Drops of black profoundness

I first encountered Dsida Jeno’s “Poem of Darkness” on my friend rr’s blog frizzyLogic. Like rr — who, at our bloggers’ confab in Montreal last spring, turned out to have some rather strong notions about what constitutes a proper cup of coffee — I love the central image of the poem:

But tell me: have you ever let
a snow-white sugar-cube soak up
dark liquid, dipped in the bitter night
of coffee in its cup?
Or watched how the dense liquid,
so surely, so insidiously,
will seep up through the white cube’s
pure, crystalline body?
Just so the night seeps into you,
slowly rising, the smells
of night and of the grave all through
your veins, fibres, cells,
until one dank brown evening,
so steeped in it, you melt and sink –
to sweeten, for some unknown god,
his dark and bitter drink.

This morning, quite by chance, I’ve discovered three more creative efforts inspired by coffee. Let me present them in the reverse order of their discovery.

First, a bit of music. What ganja is to reggae and alcohol to the blues, coffee is to speed- or death metal (sometimes also called, tellingly, black metal). Here’s a part-American, part-Scandanavian band existing somewhere on the cusp between fact and fiction called Dethclok, with their tender tribute to Columbian Supremo:

According to the Wikipedia, durning Dethclok’s performance of this song at a charity show, as a gimmick, “several searing hot coffee and cream pitchers [were] … poured on the crowd, melting their skin off.”

Well, frankly, that’s what you get if you don’t drink shade-grown, organic, fair trade coffee. Coffee doesn’t have to kill.

In fact, it turns out there’s now an entire blog — and a pretty good one — devoted to Coffee and Conservation. The author describes him/herself as a Michigan ornithologist and coffee drinker. The most useful feature of the blog for casual consumers is its reviews of individual shade-grown coffees, many of them also organic and fair trade certified. And from the latest post I learned this rather startling news:

[A recent scientific paper] details 103 species in the genus Coffea: 41 species in Africa, 59 in Madagascar, and three in the Mascarene Islands; no naturally-occurring Coffea species are found outside of these three areas, and no species is shared between the three areas.

While most of the paper is of interest only to botanists, one aspect is quite striking. Over 70% of coffee species can be categorized as threatened using World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List definitions:

  • 14 species (13.6%) are Critically Endangered,
  • 35 species (33.9%) are Endangered, and
  • 23 species (24.2%) are Vulnerable.
  • An additional 13 species (13.7%) are Near Threatened.

This has me bouncing off the walls with alarm. It’s not just jaguars and mot-mots that are in trouble when cloud forest habitat is destroyed to make way for (among other things) coffee plantations. Throughout Africa and Madagascar, wild coffee itself is at risk. I guess this must be what Dethclok had in mind with the final line of their ditty: “Coffee kills coffee.” SAVE THE COFFEE!

Whew. Must calm down. Maybe it’s time to re-read a poem by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by the Scottish poet Robin Fulton. I got a copy of The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems for Christmas, and am working my way slowly through it, reading from back to front in small, daily doses immediately following my morning cup o’ joe. This poem originally appeared in 1962 in a book called (in English) The Half-Finished Heaven.


The black coffee they serve outdoors
among tables and chairs gaudy as insects.

Precious distillations
filled with the same strength as Yes and No.

It’s carried out from the gloomy kitchen
and looks into the sun without blinking.

In the daylight a dot of beneficent black
that quickly flows into a pale customer.

It’s like the drops of black profoundness
sometimes gathered up by the soul,

giving a salutary push: Go!
Inspiration to open your eyes.

22 Replies to “Drops of black profoundness”

  1. Wow, Dave, that first poem transported me to childhood and the memory of an old tradition amongst the older Finns. My father also loved to do this sometimes back then. They would pour their strong black coffee into the saucer, take a sugar cube between the teeth and sip the coffee through the sugar. I remember some of them complaining that the sugar cubes were not as soft as the ones back in the old country, not absorbing the coffee just the right way and sweetening it the right amount. I wonder if the Finns are still the biggest coffee consumers in the world.

  2. Well, the American public television show Frontline/World seems to think so:

    Scandinavia boasts the highest per-capita coffee consumption in the world. In Finland, people drink more than four cups of coffee a day on average.

    Other online sources say five-six cups/day. Statistics Finland says Finns buy 8.9kg dry roasted coffee per person per year. A page on Coffee in Finnish History gives some background:

    Coffee drinking in Finland became forbidden in the year 1767 but it didn’t succeed; those who had money enough bought this expensive “unhealthy luxury drink” illegally, in secret. Finally, the Government had to give up and the citizens got this “healthy medicine” as they knew it. At the beginning of the nineteenth century it spread throughout the countryside, first among the wealthiest people. It became so popular with public celebrations in villages that everyone wanted to drink it also in their homes, at least on Sundays after church attendance. And if one couldn’t afford it, one didn’t have to stay without; a mixing of substitute and real coffee became less expensive. They added usually rye, barley, peas, beans and chicory etc. Later it might happen that when the harvest turned out badly and there was then lack of food they had to leave the real coffee away totally. But it helped people in such situations when they didn’t have to leave “coffee” drinking.

    By the beginning of the 20th century coffee drinking came to every house in Finland. It became common that coffee was taken three times every day and on the coffee table there were also buns etc. so it had changed the daily food structure. Sugar and cream came later , too. All kinds of coffee culture arose. Normally coffee beans were bought raw and these green beans were then roasted at home. For that work, there was a special pan called rännäli (from the Swedish word “brännare”). After that operation, the beans were ground in a little handmill before infusing in boiling water.

    As for the supposedly salutary effects, here’s a report on a study of Finnish coffee drinkers.

