Nocturnal Conversations

Elisabeth Rynell

Something of light
I cannot describe
Maybe love's hands
Your skin like a drink
I don't know

I wake into the nightmare
and I walk inside it
It is real, material
and I walk and walk

You left your dead
body behind you

And we stood and looked at it

And we did not know
what we should do with it

my eyes sting   I am tired   but
why should people sleep?  the
tears I have already wept
burn like acid   I must weep
some more        
                        a Russian lunatic
bellows on the phonograph   his madness
is consoling
as if life nonetheless were something real
and everything that hurts made of conceivable
matter   fixed and lasting
also my despair
I am not stingy   I pour
more wine in the glass
and the Russian vocalizes in his vehement voice
this is one of my nights
and there will be many
inconceivably many

When I see a star
in the darkness
and contemplate how
long ago it existed
I think
of you
Give me
a sign
I'm waiting

translated from the Swedish by Rika Lesser

Translation Copyright © by Rika Lesser.
Used by permission of the author.

Read translator’s note

Elisabeth Rynell , one of Sweden's most highly regarded women writers alive today, was born in Stockholm in 1954. She has lived in London and traveled overland through Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to India. For decades a resident of Sweden's remote north (Älvsbyn, Lycksele, Umeå), Rynell now divides her time between Stockholm and Delsbo, a community in Hälsingland, farther south in Norrland. Her writing is lyrical, straightforward or oblique, as need be--not a word is wasted--and has been praised for its emotional intensity, openness and sensuality. She writes of beauty and terror; over time Rynell's tales increasingly cross into borderlands of myth and fable. She made her literary debut with a collection of poetry in 1975. Eleven more books ensued; four are works of fiction, one is nonfiction, and the other seven are poetry, so far. After the sudden death of her 32-year-old husband, Elisabeth Rynell wrote works of poetry and prose that are still widely read and esteemed in her native Sweden. The poetry collection Nattliga samtal (Nocturnal Conversations, 1990) came first; the novel Hohaj was published in 1997. 

Rika Lesser is the author of four books of poetry: Questions of Love: New & Selected Poems (Sheep Meadow, 2008), Growing Back: Poems 1972-1992 (South Carolina, 1997), All We Need of Hell (North Texas, 1995), and Etruscan Things (Braziller, 1983; new ed. Sheep Meadow, 2010).  She has translated more than a dozen collections of poetry or fiction for readers of all ages, including works by Göran Sonnevi, Gunnar Ekelöf, and Claes Andersson from the Swedish and Rafik Schami, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Hermann Hesse from the German.  She has been the recipient of the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, two Translation Prizes from the Swedish Academy, and others.

Nocturnal Conversations has no table of contents, but the book divides into three parts, the first of which is an interrogatory dialogue or interior monologue, an ongoing "nocturnal conversation." The heart of the book, an extended "lay" or "lamentation" dedicated to Ulf, follows. Rynell uses the Swedish word "kväde" for "poem" or "song" that is used in the Eddas, specifically in Gudrun's Lay for the dead Sigurd.  "Five Stills" (still photographs) prose poems, roughly a page each, conclude the book.

The five poems in this selection all come from The Lay.