Gunnar Björling, You go the words

reviewed by Michael Peverett

     O we all when the days go out
     to see can it lights itself
     who wants it that
     the birds go out?

You go the words ends like this, with the gentlest of appeals, gentle indeed considering how the book is fraught with loss, longing, warmth, pity, loneliness. It was published in 1955 when Gunnar Björling was 68, and was dedicated to the memory of Martin A. Hansen - a name unknown to Google, perhaps the author's lover, a close friend anyhow. And Björling's book is filled too with premonitions of his own death five years ahead. Despite this you don't think of its author as old. He sets about these matters as if they are something he's considering for the first time; as if it's you the reader's concern rather than particularly his own. Photographs of Björling tell the story; he was the kind of person who never learnt to be old and psychologically never became old. He never accepted enough explanations.

Difficult I am to explain, the less thou shalt explain away. (in the journal Quosego, c. 1929)

For all that, he also claimed that his life's work proceeded according to a definite logic, and it is a philosophical as much as a passionate exclamation that erupts from the opening poem of the collection:

     We go and search
     and we wander
     we go and search
     it is not in the words

     it is not words
     words not
     but of a nothing
     o your day (I, 1)

It's impossible not to become involved in an inquiry that begins with such a welcoming invitation. And if the effort to think along with these poems becomes rapidly more formidable, it's not so much that the poems have become difficult as because the difficulty was always in the terms of that inquiry. Many of the poems are object lessons in how much is possible with the barest minimum of materials:

     And that you
     and day, and follows
     and that you

          you or someone
          someone or you
          life and honor
          life and honor
          you honor
          and life and
          honor! (II, 2)

There are things we miss here. I'm sure Fredrik Hertzberg, who made these translations, would concede that it's a good idea to keep glancing across the page at the Swedish text; to pick up, in this case, the visual connection between day ("dag") and you ("dig" - intimate object form), or the felt connexion between honor ("ära") and being ("är" is the present tense form of the verb to be). Still the shape of the poem is quite clear - how "follows" in the first part and "honor" in the second - those relatively enormous two-syllable words are tossed like bricks into a fishpond and leave the whole expanse trembling. And it's also clear that a tender, painful irony coexists alongside the unforeseen festivity of that exclamation mark. Which is as far as I go in explanation, given another of Björling's remarks (quoted in the Introduction): "I know that if I lifted a red flag before the statue of Alexander, they would ask why I'm wearing a green scarf."

As poem follows poem there develops behind the slight words a soon-luxuriant bloom of backward reference. As far ahead as IV,3 we suddenly turn a corner and find ourselves face to face again with the book's opening line:

     A head
     a bowed head
     like seeing
     with the hand

     What day and courage
     and goes and seeks you

(the Swedish is "går och söker", a direct quote from "we go and search" in I,1) - and yet, of course, it isn't the same at all, now that the object of the search becomes "you". But I'm also quoting this because of "seeing / with the hand", which is not only about a hand across the eyes. Of the many trains of imagery that circulate restlessly behind the poems, none is more persistent than images of seeing where there's no means of getting a glance - between stone and stone, between body and body-part, into past days and closed graves - and of seeing with the unsighted, e.g. hands and fingers. Seeing with fingers is certainly the best way of finding the right-sized potato in a 3kg bag.

           - or stone
           and straw
           o me

Sky sucked
air took
your toe melted together
Like a dog, like a rat
like a floor
that I rest

           Your toe  A nail
           and cut off
           Th'straw of hair  Skin's
           Your blood's

                   Everything lost
                   : the capture
                   in your hand

Agglutinative and fragmenting aspects of language are terribly wracked in the effort to open up these equally un-visible materials: your day now, your day then, and the day that wasn't your day but someone else's. Hertzberg in his introduction has a good phrase for this recurring preoccupation: "material opacity". But it is a need that sees; though it seems impossible it isn't, and I think Aase Berg calling the poems "overjoyous" is thinking more of what she has taken from Björling (this sounds like a description of her own Uppland) than of Björling's own joyousness, grounded in a logic of discovery and eventually placed centre-stage in the six season-songs of the ninth section. But after thinking this I go back on myself reading the following poem; perhaps Björling does acknowledge, as of these stubby fingers peering, a necessary "stupidity":

So slight
that in animals and limbs
- what more that in reputation and disrepute -
like a worm and trampled down
and like me
              and soon
So slight
             and as all
so slight and
But today is day and roses
that not
           not to overlook
         and like people
people hearts
And the stupidity

Perhaps the unshakeable stupidity of a dog who, when you point something out to it, gazes in a troubled way at your finger.

