Saturday, 21 December 2019

The Taste of Steel and The Smell of Snow

My translation of Pia Tafdrup's collections SMAGEN AF STÅL (2014) and LUGTEN AF SNE (2016) is scheduled for publication as a single volume by Bloodaxe Books in November 2020:

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Friday, 4 October 2019


Burcu Sahin’s debut collection Broderier [Embroideries] (Bonniers, 2019) is a book about the relation between language and reality. In her delicate but severely crafted poems she weaves the fabric of her world into a verbal tapestry that is not only a record of her personal experience and memory but also a shared testimony, a voice that she gives to women whom society has rendered silent. It is also a remarkable addition to the steadily growing body of work by poets for whom Sweden is a base, but not necessarily a home:  they include such names as Athena Farrokhzad, Yolanda Aurora Bohm Ramirez, Annamarija Todorov, Johannes Anyuru and Felicia Mulinari.

The reality that underlies the poems is not a cheerful one. It is a place of exile and exclusion, of exploitation and unrewarded toil, of social and linguistic isolation, of racism, alienation and anomie. Språket är inte glömt/ men raderna är brutna (The language is not forgotten/but the lines are broken) reads one of the early poems in the collection, and in their bare, sparse outlines and arching fragments the poems themselves reflect this statement. At time there is a danger that the link between language and reality may be lost altogether:  det finns ingen försoning i verkligheten/ kanske i dikten/ det finns ingen försoning i dikten/ kanske i verkligheten (there is no reconciliation in reality / perhaps in the poem / there is no reconciliation in the poem / perhaps in reality) is the warning that runs through much of the volume.

In an early essay, Sahin writes of the political nature of poetry:

För mig är poesin alltid politisk. Det litterära rummet och skrivandet undflyr inte de samhälleliga normerna och strukturerna, utan är en del av att reproducera bilder, berättelser och människor. Litteraturen återspeglar inte bara ”verkligheten”, utan återskapar den på nytt.

For me poetry is always political. Literary space and writing do not escape social norms and structures, but are a part of the reproduction of images, stories and people. Literature does not just reflect “reality” but recreates it anew.

(Poesins politiska kraft, Rummet, 2014)

The book’s political dimension is reflected in its structure, which in turn relates back to social reality: the metaphorical juxtaposition of ‘stitches’ and poems persists throughout the six sections, and the fragmentary  and arduous nature of the working women’s daily lives appears in the isolation and fractured appearance of the lines on the printed page. There is a constant play on the words söm (seam) and sömn (sleep), and thematic devices of this kind are skilfully interwoven in the text.

A great deal of the anger in the poems is directed at the brokenness of the social surroundings, the inadequacy of language and the careless way in which generations are severed from each other, when the traditional roles of mother and child are reversed:

det finns inget ord
för ett barn
som bär
på sin mor

there is no word
for a child
that carries
its mother

The experience of exile and the task of establishing a life in a new and unfamiliar country is encountered in the learning of words:

med kluven tunga lär vi oss
  bokstävernas uttal

with a cleft tongue we learn
          the language
          the letters’ pronunciation

But the acquisition of new words and gestures is accompanied by a raw sense of vulnerability as an outsider and by a resentment of intrusion:

vi lär oss plocka
  andras blickar
  från våra ansikten

we learn to pluck
          the gazes of others
          from our faces

The poet is not alone – she stands with her mothers and sisters, fathers and brothers, in a strange new world where objects and words have lost much of their connection, and where human relations are restricted and determined by the need to survive by backbreaking toil. The hidden world of the textile sweatshops is invoked in cinematic flashes:

ni lever bland meterlånga gardiner
huvuddukar med rosenmotiv
skira överkast               persikofärgat siden

ni lever som skuggor      morgonens skuggor
händerna som försörjer maskineriet

you live among metre-length curtains
headscarves with rose motifs
flimsy bedspreads.    peach-coloured silk

you live like shadows   the morning’s shadows
the hands that feed the machinery

Contrasted with the mechanised and alienated environment of exile is the world of tradition, of roots and family. In the poems this is centred on the theme of motherhood, and the image of the mothers and grandmothers. There is humour here, and tenderness, mixed with irony: våra mödrar syr / vårdar andras mödrar (our mothers sew / take care of others’ mothers), the first poem in the ‘Night Shift’ section begins.

