“Trembling in the dew. / Dancing in the fog.” Seriously Well by Helge Torvund

Can you
instead of
grieving the awful
deeds you have done,
or shuddering
dread the horror
that may come,
enjoy the fact
that you are
seriously well?

With a work of poetry that arises from an experience of significant illness, one might expect a to travel a familiar pathway through diagnosis, treatment and recovery—a healing journey. In his book-length poem, Seriously Well, Norwegian poet Helge Torvund begins with a meditation on the wonderous power of poetry to facilitate emotional connection and moves through a sequence of poems that explore questions of the relationship between mood and environment, the possibility of welcoming of Death as a companion in life, and the bond between the physical body and the energies of the world. The speaker calls to mind adult and childhood memories. Fashions thoughtful wisdoms and parables. These gentle free verse pieces unfold in quiet anticipation, or preparation, for what ultimately lies ahead in the doctor’s office where he receives worrying news.

Originally published in Norwegian in the collection Alt Brenner in 2011, this sequence of poems has now been translated by the author and released by The Song Cave. The tone of this work is crystalline, meditative and wise. The wonder of nature, the quality of light, and the comforting nearness of water are key motifs that recur, but there is also, underlying it all, an ever present awareness that life is fragile and death will, in time, come for all living creatures and things. A most affecting poem, not quite midway through, finds the speaker waking in the middle of a winter night noticing:

that something,
one thing or another,
was different,
strange, remarkable.

With his family asleep, he gathers his clothing, gets dressed and steps outside into a snowy world lit by a full moon. He marvels at the distorted landscape:

You recognize this side
but still it is different,
strange, peculiar, odd,
remarkable.
Sinister,
but beautiful too.
Changed. Deformed.

Further along, down by the water, he notices a strange shape, an object that suddenly moves. A heron on the ice cold concrete:

I went a bit closer,
stopped for a while.
I saw its ancient gaze
staring at me over
the long narrow beak.
There was great wisdom
in that eye.
I moved even closer.
It did not fly away?
No.
How
strange.
Suddenly it lay down
on the concrete.
And the eyes
became begging, helpless.

This nocturnal encounter with a dying heron seems to embody the keen perception and restrained sentiment that gives this sequence its immediate emotional force. Through a series of similar meditations and tales,  Torvund guides his reader toward what so often feels elusive—even impossible in our darkest moments—an expression of acceptance that is timeless and enduring.

Seriously Well by Helge Torvund is translated from the Norwegian by the author and published by The Song Cave.