Reviewed by Kevin Hart
“On the night of October 27, 1981, the Soviet submarine U-137 ran aground in Gåsefjärden (Goose Bay), a prohibited military area on Sweden’s southeastern coast, and finally had to accept the Swedish navy’s assistance in order to be able to return to international waters.” So begins the translator’s note to Jesper Svenbro’s poem “Coastal Defense.” It is as though John Matthias and Lars-Håkan Svensson have stood on either side of a heavy anchor and then thrown it from the poem they are translating. For the poem pitches and heaves from its first words:
The incident of the Soviet submarine in Goose Bay
raises the issue of how we want our archipelago poetry to look:
older metaphorical defenses from the fifties
may of course still have a function to fill
but a modern lyric coastal defense obviously must work
on entirely new premises, at once more efficient and discreet.
How does poetry provide a coastal defense? By shielding Swedish from attack by Russian, Danish, Norwegian, French, German and that most invasive of all modern languages, English. Of course, the fact that we read “Coastal Defense” in English translation suggests that no amount of border control, no matter how “efficient and discreet” it is, can keep the “thirty-kilometer boundary” intact. And since Svenbro’s poetry is profoundly concerned with “the roughness of language,” as he puts it in another poem, we receive it in English more surely at the level of concept than at the tactile levels of reading and writing.
For anglophone readers at least, the most celebrated “coastal defense” of Swedish poetry was deployed by Tomas Tranströmer in the 1950s. “Storm,” the first part of “Autumnal Archipelago” from his 17 Dikter (1954), is exemplary:
Here the walker suddenly meets the giant
oak tree, like a petrified elk whose crown is
furlongs wide before the September ocean’s
murky green fortress.
Northern storm. The season when rowanberry
clusters swell. Awake in the darkness, listen:
constellations stamping inside their stalls, high
over the tree-tops.
(trans. Robin Fulton)
Visually precise, and more than a little baroque, these stanzas indicate the “older metaphorical defenses” that Svenbro has in mind. When Tranströmer returns to the same Baltic seascape twenty years later in Östersjöar (1974), his language has been loosened up and stripped down:
There are days when the Baltic is a calm endless roof.
Dream your naïve dreams then about someone coming crawling on
the roof trying to sort out the flag lines,
trying to hoist
the flag which is so eroded by the wind and blackened by the funnels
and bleached by the sun it can be everyone’s.
For all that, Tranströmer’s poetics have not fundamentally changed over the decades. Nor has his relation to Swedish. Asked to specify the nature of Tranströmer’s Swedishness when the poet won the 1990 Neustadt Prize, Lasse Söderberg quoted Carl Jonas Love Almquist (1793-1866) on a quality that the latter held to be essential to being Swedish--poverty: “To be poor is to be restricted to one’s own resources.” Restriction generates concentration in Tranströmer, Söderberg observes, and again quotes Almquist as saying that in general the Swede “has very much the manner of seeing quickly and straight through things, which customarily is called sound Swedish sense” (Söderberg, “The Swedishness of Tomas Tranströmer,” trans. Lief Sjöberg, World Literature Today 64: 4 (1990), 576.)
Svenbro would agree. He makes the same point, with a nod towards Tranströmer (and his success overseas), in “Coastal Defense”:
Swedish literature’s long-standing prioritizing of the air force
has gradually resulted in a visually advanced poetry
that has done well at international air displays,
but acoustic poetry has found itself in a backwater
forcing the navy to require subsidies for antisubmarine poems.
The elemental poverty of Tranströmer’s language, its reliance on a minimal Swedish vocabulary, has made it resistant to translation. In “The Station,” for example, the sound and texture of domkyrkoklocklang are lost in “peal of cathedral bells.” On the other hand, the visual brilliance of the poetry, its sense of gazing down upon a landscape or seascape from a great height, has encouraged translation. A poem such as “Vermeer” has a strong appeal in English as well as in Swedish. In “From March 1979” the speaker is weary of those who speak “words but no language” and goes to “the snow-covered island” where he comes upon “the tracks of deer’s hooves in the snow” which are, he says, “Language but no words.” Tranströmer’s poetics rebel against the doctrinal (in politics as in religion) and seek the apophatic (as a response to nature more than to the divine). By contrast, Svenbro wants what we might call “language with words” or “words with language.” His is “acoustic poetry” not only because it reads well at “the increasingly popular poetry readings” in Sweden but also, and more importantly, because it figures the voice as being completely at home in the written word.
