A Time in Xanadu
by Lars Gustafsson
Reviewed by Robert Archambeau
With the exception of Tomas Transtromer, Swedish poets have not had much exposure in the United States, and inasmuch as we can say there is an American sense of what Swedish poetry is like, it is a sense derived from Transtromer's work: a spare poetry, a little modernist, a little lyric, a bit existential, with hints of quiet mysticism. This is actually a fairly accurate picture of much poetry written by Transtromer's generation. It certainly pertains to the work of Lars Gustafsson, one of Sweden's most prolific poets and novelists. When we read Gustafsson side-by-side with a younger Swedish poet such as Fredrik Nyberg, though, we can see how far Swedish poetry has moved in a generation. The two poets are separated by three decades (Gustafsson was born in 1936, Nyberg in 1968), and the gulf between them is not just a matter of temporal points of reference. At some time between Gustafsson's formative years and Nyberg's, poetry underwent what in the history of philosophy is often referred to as a "linguistic turn" -- a reorientation from the primacy of subjective experience to the primacy of language. The difference in orientation is surely connected to the intellectual currents running strongest during the years that shaped the two poets. Gustafsson's generation cut their teeth on the existentialism of Sartre and Ingmar Bergman, while Nyberg and his contemporaries came of age with Derrida and deconstruction.
The Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam traditionally includes a "Defence of Poetry" lecture by an esteemed poet, and when Lars Gustafsson was invited to give the address in 2005, he made an impassioned defense of the poetry of subjective experience. "In the scientific contexts the personal pronouns always strive to become the third person," said Gustafsson. While a scientific discipline such as physics "abstracts an experience in such a way that it holds for anybody, poetry can never have any other ambition than that it can hold for somebody" (emphasis original).
What we must defend, says Gustafsson, is a poetry that preserves and makes accessible the full nature of subjective experience -- because "in a world where almost all communication strives toward a third-person perspective, this first-person perspective obviously becomes important simply because it is rare." Ralph Mills, Jr., an American poet who, like Gustafsson, came of age in the middle of the twentieth century, used to refer to the kind of poetry that tried to preserve individual experience in an increasingly technological and bureaucratized society as "the cry of the human." It is a term that could very well apply to much of the verse Gustafsson has written since his first volume of poetry, The Balloonists, appeared in 1962.
In the best poems of A Time in Xanadu (ably translated by John Irons), Gustafsson is not just lyrical; he reflects on the nature of lyrical expression. Sometimes he even flirts with the linguistic concerns of Nyberg's generation. In "Monologue for Some Prince of Denmark," the poem that opens the volume, Gustafsson begins with a highly impersonal and un-lyrical kind of language, using an idiom reminiscent of both structural linguistics and formal logic. "Let L be a language / composed as follows," says the speaker, a strangely dispassionate version of Hamlet, "V is a vocabulary / with words for love, hate, despair" while "R, on the other hand, is a strict system of rules / for how the words of this vocabulary / may be organized into acceptable strings." The prince then describes a machine that combines vocabulary in concord with the system of rules to generate a potentially infinite series of strings of language. This sounds less like the work of a poet concerned with lyric language and subjective experience than it does the product of someone who has been sleeping with Roland Barthes's "Death of the Author" or Claude Levi-Strauss's Course in General Linguistics under his pillow.
But then comes the end of the poem, where we hear that "No string may be too long / And, least of all, infinitely long. // Although some string may grow into song." It is no accident that the poem bursts into rhyme at this point. After outlining the impersonal, indeed mechanical, principles of linguistics, Gustafsson points to how these principles hold the possibility of lyrical, even musical, expression. Language, says the poem, may well be an impersonal system, but it is capable of giving voice to experience of the most intimate kind. One might think of this as Gustafsson's rejoinder to the linguistically obsessed work of a younger generation of poets, saturated in structuralist and post-structuralist ideas about language.
Gustafsson is always intent on valuing the individual, the particular, and the personal. Whether he is comparing the quietly strange and wonderful details of our quotidian lives to the fantastic journey of Kublai Khan from his pleasure dome (in "Kublai Khan Departs from Xanadu"), or reflecting on the gulf between a child's half-formed desires and the social expectations imposed by schools (in "To Those Who Wanted"), or imagining the lost details of the life of a long-dead man whose Nazi-era identity card he fishes from a sea of mass-market flotsam (in "Citywide Garage Sale, Austin, Texas, 1998"), Gustafsson's concern with the subjective remains.
Perhaps it is the urgency with which he feels the need to point to the importance of overlooked particulars that leads him into his one vice: an occasional over-explaining of the issue at hand. In "All Crazy Small Objects," for example, Gustafsson describes a series of weird and beautiful little items that have washed up on the shores of his life, and he hints a little at the stories behind each. So far so good -- he is reclaiming the sacredness of ordinary things, a project as venerable and laudable as William Carlos Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow." But where Williams is content to leave us with images and suggestions of significance, Gustafsson feels the need to make the implicit explicit. "They do not speak, of course," he writes at the end of the poem:
Nor are they 'symbols'
of something or other.
