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Ross Donlon

One hundred tanka about swimming in Hardangerfjord

In Ross Donlon's 'Writing on Wild Water', we travel with him in deep reflection through the fjord and through poems that dive in and out of Nordic folklore, history and art whilst remaining firmly in the here and now. The reader is drawn in, poem by poem, to "enter something living" and to be awed by it.


Amanda Anastasi

Poet-in-residence Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub

Writing on Wild Water



You seek Hardanger?

Aerial maps can’t help you.

You must dream your way

Listen for the chant of trolls

The call of the Mountain King.*           * After Grieg’s ‘Peer Gynt



Leaving Australia

A plane flies a north-west arc

Hong Kong to London

Then north always further north

To answer a primal call



Late into Bergen                                                                                               

The expected rain says Hi

I splash moons in cobblestones 

Through the hotel’s padded cell                                                                               

A welcome to Hardanger*.                    *Wedding Procession in Hardanger’, classic of Norwegian National Romanticism


And in the morning

Breakfast under chandeliers

Kaleidescope food

There is another Norway

The honesty of fjords



Jet lag brain fade day

Skyss station’s jigsaw maze

One bus seems to shout

My tangled tongue tries its Norsk

Ikke Ulvik, men Ålvik!*                          *Not Ulvik but Ålvik!



We swoop from the town

‘Hills to the left Fjords on the Right!’

I love this movie 

Flickering/snow /broad/ black / hills/

Rain/ two islands/ a red house



Then Steindalsfossen                *Steinsdal waterfall

Norheimsund’s silver gateway

It’s a baptism

Pass behind that veil of light

Your life will change forever           



First LP cover

Grieg’s piano concerto

White church/ blue fjord sky

First notes a falling cadence

A waterfall’s shining keys


‘Hello, Folgefonn!’*              *Folgefonn - glacier near Norheimsund

A snowy night cap all day

The small town seems protected

Norheimsund snug as a child

Asleep beneath a doona

Now the open fjord

Even hills seem to recede

Another country

Tunnels like a fairground ride

Will we reach the other side?


The Dream We Carry

Olav Hauge’s gift to us

(We carry so much)

Perhaps mine is this fjord

That line on the horizon



The bus tracks the fjord

The ‘sea road’ that used to be

Both retell stories

Will friendships form and re-form?

Will I swim into poems?



Prehistoric cave artists

Rock walls record their fjord world 

Humans/ boats /swords /deer

Robust depictions of sex 

(My poems - except the deer ;-)



Outside Øystese

High mound raised beside an old tree 

A headland lookout

The Viking still at his watch

A boat’s wake fills the fjord



Autumn on Fykesund 

Locals know a holy tree

It shimmers with gold

Gods don’t show themselves today

Shadows shining in sunlight



Modern rituals

Students race across a bridge

Childhood left behind

The spans seem to smile at them

No one sees the tide changing



High above the fjord 

Trolltunga* longs for a voice.                 *The Troll’s Tongue            

It’s locked in granite. 

How its poem would fill the sky. 

Words crying from the earth’s core.



We turn the corner

Poor salmon turn in circles

Ships turning like clocks                       

Except I’m a kangaroo *                      *Symbol of  Qantas, Australia’s airline

Leaping over the fjords



On the point - Messen *                  *The Artists’ House

A red hive buzzing with art

It hums with new work

For all artist visitors

Hardanger waits like a gift



Some chase thunderstorms*         *Storm chasers

Wild weather adventurers

Daring sky to fall

A tightrope adrenalin

To swim in cold fire – that’s mine



Utne museum

A silent movie flickers

Folk dancers circling

The past fades to black and white

The dancers never changing



The first chilling swim

I think of Edvard Munch’s Skrik

Mouth and eyes gasping

The water swirls with brush strokes

Was Munch a fjord ice-berger ?



Each day a new fjord

Wake, swim, then write about it

Both will change at night

The fjord rises with the moon

A poem can take longer


I dive like a knife

A human sliver of ice

My spine is a sword

Spray glistens like shining coins

A Viking throws from his hoard



Morning makes a path

The fjord opens its wide door

A house with no rooms

Its walls are invisible

But full of hiding places



Ripples are like lines

In the old book of the fjord

Tides are its chapters

The moon is water poet

Made for haiku and tanka



I like to backstroke

Looking at the sky’s blank page

The volumes of clouds

Swimming is like editing

Words line up to be written



I am my coxswain

Shout as I make each stroke

Pull back my arms

I propel a skeleton

(The figurehead looks like me)



My turbulent mind

Swept by high tides and wild wind

Alert for danger

Drawn too close to the sirens

I write my way to safety



I swim in tanka

Let water run through in lines.

Floating in myself

Ice-bright ripples light a flame

That leads me to poetry


And after I wake

The sea still running through me

Marine creatures call

Crying as they rise for air

Too soon to leave my dreams



Water etches runes

Written in pre-history

Ice-age reflections

Were arms the first thought for oars?

