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Guide to the Underworld by Gunnar Ekelöf


Someone said:
—I saw a dancing man
on the shore of a green dream
with a swell moving in under the surface
In the sunset the dancer glowed red
He dusted his body with meal from ground bones
mixed with crimson from herbs
crushed with brick-shards
What meaning had his dancing on the shore
among all those blindly staring in the sun?
It means that he was dead
or soon should die

And you who once have seen such a wondrous man dance
you shall never dance again
neither in love, nor hope, nor despair
All of you are long since dead, and gone

from the section entitled EARTH WATER
in Guide to the Underworld by Gunnar Ekelöf (1967), translation © 1980 Rika Lesser. All rights reserved.

Future Green Integer Edition?

The Guide was the third and last book published in Ekelöf's Byzantine trilogy, the first two of which are almost entirely translated in the Auden/Sjöberg Selected Poems. It came out in 1967 and was the last book the poet himself put together before his death in 1968. He conceived of it architectonically as "the central arch" in the ruin that was the Diwan trilogy.

For her translation of Guide to the Underworld, published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 1980, Rika Lesser received the Harold Morton Landon Poetry Translation Prize from the Academy of American Poets.

The edition has been out of print for over a decade. Douglas Messerli, of Green Integer, has long planned to bring it back into print.


A shadow said:
—My name was Khalaf-al-Akhmar
I had no peer in the art of Recalling!
I recalled every word spoken in the desert, in the tents, in the city
every song of love and every song of battle
and all the tales of The Days of the Arabs
I could imitate every poet who hitherto had existed
and call him my equal. So huge was my memory.
Then I was smitten by the sword of conscience, at a ripe age

I sang the Koran from morning till evening. I abjured
all I declared that others before me had written
Everything that came out of my mouth was utterly falsified
The traditions I claimed to remember were new
and of The Days of the Arabs I knew less than nothing
Then I went forth, in the Square, for the people of Kufa
and confessed publicly how much I had falsified—
The crowed fell silent, someone cried out    Finally
all cried out at once: We thought better of you
when you lied to us than now when you speak truth!
After that cry I set off for home, brooding
and from the depths of my thought’s thought rose thoughts’ thoughts
Stammering I said: Henceforward you will speak Truth!
Something that was given to you has been taken from you, something has been given
Be you Heathen, Jew, Christian, or a Submissive:
Of the Prophet, blessed of God, I know nothing,
and in the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful
of him I know, by God Almighty, less than Nothing.


This we have heard: A holy man, Khalaf, surnamed the Red
lied half his life, understood, and thereafter spoke Truth
His, or Someone’s tomb lies close by here, of stone
four-sided, with a turban, but if it is he who rests there
we do not know.
                       —I went there, to the tomb of the truth-liar
at dusk, and sat a while. Then, in the distance I saw
a pregnant woman come and with her nails scratch
a bit of mortar, a few particles of stone, which she raised to her mouth
Then she walked away, her head bowed over her belly, as if whispering:
May you be like him who spoke truth
when he lied, and who lied when he spoke truth

from the section entitled EARTH WATER
in Guide to the Underworld by Gunnar Ekelöf (1967), translation © 1980 Rika Lesser. All rights reserved.