Månadens Martinson juli 2019 – av Elliott Brandsma

Turning Wonder into Compassion: A Meditation on Harry Martinson’s “Visit to an Observatory”

By Elliott Brandsma


Vi såg en nebulosa i en tub.
En gyllne dimflock tyckte vi oss se.
I större tuber kunde den sig te
som tusen solars ofattbara rum.

Vår tankes svindel föreställde sig
att den sig lyfte, högt från jordens krig,
från tid och rum – vårt livs naivitet –
till andra dimensioners majestät. 

Där härskar ingen lag av livets sort.
Där härskar lagarna för världars värld.
Där bölja solarna till mognad bort
och klinga in i alla solars härd.

En rikedom av solar finnes där.
Var sol pulserar där med alltets lag
i större solars oerhörda sken.
Och allt är klarhet där och dagars dag.

Ur Passad, 1945

Originally published in the collection Trade Winds [Passad] in 1945, “Visit to an Observatory” [Besök på Observatorium] is a succinct yet powerful poem that showcases Harry Martinson’s early fascination with cosmology and astronomy. The poem’s four verses describe an inspirational night of star-gazing during which Martinson and his friends see a distant nebula “in a tube.” While examining this “golden gathering of fog” through the humble lens of a telescope, Martinson recounts the awe—the “giddy thoughts”—he feels while observing the raw beauty of this natural wonder, praising the “majesty of other dimensions.” 

Both poignant and reverent, “Visit to an Observatory” is interesting piece because it marks critical developments in the style and subject matter of Martinson’s poetry. The poem serves not only as an homage to the mysteries and magnificence of outer space but also as a preface—an overture, of sorts—to his magnum opus: the sweeping science fiction poem Aniara. In its few stanzas, “Visit to an Observatory” invites readers to do more than just admire the splendor of the stars and behold the enigmatic nature of outer space. Like Aniara, the poem compels us to acknowledge humanity’s miniscule position in the cosmos and adopt a humbler, more compassionate view toward nature and our world.

In the poem’s second verse, Martinson imagines that the nebula he sees, with its otherworldly glory, rises beyond “the wars of earth,/above time and space” and above “the naiveté of our lives.” These lines reveal the poet’s cynical thoughts toward the events of his time, a time when the world was just beginning to convalesce from World War II. He envisions the nebula suspended in a realm where “the laws of the living…do not rule,” suggesting that freedom from human malice can only be truly achieved by ascending to the stars. Drawing a clear separation between the uncorrupted realm of space and the brokenness of our world, Martinson renders the majesty of the universe “incomprehensible,” putting the futility of human conflict into providential perspective.     

Martinson further elaborates this distinction between the worldly and otherworldly when he writes about the “wealth of suns” and heavenly bodies floating gloriously through space. He asserts that each one “pulsates with the laws of the universe,” completely indifferent to the rules, restrictions, and ambitions of mankind. Here, Martinson puts us in our place, so to speak, reminding readers that we inhabit a small fraction of the universe, and only above us—well beyond our reach—“everything is clarity and the day of days.” Thus, “Visit to an Observatory” is more than an exaltation of a nebula’s brilliant wonders; it is a call to halt to the destructive ambitions of mankind and seek true “clarity” in the transcendent beauty of the cosmos.

A little more than a decade after publishing “Visit to an Observatory,” Martinson completed Aniara, an epic very much in the spirt of his previous short poem, yet far more expansive and consequential. Aniara revolutionized Swedish literature, the science fiction genre, and arguably served as the rationale for Martinson’s Nobel Prize in 1974. Even in the opening line of “Visit to an Observatory,” it’s possible to catch a glimpse of the Swedish Academy’s motivation for awarding him the prize: “for writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos.” The poem’s first statement “we saw a nebula in a tube” could be more effusively rewritten as “we glimpsed the immeasurable glory of the universe through our tiny telescope.”

 In “Visit to an Observatory,” readers bear witness to Martinson’s skill at scaling both the smallest and most consequential questions of existence in a single poem. The result, in this case, is a renewed appreciation of our modest place in the universe and a stirring sense of obligation to rise above earthly conflict and forge a more caring, compassionate future for the world we inhabit.   

Note: This essay draws from Lars Nordström’s English translation of “Besök på Observatorium,” featured in the collection The Procession of Memories and published by Wordcraft of Oregon in 2009.

Elliott Brandsma är från Miami och en av vistelsestipendiaterna i Nebbeboda skola denna sommar. Han har tidigare bott och studerat på Island där han skrev en masteravhandling om Halldór Laxness. Han fördjupar för tillfället sitt intresse för Harry Martinson med ambitionen att sprida kännedom om författaren i USA och engelskspråkiga kretsar.

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