    (It’s always fun to Google stuff when you’re wired on coffee!)

  3. Hey, thanks for the extra research, Dave! Coffee may be okay for you in moderation, but if you have it with a lot of “pulla”, the traditional Finnish coffee bread that is SO good with it, watch out! I grew up on this, Mom baked it weekly! Anyway, I find it hard to believe that North Americans don’t drink as much or more with coffee shops on every corner, sometimes three of them, at least in Vancouver!

  4. My grandmother put the sugar cube in her mouth when she drank her coffee, too. She was from Galicia, Poland. I was just thinking about that the other day when I dropped a sugar cube into a small pan of tomatoes and onions and watched the cube become suffused with color. I gave up coffee fifteen years ago and have become a devotee of black tea. It has all that fine caffeine and none of the bitter- or jitteriness.

  5. Interesting about the sugar cubes.

    Me, I don’t take sugar, or dairy, in my coffee. And I have black tea in the afternoon, with mint leaves and honey.

    I’m suddenly wondering why the translator chose “profoundness” rather than “profundity”…

  6. I first learned to drink my drops of muddy brown profoundness (café crème) filtered through a sugar cube held between my teeth. That was in the north of France. I didn’t realize how widespread that method was.

    It’s funny – I clicked over intending to make a comment about sugar cubes in the teeth before reading your other comments. I think I hear Twilight Zone music!

  7. I didn’t know the sugar cube practice was so widespread either! I never tried it, liking my coffee black and unsweetened. I used to drink a lot but rarely have it now for health reasons, preferring green tea most of the time. I think one could find some “profoundness” in tea, too when you think of how long that’s been around, just about all over the world.

  8. The word ‘profoundness’ has more depth.

    I just heard on the TV news, which I don’t usually watch, that caffeine alleviates pain. The newscaster was looking rather gleeful as she said this.

  9. Wow, that first poem is really good. I did a quick search of my music database to find coffee-related music and came up with some blues (“Coffee Blues” by John Hurt, “Coffee for Mama” by Lightnin’ Hopkins, and “Coffee Grinder Blues” by Jaybird Coleman), a surprising lot of Cajun (“Le two-step de bon café” by Balfa Toujours, “La chanson du café” by Beausoleil, and “Café chaud” by the Lost Bayou Ramblers — who recorded an entire album called “Une Tasse Café” as the Mello Joy Boys) and finally “My Cup of Coffee”, a reel by Irish-American accordionist John Whelan.

  10. Oh goody, Mr T. in the house.

    Uncharacteristically weak last line for Tranströmer. I bet it’s Fulton’s fault. Now, I know all your reservations about Bly, but I’ve read several translators of Tranströmer, and he’s the simplest and most consistent of them. Because this poetry is so declarative, and not at all shy about hitching the profound up to the mundane, the tone has to be rightly judged so that it isn’t bathetic.

    Not that this is. Only that last line bugs me. The five that precede it are pure magic (even if “profoundness” sounds to my ear like nails on a chalkboard).

    Time for my morning tea. Lots of milk, lots of sugar.

  11. mb – The word ‘profoundness’ has more depth.

    I’m ingesting my medicine even as I type. One of the most surprising historical facts about coffee, I think, is that its first explosion in popularity was thanks to its purported ability to induce religious ecstasy. The conservative clerics in Mecca tried to ban it as a heretical substance at one point. So our modern fashion for declaring certain plants illegal has some interesting histoical parallels. At any rate, when I read that, I kind of had to wonder just how much caffeine those Sufis were ingesting!

    Vasha – Welcome, and thanks for that great list! I know only the first song. I’d be tempted to include Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful Blues” too, though it only mentions coffee. Obviously, the song i included in the post is intended as a joke, by the musicians as well as by me — though for the record, i did used to listen to music like that and still have a certain fondness for it, even if in general I’d prefer to listen to Mississippi John Hurt or Lightnin’ Hopkins. Declining testosterone levels, you know.

    Teju – I have a love/hate relationship with Bly as a translator. He’s like Ezra Pound; his versions are sometimes so goddamned good, it almost doesn’t matter that they don’t fairly represent the originals.

    I agree about that being a weak last line. In defense of Mr. Fulton, though, how do you know that fidelty to the text permits anything better? You can’t expect every line of a faithful translation to shine, just as you can’t expect every conjugal encounter with a given partner to produce a mind-blowing orgasm.

  12. Nice compilation on coffee. I drink coffee and tea as they are, but don’t drink either often. Do you read many books from back to front? I do with pretty much everything I read, although I can force myself to read front to back when required.

  13. Teju – Speak for yourself!
    Well, of course, I have no problem blowing my own mind.

    Vasha – Hey, that’s cool! I though about mentioning National Delurker Week, but I was afraid it would seem coercive — I respect people’s right to remain private.

    Fred – Thanks for prompting me to re-read that. I’m not sure I would’ve known to write espresso witthout an “x” had I not been copying the translation rather closely.

    I don’t know about a 12-step program to quit coffee. I’ve heard that self-help groups tend to turn into coffee clubs pretty quickly. Might be self-defeating.

    bev – I read poetry that way, sometimes, but not anything else. In any case I don’t feel I’ve really read a book of poems until I’ve read it twice — at least once in the order the author intended. Since this is a collected poems, though, it’s obviously a bigger commitment.

  14. I’ve never heard of Dsida Jeno
    Don’t feel bad. I hadn’t either!

    sounds like a new Rollins book
    Gee, I haven’t thought about Henry Rollins in probably five years, at least.

    And now you’ve gone and put him in my head again.

    Out, Henry! GET OUT!

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