is in Danish worship.

My first proper encounter with the 19th-century poet, pastor, philosopher and translator was in the music of Danish band Kloster who set a whole bunch of his hymns to some gorgeous, otherworldly tunes on their album Ni Salmer og en Aftensang (Nine Psalms and an Evening Song). The track that first arrested me was the magically tender “Urolige Hjerte“, with its gently thrumming guitars and the opening words:

Restless heart, what ails you?
Why are you in pain?
Is there anything you need?
Is He not your father who has your everything?
And aren’t all my thoughts and hairs numbered by Him?
And isn’t He the very best friend I could choose?

Urolige hjerte!
Hvad fejler dig dog?
Hvi gør du dig smerte,
du ej har behov?
Er han ej min Fader, som råder for alt?
Er ej mine tanker og hovedhår talt,
og har ej den bedste til ven mig udvalgt?

Sadly, lack of interest in Grundtvig’s poetry means that almost none of it is available easily in English – a little ironic for a man who translated one of the most significant English poems, Beowulf, back into the language that inspired it. There is one substantial collection of his poems in English but it’s expensive and not easily available. So, if I want to listen to his songs – which I do – and want to understand them too, then I have to try translating them myself.

It’s a wonderful experience, reverse-engineering a Grundtvig poem into English. Translating poetry is hard in any situation, harder still when your grasp of the source language requires a fair bit of Google Translate to get anywhere beyond, “The polar bear is drinking beer” and all those other useful phases Duolingo teaches. But, slow-going and humbling as it is, I feel closer to Grundtvig’s work for doing it. I have to marvel at the tautness of his metaphors, the subtlety of his rhymes – so hard to replicate in English, when we don’t have one word that could mean both bleed or fade that also rhymes with “regions” or “areas”. And I am struck by the deft way he melds Biblical text with the immediacy of everyday life. Take the hymn that I’m crawling through at the moment, “En Liden Stund” (“A Little While”). The hymn takes its title, and the first line of each stanza, from Jesus’ words to the disciples in John 16:16 – “A little while and you will see me no longer…” But Grundtvig takes Jesus’ words and first looks at something that is beautiful and impermanent, a reminder of how our lives look next to eternity. There’s no translation that can fully capture what he says with the first lines, at least not without losing the rhyme:

A little while
in roses’ grove,
we only blush and fade…

En liden stund
I rosens lund
Vi rødmer kun og blegne…

For a man who looks most likely to either preach brimstone or thump the bar to ask where his Carlsberg is, there’s remarkable tenderness and pastoral heart in Grundtvig’s words, not to mention a sense of pure beauty. Like most nineteenth-century poets there’s some inverted sentences worked to fit in rhymes that sound sometimes cumbersome to our ears today. But his love for God and God’s people is fresh and alive. Not surprisingly; much as Kierkegaard laid into him in his final polemic days (Grundtvig, wisely, had less to say about Kierkegaard), they wanted the same thing: to see the dry bones of the state church animated with living faith. Fittingly, Grundtvig loved to sing about new life in Christ, whether symbolised in Christmas or Easter or the day of the Resurrection. So here is a lovely translation by S.A.J. Bradley of one of his poems on this theme:

1. Ring out, O bells, oh ring out while the world yet lies darkling;
shimmer, O stars, like the light in the angel-eyes sparkling.
Peace comes to earth,
peace from God through his Word’s birth:
Glory to God in the highest!

2. Christmas is come as a solstice to hearts that were fearful!
Christmas and Child, son of God, where the angels sing cheerful,
all is God’s gift,
bidding us our hearts uplift:
Glory to God in the highest!

3. Children of earth clap your hands and come dancing and singing,
raise up your voices till earth’s furthest corners are ringing.
Born is the Child
of the Father’s mercy mild:
Glory to God in the highest!