Guarding The Air: Selected Poems of Gunnar Harding
translated and edited by Roger Greenwald (Black Widow Press, 2014).
321 pages. ISBN 978-0-9856122-7-6. US $24
To arrive at nothing is no reason for disappointment
if arriving at something was never one’s purpose.
(from “The Star-diver”)
While many poetry readers are familiar with the Swedish Poet Tomas Tranströmer, the 2012 Nobel Laureate for literature, they may not know that Sweden harbors other great poets. Guarding the Air pays wonderful homage to one of them, Gunnar Harding, by presenting work that spans a lifetime of poetry.
For nearly half a century, as a poet, writer, translator, editor and literary critic, Gunnar Harding has been at the center of Swedish literary life. He started as a jazz musician, studied painting in Stockholm, and made his literary debut in 1967. He has published eighteen volumes of poetry, as well as translations and nonfiction, and has won many prestigious literary awards in Sweden, including the Dobloug Prize from the Swedish Academy.
Guarding the Air is the first comprehensive selection of Harding’s work drawn from most of his volumes of poetry written in verse (prose poems are not included). It begins with a crisp but essential introduction by the translator and editor, Roger Greenwald, an American poet who is well known for his translations of Scandinavian poetry. (His selections of work by such poets as Norway’s Rolf Jacobsen and Tarjei Vesaas have won him many translation awards.) He has also done readers a service by translating Gunnar Harding’s prefaces to three of his Swedish volumes of selected poems. The book also features line drawings by the poet that lend it a special charm.
Harding’s interest in poetry and culture spans many continents and cultures, and he is candid in listing his inspirational sources. In a preface to one of his volumes of selected poems, Wherever the Wind Is Blowing, he refers to the English orator Edward Young’s saying that “we are born originals but we die as copies.” But Harding argues that in “conversation” with others, we gradually become original. His evolution as a poet bears witness to that process. Art, freedom, love, memory and shared experiences, the passage of time, sensuality, and mortality are some of the many themes that get beautifully woven into the rich tapestries of Harding’s poems. The diversity of the subject matter helps to make this collection resonate, whether in a poem about a wandering shoemaker or in poems exploring music and art. And Greenwald has done a magical job in capturing the intensity and depth of feeling in the poetry.
Life pulsating in many corners forms an integral part of Harding’s poetry. His poems achieve a fine balance of emotional and philosophical content. One can never underestimate his capacity for tenderness, as in the first poem in this collection, “Northwest Express,” which starts with these lovely lines:
even in our sleep there are cables
between us. we are coupled
to each other like the railway cars
on their way to the sea
For Harding, feelings are important in poetry. He articulates this in a preface: “I know it sounds sentimental, but I believe it is important to keep faith in this truth of the imagination. Moreover — even though it sounds still more sentimental — I believe that it is important to insist that the feelings that come from the heart are sacred. If they are missing, then we are facing a devaluation not only of truth and beauty, but also of poetry.”
Although love is the best balm for man’s soul, the poet knows the absurdity and misery of loving everyone, as finely evoked in these lines:
Of course you can love everyone,
but when you have loved everyone
there’s no one left,
only the rustle of clothing
rushing down with a sparkle
toward the end of the century — the last one,
soon to be the one before the last, or the next one.
So much had to be left behind,
(“Rossetti Sleepless in the Park”)
The poet is also aware of the ambivalence that hides behind love:
Do you still love me? Smoke grows stale in coils above our shoulders,
the answer is a timid smile. The answer to such questions
is a smile one can vanish in and still remain outside of.
(“Guarding the Air”)
Obstacles to experiencing the true feel of changes in the beautiful outer world also command the poet’s attention. The poem “Ich Weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten” (whose title is from the opening lines of Heinrich Heine’s “Die Lorelei”: “I do not know what it might mean / that I am so sad”) starts with a question that arises from Heine’s and then moves on to the predicament of our consciousness amidst mechanized urban life. The last line in the poem’s final stanza has a certain poignancy.
What name shall we give this dark electricity?
I’m not saying, but I know that it changes everything —
the season, the setting, the temperature, yes the mood itself —
and leads us back to ourselves
like the subway trains that find their way home at night
along the tracks of current, a series of cars,
each one scrawled over with its own darkness.
