When I read that the Norwegian poet, Olav Hauge (1908—1994), supported himself on sales from his small apple orchard, I immediately wanted to know more about him. I learned that his house was filled with wooden bowls, wooden utensils, wooden chairs, and poetry books from all over the world. Hauge taught himself French and English so he could read poets not translated into Norwegian, and translated Yeats, Holderlin, Rimbaud, and many other poets into Norwegian. Although there are several volumes of his poetry in English translation, he is rarely encountered.
I See You've Learned
few words and
in a fine rain
down the page
with light and air
I see you've learned
a woodpile in the forest,
good to stack it
so it can dry;
build one too long and low,
the wood will just sit there and rot.
—Tr. by Robert Hedin
We know Hauge has built many woodpiles. It’s not a poetic image he’s conjuring with pretty words, but motion after motion, his hand grabbing a log and placing it just so, to build a solid stack.
His bookshelves included my own favorite studio companions, the Chinese Taoist poets.
If one day T’ao Ch’ien
came to visit me, I
would show him my cherry and apple trees,
and I’d prefer him to come in spring
when they’re in blossom. Then we’ll sit in the shade
with a glass of cider, perhaps I’ll show him
a poem — if I can find one he’d like.
The dragons that blaze across the sky trailing poison
soared more quietly in his time, and more birds sang.
There’s nothing here he’d not understand.
More than ever he’d want to retire
to a little garden like this.
But I don’t know if he’d do so with a good conscience.
—Tr. Robin Fulton
The poet and translator, Robert Bly, wrote in his introduction to one of Hauge’s collections, The Dream We Carry,
If you have a tiny farm, you need to love poetry more than the farm. If you sell apples, you need to love poetry more than the apples. It’s good to settle down somewhere and love poetry more than either of them.
Bly understands something about the life of the farmer with a small farm or the orchardist with a small orchard. It’s not going to make you rich or even feed you well, but if you love its rhythms, its textures, tastes, and smells, its tough bark, and delicate blossoms, the punctuation of the songbird, and alliteration of the wind, you can be content. Poetry helps the farmer make it through the years of crop failures.
A simple life is not necessarily one without struggle and pain. Hauge had several stays in psychiatric hospitals and there is a knowing of darkness in his seemingly simple poems.
Let Me Be Like the Dung Beetle
Sorrow has settled over me
and weighs me down in a warm straw bed.
Let me at least move,
test my strength, lift this slab of sod —
let me be like the dung beetle
in spring when it digs itself out from the dung heap.
—Tr. Robert Bly and Robert Hedin
However, when he was 65, he married a Norwegian artist he met at one of his rare poetry readings and she brought cheer into his life. After Hauge’s death, his diaries were found and eventually published in five volumes.
In the days following the death of my friend, Sheila Carroll (1966—2016), I turned to the poetry of Hauge. I had sat vigil with her partner, Gabi White, and a few close friends as all air left Sheila’s body, as her hands turned ashen, as the early autumn night sounds came in the open window, and we knew she was not this body, but spirit transcending and becoming — wood pile, apple, dung beetle, loneliness, and beauty.
You build a house for your soul,
and wander proudly
with the house on your back,
like a snail.
When danger is near,
you crawl inside
and are safe
behind your hard
And when you are no more,
the house will
to your soul’s beauty.
And the sea of your loneliness
will sing deep
—Tr. Robert Bly and Robert Hedin
Sheila often shared her passion for mountains, birds, and the deep woods with me. I miss this friendship and her ever present joy for the simple things that matter most. On a few occasions she helped me in the orchard, but on Sundays, she loved to share big pots of chili, watch her beloved Patriots, and then sit outdoors with close friends around a fire. We each leave a wake behind — our words, our wood pile, the gift of our struggles and passions, the cultivated row, ready for new seed.