Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Cities Inside Hall

Michel Ekman, reviewing Johannes Anyuru's Städerna inuti Hall (The Cities Inside Hall) in Hbl (excerpt, my tr.):

...The Cities Inside Hall is a daydream, or rather, given its grim tone, a waking night dream. At the beginning we meet the poetic “I” on a park bench. To be on the safe side, the bench is left empty, so all one has to do is sit down in the author's position. Then we set off on a journey, an inner journey, but still in a largely recognizable world, with concrete features (troubles) to make up our minds about. The distinguishing characteristic of this world is described in the title. Hall is a Swedish prison: the whole world is locked up in it.

The poetic “I” is suffused by a never-ending flood of pain and discomfort. Prison scenes, riots in Paris and Copenhagen, flashbacks to the war in Algeria, expressions of alienation and suffering in modern society fill the poems like short, specific scenes of violence. On a more abstract level Anyuru chooses – with a shade too much didacticism – the lock as a symbol of oppression. Detailed descriptions of various locking mechanisms pop up repeatedly. Another motif – the law – appears with lesser frequency, becoming lost in airy ambiguity.

There is obviously something impressive about a poetry collection that runs to 358 pages, and one feels that the sheer mass of print would be enough to knock the critics on their backs. For myself, however, I think that The Cities Inside Hall suffers from monotony and lack of conceptual focus. The poems seem to constantly generate new poems because they find it difficult to stand on their own. It is, after all, impossible to read a colossus like this as carefully and with the same attention to the whole that one would devote to an ordinary collection of poems. The question then becomes: what is the poetry form really being used for?

That question is reinforced by the fact that the form itself is also problematic. The staccato idiom employed by Anyuru often does not work particularly well in print. Presumably, it was originally conceived for reading aloud, but in contrast to two of his obvious models, Göran Sonnevi and Bruno K. Öijer, Anyuru finds it hard to create a style that also works in print. He falls short of his predecessors on another point, too. This has to do with the poetry’s political potential. Anyuru has been hailed as a renewer of the political poem, but I find neither the political acumen of a Sonnevi nor the provocative anti-politics of an Öijer in his work. Anyuru ends up in a tepid middle ground where much centres on the idea that policemen are not nice people.

The Cities Inside Hall strikes me as a book that is only half-finished, written by an author who is feeling the heavy hand of expectation on him. That doesn’t alter the picture of Johannes Anyuru as one of the most promising voices in Swedish poetry.

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