Dying takes place in so many different ways. Some people, for instance, die slowly as the result of a terminal illness or a condition like heart disease. Others die swiftly, victims of an accident or a fast-acting illness. It is impossible to say which kind of death is harder to mourn. The poet Henrik Nordbrandt wrote “At the Gate” after his girlfriend suffered a swift death.
Nordbrandt was born in Denmark but spent most of his adult life in the Mediterranean. He currently resides in Spain. He has written novels, essays and over 20 collections of poetry. Nordbrandt has won every literary award offered in Denmark.
Certain themes, such as travel, show up in much of his work. He also writes about gates as transition markers.
His poem “At the Gate” is written in seven terse stanzas. It begins:
“In the dream
At the gate to your grave
You stopped me
With the same words
I had spoken in a dream
Where I died before you.”
Nordbrandt’s pain is so deep that when he reaches the gate to the cemetery, he finds himself wishing that he had been the one to die first.
In the second stanza, he goes on to describe the gates as having “rusty and squeaky hinges.” He also talks about how the weather is gloomy and cloudy.
The third stanza of Norbrandt’s poem laments his lover’s ashes contained in an urn. Then in the fourth stanza, he reverts back to a travel metaphor:
“On every trip you stay ahead of me.
On platforms I see your footprints in fresh snow.
When the train starts to move
You jump out of the back carriage
To reach the next station ahead of me.”
In this stanza of “At the Gate,” Nordbrandt’s sweetheart appears almost malicious in her haunting of him, leaving her faint presence behind only to disappear when he thinks he might reach her. The stanza also refers to the fact that, because Nordbrandt’s lover died first, he will never see her again.
The sixth stanza is a short summary of the last telephone call the couple had. His final words to her, when she told him she missed him, were, “I miss you too.”
The seventh and final stanza wraps up the different threads of the poem:
“You are gone.
Three words. And not one
Exists in any
“At the Gate” is a poignant look at the reactions of the poet to losing a loved one to a swift death. It starts desperately with Nordbrandt yearning for his own death, wishing he could have died first. The middle passages provide descriptions of his lover and show the way that he thinks about her and honors her memory. Finally, he reacts to the harsh and lonely reality: “You are gone.”
Since writing “At the Gate,” Henrik Nordbrandt has gone on to write dozens if not hundreds more poems. Most of them have been translated into English by a man named Thom Satterlee. I believe, though, that “At the Gate” will always be my favorite Nordbrandt poem. It takes an unflinching, yet metaphorical, look at losing a loved one suddenly and cruelly.