Although the poems are phrased with the techniques and stylistic features of modernism, they are also direct, down-to-earth statements about real and lived experience. The poet speaks for whole generations of uprooted people, surveys the world that is partly their own and partly given to them, and praises the richness of their inborn and self-creating culture in the face of an uncomprehending and largely hostile environment. But the future is bleak, and does not hold out much hope for the prospects for social integration and harmony in a West that is rapidly changing, conscious of guilt, but still fettered by its history of domination and injustice:

det som finns är en öppen hand
som aldrig slutar ge

det som läggs i våra händer
 ska tas ifrån oss igen

what exists is an open hand
that never stops giving

what is placed in our hands
will be taken from us again

Sahin’s is an original and uncompromising poetic voice, and one looks forward to following her development in future collections.

Sunday, 25 August 2019


by Laus Strandby Nielsen

There are no clouds over Plovdiv
today. They all followed Orpheus

down to the dark where they were late
for the concert. What should they do?

The door to the music was closed. Or-
pheus, Orpheus himself sounded like

an echo you could hear but faintly.
There was scarcely room for them

all in this uppermost part of the under-
world in which they had landed, just

like a flock of desperate refugees
before a bristling barbed wire fence,

so did they huddle together not knowing
inside from out. Here the transformation

took place: the clouds flowed like water
down to the underworld, making chaos

and mud. For a long time, Orpheus kept
his singing head above the hazardous

mud, but his mouth was filled,
his eyes and ears, and when at last

through the mud he heard the beloved’s
whisper like a strangely bubbling sound,

it was too late. Too late is the not
so cheerful motto of this story.

Der er ingen skyer over Plovdiv
i dag. De fulgte alle efter Orpheus

ned i mørket hvor de kom for sent
til koncerten. Hvad skulle de gøre?

Døren til musikken var lukket. Or-
pheus, selveste Orpheus lød som

et ekko man kun svagt kunne høre.
Der var næsten ikke plads til dem

alle i denne øverste del af under-
verdenen hvor de var havnet, ganske

som en flok fortvivlede flygtninge
foran et hegn af flænsende pigtråd,

sådan trykkede de sig sammen og
vidste hverken ud eller ind. Her skete

forvandlingen: skyerne flød som vand
ned i underverdenen, skabende kaos

og mudder. Længe holdt Orpheus sit
syngende hoved oven over det farlige

mudder, men hans mund blev fyldt op,
hans øjne og ører, og da han til sidst

gennem mudderet hørte den elskedes
hvisken som en underligt boblende lyd,

da var det for sent. For sent er det ikke
så muntre motto for denne fortælling.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

from Laus Strandby Nielsen: -- og andre steder, Asger Schnacks Forlag, 2019

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Claes Andersson (1937-2019)

Hufvudstadsbladet has an obituary of the poet, psychiatrist and politician Claes Andersson, who recently passed away at the age of 82.

Friday, 7 June 2019

W.H. Auden

On learning and not forgetting

When they asked W.H. Auden if poetry can change
society he said no, can poetry change human nature, 
No said W.H. Auden. But then what can the poems
 do? Allow us to commune with the dead, said      
W.H. Auden, remind us to enjoy life a bit or at least
endure it a bit better, keep us company for a while. 

- Tua Forsström

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

The Letter

Sunniva Brynnel Group continues to develop and evolve, with a new album that marks a further step along the road from the Blue Ejder album and its settings of poems by Karin Boye. The album was recorded in NYC and features jazz musicians from Canada and the U.S., including Nathan Reising on alto sax. There are a couple of new Boye settings here, in my translation. In general the tracks in the album present an interesting blend of folk style and post-Coltrane improvisation and harmony, where voice and lyrics are fused with the work of the instrumental ensemble.

Saturday, 9 March 2019


The cover of my forthcoming new Penguin Classics translation of Karin Boye's dystopian novel Kallocain. It's a work by Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), a Swedish artist who created some of the very first purely abstract paintings - before Kandinsky.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Finland-Swedish Literature Today - Series

On the occasion of Tua Forsström's election to the Swedish Academy, Opulens has a series devoted to contemporary Finland-Swedish writing. Authors profiled so far include Tuva Korsström and Merete Mazzarella, and there are apparently more articles in the pipeline. Series editor Ivo Holmqvist has some wry historical notes on the Finland-Swedish presence in the Academy:
Så är det också skamligt länge sedan någon från Finland återfanns där. Den ombytlige Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt som var född i den östra rikshalvan blev invald på stol nr 14 i maj 1786. Åtta år senare uteslöts han, för påstådda politiska stämplingar. 1805 togs han åter in, fast på stol nr 17 som han tvangs lämna 1811 när han förvisats ur Sverige. Han är den ende som suttit på två stolar i den församlingen.
On the outlook for the newest Finland-Swedish member, Holmqvist is encouraging, though he can't  help pointing to some of the commentary that has greeted the latest appointment:
Dagens Nyheters kulturchef hör till dem som hälsat Tua Forsström välkommen fast han samtidigt undrade om hon är tillräckligt stridbar, och här på sidan noterade Helena Lie nyss att det är ”en ytterligt patriarkal hegemoni Forsström träder in i (motbevisa mig gärna, jag är idel öra) så frågan är väl hur länge Forsström kommer stå ut i ett sådant sällskap om det fortsätter som hittills.” Det är nog en onödigt pessimistisk blick in i framtiden även om föregångare som Kerstin Ekman, Lotta Lotass, Sara Danius och Sara Stridsberg satt exempel genom att frivilligt lämna församlingen.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Laus Strandby Nielsen: Two Poems


