And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

søndag 21. januar 2018

First reads, or Excerpts from a personal history of reading

In the learning of languages there are certain milestones that remain indelibly in your memory as great achievements signalling that a threshold in the learning process has been overcome. For my mother tongue, Norwegian, I have vivid memories of reading aloud to myself a Donald Duck story written by Carl Barks when I must have been five years old. I remember the closing panel of the comic, the room where I had placed myself in solitude, stomach on the floor, to read in peace, and I remember the feeling of triumph that followed what was my first read, the proof that from now on I had a command of my language that would open up the world of texts for me.

I've had experiences like these in every language that I have made an effort to learn (I'm here not including Swedish and Danish, as these are sufficiently close to Norwegian and have been part of my upbringing in ways that have made it easy for me to internalise them). For English, this sensation of the first read came when I laboured through Alistair MacLean's suspense novel Bear Island,  which I by that time had already read twice in Norwegian and which remains one of my favourite novels. This was at the age of fourteen, I think, and I worked my way through MacLean's beautiful but complicated prose by having two editions side-by-side on the table, one in English, the other in Norwegian. Granted, I had read coherent texts in English before this in school, but this was the first time I aimed for a text that was beyond the expected level, and that I had chosen of my own volition.

Triumphs such as these have followed in the various languages I have attempted to learn. These triumphs do not indicate fluency or completely literacy in the language in question. Rather, as they mark the threshold that divides basic knowledge from literary coherence in the learning process, these triumphs come at an early stage in the learning process itself. Also, it should be emphasised that one language might hold several first reads, as each marks a different level of difficulty. I presume these first reads are common to anyone who engages consciously in the learning of languages, and they are absolutely wonderful thresholds to pass.

I recently had one such first read in my learning of Spanish. This is a language I started learning in senior high at the age of seventeen, and which I took up again three years ago in order to become a fluent speaker. My first read in Spanish was a comic book in the series of Mortadelo y Filemón by Francisco Ibañez, and this happened on a flight back from Spain in 2015. Since then I have read more albums of Mortadelo y Filemón, and I have consciously tried to become a more advanced reader. This happened last week, when I had sat down with a bilingual edition of the collected poems of Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel laureate. I had borrowed this edition because I was not confident in my own ability to read Spanish poetry (previous experiences had taught me that Spanish poetry can be immensely difficult). However, I was delighted to find that the reading went very smoothly, and that I only occasionally cast a glance at the English translation in order to find the meaning of words that were new to me. Much of this owes to Octavio Paz' simple syntax and clearly flowing verses where sentences often consist solely of subject and verb, or subject and adjective. In not to long, therefore, I had finished reading his poetry collection Salamandra, which has become yet another first read for me in Spanish. In celebration of that, I am here sharing one poem from this collection with you.


Pensamientos en guerra
quieren romper mi frente

Por caminos de pájaros
avanza la escritura

La mano piensa en voz alta
una palabra llama a otra

En la hoja en que escribo
van y vienen los seres que beo

El libro y el cuaderno
repliegan las alas y reposan

Ya encendieron las lámparas
la hora se abre y cierra como un lecho

Con medias rojas y cara pálida
entran tú y la noche


Warring thoughts try
to split my skull

This writing moves
through streets of birds

My hand thinks out loud
a word calls to another

On this page where I write
I see beings that come and go

The book and the notebook
unfold their wings and rest

The lamps are lit the hour
opens and closes like a bed

With red stockings and a pale face
you and the night come it
- From Salamandra, translation published in The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz 1957-1987, chiefly translated by Eliot Weinberger with additional translations by Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Blackburn, Lysander Kemp, Denise Levertov, John Frederick Nims, Mark Strand and Charles Tomlinson. Printed by New Directions Press, 1987.

søndag 31. desember 2017

Star - a poem by Derek Walcott

I woke up this morning remebering the faint outlines of a dream whose only feature that stayed with me was an imagined reading of poetry by the late Derek Walcott, my favourite poet of any language. This dream left a yearning in me to hear his voice read poetry, and after looking for videos and recordings I came across this hauntingly beautiful reading of his poem Star, the first of his poems that I learned by heart.

