Something to live up to

By Benny Andersen

I don’t actually count my dead
just notice that the amount is increasing steadily
but what are dead numbers
compared with dead-and-kicking friends

I have nothing against the dead
some of my best friends are dead
what strikes me is just their
unfailing life-energy
compared to numerous living that are
more dead than alive
I know more not-dead
who bore me to death
while the really dead
the professional
have a habit of arising
at unexpected moments
meddling in everything
putting some heat into a boring conversation
getting the lilacs to bloom in the middle of the winter
calling forth laughter during a tooth extraction
calling forth anger during an anemic TV commercial
getting me to read that book again
that I otherwise had sworn never
to read anymore
reminding me that the Limfjord1 exists
that I have experienced inconceivable northern lights
that rain can taste different

Eight nine crisp tones
and I feel your sun-warmed hair
tickle my ear
and your young mouth against my lips

A smell of turpentine
our grade’s fat boy
you vulnerable giggler
we once tried to mix our blood
but started laughing and gave up
and we laughed ourselves silly when we discovered
that bachelor of arts could be pronounced bachelor o’ farts
Then paint company trainee
emigrated to America
just in time to get into the Korean War
which you would never talk about
but otherwise fat and happy to the end
when you collapsed into your little Japanese wife’s arms

A flowering beach-rose bush
a light-haired girl with easy
smiling movements
leukemia
five years old

Pipe smoke and aquavit
captain’s stew and Ella Fitzgerald
with Tut and Arne in Brønshøj
and that piano that yawned like a hippopotamus
you had to play it to gag its mouth
but how did we manage to dance while
discussing Ouspenski and the fourth dimension
and Buddha and Huxley and Eartha Kitt
and Freud and Kafka and Piet Hein and Liva Weel
and when we heard the first bird song
and smelled the fresh bakery rolls
our exhaustion reached the point
where it exhausted itself
crested over into hitherto unknown awakeness
the piano started playing itself
the dance danced itself
shutters sprang open in front of my eyes
and your faces were so beautiful and intelligent
that I had to throw a wicker chair
through the fourth dimension
out onto the porch while I
alone sang the duet finale
of Strange evening air2
and Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot
so as not to become a babbling idiot

A quiet rustle in the birch tree
a blackbird stops and looks at me
a line in an old poem
a peculiar break in a paving stone
can all turn out to be chinks
into my crazy Hades
populated by beloved ghosts

Certain specters have very beautiful breasts
a dark and golden laughter
others are distinguished
for now I’ve got a zombie band
consisting of accordion and guitar
drums and tenor sax
violin and cello
even two bassists
they play a kind of fusion music
jazz and Mozart
maritime waltzes and reggae
Carl Nielsen with an afro-beat

I’m not afraid of the dead
I’m more afraid of the living
that so easily can sap my zest for life
but the dead give me lifelong experiences
oh, what would life be without you all
my tireless guides in
how full of life life can be
and it swings like crazy, too

But I’ve got to be a little careful
they’re always needing a pianist
but that’s where I draw the line.

By Benny Andersen ©1993 “Noget at leve op til”
Translated by Michael Goldman

This poem was published in Kalyna Review in 2014. This was the very first poem I translated by Benny Andersen, to comfort a friend of mine who had lost someone very close to him.


1 Limfjord is a shallow sound that flows across Denmark, separating the northern island of Vendsyssel-Thy from the Jutland peninsula.
2 Underlige aftenlufte, Classic Danish song by Carl Nielsen and Adam Oehlenschläger about longing for one’s homeland