Monday, 10 February 2014

Harry Martinson: The Procession of Memories

Tom at Wuthering Heights is reading Scandinavian literature this year. In the spirit of contributing to this project, and seeing in it a way of conflating it with my readings for the European Reading Challenge, I decided to re-read Harry Martinson’s The Procession of Memories.

Harry Martinson (1904-1978), Swedish poet, had a rough life. At the age of 6 his father died of tuberculosis and his mother, in order to escape overwhelming debts, abandoned her seven children and fled to America. The siblings were scattered over foster homes, or rather local farms, and fell apart as they were moved about. In an unhappy adolescence marred by hard labour and loveless surrogate families, reading and school were his lifeboats, even if his schooling ended after his thirteenth year. Then at the age of 16 he became a sailor and for the next decade travelled about the world, having even attempted a failed trip to America to meet his estranged mother. In 1927, after a bout of malaria, he abandoned the sea forever. He returned to Sweden, barely living better than a tramp, but a new stage in his life was beginning as he also began writing poetry. His poetry, which he tried to sell to newspapers, attracted the attention of Helga Johnansson, a leftist feminist, who invited him to stay at her farm; soon they were married. In 1929 he published his first poetry book, Phantom Ships, the beginning of a career that culminated with his receiving the Nobel Prize in 1974.

Lars Nordström, the book’s translators, states in the introduction that Martinson “belonged to a large group of prominent writers who emerged during the 1920s and 1930s from rural, proletarian origins to dominate Swedish literary life for the next half century. Most had very little formal education – they were a generation of autodidacts.” That is very marked in Martinson’s poetry, his preoccupation with poverty, his experiences as a sailor, and his informal, direct style. In The Procession of Memories: Selected Poems 1929-1945, Nordström gives us a selection that focuses on Martinson’s pet themes over his life – his childhood, his experience as sailor and vagabond, and his fascination with nature and the cosmos.

If Harry Martinson isn’t one of the great modern poets, at least he’s a very readable one. These poems, at least, establish Martinson as one of the great writers of the sea, up there with Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad.


We are the phantom ships, silently traveling
toward sun-ups and dawns.
We are the ships without homes, forever moving.
We sail silently in northern storms
and in temperate south sea swells -
we are the ships without homes, forever moving.

And the same wild dreams
always haunt our journey,
and the same songs reverberate always.
And forgotten storms wake up
to a deadly dance across the currents -
and an identical swell hums mildly and completely reconciling.

Look, a thousand ships have lost their course
and drifted off in the fog and a thousand
men have foundered while praying to the stars.
And we still see destinies just like them
heading toward the morning rays.
And the same dreams still fill
our tired brains.

But in the dark heavens of Orion,
just as twinkling, shines on tired men
who no longer pay attention to the visions of morning.
Tonight the rest of us still dream
about dawn's glittering light that will rise
over the wrecks on desolate dunes.


Our thoughts are like sea birds -
always in flight.
When we eat meat soup
in the mess hall while passing Cape Cod
our old sea bird leaves a dropping
on that milepost of the sea - Rockall
or dozes off like a sleepy penguin -
with a newly washed shirt-front -
down by Mount Ross -
or doesit whisper like a fatigued dove
in Karen's ear, my sweet Karen,
in the mayor's kitchen in Kerteminde?
Our thoughts are like sea birds
and they always fly away from us;
and we sit in the mess hall while passing Cape Cod -
sooty, sweaty - and the meat soup...
well, it is definitely nothing to write home about –


I remember a mouth that never smiled at me.
And the moor sang about this mouth
but never about me.
I remember a well tub with a squeaking wood;
morning and evening, I would wind up water
on a windlass that howled like a dog.

And all around the wind sighed in the grass;
a gate hung with broken shoulders;
the cracked, rusty eye of a hinge looked into
a grove of junipers.

The milk separator sang, barelegged maids cranked;
far, far away there was the world behind a scene of jagged forest.
Often, to the sound of the separator, maids droned a psalm
about the rose on Jolanta's bosom, and Gyllenpalm and the murderer.

Far, far away there were the islands of the world,
glowing evening lakes
that shone in the sunset -
I scratched my mosquito bites until they bled,
hit the cows with sticks
because the red lips never smiled at me.


It is an ordinary day with wide winds from the sea with women’s hair
streaming in the breeze.
Sun-eyed children listen to seashells.

Someone with a flute – far away – plays a few birds and kisses. They
flutter in the sea wind and die.
Women listen – and smile – their bosoms heave like the swells and tremble
when they fall.

