Image credit: Kevin McNamee-Tweed, "Untitled," clay

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Every improvement, every little screw

Every improvement, every little screw, every little gear
makes the machine more valuable,
but also more vulnerable.
A house of cards is being built.
The higher it goes,
the easier a random breeze
will cause the beautiful building to collapse.
The world has become a gleaming skyscraper.
On the twentieth century’s floor we sit
high up over the clouds and the small mountains.
Don’t look down! Don’t get dizzy!
The earth is strangely remote,
an old relic,
a bad dream.

 

Scientists sit holding their breath
writing Greek and drawing curves
in immense coordinate systems.
Statesmen think themselves to baldness and toothlessness,
and you and I don’t dare dance like we want to,
don’t dare yell and sing and spar,
don’t dare walk on our hands or do cartwheels.
We must not disturb the balance,
must not make the tower fall
with unnecessary noise and violent movements.
We look out into the empty air, listening to the wind
that whistles in windows
and rattles in steel pipes and chimneys.

 

Up here in the thin air, in the shining glass halls,
song and games are forbidden.
Mystics and prophets,
poets and painters,
magicians and musicians,
are seized by uniformed police
and without due process thrown out the windows.

 

The presence of these fifth-columnist men
is dangerous to the skyscraper society.
They spread suspicion, opposition, and dissent.
The top floor is four hundred square feet.
There is only room for people
who are looking upward.
There is no room
for dreaming youths with sunken eyelids
or singers strumming guitars
humming about pearls and rosebushes.
At night the purple light shines
out into space.
The stars send blue signals to one another.
When the storm increases,
the enormous building sways like a ship on the waves,
the hallways creak,
doors burst open –

 

But the sleepers do not wake.
No one hears when a nut loosens,
no one feels the cold air
streaming in
through invisible cracks in the wall.

 

 

Albrecht Dürer: Melancholia

          16           3           2           13

   

           5           10         11           8

         

           9            6           7            12

 

           4           15         14            1

 

Count up, count down! Across and back –
Same answer. Always
The same answer.
                    Many ways… all leading to
The same answer. The world is a number.

 

Many ways.
                    I have tried them all.
Knocked on heaven’s door with a diamond hammer,
Analyzed the spectrum of metals,
                    measured with light years and an hourglass.
I have examined the rainbow with a compass,
In my binoculars I saw the comet plunge into the sea,
With a ruler and triangle I have solved the crystal’s riddle.

 

Add up, write down!
Same answer. Always
The same answer.

 

Atoms, molecules,
                    they all circle around the same number.

 

The bell above my head rings.
                    Time is a number.

 

And here I sit, heavy, with tired wings.
I have examined everything thoroughly, seen through it,
Everything can be written down as one number.

 

It’s only my own life
                    I can’t understand.
Only my own pain
                    I can’t reduce.

 

 

The World Order

                              Goya: The third of May 1808

 

Stuff your fingers in your mouth, squeeze your eyes shut!
It doesn’t help…
Death strikes, death is allied with the night,
The blind iron-night that reveals nothing
And births nothing without new arrests
In the holy name of the prevailing order.

 

Some shall kill, some shall die.
And it is always the same ones.
And there is always a god to remove the blood
And unveil the landscape of forgetting.

 

Some shall die.
Some shall dream
Farther than a rifle shot can reach.

 

And the price of dreams is this night,
This moment in the lantern’s wild beam
Where the world ruptures with a shriek.

 

 

48

Cassandra’s beautiful body and ominous speech – it’s very confusing – should you believe your eyes or your ears, isn’t it enough for her to be pretty – even the walls are gaping, but they break into a rash as soon as she opens her mouth – and our palaver goes on like the waves when the ship has passed. But it is confusing, especially when you go home – what did she see, does she have access to sources we don’t know, or is the explanation a private disappointment, love, an unhappy childhood – who knows? Exactly, what can you know about what is now and what is to come, everything you say is either too much or not enough. What remains is her beauty, beyond discussion, her rare smile, like a meadow on the ocean floor, her unwavering expression. Just to see her instills fear, fear down to the bone.



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Hver forbedring, hver lille skrue

Hver forbedring, hver lille skrue, hver lille hjul
gør maskinen mere værdifuld,
men også mere sårbar.
Der bygges korthus.
Jo højere man kommer op,
jo lettere får et tilfældigt vindpust
den skønne bygning til at styrte.
Verden er blevet en strålende skyskraber.
I det tyvende århundredes etage sidder vi
højt oppe over skyerne og de små bjerge.
Se ikke ned! Bliv ikke svimmel!
Jorden er underlig fjern,
et gammelt herregårdsminde,
en ond drøm.

 

Videnskabsmænd sidder med tilbageholdt åndedræt
og skriver græsk og tegner kurver
i vældige koordinatsystemer.
Statsmænd tænker sig skaldede og tandløse,
og du og jeg tør ikke danse, som vi gerne ville,
tør ikke skråle og synge og bokse,
tør ikke gå på hænder og slå kraftspring.
Vi må ikke forstyrre ligevægten,
ikke bringe tårnet til at vælte
ved unødig støj og voldsomme bevægelser.
Vi ser ud i den tomme luft og lytter til blæsten,
der piber i vinduer
og skramler i stålrør og skorsten.

