Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A SHOUT FROM COPENHAGEN: Dan Turèll's 27-year-old cigar

"Dan Turèll has one of those large, humanistic voices like Mayakovsky
and Yevtushenko. Impressive and engaging and at its best hypnotic."

-Steve Kowit

After a couple months in the shadowland of divorce, I'm
back, and I am here to tell you about Dan Turèll – a too-early late,
great Danish poet – and his poet-actress widow, Chili. And I am here
to tell you about Barry Lereng Wilmont, a Canadian-Danish
artist-writer who fortunately is still very much whinnying with us.
And I am here to tell you about a cigar, a Cohiba robusto, which I
smoked today in the great Copenhagen serving house, Rosengaardens
Bodega, where a Gestapo informer known as The Horsethief was
liquidated on Hitler's birthday, 1943 – a present for the Führer.

Let me start with Barry Lereng Wilmont. He was born in
Canada in 1936, moved with his Danish-Canadian mother and Canadian
father to Denmark in 1940, immediately prior to the German invasion
and five-year occupation of this democratic kingdom. Having been here
when the Germans arrived, Barry had to stay and, as an
English-speaking foreigner, albeit a four-year-old one, be concealed.
In the 1960s, Barry attended the Royal Danish Art Academy and has
since then became a recognized Danish artist, deeply involved in
contemporary Danish culture, inter alia as co-editor of the remarkable
Danish literary journal, Victor B. Andersen's Maskfabrik, as well as a
good friend of the Danish poet Dan Turèll, an icon here who died at
the age of 48 in 1993 but who is still a model and a hero for the
young poets of this country.

"Before I die I want to stroll through the city one last time

let this be my last humble wish

to walk on my own feet through my city

through the city of Copenhagen

as I've done so many times before

and I'll know this is the last time

and I'll choose my route with care…

and I'll know how short and strange life is…"

-Dan Turèll, "Last Walk through the City"

Although I have lived in Copenhagen since 1976 as, I guess
I must say, an expatriate American writer, I never met Dan Turèll or
Barry Lereng Wilmont. Let me expound upon that: I once saw Dan
Turèll, in Cykelstalden Café on the east side of Copenhagen in about
1980. I knew who he was, but he of course did not know me. I sat
over a plate of hash and a beer there, a lunch-time escapee from my
office job, wearing suit and tie, and observed the already well-known
"Uncle Danny" in his black goatee and black jacket and black hat, his
fingernails painted black, nursing a black gold beer and a little
glass of black bitter. He saw me looking and nodded in friendly
acknowledgement, and I thought, He thinks I'm just any old office
stiff in tie and suit and what I should do now is leap to my feet and
recite Ginsberg's "Howl" or Ferlinghetti's "Autobiography," both of
which I knew by heart. But I did not have the moxie to do so, and
anyway what in the world would he have made of that? He finished his
beer and bitter, nodded again and left, and I ate the rest of my hash,
brooding about the fact that I was an expatriate writer who had never
published anything although I had been trying both in the US and
Denmark for nearly 15 years, and here once again I had proven myself
unworthy to the occasion of seizing an opportunity to meet and speak
with a poet who was known to be interested in America and beats and
might very well have been open to an approach.

"…I've sat many hours at my window and stared down at the street

and seen the lonely men drifting around the live shows

gazing at neon breasts and trying to pull themselves together

slink three-four steps away and then back again

look to all sides to see if someone sees them…

they can't see John down in the Comet staring out the window

they can't see Sussie in Sexorama's back room either

but we can see them eventually sneaking in

with their coatcollar up around their ears…"

-Dan Turèll, "Life on Isted Street"

Flash forward about 28 years: I am now a published
writer, author of 20+ books, most recently an anthology of
translations from the Danish, and my telephone rings. It is someone
named Barry Lereng Wilmont, who had just heard an interview with me on
Danish radio in which I talked about translating an extraordinary
Danish poet named Henrik Nordbrandt, my translations of whom had been
published in American Poetry Review, The Literary Review, Agni and
elsewhere. Barry was in the process of translating, to Danish, and
illustrating a new edition of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets and wanted
to confer with me about the translation of the line, "Where is the
summer, the unimaginable zero summer?" from "Little Gidding."

