Poem: At Memphis Station by Johannes V. Jensen (1983-1950)

Here is an English translation of a poem by Danish author Johannes V. Jensen (1873-19550) who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1944. I found this translation in a 1923 collection of translated Danish verse.This translation was by U.S. Poet S. Foster Damon. All the translations in this collection are in the public domain in the U.S.A. Enjoy!

(Update: Apparently the blog’s style sheets make it hard to make stanza breaks. Instead, I am adding periods between each stanza. Kludgy, but it works.

At Memphis Station

Half-awake and half-dozing,

in an inward seawind of danaid dreams,

I stand and gnash my teeth

at Memphis Station, Tennessee.

It is raining.


The night is so barren, extinguished,

and the rain scourges the earth

with a dark, idiotic energy.

Everything is soggy and impassable.


Why are we held up, hour upon hour?

Why should my destiny be stopped here?

Have I fled rain and soul-corrosion

in Denmark, India, and Japan,

to be rain-bound, to rot, in Memphis,

Tennessee, U.S. A.?


And now it dawns. Drearily light oozes

down over this damp jail.

The day uncovers mercilessly

the frigid rails and all the black mud,

the waiting-room with the slot-machine,

orange peels, cigar-and match-stumps.

The day grins through with spewing roof-gutters,

and the infinite palings of rain,

rain, say I, from heaven and to earth.


How deaf the world is, and immovable!

How banal the Creator!

And why do I go on paying dues

at this plebeian sanatorium of an existence!


Stillness. See how the engine,

the enormous machine, stands calmly and seethes;

shrouding itself in smoke, it is patient.

Light your pipe on a fasting heart,

damn God, and swallow your sorrow!


Yet go and stay in Memphis!

Your life, after all, is nothing but

a sickening drift of rain, and your fate

was always to be belated in some miserable waiting-room or other—

Stay in Memphis, Tennessee!


For within one of these bill-shouting houses,

happiness awaits you, happiness,

if you can only gulp down your impatience—

and here there is sleeping a buxom young girl

with one ear lost in her hair;

she will come to encounter you

some fine day on the street,

like a wave of fragrance,

looking as though she knew you.


Is it not spring?

Does the rain not fall richly?

Is there not the sound of an amorous murmur,

a long, subdued conversation of love mouth to mouth

between the rain and the earth?

The day began so sadly,

but now, see the rainfall brighten!

Do you not allow the day its right of battle?

So now it is light. And there is a smell of mould

from between the rusted underpinning of the platform

mingled with the rain-dust’s rank breath—

a suggestion of spring—

is that no consolation?


And now see, see how the Mississippi

in its bed of flooded forest

wakes against the day!

See how the titanic river revels in its twisting!

How royally it dashes through its bends, and swings the rafts

of trees and torn planks in its whirls!

See how it twirls a huge stern-wheeler

in its deluge-arms

like a dancer,

master of the floor!

See the sunken headland—oh, what immense,primeval peace

over the landscape of drowned forests!

Do you not see how the current’s dawn-waters

clothe themselves mile-broad in the day’s cheap light,

and wander healthily under the teeming clouds!


Pull yourself together, irreconcilable man!

Will you never forget that you have been promised Eternity?

Will you grudge the earth its due, your poor gratitude?

What would you do, with your heart of love?


Pull yourself together, and stay in Memphis;

announce yourself in the market as a citizen;

go in and insure yourself among the others;

pay your premium of vulgarity,

so that they can know they are safe, as regards you,

and you will not be fired out of the club.

Court the damosel with roses and gold rings,

and begin your saw-mill, like other people.

Yank on your rubbers regularly …

Look about you, smoke your sapient pipe

in sphinx-deserted Memphis …


Ah! there comes that miserable freight-train

which has kept us waiting six hours.

It rolls in slowly—with smashed sides;

it pipes weakly; the cars limp on three wheels;

and the broken roof drips with clay and slime.

But in the tender, among the coals,

lie four still forms

covered with bloody coats.


Then our huge express-locomotive snorts;

advances a little; stops, sighing deeply;

and stands crouched for the leap. The track is clear.


And we travel onward

through the flooded forest

under the rain’s gaping sluices.







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