Don't give me the whole truth,
don't give me the sea for my thirst,
don't give me the sky when I ask for light,
but give me a glint, a dewy wisp, a mote
as the birds bear water-drops from their bathing
and the wind a grain of salt.
It began with a poem, this poem, in Mark Oakley's 'The Splash of Words: Believing in Poetry' - a wonderful series of meditations on particular poems, one each chapter. The poet is the Norwegian, Olav H. Hague (1908-1994). I immediately ordered, 'Luminous Spaces: Selected Poems & Journals' and was enjoying dipping until, at the weekend, recovering from a stomach bug, I decided to read them through and fell wholeheartedly for a new friend.
Hague was born on a farm. His formal education was brought short by a combination of restricted means, an inability to conquer mathematics: and, a voracious diet of reading ranging beyond the confines of any confining curriculum. He went to a horticultural college instead and came back to the (small) family orchards by fjord's side that would remain his home until his death. He was a vision haunted man who, from his early twenties at five yearly intervals, would go mad, requiring periodic hospitalisation and extended periods in an asylum. Here through either enlightenment or neglect, they principally appear to have left him alone to engage his visions and stand by the window admiring the view in quiet solitude.
In his journals, he obliquely refers to this times with thanksgiving tinged with regret. You must be able to withstand truth in order to assimilate it fully and Hague felt he was receiving it in such a visionary rush that it disordered as much as it uplifted. Hence perhaps the wish embodied in the poem above for a more parcelled approach of incremental gift!
When he was in his sixties, he met Bodil Cappelen (pictured above) a divorcee in her forties, a weaver and writer, whom he married as he approached seventy after which his episodes of madness vanished and he did to all appearance life happily ever after!
His poems often have the deceptive simplicity and concreteness of traditional Chinese poetry (which he loved). A particular tree, river, mountain are observed in quick strokes of insight but in such a way that the mind that observes of both poet and reader are expanded with a translucency of presence and a connectivity of mind; and, yet too they often turn, at the last moment, into a more 'Western' exploration of the facets of that mind, its personhood as here:
The River Across the Fjord
It falls and falls,
as it did yesterday,
falls from that cliff
where only eagles
against the rockface
without a sound,
strives and falls
- gushes forth
from gorge and cleft
a frothy beard,
in its nightmare
-cant get a word out,
not a sound ...
What sets out as a concrete description of a river cascading down the fjord side suddenly becomes an image of the mind's binding to a fated, given pattern that cannot speak its meaning.
Memorable poems flow - a meditation on the poet's shadow and how the shadow is itself possessed of a shadow, of a quarry returning to complex life its ecological niche conveyed, of a schoolyard after the children have just retreated inside; and, of the author wrestling with his internal troll, constant companion. Fewer are the poems that take up either mythological or historical themes - though certain Norwegian heroes\heroines appear as does both the Korean and Vietnam wars including a beautiful poem that connects Hauge's childhood lust for conquest with an understanding of the lure of conflict of which he finally disapproves.
The excerpts from the Journals too - 4 volumes in the Norwegian edition - are a fascinating complement. Never intended for publication, they range widely - from accounting for the day's activities- including how many apples have been created - to reflections on his time in the asylum, on poetry and particular poets and on religious themes.
At one point here, he confesses he thinks of himself as a Buddhist and, it is true, resonant in the background to both poems and journals are the thought that all life is suffering and yet there is hoped for, and illuminations of, liberation. A liberation that is here and now possible if one cleanses one's perception not somewhere other. And I love his judgements - talking of psychologists, he happily suggests that the only two worth reading are William James and Jung (I cannot quarrel there) seasoned with the findings of parapsychology!
All in all one of the best poetic discoveries I have made - and one not without a gnarled humour:
The other night, on my way home
I took the path across
the field where I knew
there was a spring.
That spring bubbled, gleaming
in darkness, catching the night.
Sitting by the dark mirror I saw,
quenching his thirst,
this bundle! Every spike
relaxed, at peace,
while his black snout gently,
sipped his drink.
Quench your thirst! I can wait,
so patiently I stood.
Perhaps the two of us are
alike in many things.
Like me you take a liking
to strolling through the darkness
amongst autumn leaves, finding springs,
berries and such
- prefer solitary exploration. But if
someone comes too near,
we withdraw and show them