Gustaf Petersen-Munch: ‘Outline’

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Gustaf Petersen-Munch (1912-1938) was a Danish surrealist painter and poet who had a short but full and colorful life. The child of Copenhagen academics, he studied psychology and philosophy at Copenhagen University before heading off to Greenland at age 20 to work in the cryolite mines. Six months later he was back in Denmark, officially enrolled at Lund University, but spending much of his time traveling around Europe with the help of his parents’ wealth. His paintings were shown in several exhibitions, but it is his poetry which in retrospect has been seen as ground-breaking, and which influenced the work of many Danish poets in succeeding decades. He moved to the island of Bornholm in 1935 and married the ceramicist Lisbeth Hjorth, but in 1937 joined the International Brigade and was killed in the Spanish Civil War the following year. 

In the poem ‘Outline’ (Danish ‘Rids’), which I have translated into English here, the sensory impressions described seem almost synesthetic: the lapwing’s cry is depicted in terms of geometric figures and sound emerges as colored planes in the air. Space is pictured two-dimensionally, as in an abstract painting, and one is not always certain who or what is the observer, and who or what is the observed. Midway through the first stanza, the point of view shifts to that of the lapwing, as the salt-meadow turns in a concentric circle of color below the white egg which is the hovering bird.

The geometric form continues into the second stanza, where the circle is the sun, which sinks and vanishes into the sea. The salty plane of evening melts into the airy plane of day, whereupon the seagull dissolves into fading sound and the fisherman descends into the sea as the sun had done the night before. I find the whole poem to be an odd but accurate reflection of the 24 hour cycle. Time, plane, space and all four elements are depicted in a single gliding motion, which perhaps suggested the poet’s title for the poem. Petersen-Munch’s Danish original follows my English translation here. 

Outline

The lapwing cries
a circle black
cries a curve white
in the air–
The salt-meadow turns
green-grey wet
with a closed egg
in the middle–

The sea glides blushing
into the fire of the sun,
The evening breathes salt
toward the morning wind–
A seagull dissolves in a blurred fast hum,
The fisherman awakens to day–

Rids

Viben skriger
en Cirkel sort
skriger en Kurve hvid
i Luften–
Saltengen drejer sig
grøn-graa vaad
med et lukket Æg
i Midten–

Havet glider rødmende
ind i Solens Ild,
Aften aander Salt
mod Morgens Vind–
En Maage forsvinder i sløret Sus,
Fiskeren vaagner til Dag–

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2 comments on “Gustaf Petersen-Munch: ‘Outline’

  1. I missed this entry before now somehow! I like the way you’ve unpacked the poem – though given its shape, this almost seems like a poem that folds up, rather than opening up… You’re right, it’s both beguiling and odd. It seems expansive and claustrophobic (like the bird is turning in very tight circles) at one and the same time…

  2. leifhendrik says:

    Your comments really are in line with my way of thinking about this poem. Especially the expansive/claustrophobic dynamic. Even as the poem seems to expand to embrace large spaces and concepts, it does so in a very compressed and tightly conscious manner: there is a definite tension to the work, and it does feel distinctly claustrophobic. Still, there’s a kind of breathtaking ‘vision’ to the whole thing that makes me interested in this poet’s way of seeing. I had a little trouble translating the title, by the way. ‘Rids’ in Danish can mean not only ‘outline’ but also ‘sketch’. I would love to know why exactly Petersen-Munch chose this word.

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