Strindberg in Skovlyst

Robin Robertson

I

A manor house in ruin. It suits me
down to the ground.
A tower to write in,
three rooms for the family, with a kitchen,
and all for fifty crowns a month.
Unbelievably filthy, I have to say: everything
broken, unfinished, abandoned.
In the yard, two floors below,
a mongrel half-heartedly
mounts a greyhound; blue flies
are hatching in the dung.
It fits my mood.
Wherever you look: neglect, failure,
all the shit you could wish for.
A home away from home.

They laid on quite a show, trying
to get us to take the place:
goblets of flaming spirits, the Countess
with a hurdy-gurdy, lying on the floor;
her steward as circus-master, conjurer,
with his not-so-beautiful assistant,
the blonde fat girl in a spangled costume.
All the usual card tricks, which I knew,
but then he got her up to the ceiling on poles
then whipped them away – and she stayed there,
in the air, levitating above us. And she didn’t fall.

I gave them three months’ rent after that, up front.

II

The Countess is mad – today and every day –
quite mad, and this is her menagerie;
the cattle and horses stay outside, eating thatch,
but the rest are residents:
cats, poultry, eight huge dogs.
She carries a white lamb, sometimes,
but her favourite is Sky-Leaper, the blind,
ancient cockerel she dandles on her lap.
Like magic, rabbits
hop out of coal scuttles,
turkeys squabble in the bathtub, eating soap.
With a flourish, she reveals
a litter of white kittens in a drawer
then, shyly,
from the front of the sky-blue
off-the-shoulder dress she wears each day,
she pulls a duckling.
A pigeon flies through the window,
followed by the male, who ambles
after her, blowing his crop, dragging
his spread tail through the dirt.
An unearthly screech, then the stately
step of an Indian peacock,
rustling down the corridor
towards the room
where two Great Danes
are standing on the shaky bed, coupling.
Speaking of which, here’s Hansen,
her steward (and more than that, I suspect):
a black-fingered trickster with his
wagging forelock and dice for eyes,
up and about, flaunting
his yellow suit, the peacock feather in his hat.
And behind him, the maid – who I take
for his sister – Martha Magdalene:
sixteen if she’s a day, blonde knullhår,
barely decent with her predatory mouth
and her dress a size too small.

A three-hander, then, with this
shambles for a stage: this home to pestilence,
cluster flies, blowflies, men and women,
Armageddon – a crucible
for turning baseness into gold.
In my head, when the gales are riding wild,
I steer towards catastrophe
then write about it.

III

Interior. The upper rooms. Noise of children. Dim summer sunlight through the grimy, curtainless windows. The playwright’s wife is boiling sheets, swabbing the floorboards with bleach.

Interior. Kitchen. The walls and ceilings black with soot, the tables piled with unwashed dishes, rotting food. A side of mutton hangs from a hook on the wall, just high enough to be out of reach of the dogs. The maid, Martha, is shelling peas.

Exterior. The pavilion on the lake. The steward, Hansen, and the playwright in animated conversation, drinking schnapps.

I confess, with a clink of glasses,
to six months’ celibacy at the hand
of Artemis, my wife, cruel goddess of chastity,
but he doesn’t understand.
That I hate women but desire them –
hate them because I desire them.
The power they have.
That I fear I might go mad.
That I am, already, mad.
He sighs, and tells me his ridiculous stories,
shows me conjuring tricks,
sings the same song over and over again.
I only listen when he shares his hopes
for advancement – the dream of climbing
to the top of the high tree
to rob the nest of its golden egg –
but how the trunk is too smooth to gain purchase,
and the branches too high to catch hold.

Exterior. Garden. The Countess and the playwright walking between the vegetable plots, overgrown with burdock and nettles, cobbled with turds.

She was going on about her animals, her family,
how she loved them more than any human.
And I thought of that pack of feral dogs –
vile scavengers – and all the rest of them:
the tettered, emaciated beasts.
She said she dreamed she was on top of a high pillar
and all she wanted was to fall.

Interior. The tower room. Midnight.

The girl, at my door again. What was I to do
against those lead-grey eyes, the tousled hair,
that young, thick body? That mouth?

The bestial ruin stinking in my face.
The snort and rut coming closer.
I ran my thumb down the seam,
opening up the velvet,
to nudge the hard pod of the bean.
She kissed me, like a cat.
Cats kill you at the throat, so I was quickly
over her, and in. Behind the trees
a thin filament of lightning briefly glowed
and died. Manumission.
And now: the fall.

IV

The voices in my head are company at last
in these high rooms
in the glove of the night, under a fretted moon.
That gypsy Hansen’s out there with a gun
shouting about ‘corrupting a minor’ and
‘raping my sister’. Letting off shots.
I was on her once
and all I got was scabies, and now scandal.
I told the Countess that her lover’s
just a common thief;
she said, ‘My brother, you mean.’

Our bags are packed.
The carriage waits below.
I have stoked the fever enough to spark some fire.
It’s dreadful, I tell myself, but there’s no other way.
We are above such people.
We’re devoured by our own desires, our dogs,
but we survive to make art.
I am not yet forty. And now I have my play.

Notes

In the summer of 1888, Strindberg rented rooms with his wife, Siri von Essen, and their children in the manor house at Skovlyst, near Copenhagen. The marriage had collapsed but the family was still travelling together around Europe. In exile, Strindberg had recently fallen heavily under the influence of the writings of Nietzsche. During the summer in Skovlyst, he wrote – among other things – Miss Julie. The poem incorporates lines and images from the play and a sentence from a contemporary letter to Verner von Heidenstam.

knullhår (Swedish, pronounced knool-hoer) a neologism, literally ‘fuck-hair’, suggestive of dishevelled, post-coital tangles.