A new discovery for me and perhaps for you
Have you heard of a poet called Bodil Bech? I am assuming that you haven’t but if I’m wrong please leave me a reply and tell me more. She was Danish and wrote in the 1920s and ‘30s. This is her most famous poem:
In the Tram by Bodil Bech
Why I wonder am I so strangely happy?
It’s as if two birds were living
behind my tense breasts –
golden sweetness rises and falls
each time I breathe –
this tender quivering is almost painful –
my feet have an urge to leave the ground,
and my arms to row up into the heavens.
So I am
no ordinary lady –
Or maybe I am
extremely ordinary –
for am I not sitting here
in the tram
paying the conductor
and turning a calm profile
towards the window?
Perhaps there are many such women,
also turning a calm profile
towards the window
who are just as profoundly happy as I am.
Are we all sitting
with birds behind our breasts
and with a lap quivering
like a fiery rose?
Trans. John Irons, 100 Danish poems – from the medieval ballad to the present day (University of Washington Press, 2011). ‘In the Tram’ was first published in 1938.
If you were not impressed you will need read no further – but everyone I’ve shared this poem with has been impressed so I am assuming you are still with me.
This poem has been on my mind recently for several reasons. I’ve just started reading the lively new anthology The Zoo of the New edited by Nick Laird and Don Paterson. They feel pleased that they have upped the percentage of women poets considerably from previous anthologies like the Heaney / Hughes Rattlebag. However, I found that I’d assumed (rightly as it turns out) that they would not include Bodil Bech or what has become her signature poem. Although it is easy to find online these days, Bodil Bech is a very unfamiliar name to Anglophone poets. Which is why I have been advancing the cause of this poem in small ways.
I read ‘In the Tram’ at the Teignmouth Poetry Festival a few weeks ago. I’ve attended all the festivals so far – this was the fourth. From the beginning Teignmouth has included a very welcome innovation – an evening of poetry in translation. Such a great idea. There seems to be an abundance of linguists in the area and the number of languages covered is impressive. I asked if I could add the Danish of Bodil Bech this year and was accepted. I read the English first, then the Danish. I wanted the audience to have the pleasure of picking up echoes of those words we adapted from what became Danish into our English word hoard: words like brysterne for breasts, ro for row and, best of all, sk∅d. The last word is the most interesting. It is pronounced ‘skerth’ and means ‘lap’. It looks a bit like English skirt, which might be considered to relate to lap – so I looked up skirt in the OED. I was very happy to find that, in Middle English, skirt occasionally meant lap.
I should perhaps explain that my mother was from Copenhagen. She died almost 60 years ago but I remain a loyal half-Dane in her honour. She might well have taken that same tram and, who knows, had those same thoughts and feelings. In preparation for reading the poem in the original in Danish at Teignmouth, I had a cousin read it in her lovely Danish into my phone. I played it back endlessly, trying to copy her lovely, subtle intonations. I think I got away with the rendition – it was, of course, a labour of love.