 

Heroppe i den tynde luft, i de skinnende glassale
er sang og spil forbudt.
Mystikere og profeter,
digtere og malere,
troldmænd og musikanter
blir pågrebet af uniformeret politi
og uden rettergang kastet ud af vinduerne.

 

Tilstedeværelsen af disse femte-kolonne-mænd
er farlig for skyskraber-samfundet.
De mistænkeliggør og spreder trods og modvilje.
Den øverste etage er fyrre meter i kvadrat.
Der er kun plads til folk,
der retter blikket opad.
Der er ikke rum
for drømmende ynglinge med sænkede øjenlåg
eller sangere der klimprer på guitar
og nynner om perler og rosenbuske.
Om natten stråler det violette lys
ud i verdensrummet.
Stjernerne sender blå signaler til hinanden.
Når stormen tager til,
gynger det vældige hus som et skib på bølgerne,
det knager i korridorer,
døre springer op –

 

Men de sovende vågner ikke.
Inger hører når en møtrik løsner sig,
ingen mærker den kolde luft,
der strømmer ind
ad usynlige revner i muren.

 

 

Albrecht Dürer: Melancholia

          16           3           2          13

 

           5           10         11          8

    

           9             6           7          12

     

           4           15         14          1

 

Tæl op, tæl ned! på kryds og tværs –
Samme resultat. Altid
Samme resultat.
                    Mange veje … alle fører mod
Samme resultat. Verden er et tal.

 

Mange veje.
                    Alle har jeg prøvet.
Banket på himlens dør med hamre af diamant,
Analyseret metallernes spektrum,
                    målt med lysår og sandur.

Regnbuen har jeg kontrolleret med passer,
Kometen der styrter i havet så jeg i kikkert,
Med vinkel og lineal har jeg løst krystallets gåde.

 

Tæl op, skriv ned!
Samme resultat. Altid
Samme resultat.

 

Atomer, molekyler,
                    alle svinger om det samme tal.

 

Klokken over mit hoved ringer.
                    Tiden er et tal.

 

Og her sidder jeg, tung, med trætte vinger.
Alt har jeg gennemboret, gennemskuet,
Alt kan skrives ned til eet tal.

 

Kun mit eget liv
                    kan jeg ikke forstå.
Kun min egen smerte
                    kan jeg ikke reducere.

 

 

Verdens Orden

                              Goya: Henrettelserne 3. maj 1808

 

Stop fingrene i munden, pres øjnene i!
Det hjælper ikke …
Døden rammer, døden er i forbund med natten,
Den blinde jernnat som intet røber
Og intet føder uden nye arrestationer
I den prøvede ordens hellige navn.

 

Nogle skal dræbe, nogle skal dø.
Og det er altid de samme.
Og der er altid en gud til at fjerne blodet
Og blænde op for glemslens landskab.

 

Nogle skal dø.
Nogle skal drømme
Længere end et bøsseskud kan nå.

 

Og drømmens pris er denne nat,
Dette nu i lygtens vilde skær
Hvor verden brister i et skrig.

 

 

48

Kassandras flotte krop og sorte tale – det er meget forvirrende – skal man tro sine øjne eller ører, er det ikke nok for hende at hun er smuk – selv murene måber, men de får udslæt så snart hun åbner munden – og vores palaver fortsætter som bølgerne når skibet har passeret. Men forvirrende er det, især når man går hjem – hvad har hun set, har hun adgang til kilder som vi ikke kender, eller er forklaringen en skuffelse i det private, kærlighed, en ulykkelig barndom – hvad ved man? netop, hvad kan man vide, om det som er og det som kommer, alt hvad man siger er enten for meget eller for lidt. Tilbage står hendes skønhed, den er hævet over diskussion, hendes sjældne smil, som enge på havbunden, hendes faste blik, bare at se hende gør bange, en angst helt ind i benet.

Translator Notes

In the aftermath of World War II it was necessary, and extremely difficult, to seek a foothold in poetry. For Erik Knudsen and others of his generation words seemed insufficient. The poets felt trapped in an arsenal of used, worn-out images and old attitudes which were not up to the challenges of the new, dire reality. Their task was to create a poetry that could stand in opposition to the picture of war and human suffering which had been etched on people’s retinas. Erik Knudsen confronted poetry and its antiquated pictorial language, and was able to set his unique stamp on Danish poetry with powerful images of new world conditions.

Reading Erik Knudsen can be surprisingly engrossing. He can be very serious, wielding a sharp, critical voice while staring the modern problems right in the eyes. But he also has the ability to deliver the language of wonder, to challenge himself, his surroundings, and his readers. The use of dialogue and touch of humor are especially marked in his later poetry. These poems are a sampling from the forthcoming bilingual volume Erik Knudsen: Selected Poems from Spuyten Duyvil Press in 2019. Knudsen’s poetry has never been translated into English before.

When I first read Knudsen’s poetry, I was not interested. His style seemed too impressionistic and abstract for me. I didn’t know what he was getting at. I set the collection aside. When I picked it up a year later, everything had changed. I was able to fall into his train of thought, which to me felt a bit to the side of reality. But being slightly outside rationality, I found a freedom and creative momentum that I had rarely encountered among poets of any language. When I sit down to translate his work, I know that I have to attempt to enter the same slightly irrational, sub-conscious flow that I assume he wrote in. Not only has this experience been rewarding for my work as a translator, it has had a huge influence on my original poetry.


Michael Goldman

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