Wednesday, 21 July 2010


In the current issue of Poetry Review (Volume 100, No 2, Summer 2010), Aviva Dautch writes ('Existential Otherness and Constant Readjustment'):
In PR (100:1) Pia Tafdrup recounts a childhood memory. A bleeding knee impelled her to ask her father, "Why do we have to die?". Tarkovsky's Horses explores her father's illness and death. This is foreshadowed in The Whales in Paris (the Other Poems of the title, a very different collection full of existential questions. "What is death, when it doesn't come as punishment?" reverberates through a sequence of 'Three Replies to Derrida', but while Tafdrup's questions may be philosophical, her responses are aesthetic:

The thought, the dreamed, the not-yet-born,
the far, the near, the much-desired
                            − the whole of it
I let go of, 
allow the images to be what they are.
('Journey Without End')

This is an ars poetica she returns to again and again; it echoes her essay Walking Over Water (1991), in which she explored Tafdrup "the weight and force of images[...], the momentary clarity a poem can produce." Tafdrup frequently writes without formal stanza breaks, but with fractures: lines split or indented, cantilevered across the page. The poem is a kaleidoscope of fragments, question piled upon question, image upon image, until a scale of perspective emerges that is both resonant and hermetic:

You are beyond yourself,
while perhaps you recapitulate days and nights,
and in a gleam
gather them into a single figure,
                          one only graspable by you.
('Fossil Sleep')

Tarkovsky's Horses "recapitulates" the days and nights of her father's battle with dementia, when "calendar leaves / imperceptibly send out / shortcuts to the dark, / if they're not turned by the nurses" ('Of A Life's Dignity'). 'Mirroring' asks "Is time a star / ground to dust / or dust / gathered to a star?" but in the "mortal chasm" she explores in 'The Sky's Gravity', "I hold on to his hand, / time doesn't pass at all." It is here that the ontological meditations of Tafdrup's earlier poems are realised in tender description:

In no time my father's hair becomes
thin and white
         the month of May 
can be glimpsed through it,
the way the skin swiftly changes colour. 
('On the Opposite Coast')

Tafdrup's writing is at its strongest when her deconstruction of identity is located in in a precise image, but what I enjoyed most about her work was the clear sense of a thinking mind: a sensuous intelligence finding its lyricism in the creative tension between content and aesthetics.

It is to David McDuff's credit that Pia Tafdrup's poetry retains a gratifying multi-facetedness in English. Tadrup has spoken about the difficulty of reproducing a writer's "signature" in translation...

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