Men have to go aside to hide their arousal – young
poor men with beautiful limbs concealed by ragged clothes.
Is there no eye caressing us from under the shoreline trees?
Aren’t there odes sung for us that makes our blood sing?

The grass stretches out like a greed god, the sky makes an arch and the sun frolics.
A man dreaming stands on the reef waiting: Let there be light!

It is an ordinary day with wide winds from the sea.


Today we are locked inside these plains –
surrounded by impenetrable, heavy, gray falling snow.
We splash along dirty roads
and the roads go round and round, they go astray
and lose themselves in this haze of rain and snow.

It is as if we would never reach our home,
as if we would always have to wander here
today, in cold, wet sleet from the sea.


Your journey is done –
your clothes are being aired –
the window is open:
a coat on the clothesline reaches out
with fluttering arms.
It smells of stable,
waves to the rye stubble in the fields,
as if the past has been hung up – a tragedian of the air.
It flutters away, it is in a hurry,
like the crane, flying to Africa.


Poverty is not worst because it hounds a person to death,
because she does not want to walk down life’s road in shoes that are too tight.
Poverty is worst because of the inner hatred it gives birth to,
for the never-ending battle of pinpricks
which kill more unerringly than anything else in the house of the poor,
until a person does not know what is truly best anyway,
since she has stopped noticing the wind and the sun.


You waited for that hour when things would once again have a soul
and be visited within, on the day of introverted sensuality,
by good taste, soul and affection.

But the world was extroverted.
Only the misunderstandings ripened fully,

That new, deep communion you sang about never happened.
The table was set inside,
but only a few came
and only a few could partake.
The others came out of a sense of curiosity that meant nothing.

Your internal church of the flesh had to close.
Now it stands abandoned in the storm of steel
on the diabolical moor of the extroverted.

One of the most amazing poems from the book, however, is "The Bull Boy", a long prose poem describing the life of a bell buoy. I'll transcribe just an excerpt, which is after a ship sinks and the seamen are drifting in the water:

A German marine floated next to him with his short, pullover coat torn down the front, with the rip continuing to a gaping hole in his chest. His face smiled as if he were reading poems by Heine, but one of his legs had stiffened straight up into the air and sea water gurgled in his chest.
They floated on like an indolent flottila without a destination, and for all of them the buoy, the great steel onion, sang the East Frisian sandbanks's solitary song like a sad woman.
But no one heard it. Actually, one did -
One of them moved - slowly, slowly. One who had received a wound in his leg and who probably could have been saved if he had been a soldier on land. But now he was lost. He did not wake up. He turned infinitely slowly and heard as if in a distant murmur: the bell - and smiled just as infinitely slowly and died. He was an ardent Catholic and before he died he dreamed slowly about his funeral - a summer Sunday in an Irish cemetery back home in Donegal.
But the bell buoy swayed with its shining body of steel and sang, as more and more bodies in the flotilla of the dead rocked forward and went to the bottom in the whirlpool around her hips.

Another remarkable long prose poem is "Convoy Painted in Camouflage", about a naval convoy being torpedoed in World War I. Here's an excerpt, describing in vivid detail a ship being hit by a torpedo. Again the imagery is vivid and visceral:

The stokers lie scattered on the floor, hang over the ladders, with their flesh boiled off their limbs, with snow-white skulls, snow-white bones, boiled clean by the steam that puffs and billows as if there were hot springs in the sea.

Ship after ship in the convoy: the dagger decorated in green from the naval high command rams them, they sink in the sea, the high pressure boilers howl. Howl that howl. The howl of exploding boilers nine hundred and eighty miles from shore! And the stokers at their stations are boiled to skeletons. Snow-white skeletons.

Pieces of wreckage from a torpedoed convoy usually float around for a long time. They go in all directions on the sea, crawl under the horizons, trying to help the wounded who cling to the painted floatsam.
The pieces of wreckage from a torpedoed convey are painted with deceiving cubes, squares, prisms and their colors merge with the clouds, the horizons, the water.

Although Sweden gets accused of favouring its native writers too often, I think in this case it was a well-deserved choice. If people haven’t heard of his poetry before, that’s their loss, not a blight on Harry Martinson.

This was read for European Reading Challenge.


  1. Well this is encouraging. A local library has not this book but a later "selected poems." I will give it a try.

    1. Tom, I certainly hope you give it a try; I look forward to reading your thoughts about Harry Martinson.