Lars Gustafsson(1936 –2016) was born in Västerås, Sweden on May 17. A Swedish poet, novelist, and scholar, he published his first novel in 1959, and his first poetry collection the following year. Some of his poetry collections have been published in the U.S, including: The Stillness of the World Before Bach (New Directions, 1988), Elegies and Other Poems (New Directions, 2000), and A Time in Xanadu (Copper Canyon Press, 2008). Gustafsson was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin from 1983 until 2006, when he retired and returned to Sweden.
To read the Lars Gustafsson poem “Elegy for a Dead Labrador” click:
Elegy for a Dead Labrador
by Lars Gustafsson
Here there may be, in the midst of summer,
a few days when suddenly it’s fall.
Thrushes sing on a sharper note.
The rocks stand determined out in the water.
They know something. They’ve always known it.
We know it too, and we don’t like it.
On the way home, in the boat, on just such evenings
you would stand stock-still in the bow, collected,
scouting the scents coming across the water.
You read the evening, the faint streak of smoke
from a garden, a pancake frying
half a mile away, a badger
standing somewhere in the same twilight
sniffing the same way. Our friendship
was of course a compromise; we lived
together in two different worlds: mine,
mostly letters, a text passing through life,
yours, mostly smells. You had knowledge
I would have given much to have possessed:
the ability to let a feeling—eagerness, hate, or love—
run like a wave throughout your body
from nose to tip of tail, the inability
ever to accept the moon as fact.
At the full moon you always complained loudly against it.
You were a better Gnostic than I am. And consequently
you lived continually in paradise.
You had a habit of catching butterflies on the leap,
and munching them, which some people thought disgusting.
I always liked it. Why
couldn’t I learn from you? And doors.
In front of closed doors you lay down and slept
sure that sooner or later the one would come
who’d open up the door. You were right.
I was wrong. Now I ask myself, now this
long mute friendship is forever finished,
if possibly there was anything I could do
which impressed you. Your firm conviction
that I called up the thunderstorms
doesn’t count. That was a mistake. I think
my certain faith that the ball existed,
even when hidden behind the couch,
somehow gave you an inkling of my world.
In my world most things were hidden
behind something else. I called you “dog,”
I really wonder whether you perceived me
as a larger, noisier “dog”
or as something different, forever unknown,
which is what it is, existing in that attribute
it exists in, a whistle
through the nocturnal park one has got used to
returning to without actually knowing
what it is one is returning to. About you,
and who you were, I knew no more.
One might say, from this more objective
standpoint, we were two organisms. Two
of those places where the universe makes a knot
in itself, short-lived, complex structures
of proteins that have to complicate themselves
more and more in order to survive, until everything
breaks and turns simple once again, the knot
dissolved, the riddle gone. You were a question
asked of another question, nothing more,
and neither had the answer to the other.
― translated by Yvonne L. Sandstroem
“Elegy for a Dead Labrador” from The Stillness of the World Before Bach, © 1977 by Lars Gustafsson, translation © 1983 by Yvonne L. Sandstroem ― New Directions Publishing
Photo: A black Labrador travels up the Kenai River on a boat’s bow, by Joel Sartore