Svenbro’s early poems frequently make sudden shifts from one register or perspective or time frame to another. Hence the feeling of pitching and heaving at the start of “Coastal Defense” when we pass from a prosaic statement about a foreign submarine to questions of poetics and literary history and then back to a children’s game, Sänka skepp or “sink-a-ship.” Anything but breathless in its recording of mutations, the voice in the poem remains dry and laconic. Svenbro takes pleasure in managing a difficult balancing act while appearing almost indifferent to the risks he takes. What makes the act so impressive is that there is nowhere smooth and steady on which to stand. We have been alerted that this is the case by the opening poem of Three-Toed Gull, “A Critique of Pure Representation”:
In order to restore to the words their semantic roughness
I told myself that there was no difference
between the stone I held in my hand and the word “stone”
clattering in language: I love the roughness of language
which marks its own presence and I claim passionately
that love of language in this sense
means resistance to pure repression.
In a gesture familiar to readers of la nouvelle critique, “pure representation” becomes “pure repression.” A more instructive recollection would be Francis Ponge’s prose poem about a pebble, “Le galet,” from Le parti pris des choses (1942), and the passage of Maurice Blanchot’s important essay “La littérature et le droit à la mort” (1947-48) that touches on it.
Blanchot argues that literary language searches for the moment before literature, when the stone is still a stone. A poem gives us the word “stone” but the word is drained of the stone’s being. How then to capture the stoniness of the stone? “My hope lies in the materiality of language, in the fact that words are things, too, are a kind of nature--this is given to me and gives me more than I can understand. Just now the reality of words was an obstacle. Now, it is my only chance. . . Everything physical takes precedence: rhythm, weight, mass, shape, and then the paper on which one writes, the trail of the ink, the book. Yes, happily language is a thing: it is a written thing, a bit of bark, a sliver of rock, a fragment of clay in which the reality of the earth continues to exist” (Blanchot, “Literature and the Right to Death,” trans. Lydia Davis, The Work of Fire (Stanford UP, 1995), 327-28). Svenbro would like to stop here, insisting on “the kinship of the stone / with the hard and obstinate word ‘stone’.” Blanchot, however, goes further and observes that the poem places us in touch less with the earth than with what precedes and succeeds it: “It is not beyond the world, but neither is it the world itself: it is the presence of things before the world exists, their perseverance after the world has disappeared, the stubbornness of what remains when everything vanishes and the dumbfoundedness of what appears when nothing exists” (328). So Blanchot’s récits explore the approach of the Outside, the ceaseless generation of being as non-being and of non-being as being, while Svenbro’s poems are committed to the possibility of words “representing themselves, / before their validity is extended to comprise the things / that together . . . / constitute what we mean by the ‘world’.” The poem is spoken--a voice trembles and syllables vibrate; it is a body of air before it becomes a body of meaning.
If there is a unity of material reality and language, there are also crevasses between them through which one can fall. “Classic Experiment” risks “taking our stand in a simile near the middle of the Iliad / where the snowflakes are falling thick.” Immediately we slide from outside the poem to deep inside it: “the wind has calmed down, / the landscape with its ridges and woods, fences and fields / appears behind curtains of falling snow.” Standing in the middle of the poem, without continuing to read, the snow does not stop. “Soon the roads leading into the simile will be totally blocked!” Svenbro exclaims in mock horror. (American readers will recall a similar move made right at home in Kenneth Koch’s “The Railway Stationery.”) Another poem, “Cynegetics,” amusingly relates the story of students having to hunt for the Greek verb thereúo, “I hunt,” and then finding themselves being hunted in book XIX of the Odyssey:
Up to now
We had only hunted with hesitation, unsuccessfully,
While the aorist designated a completed action--
In the past, the present, and the future.
Branches were broken, big piles of leaves were rustling,
From now on we would be successful in “hunting,” our tracking sense
Surpassing even that of dogs as we localized
The Wild Boar behind an unusually dense thicket
Right out at the end of the text. There it was!
