Review of The Star by My Head: Poets from Sweden

The Star by My Head Poets from SwedenThe Star by My Head: Poets from Sweden
Edited by Malena Mörling and Jonas Ellerström
978-1-57131-461-1, 208 pages
Milkweed Editions, 2014, $20

Reviewed by Kevin Dublin

The Star by My Head is an anthology of Modern and Contemporary Swedish Poetry translated into English by Malena Mörling, a Swedish-American poet and professor, and Jonas Ellerström, a Swedish author, translator, publisher, and critic. Mörling has two collections of her own poetry Ocean Avenue (1999) and Astoria (2006), and she has translated the work of Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer, among others. Ellerström has published much poetry and critical essay collections in Swedish. The selected poets in this anthology include: Edith Södergran, Gunnar Ekelöf, Werner Aspenström, Tomas Tranströmer, Tua Forsström, Kristina Lugn, Marie Lundquist, and Bruno K. Öijer.

The best anthologies present a goal or a mission statement. In the introduction to the collection, Mörling quotes Tomas Tranströmer, “A poem is a manifestation of an invisible poem that exists beyond the conventional languages. Therefore, a translation of a poem into a new language is an opportunity to attempt to realize the original (invisible) poem.” The goal then of this anthology is to realize the original invisible poems the represented Swedish poets observed. And what wonderful observations they are.

First in the anthology is Edith Södergran (1892–1923) who is considered one of the first Modernists of the Swedish Language. There are seven poems by her included. The idea of “the self” became a large topic of exploration for many of the poets Swedish and otherwise during this time, but Södergran gives multiple possibilities of self in the poem “Vierge Moderne.”

I am not a woman. I am neuter.
I am a child, a tomboy and a rash decision,
I am a laughing streak of scarlet sunlight—
I am a net for all ravenous fish,
I am a toast in honor of all women,
I am a step toward chance and ruin (7)

Much modern and contemporary Swedish poetry reminds us that we have infinite possibilities of self and reality is more expansive than we perceive. Therefore, poetry acts almost as a manifesto or religious text without deity. Another selected poet, Gunnar Ekelöf (1907-1968), continued the exploration of possibility. The anthology reads that he was influenced by French poets Baudelaire and Rimbaud, he introduced surrealism into Swedish poetry. Mörling writes that he often uses an “invisible hinge” between opposites, acknowledging the immediate counterpart of his statements. See the opening metaphor in the first line of this poem:

Every human is a world, peopled
with blind creatures in a dim uproar
against the self, the king that rules over them.
In each soul a thousand souls are trapped,
in each world a thousand worlds are hidden

as true as I am real. And we kings
and princes of the thousands possible within
are ourselves subjects, trapped ourselves
inside some larger creature, whose self and being
we just as little know as our superior (25)

The anthology has a really strong representation of the major Swedish poets with, as Ellerström writes, “highly distinctive lyrical voices and personae, as well as that central characteristic of great poetry, which is timelessness” (179). An anthology of contemporary Swedish poets would not be complete without Nobel Laureate (2011) Tomas Tranströmer (b. 1931). He is the most well-known contemporary Swedish poet, partly because he’s been translated into 60+ languages. Tranströmer departs from the direct rhetoric of his predecessors. Instead, as Jonas Ellerström writes, he focuses on “intense relation to nature … and keen interest in human conditions and the kind of politics that are not easily expressed,” but there’s still a sense of exact metaphor along with deep mystery. This tension is represented in his selection of poems and in this particular poem, “Secrets on the Way,” comes from nature’s dominance. Sun and darkness perform actions as humanity serves as object:

Daylight struck the face of one who slept.
He received a livelier dream
but did not wake.

Darkness struck the face of one who walked
among the others in the sun’s strong
impatient rays.

Suddenly it turned dark as in a downpour.
I stood in a room that held every moment—
a butterfly museum.

And still the sun is as strong as before.
Its impatient brushes painted the world. (71)

In total, the collection has four earlier modern Swedish poets and four early contemporary poets. Tranströmer is one of the early contemporaries and another is Tua Forsström. Most of the poems in her selection are untitled and are taken from collections published between 1979 and 1998. Just like the other poems in this anthology, her poems are well-translated: the mood and textures of the poems are intact and the lyrical intensity resonates, such as these lines from the only titled poem among Forsström’s selection of poems “The Angels of Karis:”

They breathe lightly like aluminum
They know the godforsaken places

They laugh! Nothing terrifies us more
than when they laugh

Nothing terrifies us more
than the godforsaken places

And that which is red-rimmed. (113)

Included at the end of the anthology is “A Brief History of Modern Swedish Poetry” which provides details about and introduces readers to a few Swedish poets who wrote during or just before the Modern era, but didn’t write Modern free verse poetry. It also provides historical context to the poets who are included in the anthology such as the wars and events that preceded and influenced some of the poets and the content that they wrote along with titles of some published collections during that time that are available in English. The Star By My Head: Poets from Sweden provides an excellent introduction to the tradition of Modern lyric Swedish poets, poetry, and how their tradition has transformed, carried on, and influenced the world of poetry. This anthology will help influence an even greater English-speaking audience.

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