The Altar Painting
Do not seek here the silence of the dead.
The walls drip with the vigil of the ages.
The vaults tremble with living spirits
on their way back.
The centuries' ring
turns slowly around them.
All things are near. The past
The spirit that raised stone upon stone
like the driving sap of temple pillars,
has sprung a new bough.
From the images comes a flashing brilliance
of inexorable demand for sacrifice,
which our fathers heard and obeyed.
That man there with the narrow mouth
never sat happily by the evening well,
as the herds billowed wearily home
and a sorrow-dissolving twilight burned.
He is fire. The conflagration he bodes,
god as much as young man.
All that is secret he sees through
sternly as only the young can.
High in the bright arches of his purity
he offers war.
Over his forehead flame
Middle Ages, young and hard.
Centuries in kindred train,
prophet next to prophet,
darkly real towards skies
of silver air and nothing.
So solitarily essential
in the phantom of creation
man bears his heavy soul
to stone in the epochs' cathedral. -
And their gaze is distant
among what does not die,
and their features are closed shrines
with frozen suffering for a lock.
So heavily strikes the light
that no dust can bear it.
Go hence, light! You crush
the clay you take as dwelling.
How many have you visited
since primeval days -
and all all
prayed the same prayer: mercy!
How many have you wrestled with
and triumphed over
and consoled only with visions'
How many went in the dawn
from the wager with Jehovah
with the sum of their life
in their maimed hips.
We saw their movements
of ugly deformity
and thought: Are they implements
for the light to use?
See, health's sunlight,
that gently cures the world,
is powerful in the healthy,
but these are sick. -
We saw their smile
and could not decipher it,
we saw their tracks,
which the legends relate.
Splendour of their heaven
and splendour of their hell
seized us like a drunkenness.
Who knows what he will choose?
Yes, who knows it still,
who knows the ways
that lead to the stone of the wise
and life's red kernels.
They risked their souls.
Then say, Jehovah's mighty one,
have you a cure for the race
under the stars of the fear of death?
But as the plants unfold
where the fields of late lay empty,
the earth awoke in space's spring
and slowly began to flower.
From fern forests and newt slime
life crept up the precipice.
There a human child kneels
and looks out over the depths.
How did wings grow there in the birds' feathers?
How was the chestnut's stick raised,
which carefully and proudly bore the finest candles
high above serpent and dragon?
We know of the spring, that the power of the depths
cannot have drained its source.
So let us perceive in all that is
the creating wellsprings' rising
and let go like Job on his torment's heap
of justice's tricks
and lean our sick and tough hope
against the miracle that is still a miracle.
into English by David McDuff in "Karin Boye: Complete poems".
Copyright © 2005:
Translation from Swedish into English: David McDuff
Published with the permission of:
David McDuff, translation.
May and Hans Mehlin, Layout.
For more information, please visit the website
of David McDuff and his
own pages with the translations.