Memory and the associated feelings surface in many poems. In the fascinating poem “Puberty,” the speaker conjures up his school years, a whole class that has been submerged in his memory just as it once was submerged in the green water of a chlorinated swimming pool. The poem ends with an image of a boy (no doubt the poet himself) diving into those waters/memories — and being brought up short by the passage of time:
year after year
the boy in the Tarzan swimsuit
has been bouncing up and down on the trampoline.
howling in a shrill breaking voice
he dives into the water
to gaze in silence
at the girls’ legs. but they're already married
and all rolled up in lilac bathrobes.
In “Persephone,” the poet comes up with a striking simile: “He will carry her like eczema in his memory.” Again, in “Triptych for Nils Kölare,” the poet notes:
Memory is as red as a Sunday morning
when no one has ventured past the long building yet
so as not to disturb the people dozing there
in silent chairs inside the barber shop.
Memory is their hair, which grows imperceptibly
to replace what has slowly turned white and been swept into piles
on the floor.
As the image of white hair reminds us, the longer our memories are, the closer thoughts of mortality come. Even Harding’s early poems are mindful of this. “September,” for example, is set against the backdrop of the war in Vietnam. A frayed poster says “USA OUT OF INDOCHINA,” and the poet observes: “Many / have died so that you might be born, this / unites you with those / who are dying right now.” The poem proceeds to this moving passage.
Death lives in the empty spaces
between the houses, in the empty spaces
between people. There are large empty spaces
between us. When we die
we enter them.
But the poem concludes with a touch of surprising, if somewhat grim, humor:
Here there is still wind. I
take it into my lungs. The bells are ringing.
The wind makes them swing
back and forth
and then not back.
In a later poem, “The National Hospital, Oslo, September 1976,” mortality is considerably more concrete and immediate. Although the poem is tinged with some humor in the poet’s dreamt conversation with his dying father, it turns somber towards the end:
Death begins early, one step at a time.
Is it as full of life
as life is of death?
Am I almost as much over there
as you are here?
The contours of two worlds fall through each other
and outside the sickroom window
the big chestnut tree beside the parking lot
rushes in the wind.
It is full of fruit.
The prickly green-gold husks are life.
The red-brown kernels death.
They hit the ground hard
and crack on the asphalt.
Art is an ever-present theme in Harding’s work, and thanks to his background, the poems engage not only with poetry but with music, painting, sculpture, and the lives of various artists. Harding’s deep connection with various genres of music emerges in many poems in this collection. One can spot it in poems such as “Europe—A Winter Journey,” “Davenport Blues,” “Danny’s Dream,” “Für Elise,” and “The Flute Player.” In “Winter Tour,” the poet moves from depiction of a cold winter day when even “the shining lake of summer has shrunk to a traffic mirror” to an evening immersed in jazz.
In the evening the landscape we traveled through all day
gets measured on the bass drum and illuminated by a light bulb.
There’s a lazy pulse coming from inside it,
beating in the stage floor, through my soles
and up through my body.
The band plays “Moose March” and I recite
“Back to the beginning
when only the hundred thousand notes beyond the scale
are real.” After the reading
I go backstage while the music continues in the hall,
one, two, soon three cigarettes from here.
The beginning of “Persephone,” a poem inspired in part by a Magritte painting, illustrates the precision of Harding’s imagery:
Silence, built of bricks from old tenements,
glued on with every layer of wallpaper
where spring is pressed into darkening floral patterns.
She opens the drapes and a feeble light describes
all these states of the soul, highly nuanced and distinct
but so sad that they lack names of their own.
Streaks of light so broad that she can walk on them
out above the roofs where the wind is tossing pigeons around, light
so distant that it can’t remember its source,
and now it finally sinks to the ground
through the sun-panels on the linoleum.
Color symbols add richness to “Rugosa Roses,” with its sexual undertones:
The sky was improbably blue, soundless and blue
but our friend at the black lake had seen
the old airforce general sitting in his chair in dress whites
and he had said: “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Again at the end of the poem, when the couple muse over their stay in the house, the color symbols turn into sensual images:
But the rose hedge has grown tall and dense.