And now the students find themselves being hunted:
“we were being hunted” here in the passive, fled
and surely would have been goners had not Ulysses,
age fourteen, taken his stand in the path
and stabbed the boar with his spear in the aorist indicative.
Poets are often identified by their daytime jobs. X is “librarian and poet,” Y is “scholar and poet,” while Z is “mortician and poet.” The Australian poet A. D. Hope once pointedly observed, “These are the sort of people who would call Jesus of Nazareth ‘Carpenter and Prophet’!” True enough, except that Svenbro explicitly courts being styled in a double manner. He never disguises the fact that he is a scholar of ancient Greek literature (his appointment is at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris), and he plays up--and plays around with--the figure of poet as scholar. Even so, one should be careful not to tie “scholar” and “poet” too close to one another in his case. “Pedestal,” for instance, is not a poem written in school; it concerns change and sadness, and has nothing of the footnote about it. Nonetheless it circles around the statue of Phrasikleia, which has been the subject of acute scholarly attention by Svenbro. Facets of his poems are illuminated by the quiet and beautiful essays in Phrasikleia: An Anthropology of Reading in Ancient Greece (Cornell UP, 1993). Only some facets, though: the poetry is finally independent of the scholarship. That said, a recent uncollected study, “Eyerite: The Greek Alphabet and its Metaphysics of Presence,” brings retrospective clarification to his emphasis on “acoustic poetry,” while also placing him in a critical relation with Jacques Derrida’s account of the relation of subjectivity and speech in La voix et le phénomène (1967).
Like all good poets, Svenbro does not “develop.” If his poems change in their preoccupations and technique it is imperceptibly, like waves slowly advancing over a beach. Loose monologues in the first-person, given to anecdote and sudden shifts, remain constant throughout the book. And yet by the end of Three-Toed Gull one hears a voice that is less content with conceptual agility and more given to the darker tones of experience. Here the flatness of the language, its absolute refusal of “older metaphorical defenses,” conducts an implied weight of experience rather than providing a stage for meta-critical play. At times there are small epiphanies that recall Eugenio Montale’s lampi and that verge on a poetics of redemption. Thus “Frascati”: “The Frascati wine was on our table, / sparkling in a sunbeam. / As I remember its transparency, so many years later, / it changed our vision completely.” Self-reflection still occurs, even in the splendid last poem of the collection, “The Starlings.” One autumn evening in Rome a flock of starlings settles on the trees in the Via Ottaviano. They are “chattering, quarreling and laughing,” and inevitably the poet thinks of Virgil’s description of the souls of the dead in book VI of the Aeneid:
The souls of the dead have gathered in the trees.
Their number is incredible, suddenly it seems ghastly:
is this what it will be like?
For a moment I am a prisoner
of the poem I am writing.
There must be an exit.
So the poem stalls for an instant, fascinated as much with the Aeneid as with itself. There is no “linguistic moment,” though, no pitching and heaving, no slide to the Sibyl or Charon. The spell is broken in a commonplace and human way--by a soldier who comes up to speak with the poet. The recovery allows the poem to modulate into an elegy for Ludovica Koch, a scholar of Gunnar Ekelöf:
I seem to detect your lively gaze.
And we shall see how the starlings come flying
across the field in teeming swarms.
They will come from Rome and spend the day out here
where they will eat snails, worms, and seeds
and suddenly they will fly up from a field
as at a given signal
and make us look at the sun.
No gesture is more common or more tempting than the last one, especially for someone trained in Classics. Yet the moment of transcendence is not easily won. The poem has been embedded in the immanence of Rome and its history: Svenbro walks through the modern city, ponders Virgil, recalls his friend who spent time in Rome, her love for Ekelöf who wrote of Rome in a volume of translations, Elective Affinities, a title that recalls Goethe and, inevitably, his sojourn in the eternal city. Svenbro is a poet of historical strata and their dislocations, whether brutal or minute, and perhaps no other poet writing today is more at ease in negotiating the fault lines that are revealed when one looks beneath the surface of the earth on which one stands or the time in which one lives.