Was the body the first boat?


Poet-swimmer’s eyes 

Look up at limitless sky

In between the depths

Word-thoughts slip through morning air

Catch them!  Keep them!  Write them down!



Seaweed coils and holds

Slips through fingers and toes

Starfish limbs and hair

Like dreams that won’t leave the past

We swim towards each morning


Swimming back to life

Brain-waves trigger reflections

Was my past like that?

The fjord becomes a passage

Towards another future



Blue-gold or black-grey?

(Weather is undecided)

Showers roam then stay

A ball of sun rolls from cloud

The rain washes it away


Murmurs in the sky

Thunder adds its voice to cloud

Waterfalls blink rain

Poems in the sky’s writing

Calligraphy of lightning



Trails of sky-white flame

Dragons come back to Norway

Forests grow castles

Rain opens up a curtain 

Thor’s Black Metal starts the show


Storms whirl the water

Waterfalls glint with lightning

Wind roars like thunder

Backslapped by wave-mate funsters

Swim on you crazy poet!



Naked as the water

As each stone boulder and fish

As the sky shedding its mist

As the raw work of poems

As the sky arching its spine


Entering water

Thrilling as it is today

Is like making love

An encounter so profound

All the senses are on fire



Inside the fjord

(Whim of erotic fancy)

Complete immersion

The sudden gasp of pleasure

Drowning inside your lover


The tide-chasing-waves

Ship wreck when they reach the shore

Forced to beach this craft

Sail limbs hauled down and folded

The mind prepares a new course



Chafed waves clap their hands.

(I redden at the applause)

Each wind whistles, hoots and cries

It’s a morning matinee

My role is to write these poems


Time of high tide

The breakers run with horses

Waves all wear blinkers

Some days you can only watch

A race closed to humans



A fjord discotheque 

High tide meets the head-wind guests

White caps thrown skywards

(All are behaving badly)

Drunk on waterfall champagne



Joanna’s bright cap                       *A U.S. dancer from Messen

A ball bouncing in the rain

Her elbows sparkle

Sequins thrown high in the air

A dancer swims in her wake



Jar of tea in hand

Merriment in each shiver

Ingrid grins with cold               *A Dutch artist in Messen

Fjord art in her porcelain

From Ålvik to Amsterdam.



Mares’ tails in the wind                                   * Cirrus clouds like horses’ tails                     

A brave little boat surges

Red speck in grey spray

We too take courage and dive

Three bold hearts in Sturm und Drang              



Some art is like this

Installation by nature

But ephemeral

Water colours made by spray

The wind will soon blow away


Sometimes the seascape

(Rolling waves and keening birds)

Becomes a mindscape

Changing just as weather does

Brilliant days become black


Water is grey jade 

Mirrors of a passing cloud

Wind strangely humid

A  South Pacific morning

Ålvik shimmers in the heat


John Cage would be proud        *Famous for his 4’33” composition which is completely silent.

Orchestras of birds

Playing in silence

Avian shapes like mobiles

Turning gliding then rising



No sun stirs the sky

The fjord is still and silent

Fifty shades of white

Another shade of shadow

I swim across the spectrum



Daybreak after storm

I swim through pebbled water

A view clear as glass

Rain-wet hills look closer now

The air is a telescope



Unnaturally still


A few words intrude

Swimming and writing come hard

Even the tide is absent



A doona-dawn mist                          *For Canadian artist, Catherine Sheedy

The hills stay tucked up in bed

Some still wear nightcaps

I swim like a sea-creature

Four-legged jelly-fish squid



Gulls are out to play

The sky’s children, someone said *        * Paul Gallico In The Snow Goose 

The wind a playmate

Racing chasing playing games

Flying the kites of themselves



‘The Sky is better with clouds’             *For Bjorn Otto Wallevik

My old friend says

I don’t need to ask him why

A blank page sky is too Zen

Clouds make poems to edit



Each wave an out breath

The sea exhales on the beach

It’s restless today

I enter something living

Swim inside it with respect



Sun fills the window

A new morning on the screen

‘Swim before the credits!’

My shoulders revolve and reel

Old projector spinning words



The sun is a coin

I can spend in wild water

But then it comes back

Rising like the moon and tide

Over and over again



Sunrise-early dive

Swimming inside the surface

Counting every stroke

I meditate and listen

My mind tuned to silence



Sun flickers then rolls

A silent era movie

The past quivering

Sunshine covers the shadows

The sound track is memory



Are those clouds or cloaks?

Is that sound soft drumming?

Why are the trees veiled?

(Drifting rain hides the Ninja

Coming to play with our trolls)



Dawn brings new weather

Waves look up with interest

Water murmurs back

Tree tops stream welcome banners

Only the sun is unmoved



The rough wind has gone

Taking its gang of hoodlums

A breath of relief

Water is meditating

Silence spreads in rings of air



Sun blown in and out

The clouds are playing pinball

Gulls call from wind games

Mind rattles its empty cup

Where can I find a fifth line!



