Review by Moira Richards
TO CATCH LIFE ANEW: 10 SWEDISH WOMEN POETS
tr. by Eva Claeson
Oyster River Press
36 Oyster River Road , Durham, New Hampshire, 03824
I found in Eva Claeson's to catch life anew an interesting overview of the contemporary women's poetry scene of a country about which I know very little. Ia D'bois's introduction covers the social and political background from which the poets write and Claeson adds a short personal biography as preface to each poet's work. The poems of these ten Swedish women encompass a diverse collection of themes and writing styles and the original Swedish texts stand alongside the translations on each page of the book.
Anyone who can speak more than one language knows how inadequate translations can often be. With poetry particularly, a translator usually has the unenviable task of having to choose between and compromise at least some nuance of meaning, allusion, sound, rhythm etc of the original work. So, I found it very useful to be able to read the Swedish texts here. Even though I can't speak that language, some of the words are familiar and one can get a sense of the relative terseness or succinctness of the poems as they were conceived. And, Google found me a few spots where I could listen to the spoken language which gave me an extra sense of how the poems might sound.
What do these Swedish women have to say? Their experiences of extremes of season in such a northern country are very different to mine in sub-Saharan Africa which is perhaps why I particularly noticed something of this in their poems. Reading through the collection a second and third time, I found bits here and there that seemed to form a thread through the book that I'd like to explore.
Elizabeth Rynell talks in the lines below, about the oppressiveness of a summer at the height of which the sun seems never to set. Yet at the same time she is aware of the season's transience. (Incidently, the Swedish word for 'bats' is a wonderfully evocative 'fladdermossen').
Bats whirl around like illusions
during the short while
the birds are silent
. . .
is breathing so heavily
It is about to die Summer is always
about to die
And the nights poach us like eggs ...
("Nordic Summer" p.147)
And in another of her poems, "Rain," she still finds the manifestations of weather to be oppressive,
Someone is pouring
water over my life I stand
bent over myself
and don't know
if it's tears
Compatriot Margareta Ekstrom writes powerful word pictures of wind and motion in two of her poems and the Swedish weather begins to take on interesting characteristics.
The wind rages on
as though to extinguish
the dim light
we shield inside our skulls
. . .
The invisible hand
of little birds over the fields.
Flock after flock they whirl away
("Autumn Migration" p. 67)
Barbro Dahlin's poems also depict seasonal extremes and here she speaks of a winter more gloomy than any I've experienced.
When the mist of November lifts from the sea
and descends over the land to stay
all winter like bats hanging from eaves ...
("Wintering" p. 33)
It is small wonder indeed that poet Sonja Akesson yearns for,
A warm sweater
to cover my icy thoughts.
A warm life
to cover my icy life.
("Yes, please" p. 15)
But Swedes surely have some resilience, perhaps even an affinity for the climates they live in. Look how Elisabet Hermodsson in "The stones of my foundation" and Katarina Frostenson in "On the road" take the hard and inhospitable and embrace it.
I picked out myself
stone after stone
and cast them over me
("The stones of my foundation" p. 91)
. . .
home where the stone lies, where the stone
is in the middle of the land, grey
warm and cold at once
the softest soft, its rough surface against my cheek
("On the road" p.109)
The poets in to catch life anew gave me a glimpse of a people with resilience very much akin to that of the plants described in a bit from Eva Strom,
Nature endured. The hazel's persevering catkin. The tenacity of
the brush, the desperate resistance of roots and wild rose branches
covered with prickles and thorns.
("Work went on" p. 125)
I would surely be miserable in winters with no sunshine, but poetry by Johanna Ekstrom suggests that even the bluest of the blues will eventually be dissipated...
you lift me from my sorrow
as though you knew
that what has been uprooted
can lose something
along the way
("Without skill but with ability" p. 83)
...and a dose of wry humor like Kristina Lugn's may well be the best
way to banish those blue days.
I will send you an indemnity from my loneliness,
so you will not have to inherit anything at all from me.
But you will get all the money.
("Window with a view" p. 21)
Maybe, since so many of these poets incorporate nature into their writings, they have learned to trust in and embrace the beauty in the cycles of life as lines from Marie Lundquist's untitled prose poetry suggests,
... I know that when I immerse my writing hand into the green sorrow,
it will be refreshed. Words hanging in the breath of the trees become
coated with verdigris.
Of course, I have merely picked one strand of thought and followed it through Claeson's collection of poets. There are many other similarities between these ten different women and yet more differences in them and in their approaches to their art. More than I can fit into this review, and enough for me to anticipate more pleasurable hours with their poetry.
Moira Richards: "Google 'Moira Richards' to find links to my essays on Women Abuse, my reviews of woman-authored books as well as to other writing and editing work I do for various print and e-publications. I can often be found lounging about the staff rooms of womenwriters.net, absolutewrite.com and moondance.org - usually sipping tea, sometimes Jack Daniels."