Although I find this poem suitable for any time of the year, and for any year, there is something about its quietly sought-out yearning for normalcy, plainness, the ordinary, which resonates perhaps particularly strongly now at the tail end of 2017, a year that has seen so much reversal of precariously sustained progress in our constant quest for the peace of plain days that are denied the majority of us. This year, the poem also resonates particularly strongly with me because of my own trajectory that has taken me through a lot of work, great personal grief, exhaustion, and the conclusion of a three-year engagement as a PhD candidate. I look back at a year that has been filled with both sadness and personal accomplishments, and some treasured moments of intense happiness, and I long for a year that is less chaotic, that is more calm, and that does not leave me as tired and as confused as 2017.


If, in the light of things, you fade
real, yet wanly withdrawn
to our determined and appropriate
distance, like the moon left on
all night among the leaves, may
you invisibly delight this house;
O star, doubly compassionate, who came
too soon for twilight, too late
for dawn, may your pale flame
direct the worst in us
through chaos
with the passion of
plain day.

- From the poetry collection The Gulf, 1970

torsdag 28. desember 2017

Wild Swans

Early on the feast of the Holy Innocents (technically yesterday), there were two swans feeding in the lake righy by the house where my grandparents used to live. We had seen these swans, together with four others, a couple of days ago in flight up the valley where my parents live, and then again, though possibly not the same ones, at a different part of the lake shortly after that. It was a beautiful sight to see them dive for food and then float nonchalantly on the surface, defying the cold and the ice that slowly spreads in shards across the lake. It reminded me of the poem The Wild Swans at Coole, by William Butler Yeats, which I include towards the end of this blogpost.

The Wild Swans at Coole

(courtesy of this website)

The trees are in their autumn beauty, 
The woodland paths are dry, 
Under the October twilight the water 
Mirrors a still sky; 
Upon the brimming water among the stones 
Are nine-and-fifty swans. 

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me 
Since I first made my count; 
I saw, before I had well finished, 
All suddenly mount 
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings 
Upon their clamorous wings. 

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures, 
And now my heart is sore. 
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight, 
The first time on this shore, 
The bell-beat of their wings above my head, 
Trod with a lighter tread. 

Unwearied still, lover by lover, 
They paddle in the cold 
Companionable streams or climb the air; 
Their hearts have not grown old; 
Passion or conquest, wander where they will, 
Attend upon them still. 

But now they drift on the still water, 
Mysterious, beautiful; 
Among what rushes will they build, 
By what lake's edge or pool 
Delight men's eyes when I awake some day 
To find they have flown away? 

mandag 25. desember 2017

Norwegian Christmas Ale

One of the many traditional preparations for the Christmas celebration here in Norway, is the brewing of the Christmas ale. In my family, and in families throughout my native village, this is usually started three-four days before Christmas Eve, so that the flavour settles properly in time for the main feast (which in Norway is on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day). The Christmas ale usually goes by the name "sukkerøl", sugar ale, as it is very sweet. It is brewed on a syrup made from boiled juniper twigs, which is then mixed with water that has been boiled. The mixture then cools down a bit, and then we add a malt syrup, sugar water that has boiled but cooled down, and yeast. Some also use hop instead of malt.

The ale is then kept at a certain temperature for the yeast to do its work, and it is then left overnight to ferment a bit. The purpose of the sugar ale, however, is not to make strong ale, and for that reason we stop the fermentation on the evening after we started the process, meaning that we only let it ferment for about 24 hours. We then put it on glasses and bottles, which is done by putting a plastic hose into the ale container and the ale is then tapped. This is the part where I feel most like an alchemist when brewing.

This year we ran into an unexpected problem, as my father - who is the main hand in the hole brewing process - had accidentally shortened the hose, so that we couldn't get it all the way to the floor. There needs to be a certain fall between the ale level and the bottle for the tapping to go smoothly, and this year - as can be seen below - we had to improvise. In the end, when the level had sunk from about twenty to ten litres, we were left with no other option than to pour the ale onto glasses and bottles through a funnel covered by a cloth to keep out the dregs - an option that we usually seek to avoid as it is both heavier work and less precise.

In the end, however, we were left with around twenty litres of ale. We had consciously reduced the volume a bit, because we rarely manage to drink all of if in the course of the Christmas season, not even when we give to neighbours and guests. Today being Christmas Day, I have already tasted several bottles of the ale, and I'm happy to say that we've managed to hit the right flavour this year too.

