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North In The World: Selected Poems of Rolf Jacobsen

by Translated and edited by Roger Greenwald
330 pages,
ISBN: 0226390357


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Rolf Jacobsen Provides Safe Passage Beyond
by Erling Friis-Baastad

Scandinavian poetry has only slowly come to be appreciated in Canada; that's probably because of a former dearth of good and readily available translations. Certainly Canadians must empathize with the Scandinavian experience, considering how much they have in common: climate and terrain, small population and large, even threatening, neighbors. Their prehistoric legends include ravens and wolves, bears and northern lights. All the countries have strong literary communities, recognized by the world at large. Escaping 'globalized' cosmopolitan centres, their writers enjoy wind-scoured sea coasts, frigid lakes, ice-capped mountains and dark forests.

When Canadian painters JEH MacDonald and Lawren Harris discovered the exhibition of Scandinavian painting at the Albright Gallery in Buffalo in January 1913, they realized that the artists in the far north of Europe were kindred spirits, with more to say to Canadians than even the great French Modernists. It's an often-told tale, but MacDonald and Harris returned across the border and shared their discovery with fellow members of what became the Group of Seven, helping them find new ways of distilling nordicity from their Canadian landscape. However, despite the subsequent visual renaissance, most Canadian English-language poets hearkened to British and, later, American models.

Fortunately, translations of writers like Apollinaire, Mandelstam, Cavafy, Pessoa, Char and several of the more visionary French Canadians like Saint-Denys Garneau helped leaven the mix, but with notable exceptions like Ralph Gustafson and George Johnston, few poets looked to Sweden, Norway, Denmark or Finland. To be fair, many Scandinavians ¨ Norway's poets, especially¨entered the 20th century reluctantly, well into the 20th century, perhaps shocked into awareness by the German occupation.

Even now, when Norwegian poetry is discussed in North America, the accomplishments of writers like Tarjei Vesaas and Rolf Jacobsen become diminished because so much stress gets laid on how they boldly freed Norwegian literature from the shackles of the sing-song romantic nationalism of Henrik Wergeland and Bj░rnstjerne Bj░rnson. Vesaas and Jacobsen weren't simply stylistic rebels. They were seers and sages, and one of the many great strengths of Toronto-based translator Roger Greenwald is that he recognizes this. Throughout his renditions of Vesaas, Jacobsen and Paal-Helge Haugen he has managed to capture the current of something far more profound, farseeing and otherworldly than mere rebellion against tired forms and postures. Rebels are enthralled by the forces they oppose; visionaries rise above them.

Greenwald's latest gift to Anglophones is North In The World: Selected and New Poems of Rolf Jacobsen. The poet-translator has spent more than two decades with Jacobsen's verse and he released a major collection of 96 of those translations in The Silence Afterwards with Princeton University Press in 1985. Much of the labor for that volume was performed under the guidance of Jacobsen himself. This new collection of 121 poems includes revised versions of the Princeton poems, and some of Jacobsen's later writings, most notably poems written upon the death of his wife Petra, a close companion of more than forty years.

Jacobsen died on February 20, 1994, shortly before his 87th birthday. His long life had stretched from the end of the days of steam locomotives and sailing ships into the computerized space age. He was in his twenties in the late 1920s and '30s when automobiles, motorcycles and aircraft were capturing the hearts of young men all over the US and Europe. Few realized that we would soon be, not liberated by our metallic creations, but ensnared by them, our air and water tainted by them, our limbs and lives frequently crushed by them, and our culture obsessed by them at the expense of more significant thoughts.

Jacobsen endured a love/hate relationship with this then-new age. He feared the power of a shallow, more easily accessible media, even newspapers that "jammed" the eyes "full of terrorism and rapes, women's breasts and warÓ" ("The Inland Line"). He adored trains. The Norwegian State Railway granted him an annual pass in recognition of his devotion to that mode of transportation. Radio, TV, buses, airplanes and ships also appear in his works, but with them Jacobsen travelled far beyond the obvious. As early as the mid 1930s he wrote in "Vibrating Telephone Poles":

This is what we hear in the hum from telephone wires,
they are antennas that capture the signals from space
and cry them out over desolate moors at night
when the poles are murmuring and calling anxiously
as when a person dreams dark dreamsÓ

And, as he matured as an artist, he became ever more deft at expanding such tropes into deep space.