We discussed the line, and in the course of our discussion
we agreed that it was extraorindary that two people like us, artists
from the new world who were now living in the old one, had never met
and, further, agreed to rectify that lapse. So we met, discovered
that we both enjoy beer and cigars, exchanged books and thoughts.
Barry mentioned that he had heard the interview on Danish radio in
which I mentioned Henrik Nordbrandt, told me he knew Nordbrandt and
had worked with him, and furthermore asked if I knew the work of Dan
Turèll which he intuited that I might be well-qualified to translate
into English.

Not only did I know and revere the poetry of Dan Turèll,
I could not imagine that, 15 years after the man's untimely death at
the age of 48, it had not already been translated.

"…In my old neighborhood haunt there were signs hanging outside

about serving food

but nobody ever saw anything but bottles inside

and no one could remember when those signs had meant anything

but on the other hand a lot of things were sold

that weren't mentioned on the signs…

and sometimes one of the bartenders did some time

and while Jerry was in for three months for a big shipment of ketogan

Jerry's girlfriend Lizzi moved in with Bob

and when Jerry got out she moved back

and none of the three said much about it

that was just life…"

-Dan Turèll, "My Old Neighborhood Haunt"

To cut to the chase: Barry arranged a meeting between me
and Dan's widow, a Danish poet and actress named Chili Turèll. Barry
suggested to Chili that I might be the right person to translate Dan's
poetry. She agreed to let me try. I tried. She liked what I had
done. Meanwhile, a celebrated Danish documentary film maker named
Anders Østergaard had just completed a film about Turèll, and I was
invited to attend its pre-premiere. It was a wonderful film which
brought tears to my eyes that I had never seized that opportunity 28
years before to make my existence known to Dan in the Cykelstald Café,
but which must have been a far far greater emotional experience for
both Chili and Barry.

"…You walk down through a long street

which you know or maybe don't know

in your own city or an unknown one

and you raise your eyes and look at those thousands

of shining lit-up windows

and you know that behind every single window people live

and that simple thought everytime is so new and strange…"

-Dan Turèll, "Behind Every Single Window"

Cut to another chase, today Barry and I met for the fourth
or fifth time in another Danish serving house, Rosengårds Bodega,
after hearing that some of my translations of Dan's work would appear
in the esteemed 73-year-old American literary journal, NEW LETTERS.
In the Bodega, Barry removed from his satchel a wooden box; from
that, he removed a cardboard matchbox which Dan had brought home many
years before from Malta, where he and Chili had stayed while Dan wrote
scenes of a book set on that island, and a Cohiba robusto cigar
wrapped carefully in a napkin. The Cohiba, Barry told me, had been
given to him by Dan after an evening they spent together in 1981 when
they were collaborating on a book.

This magnificent cigar was, thus, 27 years old. In honor
of our meeting, in honor of the memory of Dan, in honor of the
impending publication of my English translations of some of Dan's
poems in NEW LETTERS, Barry wanted me to smoke the cigar in this
serving house in which a Gestapo informer had been liquidated 65 years
before – there is still a bullet hole in the wall behind the bar.

"It might be dry," Barry said.

"But I can't smoke this," I protested. "It's a piece of history."

"I would like you to smoke it," Barry said in a manner
that convinced me he meant it.

I clipped and warmed the end with a matchstick from the
box of Dan's Maltese stick matches and puffed. The 27-year-old Cohiba
– perhaps thanks to the napkin in which Barry had wrapped and
preserved it – was delicious.

"I like everyday things

that slow waking up to the well-known view

that anyway never is quite so well-known

the morning kisses

the flop of mail through the door slot

the coffee aroma

the ritual wandering to the corner shop for milk, cigarettes, newspapers

I like everyday things despite all the irritations

the bus that rumbles by in the street

the telephone that incessantly disturbs the most beautiful,

blankest, stillest nothing

in my fish tank…"

-Dan Turèll, "A Tribute to Everyday"

And so I smoked Dan Turèll's 27-year-old Cohiba robusto.
And I thanked the gods of fate who had put me into contact with Barry
and Chili and made it possible for me to translate the poetry of Dan
Turèll and to share it with English-speaking people who do not read
Danish. And as I drew the delicious, aromatic smoke through the tube
of that robusto, given all those years ago from Dan's hand to Barry's
and now to mine, I thought about how simple and ordinary the things
Dan wrote about are, and in their simplicity and ordinariness how
strange and compelling and, as he said, "how short and strange life

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!

Thomas E. Kennedy


No comments: