Since it is a month of remembrance, I wanted to share a poem. Not everyone goes to war, but most of us have battles to fight day-by-day. Please read of a kind of battle that people like my grandmother may have had to live as they spent their lives grinding out a living as a servant.
by Knud Sørensen
Danish domestic workers were required to maintain these books from 1832 to 1921. Issued at confirmation, the book held record of employment, conduct, and wages for the individual.
Every first of November
she took out her Record of Conduct book
and laid it on the table in front of the man
on the farm that she now would be leaving
and the man got out a pen and ink
and tried the pen on his fingertip
or on the corner of a piece of scrap paper
and then he remembers his glasses
and gets them and sets himself down
and writes slowly and carefully
and with the proper pressure on the downstrokes:
The girl Karen Jensdatter has served me
loyally and with good conduct from the first of November last year
to this date, and he
dates and signs and she
curtsies and says thank you, thank you for everything
and she walks out the door and she still holds open
the Record of Conduct book so the ink
has time to dry, and she thinks
that now begins a new year in a yet unknown place
with a yet unknown master and mistress and maybe
with some yet unknown luck, and sometimes she also
has to go to the churchwarden to report her move
from one parish to another
and every first of November she hopes
that it will be her last first of November of this kind
and the years pass and all the young farmhands that have property
get married and the years pass and not until she is
38 does Kresten inherit
his parents’ house with no land and she gets
her last entry in the book and her real life
as a sharecropper’s wife, mother
to a pair of girls who quickly
are too young for her
and full of insecurity
and go out into the world with new
authorized Record of Conduct books in their hands.
Translated from the Danish by Michael Goldman
—from Rattle #48, Summer 2015
Knud Sørensen (b. 1928) was a certified land surveyor for 28 years, during which he became intimate with the changing Danish agricultural landscape. A book reviewer for fourteen years and board member of numerous community organizations and cultural institutions, he has written 37 books and won over 20 literary awards, including a lifelong grant from the Danish Arts Council, and the Great Prize from the Danish Academy in 2014. He lives in Northern Jutland. This is the first appearance of Sørensen’s writing in English.
Michael Goldman: “I taught myself Danish in the summer of 1985 to help win the hand of a Danish girl. We have been married now for 24 years. I have loved Danish literature from the beginning, and I am pleased to be introducing Danish writers to an English speaking readership.”
What emotions rise in you as you read this poem?
What would you say to this woman as she watches her daughter leave?