An Unsound Silence: The Swedish Thomas Merton (Simon Patton)

Min käre australiensiske vän Simon Patton (poet, översättare och vänsterhänt introvert) har skrivit en förträfflig reflektion över Michael Economous och min översättning av Thomas Mertons poesi. En märklig väg för texterna; från engelska till svensk översättning, till reflektioner över dessa svenska transplanteringar tillbaka till engelskan. Tack Simon!

  • An Unsound Silence: The Swedish Thomas Merton

Translation offers us a way of looking at something familiar in a new light. Once or twice I had come across the poetry of Thomas Merton before, but nothing about it in English said much to me. Encountering him in Swedish, however, enabled me to make a kind of fresh start, and I was surprised and delighted by what I discovered in this selection made by Stefan Albrektsson and Michael Economou.

Two words kept jumping out at me from the pages — the noun tystnad (silence) or its adjective tyst (silent) and the verb att sjunga (to sing). The poet seems to feel a strong attraction to this particular pair, and as soon as he mentions one of them, we regularly come across the other (or a close cognate) within a few lines. For example, in “Konflikten mellan poeten och ambitionen” he writes:

Bättre att sjunga din sångstump
innan den där strutsrösten blir stum,
bättre slå till med din beskärda del av oväsen
innan den skränande basen blev tyst . . .


In the context of this poem, “singing” means something like to speak from the heart. In other words, the emphasis is on genuine impromptu self-expression rather than any wish to sound impressively literary. Significantly, I think, “silent” here is linked to oväsen, a word that means both “din” and possibly covertly implies the opposite of väsen, “being”. True poetry in this utilitarian, profit-seeking world seems like a kind of noise that neither makes any sense nor serves a purpose. But this noise is in fact the voice of unbeing, the “land that is not” from which everything in the universe — imperceptibly — derives.

The pair is also present in these lines evoking a hushed rural sunrise:

När de fullmogna fälten börjar dofta soluppgång
och dalarna sjunger i sömnen,
häller pilgrimsmånen sitt vattenfall av tystnad
över det högtidliga mörkret (“Trappistklostret: Morgonbön)

To me, these lines recall Gaston Bachelard, who wrote a fascinating book on the “psychoanalysis” of water, linking this liquid element to dream and reverie. Here again, “to sing” is connected with an unconscious, unselfconscious activity, to which the silence of the pilgrim moon’s “waterfall” of light is a counterpart rather than a contradiction. What strikes me too about the presentation of silence here is its endlessness: it flows on and on with inexhaustible energy. Moreover, it is the living image of impermanence or what the Chinese call mou seung, “changelessnesslessness”.

One final example of the singing-silence pairing occurs in the poem “Ett brev till Amerika”, where the water connection is very strong:

Har du inte hört hur den väldiga Missouri sjunger
för att dränka dem i miljarder liter tystnad?

What this adds to our understanding of the pair is the idea that poetry, as the unpremeditated song of unbeing and unworldliness, silences that dominant part in all of us fixated on objects, objectives and objections.

This mysticism is the common ground in Merton’s work, where religion and poetry have the chance to meet. I think it would be fair to say, too, that they are often at loggerheads, with Merton’s priestly vocation often overwhelming completely the wild and gentle voices of his inner poet. Especially in the earlier part of this selection, religious poems tend to dominate. These fall into two types. reverent declarations of faith, and denunciations of the folly and vanity of contemporary American urban life. Here is just a sample, from the poem “Den Himmelska Staden”, in which conspicuous Christian vocabulary appears in virtually every line:

Och O! Börja lyssna till sångernas tordön i Kristalltornen,
medan alla de heliga lyfter, med fötter av ljus, från jorden
och flyger för att beträda de gyllene gatorna,
O Stad, då ser vi dig segla ned,
segla ned från Gud,
klädd i Treenighetens härlighet, och änglakrönt
i liturgins nio vita diadem. (49)

When the poet in Merton eludes his priestly side, however, the results are occasionally so extraordinary that they will stay with you for life. One sign of his poetic quality is his ability to write lines that immediately set the reader’s mind rippling with their energetic suggestiveness. Here are some that produced this effect in me:

Vad händer om inga fler vill lära sig att gottgöra
den hårda vägen, skeppsvrakens våldsamma lek i den dränkte Magellan,
och ändå styras av stjärnornas oändliga fasta? (Kruse”)

I den blå västern uttalas månen som ordet:

