Translator's Note: Barley Field
Olav H. Hauge's flavor is persistent, like the taste of persimmons that we can never forget. His poems are as nourishing as an old apple that a goat has found in the orchard. He has much to give, and he gives it in small spoonfuls, as nurses give medicine. Everywhere in the daylight of his work, you see tiny experiences being valued: "Midwinter. Snow./I gave the birds a piece of bread./And it didn't affect my sleep."
He loved to honor culture, and he honored it more than many classics professors do. People in his neighborhood felt a little fear when they entered his small, book-filled house. He was liable to pull down a fat volume, printed in Oxford, and say, "No doubt you've read this?" Very few people in town had read it, but there wasn't a trace of scorn in his question. He loved the book so much he thought it quite possible that you did too.
What is it like to spend your whole life on a farm with no support from your family or from the community? It would be lonely, something like walking in a marsh in the middle of the woods: "It is the roots from all the trees that have died/out here, that's how you can walk/safely over the soft places."
One would have to realize that the old Chinese poets have lived this sort of life before you; they wrote poems; they didn't die of fear. Hauge was able to compare himself to a drowned person he once heard about: "that cold person/who drowned himself here once/helps hold up your frail boat./He, really crazy, trusted his life/to water and eternity."
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 to love poetry more than that.
Lewis Hyde, in his great book The Gift, discusses the nature of the old precommercial gift-giving society. The economy of scarcity, he says, is always associated with gift-giving. Olav H. Hauge lived in a gift-giving, pre-communal society all of his life. The richness in his small house lay in the handmade spoons and bowls, the wooden reading chair, and the bookcases to which the best poetry from many continents had found its way.
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This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine