Tua Forsström, I Studied Once at a Wonderful Faculty

Reviewed by Michael Peverett

In 1990 Bloodaxe published David McDuff's translation of Tua Forsström's Snow Leopard (1987). In 2003 Forsström reissued this and two later collections (The Parks 1992, After Spending a Night Among Horses 1998) as I Studied Once at a Wonderful Faculty. The present volume is a complete translation of this composite work, which ends with a brief additional cycle called Minerals. It's therefore a rare opportunity to enjoy a Finland-Swedish poets' work at length and while it's still fairly new. (For some reason, McDuff's superb translation of Gösta Ågren's Jär trilogy (1988-92) never made it into print, though I hope a few other lucky people have taken the opportunity to grab it from his website.)

Tua Forsström's poems are in focus from her point of view but not from ours. It happens using remarkably simple means:


    You mistake someone for an animal and kill the animal
    That's how it happens in the forest, that's all there is to it
    I woke up from an eroded embrace and a dream
    about how minerals should be stored: the sun won't
    injure them, the moon won't injure them.
    There was frost in the grass and the sea had frozen over.
    Who writes the murky law?

It's basic to the structure of Forsström's poems that they are topographically dispersed, and here the forest in the classical myth has nothing to do with the frost. "Procris" comes from After Spending a Night Among Horses, a collection that quotes from the director Andrei Tarkovsky's book Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. The poems too are sculptures in time and place; they never resolve into a location. One of the ingredient locations is the waterlogged Zone of Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979) – others include Benidorm, Central Sweden, LA, the Atlantic, Laika's Sputnik, southern Australia, amber, the Missouri, Sicily, Lund Cathedral... Or you could consider the range of tones, none of them defining the poems that they emerge from: "You were right: it's fine here", "how I used to live my life in the mire, like a pig!" "wish you nothing, good or ill." "O gall-sores of the soul!" "we take place at unknown depths" "I’d love to have a lilac arbour" "and rusty iron bled from my mouth".

Forsström has said that she writes her poems by cutting 80%, rewriting many times and finishing them in another country; all these are techniques for creating a palimpsest with over-determined resonances. Hard work for the reader who finds too many silences. [The back cover is therefore particularly misleading in suggesting that "her poetry draws its sonorous and plangent music from the landscapes of Finland" – the image of Sibelius is too often transferred to Finnish poets, along with the ice and snow.]

The story of Procris (accidentally killed by Cephalus, and dying lovingly in his arms) disappears – cut off by the no-full-stop – but the rest of the poem keeps coming up against it. This was a doomed relationship and the panic about someone getting injured leaks into a dream about storing minerals. Something hasn't been faced in the weariness of "that's how it happens, that's all there is to it" – this asserts (with what foundation?) a law; – pretending to be hard-nosed, it in fact proposes a shape of consolation that the rest of the poem sees for good or ill as a frosting. It may be true enough, it may be a necessary thing to say, but at what cost?

I am making an argument out of this, but the poem contains no statements. It's impacted between feeling and reasoning, each warily circling the other. This argument is just for expository purposes – what's fundamental, and difficult, is the troublesome conflict between e.g. crystal and the softness implied by "injury", or between the sharp lines of graphology and the nebulousness of "murky".

Here's another poem (from The Parks):
    I write to you because
    there's a composure, that little
    horse on Via del Corso which goes
    where it doesn't dare: in the evening traffic
    among harlequins, taxis and
    make-up. It's raining. One recognizes
    oneself: the parks, something made of silver, rotten.
    The stench. A bell's overtones at a distance
    'We are permitted to be nothing. Like a river
    we flow willingly into every shape'
    Its unreality. Its everydayness, its
    terrifying cleanliness. I'm setting off.
    I'm going to a night conference.
    I don't know what you are like, I don’t
    know what it's like, but it can't be like
    this: sunshine in white rooms.

I sometimes think of Forsström's poems as deliberately twisted pieces of tapestry. Sometimes you see the threads (but not in Cervantes' sense, I'm not talking about translation), and the picture side is not the poem itself but something the poem kicks off from. Sometimes, like here, the poem starts off nearly plain, the little horse, with just a small tension between forces – composure, and what one doesn't dare. Then things go off-radar (a move you come to look for); the eye turns inwards, and the quotation from Hermann Hesse is dropped into the text without connections. At the last moment we settle again (as we can't help doing) on "sunshine in white rooms", but the whole poem has been about denying the comfort or relevance of that image. At the same time that we experience a sense of finality we identify it as just a noise.

What I can't give an accurate feel for is how Forsström's poems depend on each other. In the middle part of this poem, the recognition is also partly ours; recalling (as from a long time back) the poem in Snow Leopard that ends

                Rain streams
    against silver-rotting wood.

and in the poem immediately before it, that rare moment of startlingly overt image (this in a poem that began so lightly...)

    Yes, there is a glowing point
    somewhere for us all where
    rags and masks will fall.
    So that there will never
    have been any rags or masks.
    There we are eye against eye,
    ashes against rain.

That dire communion is distantly remembered when we read in a later poem of the dazzle of headlights in the darkness, "those burning moments of halogen against halogen". This describes an ordinary moment of being out of control; we could get through it but we're on the edge of plummeting. The essential movement in Forsström's poetry is a plummeting movement; a movement that cuts through the familiar rhythms of sitting still or bumbling along, or (in our case) reading steadily through a book. The plummet is transforming, destructive of certainty; it's usually catastrophe or grief, though sometimes it's being swept off our feet.

To see a foreign poet in larger compass can be risky. No longer one colourful fish among a shoal that intrigues with its cultural unfamiliarities, limitations are inevitably exposed, we demand solidities even through the inevitable blurring of translation to another language.

Still, I think Forsström's poetry really requires the kind of wider view that you get from whole sequences. That's perhaps especially obvious in The Parks, where texts we provisionally identify as "the actual poems" are interspersed with brief clusters of broken phrases repeated from elsewhere, which we provisionally identify as some kind of ornament. As the sequence proceeds this distinction is seen to be unsustainable. The real solidities in fact hover somewhere behind the poems, maintained by a network of forces.

It makes them potent when they slide into view; but it does depend to a large extent on us and our own willingness to plummet. The up-close acquaintance with grief and catastrophe – not hers, but ours – is something we can want to avoid. Reading Forsström in the wrong state of mind, one experiences the sequence not as a place where important things happen but, somewhat less compellingly, as a place whose silence gives the impression that important things could happen in it.

That could be one reason why though I've lived with her poetry I don’t read Forsström as willingly or as often as some other Swedish and Finnish and Finland-Swedish poets; among the latter, for example, she makes me value the confrontational directness in Ågren and Claes Andersson. Andersson (an admirer) speaks of the exceptional beauty of her poems and I believe him but I don't rely on seeing it. Nevertheless, I don’t know another poet who goes about things in exactly this way, and the sculpturing of those inner spaces is continuously unpredictable; it never resolves itself into a manner. That's why I expect I'll continue to keep her poems somewhere close to hand.

I Studied Once at a Wonderful Faculty, translated by David McDuff and Stina Katchadourian, is published by Bloodaxe at £8.95 (ISBN 1 85224 649 9).

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