“Farväl” (Så lång tid vi får vänta”)

o gröna vår morgnar när vi hör hela skapelsen sjunga! (“Resenärens sång”)

och ur djupet av min källare öppnar Kärleken en himmel
    av naken luft
bullrigare än åskväder (En psalm)

Genom att sluta ifrågasätta solen
har jag blivit ljus (“O ljuva irrationella tillbedjan”)

ur mitt gräshjärta
stiger vakteln (“O ljuva irrationella tillbedjan”)

Paradiset gråter inom oss
och vi vandrar allt längre bort. (“Namnlös dikt”)

You’ll notice that in many of these moments, natural imagery makes its presence felt. Stars, moon, sun, grass, air: perhaps these are the keys that open the doors into Merton’s singing silence. The idea of “the endless fast of the stars” is, at first sight, a very strange one, but there is something striking here about the power of intense concentration and eternal vigilance. As for the unlikely “quail” that steps forth out of the poet’s “grass-heart” — this could virtually mean the same thing as “Out of nowhere, the mind comes forth” from the Heart Sutra, but with so much more concreteness, delicacy and endearing naturalness. With “Paradise weeps within us” we are warned about how we might be misleading out lives, but in compensation Merton also gives us a positive version with the lines “in the depths of my cellar Love opens a heaven of naked air”, just to thrill us out of our lassitude.

Needless to add, a poet of this calibre also writes whole poems of wonderful allure. I have three favourites.

The first is called “I tystnad”, possibly a poem about unbeing and unknowing and about what it might be like to try and live from these sources. It begins like this:

Var stilla
lyssna till murens stenar.
Var tyst, de försöker
uttala ditt

till de levande väggarna.
är du? Vems
tystnad är du?

This poem is so spare in comparison to all the other excerpts I have quoted. This fact, together with the more modern use of line-breaks to add weight to short phrases individual words rather than grammatically complete and self-standing clauses gives this kind of poetry a very different texture, more hushed and querying, less confident perhaps in the powers of language to finally articulate the poet’s intuitions. But the question “Whose silence are you?” should set you thinking — it might even take hold of you so tightly that you won’t be able to shake it off! And yes, it confused my word-processing’s automatic spell-checker, too.

The second poem that made a powerful impact is “Mannen i vinden”. It is a kind of portrait in words, based on the enigmatic French poet René Char, who took part in the French resistance. Inexorably, the momentum of the text builds towards the following shocking conclusion:

Sedan sprids hans fem sinnen, olika i all sin mångfald,
som fåglar, framför stegen han tar,
för att omedelbart återvända, likt vatten,
till det urvattnade Bermuda i den blixtrande floden.

Luftens matematik gestaltar en perfekt tystnad.
Och Kapten Aprils medvetande, som lutar sig ut ur sina egna fantastiska fönster,
dör i duvornas virvel.

There is real audacity in this poem, and a great mystery in the picture of the death of the captain’s consciousness. There is richness too in the similes, a much-used device in Merton’s repertoire of poetic elements — the five senses that spread “like birds”, and then turn back “like water to that soaked Bermuda in the sparkling river”. Keep an eye out for these similes elsewhere in the poet’s writing: the diplomats who are “white like bread” (16); Greek women who open their eyes “wide like horizons” (24); the trains that go “quiet like paper” (25); the “paper souls” of generals which are “sharper than leaves” (27); a city “as unfeeling as a taxi” (47); while Merton writing to his beloved M. “is like writing to [his] heart”.

My third favourite “För min bror”, which sends shivers down my spine even thinking about it. In 1943, Merton’s younger brother John Paul went off to fight in the Second World War. He was killed in a plane crash and, in an attempt to come to terms with this loss, Merton wrote a poem which contains the following lines:

Var, i vilket ödsligt och rykande land,
ligger din stackars kropp, förlorad och död?
Och i vilket katastrofalt landskap
har din olyckliga själ gått vilse?

Kom, finn en viloplats i mitt arbete,
och vila ditt huvud i min sorg . . .

If you’ve ever experience overwhelming grief, you’ve probably questioned the purpose of everything you habitually do, and have been tempted to abandon it all, as vanity and a waste of time. Merton here provides us with a moving endorsement of work as “a resting place”, a heart-felt form of activity that offers both consolation to the deceased and — to the living — a very concrete purpose to continue. Notice, too, how sorrow in this poem is fully accepted, since it too provides a pillowing comfort to (the memory of) a loved one.

At its best, Merton’s poetry is electrifying, a sudden shock of energy that bursts momentarily into words before dissipating again. If you allow yourself to feel this charge, you too will be energized in turn, and inspired to pray for your own discovery — in English or in Swedish.



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