The weblog of a traveller

   Sep 16

Number 13

As I was skimming through an article while waiting for my friend at a brown-ish cafe today, an elderly man approached me real close, tried to catch my eye and started reciting poetry in a calm, comforting voice. It was a gray, sobering text about the struggles of the working people in a time not as long gone as we like to think. This is what he read:

You ask where No. 13 is,
Our old familiar court.
I’m just the one to show you, Sir;
Though not for jokes or sport.
Right there you see it sprawling.
It’s almost like a fort.

But there are blighted city streets
In countries ’round the world,
Where daily degradation scenes
Are shamelessly unfurled
In hidden holes of poverty,
Into which man is hurled!

A few get it into their heads
And lie right down and die
Because there isn’t sun and air
And food to keep them spry.
But it’s the same in other courts,
So why the hue and cry?

But court 13, which is our home
And haven,we hold dear.
And even grand and beautiful
It often can appear —
At night, when lights are shining in
The windows: bright and clear.

Yes, then the court is full of life —
A castle bright and gay.
For every light is lit and all
The flats are on display.
We breathe as free men only when
We’ve gotten through the day.

On Friday Kalsen often comes
Home tipsy: silly drunk.
He flaunts his wad and entertains
Till busted like a skunk.
He makes his money longshoring —
Just heaving coal and junk.

But Kalsen has a missus and
A flock of kids. He’s sad.
And the last born — puny misfit —
The devil should have had;
For he is so small and scrawny:
A puff of wind — oh, Gad!

But when he went a-sailoring
The world lay at his feet.
And all the lovely women folks
Around that he did meet!
He never then, like now, did have
To shovel muck and shit.

And Kalsen grabs his bosom friend,
A squeaky violin,
And breezes through his repertoire.
The notes come cracked and thin.
But his ears hear only music —
No tearful questionin’.

He revels in those wondrous years —
The distant long ago,
When skies were blue, the oceans too,
And he sailed to and fro!
But that was then — before the days
Did gray and dismal grow.

The court will not go over-board
For Kalsen’s violin.
So many strum guitars and sing,
Or play the mandolin.
And, drinking apple wine, they dance
To the accordion.

At last frying pans are sizzling
With hamburgers and fish
While hungry kids are screaming
And waiting with their dish;
On Friday evening 13 flows
With all that one could wish.

From 13, until late at night,
A constant din we hear
Which, although it is loud and gay,
Has undertones of fear.
The inmates shrink from what’s in store,
When dawn comes lurking near.

But the lights at last extinguished!
And tossing in their beds
Are the bodies, sleeping now, with
So diff’rent hearts and heads.
And through the streets the night wind moans
And cold and sadness sheds.

Then creaking sounds and whisperings!
It’s Olga with a ‘beau’.
She’s working in a factory
But makes so little, so
She profiteers the only way
The likes of her can know.

But some are keeping vigil there;
A young, new crop of men
They dig and keep on digging till
They dig the dream again
That gushingly once issued from
A wise man’s magic pen.

The livelong day the dream perforce
Must burrow like a mole.
Yet to ‘Atlantis’ still they cling; —
They sight a better role
And world than this where others own
Their very heart and soul.

And their young hearts fill with fury:
Study — dispel the mist!
But always — with the golden dreams —
On stubborn facts insist
That point the way straight to the land
Where 13s don’t exist.

Rudolf Nilsen/translation by Gus Rystad

He went on relating how this enlightened poet died tragically in young age. I must admit I was too startled to respond much. Also judging whether it was a drugged luniac talking or just a friendly old chap getting inspired by the sight of a young person hehearsing their curriculum (it was the latter) took some moments, and I must have appeared as though I did not want to be bothered. Which irritates me a bit as I actually love strange encounters like that and would have talked to him if my friend hadn’t come just then.

As part of my mission to make the institute building more interesting, I changed “crop of men” into “a young student”, printed out the three last verses and put it on the message board.

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