Dark dreams: Four years after the publication of Swarm, the volume containing "Vibrating Telephone Poles", the Germans invaded Norway and the Norwegian poet, like Ezra Pound of the US, foolishly thought he'd found a new way of fighting old economic injustices. Jacobsen believed he had discovered sympathy for his ardent socialist beliefs among the invaders and in the ranks of the Norwegian National Socialist Party. Following the war, he served just over three years of a sentence for treason. Whether his statements supporting the occupiers were relatively mild or whether he simply was too little known, being a poet rather than a world-renowned novelist, Jacobsen's reputation has not been as dogged by his wartime foolishness as Knut Hamsun's became. It must be significant that Greenwald makes no reference to Jacobsen's treason in his introduction; nor does Olav Grinde in the introduction to his versions of his friend's poems, Night Open, published by White Pine Press of Fredonia, New York, in 1993.

Jacobsen converted to Catholicism the year before he at last published his third book of poems in 1951, the first since Swarm. The poems of this new book, Express Train are poignant and bittersweet and made even more so if one knows about the humiliation of the prison sentence the author just served.

There is no end to the stars and the wind.
There is only you yourself,
who aren't who you think you are.

(from "Day and Night")

Whatever he came to think of himself was nurtured in rural Norway. He moved to a small town 95 kilometres north of Oslo, and worked as a newspaper editor. He sought surcease in the natural world where he found "words that were here before words were createdÓ" ("Blind Words"). Freed from the distractions of the big city, he journeyed in time. In the silence he could listen to people who "must have lived here before / who were familiar with the place in a way we've lostÓ" ("Hundvsko"). Unencumbered by city lights, he always looked outward and could imagine the planet lost among stars:

One night he saw the Earth was like an open eye
that looked at him gravely as the eye of a child
awakened in the middle of the night.

(from "Skylab")

But as Greenwald says in his introduction to the poet, "it would be a mistake to regard the pervasiveness of nature in his work as the product mainly of one or another literary stance. Nature is a powerful presence in NorwayÓ". Refusing to respond to the natural world would be posturing, as it sometimes appears to be in hip urban Canada.

One of the refreshing delights of Jacobsen's work is his refusal to become mired in autobiography. He "scarcely put himself forward at all," writes Greenwald. "We learn only a little about his everyday life in his poems, and almost nothing about his personal relations." That should provide a refreshing change for readers tired of the endless solipsism, confessionalism and domestic narratives of so many North American poets. (Europeans modernists have, by and large, avoided those traps.)

However, Jacobsen wrote some of his most moving work following the passing of his wife. Copper Canyon Press of Port Townsend, Washington, last year released a collection of Jacobsen's poems translated by Greenwald, Robert Bly and Robert Hedin, The Roads Have Come to an End Now. It's significant that Greenwald's contribution to the book focused on the epitaphs for Petra. These are not domestic poems, for all the homely details. They range far beyond memoir and, like all of Jacobsen's best works, escort us past the quotidian. His address to her in "It Was Here¨" readily becomes a more general invitation:

Take my hand,
put your arm there.
And we'll set out
together in the summer night,
silently, toward
what isn't.

Perhaps, it's not all that surprising that the works of Rolf Jacobsen, Tarjei Vesaas and other elder Scandinavians have found a champion in Roger Greenwald just now. Weary of trends, of celebrity, of actions and reactions, we're finally receptive to, perhaps even desperate for, some quiet wisdom, some guidance we can actually make use of, as opposed to merely clever exercises in stylistic wit.

After contemplating the slow death of wasps trapped indoors Jacobsen ended "In Raspberry Season" with:

Time after time we throw ourselves against something we
cannot see
until they sweep us out one day on the dustpan.
Unless, by chance,
someone on this earth or in the clouds
raises a window so we get through.

Together, Jacobsen, now "in the clouds," and Greenwald, firmly on this earth, have raised that window. ˛

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