Opinion | A Poet’s View of the Year: Longing for Our Own Lives

This is an article from Turning Points, a special section that explores what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead.

“The Life Unlived” is a poem, or a dramatic sketch, that revolves around a new era. It focuses on what is happening inside those who populate the text and inside us readers as we watch the ballet the poem describes. Perhaps we’re longing to do something real. Perhaps we’re longing for our own lives.

In the poem, Isaac and Ishmael meet again. I imagine that these brothers have spent a long time missing each other. I’ve been thinking about them for years. They speak of doves and death, the mighty condor, all while watching the ballet.

I want to believe that this text is an embodied response to the question of what’s possible, even in a year like 2020.


The Life Unlived

An open-air stage, dawn,

All movements keep the beat, a fixed choreography, the dancers are dancing ballet

A man holds a clock, in the end all we hear is the clock’s ticking (A transition from the dancer’s choreographed movements to the clock’s simple ticking)

I have asked for a new age to begin

Here among us

Lightning strikes (Shows itself)

You may choose one piece of knowledge to take with you

Just one

You may choose as you see fit, the freedom is yours, but if limitations are what you want

they’re available (Wind the clock)

What will die becomes a beginning, leave everything

My memories?

Yes, them too. Remembering won’t be possible. You die. We all die

Just like that?

Yes, in a way, in a way not

You won’t be able to choose when

But it will happen

What do you know of the new age?

You do have experience. What you see in front of you.

It’s no use being afraid.

Good, good, that’s right

Greet the new with confidence, be fair

Who are you, the one who will explain it all to us?

Never, no such thoughts, change the melody and listen to what is barely audible

And yet it grows

The dead: It grows, it grows, it grows

Rise up when I speak to you

Are you a man of violence?

I have ideas, thoughts.

Which, if I may ask?

How do you rule without violence?

Everything rests on you believing me, my every word

Don’t think for a moment that I’ll reveal to you anything about me

The dead: About me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me

The man who spoke of a new age walks his clock offstage

There, off they go, fools all

They’re not coming back, we’re alone here, we’re free, and yet not

I don’t understand a thing, now say what you mean

Life, it passed, it’s not coming back

Now everyone must heal themselves

Are we already dead?

The murmur of the dead lies behind it, under it, murmur freely

How many, two, or three, fifty, hundred thousand, sevenhundredthousandthirty?

Go ahead, just lie down, over there.

He points to the dead, their murmur

Your sleep will be dreamless

I love my dreams

So stay right there, there you’ll get to dream

Is it that easy, but a few words, he laughs

Everything begins again. Isaac, Ishmael, the sacrifice and the desert

The dead murmur: Isaac, Ishmael, the sacrifice

Thunder rolls, lightning flashes, in its flash we see the dancers’ ballet

Everyone watches as they dance, each in his own mind, thoughts, if we could hear them


Just look

Isaac and Ishmael embrace, share laughter

Isaac: Look at the ballet. They’re dancing

Ishmael: It delights me to see it, delights me

Isaac: So you’re secure, only the secure can delight in watching dance

Ishmael: Perhaps

They laugh

The man with the clock enters.

The Man: Time is passing. Don’t forget.

Isaac: We meet and already must part

Ishmael: So it is written

Ishmael kisses his brother farewell, must go, at once

Will we miss each other?

Through the millenniums

Farewell. Isaac and Ishmael fall into each other’s arms

Watch the ballet again

The ballet again in broad daylight

Ishmael: What does watching them dance do to you?

Isaac: It makes me ache

Isaac: Truly, I ache, I ache

Ishmael: That’s the longing for the life unlived

An eternity later

Well met



Hear this, spare no detail, they whisper to each other, the landscape of their thoughts is projected behind them.

A bird flies through the landscape, falls down before Isaac and Ishmael.

It is death, the condor, death’s proud emissary.

It’s just a bird.

A bird you say, had it been a dove we’d already be celebrating, but the condor, with wings

to carry it from hell and back

So quick to cleave thoughts, Ishmael my brother

What are you thinking of?

The meadows I rode through as a child. Thoughts, hope perhaps as simple as this

Yes, hope and longing

Those who long live.

Just them?

Yes. Just them.

Linda Bostrom Knausgard is a novelist and poet. Her most recent novel is “Welcome to America.” This text was translated by Saskia Vogel from the Swedish.

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