Ballad of the Dogs


When Ibn Batutta, Arabian traveller,
physician, clear-eyed observer of the world,
born in Maghreb in the fourteenth century, came
to the city of Bulgar, he learnt about the Darkness.
This ‘Darkness' was a country, forty days' travel
further to the north. At the end of Ramadan,
when he broke his fast at sunset, he had barely time
to intone the night prayer before day
broke again. The birches glimmered whitely.
Ibn Batutta, Arabian traveller, journeyed
no further north than Bulgar. But the tales he heard
of the Darkness, and of the visits there, engrossed him.
This journey is made only by rich merchants,
who take hundreds of sledges with them, loaded
with food, drink and firewood, for the ground there
is covered with ice and no-one can keep his balance.
Except the dogs: their claws take firm hold
of the eternal ice. No trees, no stones,
no huts can serve the traveller as landmarks.
Only those long-lived dogs are guides into
the Country of Darkness, those old dogs
who have made the journey many times before.
They can cost a thousand dinars, or even more,
since for their knowledge there is no substitute.
At meals they are always served before the men:
otherwise the leading dog grows angry
and escapes, leaving its master to his fate.
In the great Darkness. After they have travelled
for forty days the merchants make a halt,
place their wares on the ground and return to their camp.
Returning on the following day they find
heaps of sable, ermine, miniver,
set down a little apart from their own pile.
If the merchant is content with this exchange
he takes the skins. If not, he leaves them there.
Then the inhabitants of the Darkness raise
their bid with more furs, or else take back
everything they laid out before, rejecting
the foreigners' goods. Such is the way they trade.
Ibn Batutta returned to Maghreb, and there
at a great age he died. But these dogs,
mute but sagacious, lacking the power of speech
and yet with a blind certainty that guides them
across wind-polished ice into the Darkness,
will never leave us in peace.
We speak, and what we say knows more than we do.
We think, and what we thought runs on before us,
as if that thought knew something we didn't know.
Messages travel through history, a code
masquerading as ideas
but meant for someone other than ourselves.
The history of ideas is not a knowledge of the mind.
And the dogs go on, with sure and swishing steps,
deeper into the Darkness.


                         Swedish; trans. Phillip Martin


Lars Gustafsson, Swedish, trans. Phillip Martin, Quarterly Review of Literature, Poetry Series IV, vol XXIII, 1982.