Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Counting grains of sand

Recently I have found online translations of several poems by Norwegian poet Rolf Jacobsen (1907-1994).  His poem "Sand" reminded me of a recent conversation with a friend about the word "infinite."  This friend said that he would use "all the grains of sand on the earth" as an example of an infinite collection.  Though I disagreed, I also have found it is not at all uncommon for people to use "infinite" -- as my friend did -- as if it means "larger than I could possibly count."  In Jacobsen's poem, the number of grains of sand is finite but also unbounded.   Do you agree?  

Sand     by Rolf Jacobsen

There is a precise total for all the grains of sand on earth,
as well as for the starry worlds above our heads
(supposedly the same for each), if only we knew it,
but it’s more important to know that the grains of sand
grow constantly in number and the deserts are getting bigger.
     A touch
of violet has mixed itself into the pink of sunset.

Sand is white as milk and soft
as a bowing of violins.
Sand kisses your foot
and trickles over your palms like clean water.
At Bir el Daharrem hills and valleys are made of bronze.
At Thebes and Asmara dead cities lie under the sand.

Sand is crushed mountains and the ashes of everything that has
The sand dunes cross hot countries like stripes of fire.
Sand covers the planets. Moonbeams are reflections in sand.
Sand is the last thing on earth.
Time sleeping.

"Sand" was translated from the Norwegian by Roger Greenwald and is found in North in the World: Selected Poems of Rolf Jacobsen, A Bilingual Edition, (University of Chicago Press, 2002). Here is a link to "The Silence Afterwards," another poem-with-numbers by Jacobsen, this one translated by Robert Bly.


  1. I agree with the mathematical distinction - sand is finite & unbounded.

    But then again we are back to the poetic hyperspace of

    "Moonbeams are reflections in sand" &

    "Sand is the last thing on earth.
    Time sleeping."

    where things get a bit tricky.

    Thank you for an enjoyable read.

    1. Irina--
      Thanks for dropping by. And for your own poetry blog!