It covers the whole house, and we’re the only ones who know about
the dark room inside
where the white flower flows out.
Harding’s fascination with painting is evident in many of his poems. “Painting has also meant a great deal to me,” says the poet in a preface. “At one time that was really what I wanted to devote myself to.” This urge is sometimes stronger than the urge to write poems, as the poet remarks with disarming (or defensive) humor in “Watercolors.” He steps into a river and sees the beautiful reflection of blue sky, the mountains, and the landscape nearby.
My desire to write worse and worse poems
still isn’t as strong as my yearning
to paint a really lousy watercolor
where a completely hopeless blue runs out into the water,
only distantly related to that blue
that just now seemed as momentous
as becoming water oneself and reflecting a mountain.
The underlying anxiety evident here about quality in art and in particular in painting crops up in other poems, like “1958 (Miss Setterdahl’s Art School)” and “Imperfect Tense,” from Harding’s sequence about Dante Gabriel Rossetti:
Yet a sea of flowers
still covers the black soil
just as his embroidered vest
covers the darkness in his heart.
Each flower has shown itself worthy
of having a portrait of its own.
Therefore he stands weeping in the garden.
His brush goes too slow.
The flowers wilt, the paint dries out.
The wardrobe stands there,
dark with her gowns:
they too are lifeless.
This is called “The Post-Romantic.”
He calls it his life.
In the brilliant title poem of this selection, “Guarding the Air,” contemplations of art slowly evolve into a somber philosophical musing on the way we live and how we can change to find the right path. The poem starts with these arresting lines:
Take a feather, dip it in ink and draw a swallow.
It will be a swallow that’s missing one feather,
just the one that would enable it to fly.
This grand poem, which has a circular pattern, is replete with images and speaks about unexpected correspondences in the urban space, our somnambulistic existence, freedom, love, and the innocence of childhood.
How long will it take? How long
will it take you to think everything that’s yours to think
and what will be left to think then? There will be nothing
to think then and you will be filled with a deep serenity.
Clothed in total silence you will be able to observe
how the pebbles crack like swallow’s eggs, but they crack without
and you understand the silence that pours out from inside them
as content, a content you recognize from yourself
and you can never again lose your way, no, never again lose your way.
This poem demonstrates that Harding is a visual poet of the highest order. His poems are rainbows of colors that acquire symbolic meanings dependent on their themes and their contexts. This is understandable, since he started out as a painter. Harding says as much in a preface: “I’ve never been ashamed of the visual qualities in my poetry, even though they have never been in fashion during the whole time I’ve been writing. Because at a certain time in my youth I took the step over to poetry from painting, I have always regarded the poetic image as central.”
That the poetic image is central means it is not there for its own sake: Harding’s poetry explores many themes of everyday life that engage the heart and the mind of the reader. His poetry is thus a rare combination of beauty and intellect. There are lines in almost all the poems that made me pause, ponder, and move forward, such as these from “The Star-diver,” one of the finest poems in this selection:
To arrive at nothing.... And nonetheless the disappointment
is grounds for a new beginning, and nonetheless
the beginning is grounds for new disappointment, and nonetheless
the grounds are what one didn’t mean to arrive at
and didn’t arrive at, either — dancing stars.
“The Star-diver” is a magnum opus on our identity and alienation, on disorder and the void that surrounds us. The poem pulls the reader into its magical canvas, thanks to the translation’s fluid grace.
Roger Greenwald deserves thanks for making the gift of this book to serious poetry readers across the globe. These translations of Gunnar Harding’s poems are so pellucid that I can only agree with an advance comment by the American poet Kenneth Koch, who wrote: “It is hard to believe these poems are translations — they are so clear, so exhilarating, have such immediate and uninterrupted effect.”
Guarding the Air proves beyond doubt that Gunnar Harding is a modern poet with a distinctive stamp of his own. Steeped in broad cross-cultural influences, Harding has masterfully crafted vision and music into free verse. His integration of literary and artistic traditions into imaginative creations of broad scope allows us to experience a new realm of poetry that is accessible, reflective, and rich with depth and inventiveness.
Gunnar Harding (Author, Photo by Paula Tranströmer) and Roger Greenwald (Translator and Editor)