Merry Christmas!

tirsdag 19. desember 2017

Working with liturgical fragments, part 4 - Saint Stephen on the spine

One of my greatest challenges so far in working with the manuscript fragments of the university library of Southern Denmark, is a collection of seven strips of fragments surviving on the spine of a very thick book. The thickness of the spine has, thankfully, made my task much easier than it otherwise would have been, as that made it necessary for the binder to use thicker strips with more surviving texts. However, most of the strips have been torn from the manuscript pages vertically, providing a cross-section of the texts where the texts only survive by a few words (and sometimes those words are complete). As I'm still working on this particular case, and as it has been a very exciting challenge, I'm going to write about it more completely in a future blogpost. The present blogpost, however, will serve more as an appetiser, showing the most completely surviving string of text, and the only one which has been cut horizontally rather than vertically.

Syddansk universitetsbibliotek, 534.11

This fragment comes, as can be seen, from the top of the spine, and as it is cut horizontally we can make out the text "[pere]unt nostri crimini umbracula. Hodie seculo maris stella [est]". This text is from a sequence, a chant that is sung during the mass. This particular sequence is performed on the feast of of Saint Stephen (December 26). The nature of the chant tells us that the medieval manuscript was either a sequentiary, a missal, or a gradual, which are the types of books containing texts for the mass.

As stated, this little strip of text is the most complete survival of the seven fragments found on this spine. I have at this stage identified several of the remaining fragments, but a lot of work remains to be done with the rest, and I hope to be able to report exciting news in this regard after the Christmas holiday.

torsdag 30. november 2017

The Tenderness Manifesto - a poem by Mbella Sonne Dipoko

As the month draws to its close and we are on the verge of the Advent period and - in academia - the hectic scramble of tying loose ends together before the Christmas break, I'm presenting to you this poem by anglophone Cameroonian poet Mbella Sonne Dipoko. The poem comes from his poetry collection Black and White in love, printed in Heinemann's African Writer Series. It is a powerful,  exhortation of love of humanity and love of culture, and can be appreciated both on its own but also in light of its age when several countries in Africa were in the process of shedding their colonial status, and when the political games between the ideologies of Capitalism and Communism played into the geopolitical scenes across the African continent. But most importantly, it is a powerful poetic manifesto which at its very core is as timeless as poetry itself.

tirsdag 28. november 2017

Working with liturgical fragments, part 3 - The tiniest fragment

As I'm continuing my work with the liturgical fragments at the library of University of Southern Denmark, I find myself learning more and more about the books from which the fragments come, as well as the texts that they contain. As these fragments mostly come from liturgical material, they contain texts that are common to all of Latin Christendom, and this makes it easier to track down the full text of what survives in perhaps only a line or a few scattered words. In some cases I have learned to expect certain chants to appear together, either one following the other or as part of the same feast. I have also learned just how much it is possible to glean from a very small amount of information. This is part of why working with fragments is at times immensely exciting and rewarding, and it is what sometimes makes you peruse long lists of possible matches in databases, because you know that there is a great possibility that it will pay off.

Other times, however, it becomes clear that there is very little that can be done due to the scarcity of information. One such case became apparent yesterday as I was photographing some of the fragments in the library reading room. I had been given a set of photos taken by a colleague, and once I had exhausted the information available from those pictures I wanted to have a closer look to see if there was anything missing. It turned out that there was indeed something missing, but much more than I had expected.

The fragment in question has the shelfmark RARA Musik L 43 and contains materials for mass, meaning that the original manuscript was likely a missal or a gradual, which are books containing chants for the mass. The book with which the fragment was bound, contained namely a sister volume which had once upon a time been bound in the same way and likely with a fragment from the same manuscript as in the first volume. Of this second fragment, however, only the tiniest shred remained - enough to indicate the type of notation, and that the halved letter was an initial in red and black - possibly a versicle or an antiphon, as can be seen below. Sometimes, although grudgingly, I have to admit that I most likely will never be able to work out which part of the original manuscript this fragment came from. How much information has been lost in this, can be seen when comparing the rich and clear textual material from the surviving fragment of its sister volume, as seen below.

RARA Musik L 43, Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

RARA Musik L 43, Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek