THE KALEVALA (10)

By: James Parker
October 21, 2016

The Kalevala is a sequence of folkloric songs, runes and charms from the Karelia region of Finland, collected in the field and concatenated into epic form by Dr. Elias Lonnrot (1803-1884). The versions presented here are not translations or transliterations — they are respectful bastardizations, working from the 1963 English version of the Kalevala produced by the versatile and witty Francis Peabody Magoun Jr.

kalevala_bastardized

*

THE COWHERD
[being a bastardization of The Kalevala, Rune 33, lines 1–136]

“Now succouring spirits, preserve my
      cows.”

So murmurs, so implores
the blacksmith’s wife, as she watches
her herd of milkers go wobbling off across
      the moors.

“Securely let them grope and browse
over juicy pasture and gorsey hummock.
Preserve the udder, preserve the stomach.
From the ankle-twisting imp on the stony
      heath,
from the wolf who comes from
      underneath,
from the bear who roars without
      abatement
and turns every carcass into an art
      statement —
preserve them, preserve them, preserve
      them.”

And she submits her prayer
and it rises in the air
and all the angels go There there.

But who’s that driving the herd?
Who’s that behind them with a long stick,
chivvying and poking and thwacking?

Oh no.
Kullervo!
Disgraced babysitter, shitcanned forester,
now embarking — with notably poor
      motivation —
upon his third career.

Loudly he laments his estate.
He’s barging this herd into the backcountry,
execrating at every step
the corporate clumsiness of cows.

“See how they break the branch.
See how they slip on the stone.
Their brainwave is bloody bovine
      monotone.
Damn these clanging udders!
Damn these muscular shudders!
With a flick of my switch
I can make a flank twitch.
But I feel nothing at all, at all, at all.”

Now they’ve paused.
The milkers stand around like chunks of
      reverie.
Cow-breath, cow-blink. The pats drop.
Kullervo, much perforated by gorse,
slaps at his neck. Above his head,
a non-stop dementia of midges.

“Two dogs has the blacksmith’s wife,”
he grumbles. “Fat bastard dogs,
quite ribless with overfeeding.
I’ve seen them lying in the yard,
stupefied by sunlight,
gravy-groggy,
lurching up from time to time,
drunk on their own bulk,
to waddle over to the next patch of warm.”

Bog vibes. Midge-whizz.
Marsh-metabolism sweetens the air.

“Those dogs get all the treats.
All the dripping, all the suet,
all the good eats.
And what for young Kullervo,
the busy apprentice, the growing boy?
No juicy rind of bacon,
but flavourless frigging bones to suck on!”

A gorse-bush prickles with weight of
      imminent flame
and a lark’s voice opens the afternoon:

Look in your little sack, Kullervo.
The blacksmith’s wife baked you a loaf,
remember? Grope for it.

So he gropes, and finds that turd of a loaf,
inedible-looking, too dense to tear with his
      hands.
“I’ll use my knife,” he says.
But at the first thrust
the blade turns on something, shivers,
      fractures –
the flaw runs up his arm like a sickness,
makes his brain twang.
There’s a stone inside the loaf,
wickedly baked into it by the blacksmith’s
      wife.

“My knife!” cries Kullervo.
“The knife my father gave me!”
And he weeps for his broken weapon.

“Sweet blade, sweet blade,
the enemies we would have made!
The men we would have neutered,
the women we would have spayed.”

The cows chew and demurely stare.

“Well, this is it for me,” says Kullervo.
I have clearly arrived at the end.”
And he subsides with a squelch.
“I will lie in the bog and drink the brown
      water,
drink it like cold tea from a saucer,
drink it until I am dead.
Yes, that’s what I said.”

Then comes the voice of the crow,
half-bark, half-puke, all blackness.
“What about vengeance, Kullervo?
What about getting your own back?”

The crow grates his pinions.
The crow laughs his ancient fuse-crackle of
      a laugh.

“Look at these cows, in their dreaming
      tonnage.
Drive ’em to where the wolves are.
Drive ’em to where the bears are.
Requite this insult with some proper
      carnage.”

And Kullervo the cowherd,
prone, knifeless, stewing in the low reeds,
says: “I like it.”

***

Series banner contributed by Rick Pinchera.

ALL INSTALLMENTS: RUNE 3 (1–278): “Wizard Battle” | RUNE 4 (1–56): “A Failed Seduction” | RUNE 4 (300–416): “Aino Ends It All” | RUNE 5 (45–139): “An Afternoon Upon the Water” | RUNE 5 (150–241): “The Blue Elk” | RUNE 6 (1–114): “Therapy Session” | RUNE 6 (115–130): “Joukahainen’s Mother Counsels Him Against Shooting the Wizard Vainamoinen” | RUNE 11 (1–138): “Introducing Kyllikki” | RUNE 23 (485–580): “The Bride’s Lament” | RUNE 30 (1–276): “Icebound” | RUNE 30 (120–188): “The Voyage of the Sea-Hare” (Part One) | RUNE 31 (215–225): “The Babysitter” | RUNE 31 (223–300): “The Screaming Axe” | RUNE 33 (1–136): “The Cowherd” | RUNE 33 (73): “Song of the Blade: Kullervo” | RUNE 33 (118–284): “The Cows Come Home” | RUNE 34 (1–82): “The Pipes of Kullervo”.

MORE PARKER at HILOBROW: COCKY THE FOX: a brilliant swearing-animal epic, serialized here at HiLobrow from 2010–2011, inc. a newsletter by Patrick Cates | THE KALEVALA — a Finnish epic, bastardized | THE BOURNE VARIATIONS: A series of poems about the Jason Bourne movies | ANGUSONICS: James and Tommy Valicenti parse Angus Young’s solos | MOULDIANA: James and Tommy Valicenti parse Bob Mould’s solos | BOLANOMICS: James traces Marc Bolan’s musical and philosophical development | WINDS OF MAGIC: A curated series reprinting James’s early- and mid-2000s writing for the Boston Globe and Boston Phoenix | CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM: J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT | EVEN MORE PARKER, including doggerel; HiLo Hero items on Sid Vicious, Dez Cadena, Mervyn Peake, others; and more.

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