They have come down
from the firmament of forms
for a short while
on writing desks
and in window recesses.
And one is grateful for the visit.
One is, indeed, grateful for the nicely chiseled images in the early part of the poem. It is this kind of footnoting of the poem in the poem itself that one could, perhaps, do without.
While, for Gustafsson, poetry is primarily an ongoing exploration and lyrical expression of subjective experience, for Fredrik Nyberg the emphasis lies elsewhere. As Nyberg puts it in "The Eastern Years" (a poem not collected in A Different Practice), "poetry is continuously language." As with so many poets of his generation, Nyberg has found the medium of poetry at least as fascinating as its capacity for mimesis. Which is not to say that he is uninterested in personal experience, merely that he is unwilling to plumb the depths of the personal without taking a long, skeptical look at the capacity of language to represent experience. In fact, it is the tension between sense-experience and memory, on the one hand, and the foregrounding of language, on the other, that makes A Different Practice such a taut, intriguing book of poetry.
"Rotor Blades, movements (1 - 5)," the first of the five poem-cycles that compose the book, begins with a meditation on different uses of language. "Now when all it does is rain / I suddenly understand, that there are / two ways to write something." The first of these, the "morning" way, involves the deliberate, controlled, and focused use of language, a mode suitable for communicating about public issues and for invoking the specifics of history and politics -- "this," says Nyberg, "is a way to write about / a particular form of disappointment" such as that associated with "Richard Nixon's gesture by the helicopter / August 1974." In contrast to this kind of language, Nyberg proposes an "afternoon" mode of discourse. This is a less deliberate, less rule-bound, and more meandering form of writing, the "absent-minded writing" that offers "a possibility to approach childhood / and loneliness." If the morning mode is for public events and public communication, this other mode has its own kind of truth and its own apt topics, private topics such as a "Summer that gradually takes up / more space in the smell of summer cottages."
For Nyberg, neither kind of language has a monopoly on the truth. And, in the end, neither type is really adequate even to the task it is most fit to attempt. As he writes later in the "Rotor Blades" sequence, "the whole argument is easy to criticize / since it seems to build upon an idea / that all text (poetry) would entirely lack / a double gesture" -- that is, this notion of different forms of language being fit for different tasks fails to account for language's inherent ambiguities and contradictions. It is quite typical of Nyberg to make an argument about language and then to retract it. In fact, he even retracts his own retraction: right after the passage about the "double gesture" of language comes a single line reading "but still" -- Nyberg is skeptical even about his own skepticism.
From within this nettle of skepticism about language, Nyberg is drawn again and again to the intimate experiences of "afternoon" writing -- to memory, love, and the body. These lines from "Crawfish - a poem" give some idea of the texture that results when cerebral skepticism collides with the intimate and corporeal:
to write without entirely making it resemble the journey
preceded by two or three very small summers
Later also heather waves insanity
Sometimes love actually comes into focus
I smell your stomach to long remember your stomach
The effect is strange -- we are pulled into an experience even as we are pulled away from it, toward a reflection on the inadequacy of language. And the strangeness is heightened by the disjunctive quality of the verse, in which bits of unconnected syntax bump into one another without trying too hard to form a coherent whole.
At first I thought some of the oddness may have been a matter of the translation. But Ugly Duckling Presse has been generous enough to publish A Different Practice in a bilingual edition, with Swedish and English versions of the poems presented en face, and my Swedish, rusty at a decade's remove from my year teaching at Lund University, is just good enough to confirm that Jennifer Hayashida's translation is remarkably dexterous and accurate. It is clear that Nyberg has put himself to school with the works of difficult American poets like John Ashbery and Susan Howe, as well as experimental French poets like Jacques Roubaud. It is a good canon for a poet who wants to examine the limits of language, but the combination of influences could not have made Hayashida's task an easy one. Nyberg is fortunate to have her, and we should look forward to her forthcoming translation of his Clockwork of Flowers.
Poetry in translation rarely gets much of a hearing in America, and Swedish poetry fares even worse than the poetry of larger nations in finding an American readership (the poetry reader on the street may well have heard of Tomas Transtromer, but how about such heavy-hitters as Jesper Svenbro, Goran Printz-Pahlson, and Marie Lundquist?). Usually when one surveys this sad state of affairs and makes a case for reading poetry from beyond the frontiers of one's own language, one conjures up an argument about how the poetry in question embodies energies and insights alien to one's own experience. In reading Gustafsson and Nyberg side by side, though, I am struck by the similarity between the generational change in Swedish poetry and that in American poetry. In both literatures, a mid-century generation intent, in various ways, on rescuing subjective experience from a rationalized, bureaucratized world has passed the torch to a generation whose personal concerns are tempered by a skepticism about language that makes their poems complex, fraught and, in the hands of a poet as nimble as Nyberg, strangely brilliant.
This review was originally posted in the Boston Review.