A day of Film Noir

The wind arrives like a truck

Trees peek through their blinds

On the water waves look furtive

(What are they doing down there?)



Trees shake their papers

Shout news from the street corner

The fjord makes a white sheet

Twigs hurl themselves like pencils

Too quick to reach my paper



High tide is so strong

A wave’s life can be followed

I feel their kinship

We are constant headstrong souls

Sailing  to another shore



No stroke works today

My arms won’t escape my head

The waves are laughing

I float-lunge-wallow-swallow

Swim at the speed of sea-weed



W of wings

The W of wave crests

Both in constant play

Both in concert with the wind

Their opera and ballet



Stoke by careful stroke

A morning’s quest for writing

Desire baits the hook

Swimming helps to find a catch

I reel words and find a poem



Summer’s one hot day

Au plein air artists sunbake

Plans on holiday

Children make their sunshine games

A man whirls his kayak’s oars



Above the fjord

A lake of ice is melting

Birth of waterfalls

Summer can be deceptive

Water remembers winter



Shimmering in rain

Black hillsides etch clouds silver

Sun grey and mist blown

We swim while ice whets its knife

Words cut through to poetry



Sky high from the swim

The heart racing with fever

Diagnosed with Bliss

Our fjord brilliant with cold

Its prescription of cool drugs



Swimming in poems

Above and below water

A two-self creature

Mild mannered poet on top

Odd fish under the surface



When evening comes

Cold water turning my mind

Senses still in shock

Fjord becomes a dream landscape

Each floats inside the other



Half the water glazed

Half cracked into light splinters

Sun-work on the waves

Each one is full of crescents

Messages sent by the moon



In my lighthouse room

Wind rushing like water

Or is it my blood

The incoming sun glinting

My senses rise with the tide



Some sense is roaming

Either wild wind or water

Flowing in my room

Sleep-walker and dream-swimmer

I leave the safe world behind



Icy but no ice

The fjord still and glassy

Reflecting itself

Then a break in the surface

Black fins and large tail – Orca!            *small whale sometime seen in Hardanger



From Kinsarvik to Utne

Each ferry is a puppet

Hillsides hold the strings

I swim like Pinocchio

Try to stroke like a real boy



The new horizon

A man on his own tightrope

Between then and now

Perhaps he’s an old acrobat

Who floated on the high tide



We strain to listen

The fjord opens its mouth

Speaks Eternity

Words only water can make

Speaking across centuries



A cruise ship sails by

Sparkling in white party lights

No one is on deck

Summer is on holiday

Somewhere in the south of France



The factory breathes

Sea birds float on pollution

Spiral on updrafts

A cargo boat pulls away

Black Metal Water Music*.           *After Handel’s Water Music - not



In the fjord’s throat

My body is a capsule

Fizzing with ideas

Hardanger is a tonic

It’s written one hundred poems



Dreams sunk in the past

Remains of an old journey

Add weight to the dive

But swimming down to the wreck

What mysteries! What treasures!



Head lodged in the bow

Feet pointing towards the stern

My old body creaks

No horse, dog or woman there

To sail with me to the stars



Every day a tide

Today I watch it turning

The fjord revolving

The moon with its trickster games

It can hide behind itself



Cold water magic

Endorphins play like dolphins

Then have a party

A wild thrill of well being

Is happening inside me



Troll sticks out his tongue*               *From Trolltunga- The Troll’s Tongue

But he does that all the time

I show him the finger

The fjord runs on forever

From Ålvik to Castlemaine



The tide has withdrawn

But friends come forward again

The weather looks sad

Heart on her Hardanger T

We part as ties grow stronger



Then the Coop, the bus                   *The Coop supermaket

‘Fjord to the left Hills the right’

Fykse goes backwards

It feels a favour withdrawn

But love can never be owned



And from outer space

Perhaps the view from the moon

There’s a man writing

No telescope can find him

Swimming in a sea of stars



Home in Castlemaine

Currawongs sound Norwegian

Cockatoos folk dance

Wattle blossoms shine ship lights

 A fjord flows through the trees



Writing a tanka

About writing a tanka

Should be dead easy

Just put thirty-one syllab-

-les into a five line poem

Thanks to Kunstnahuset Messen in Ålvik for the many residencies which enabled me to write two books of poems about a place close to my heart.

Thanks to Kristin Holst for her enthusiasm and support.

Special thanks to Bjorn Otto Wallevik, collaborator and friend, who has retold the poems in nynorsk, the form of Norwegian of Western Norway. He has also produced the sequence for an online audience from his Wallcon Studio. Using visuals, music, and natural sounds from the fjord along with a recording of me reading he has added many dimensions that enrich the poems.

September 2022

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