I’m the only person
in the whole world
who sees the world
with my eyes.
And now I see
myself see myself
almost as a kind of
central heating system
with pipes and thermostats,
and insurance policies
where everything
is written in small print
in medical Latin.

I see myself
see myself
as a chemical factory
with a built-in power station
and without exaggeration
a lot of electronics.

I see myself
see myself
as a very
advanced computer
which is rather primitive
in certain respects.

I see myself
see myself as
an investment
and an investor,
as a market,
whimsically logical
from one form
of hysteria
to another
and back again,
forced against
an equilibrium
that is impossible.

I see myself
see myself
as a bank.
But how could it
go so wrong?
And can it happen
again? Here?

I see myself
see myself
as a small
and yet dizzying
swarm of small devils
that hide
behind one another
when they realise
they are being seen. Easy,
take it easy, say the
ones in front that are the
smallest, while they
swarm away, easy now.
There is no reason
to exaggerate.
Absolutely no reason.
A little smile is enough.

But I don’t recognise
the eyes that see me.

(It must be both
complete and incomplete,
says the spin
doctor, but
it’s all very well for him to say so
sitting there
in that rain-sodden tree
with his yellow beak.)


Jeg er den eneste
i hele verden
der ser verden
med mine øjne.
Og nu ser jeg
mig selv se mig selv 
nærmest som en slags
med rør og termostater,
og forsikringer 
hvor det hele 
står med småt
på lægelatin. 

Jeg ser mig selv 
se mig selv 
som en kemisk fabrik
med indbygget elværk 
og uden at overdrive
en hel del elektronik.

Jeg ser mig selv
se mig selv
som en meget
avanceret computer
der er ret primitiv
på visse punkter.

Jeg ser mig selv
se mig selv som
en investering
og en investor,
som et marked, 
lunefuldt logisk
fra en form 
for hysteri
til en anden
og tilbage,
tvunget imod 
en ligevægt
som er umulig.

Jeg ser mig selv
se mig selv
som en bank.
Hvordan kunne det
dog gå så galt?
Og kan det ske
igen? Her?

Jeg ser mig selv
se mig selv
som et mindre 
og dog svimlende 
mylder af smådjævle
som gemmer sig
bag ved hinanden
når de mærker
de bliver set. Rolig,
bare rolig, siger de
forreste der er de
mindste, mens de
myldrer løs, rolig nu. 
Der er ingen grund
til at overdrive.
Absolut ingen grund.
Et lille smil er nok.

Men jeg genkender 
ikke de øjne der ser mig.

(Det skal være både
afsluttet og uafsluttet,
siger kommunikations-
rådgiveren, men det
kan han sagtens sige
som han sidder der
i det regnvåde træ
og reklamerer
for sig selv
med sit gule næb.)


When it’s dark it gets light.
When it’s light it gets dark.
When it’s dark it does get light
at some point, but at some point

it gets dark again of course.
Then it gets light. Then it gets dark.
Light. Dark. Something is wrong. It’s
completely wrong. It’s going too fast.

In the dark-light I stumble into the light-dark
and hit something soft, the darkness falls,
I’m covered by a fur coat of light. Here

you can reflect that what you say
may end up in a poem, and if you can’t
recognise it at all, what then?


Når det er mørkt, bliver det lyst.
Når det er lyst, bliver det mørkt. 
Når det så er mørkt, så bliver det lyst
på et tidspunkt, men på et tidspunkt

så bliver det selvfølgelig mørkt igen.
Så bliver det lyst. Så bliver det mørkt.
Lyst. Mørkt. Der er noget galt. Der
er noget helt galt: Det går for hurtigt.

I mørkelyset snubler jeg ind i lysmørket
og rammer noget blødt, mørket fælder, 
jeg er dækket af en pels af lys. Her

kan man tænke på at det man siger
måske havner i et digt, og når man så
slet ikke kan genkende det, hvad så?

© Laus Strandby Nielsen and David McDuff 2019

translated from Danish by David McDuff