A communion with nature through poetry

Sensitive translation explores the world of Tarjei Vesaas

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Tarjei Vesaas is one of the most important Norwegian writers of the 20th century. He is best known for his novels, in particular, The Birds (1957) and The Ice Palace (1963). He is also, however, an amazing poet.

Fortunately, he had an outstanding translator for his book of poems, Through Naked Branches: Selected Poems of Tarjei Vesaas. The poems in this volume were translated into English by the American poet Roger Greenwald, author of two books of poems, Slow Mountain Train and Connecting Flight. 

Greenwald is also an award-winning translator of Scandinavian writers. When he received the prestigious Harold Morton Landon Translation Award for his translation of Gunnar Harding’s Guarding the Air in 2015, Judge Bill Johnston spoke of his translation in glowing terms:

“Greenwald’s rendering of the selected poems of Swedish poet Gunnar Harding is an accomplishment to be relished by any reader and envied by any literary translator. Greenwald’s translations are superb. They read like what they are: magnificent poems in the English language. The freshness of imagery and turn of phrase are never accompanied by the awkwardness that so often marks poetry in translation—rather, they arise from the originality of the poet’s voice, which Greenwald has brilliantly captured in English.”

For this book, Greenwald has written a very erudite 37-page introduction. It is a very challenging piece to read, but it provides much interesting and useful information to assist the English-speaking reader in understanding the poetry. (Note: If you, however, get bogged down with this lengthy introduction, go ahead and read the poems and interpret them as you like.)

In the introduction, Greenwald makes two major propositions. His first is that he finds that Vesaas is not “a visual poet” as most modern poets are. Instead, he argues, the primary allegiance of Vesaas is to hearing. This can be explained by his roots in the strong oral tradition, in both narrative and poetry, of his native Telemark, where he spent most of his life.

While reading his poems, readers should note references to both sounds and the lack of sounds, silences. His poem entitled “The Horse” is an example of what Greenwald calls “demanding silence.”

It is evening, and a man is working at his desk. At a certain point, he looks up. He suddenly sees the unmoving head of a horse outside the window. He immediately recognizes this animal from his childhood, and he feels terror how cruelly he had treated this horse. In his words: “A shadowy, vanished time returns, unreels.”

Around this horse everything was sweat and toil. 
Wagon-clatter, broiling sun, smell of hay, rain, slogging through snow.
The rein rasped a young hand. Which learned the trick
to guiding, in all seasons, a horse that trudged and trudged.

The man realizes that the horse has not come in peace but has a mute question: “What is it you do? Are you ready to meet, as the child you were, with everything you are?”

The man remains mute. He finds that he cannot respond, and “fear comes sailing like clouds.”  But then he returns to the present time as he remembers the warm kiss of his young daughter before she went to bed.

“The horse can stay where he is with his question: shut out.”

vesaas

Photo: Knobelauch / NTB
Tarjei Vesaas (1897–1970) published novels, short stories, poems, and plays in the nynorsk language. Vesaas is primarily known for his novels and short stories. The author is pictured above in a portrait from 1957.

Greenwald’s second proposition is what he believes is the key to Vesaas’ way of writing: the poet’s special relationship with nature.

Most Norwegian Americans are certainly aware of the Norwegians’ love of nature, but Greenwald gives a very detailed explanation of why Norwegians feel so close to nature.

He explains that five features of the Norwegian landscape have created the close attachment of the Norwegians to nature: (1) the varied small elements in the land, (2) the trees and rocks that block part of the sky, (3) the light of the relatively low sun in the sky that is filtered out by the clouds and vegetation, (4) the water that is always present, sometimes dynamic and sometimes quiet, and (5) the air that changes from moist to “refreshing.”’

He says that “Nordic man has to approach nature through an act of empathy; he has to live with Nature in an intimate sense.”  It is clear in this book that Vesaas has a strong relationship with nature.

In fact, Greenwald points out something quite astounding. In the poems in this  book, 75% of the nouns used by Vesaas refer to parts of nature. (Most of the other nouns refer either to objects used daily or to houses.)

The poems in this collection all involve nature in some way, in other words, birds, serpents, rodents; wind, rain, lightning, snow, ice; spring, fall; boats on or near water.

Frequently, nature takes on an almost human quality with human emotions. The title poem, “Through Naked Branches,” shows the tree responding to the poet’s love.

The still network of branches grows dimmer
each time I look up. 
It’s resting in friendly dusk.  
I think it’s spreading out inside me
because I have always loved it.
It does not disappear in the night,
you take it with you into your own sleep
and lie down secure. 

Greenwald, Roger (Ed. & Trans). (1999) Through Naked Branches: Selected Poems of Tarjei Vesaas. Black Widow Press: Boston, MA. 

Available at major booksellers.

This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.