The intense and (as it seems) intensely relevant fascinations of Björlingian technique can make us forget: these seem like poems that were written yesterday and it's only occasionally that a period sigh (of roses, perhaps), like a languishing portamento, reminds us that we're reading poetry that belongs to a world of black-and-white photographs and we can hardly imagine what it meant - or just as pertinently what little it meant - in Björling's lifetime. Now these poems seem like exemplary studies in how to get to new places very quickly.


1. Gunnar Björling published twenty collections, of which this was the last, and is said to have written 30,000 poems. He is not the sort of poet that you can ever "possess". Though he was recognized as one of the important figures (along with Edith Södergran, Elmer Diktonius and Henry Parland) in Finland-Swedish modernism, none of his poems, so far as I know, was translated into English until more than twenty years after his death. (It would hardly have surprised him not to have featured in Voices of Finland (1947), which I think contained the first translations of modern Finnish and Finland-Swedish poetry into English. Elli Tompuri, the editor, reasonably explained: "In selecting the material for this small anthology I have attempted to give a picture of the literary trends which are most illustrative of the broader outlines of Finnish life. For this reason purely subjective poetry has been excluded." All the same, Södergran and Diktonius were in it; in a nation with such a short history of written poetry - and indeed of nationhood -, contempt for innovation could never be quite as comfortably entrenched as e.g. in Britain.) The selection of Björling's poetry that appeared in David McDuff's Ice Around Our Lips: Finland-Swedish Poetry (Bloodaxe, 1989) concentrated on the first decade of his publications, up to Sungreen (1933).

       A singer I wanted to be, to give the suffering day, give the happy a longing. A
singer whose song would strike hard through the day.
       And the word was nothing but sounds and light in my heart!
 (from Resting Day, 1922)

Is not dada necessary  for lightweightless eyes? 


                                   I slay dust beneath my foot, 
                                   I am the voice shaken out into space,
                                   I am the sieve that let through
                                   and built the hall of pillars.

   Your lip gives off its colour and the tongues twist, you change your head, you
meet the gaze of your fate on the streetcorner or right in front of your very nose's
(from Kiri-ra! 1930)

Like a splash of God's blood is each moment an object in my 
- like tufts on the skin of the ordinary we shall walk on the wrath
            that wells from our intestines.
Like a cosmopolitanism, without losing our balance
in the increasing moment. We
with the will of our hands, that our breasts might rest as in
andall were sprays and streams
and as though all were like a well-run milkbar
in which all receive exactly as much as they can drink.
 (from Sungreen, 1933)

From this kaleidoscope of different kinds of poetry it was clear that Björling was energetic, driven, inventive, clearly a formidable writer and perhaps a crazy one. But it would take an acute reader to infer the tenacity of the investigation that Björling would undertake in his later poetry. The first glimpse of this, also provided by McDuff, appeared in the large anthology of poetry from Finland, A Way to Measure Time (1992), ed. Bo Carpelan et al. Then Johannes Göransson translated some of That in one's eye (1954) for the SFSU periodical Fourteen Hills (1996); and, around the same time, a long extract from Where I know that you (1938) in the online Typo 7 - a highly recommended anthology of innovative Swedish-language poetry. But a poet like Björling can never be properly encountered in selections, and You go the words, in English with the Swedish text on the facing page, is now clearly the right place to begin that encounter. Why Hertzberg should have settled on this final collection he does not discuss, which leaves us wondering. This is not the poet who stirred things up in the twenties with Parland and others and who thus demands his place in any literary history of Finland. Still, I imagine it's the concentrated re-sculpting of language in the later poetry that has been most practically fertile for contemporary Swedish poets such as Ann Jäderlund and Aase Berg. Since I've got on to links, I might as well add that there is a useful biographical/bibliographical note here and that Hertzberg's Introduction to the present volume can be read here.

2. och and att

It may not be immediately apparent that nearly all the variety of disjunctive effect in Du går de ord is produced using a surprisingly limited toolkit. Björling's means are sentence decomposition by heavy cutting, an astute but quite restrained use of layout and the frequent interpolation of just two words, och and att.

How to translate these words is a question, since they are included not so much for the meanings they bring with them as for the meanings they splinter out of other words. Leaving that aside, the Swedish word och presents no particular difficulty: it means and, and it's used in much the same way (except in Björling's poems).

But att is a different matter altogether. It has two functions for which English uses different words. Both are present in this sentence:

Jag önskar att jag hade en vän att anförtro mig åt.

I wish that I had a friend to confide in.

The first way that att is used is as a subordinating conjunction, where English uses the word that. The second is before the infinitive form of the verb, where English uses to. But both the English words have a range of other uses that att will not bear: it cannot be used as a demonstrative adjective or demonstrative pronoun or relative pronoun (like that) nor as a preposition (like to).

What is a translator to do? Hertzberg generally goes for that, but this sometimes veils a syntactic impossibility in the Swedish:

att är

that is

The English is fragmentary, but as a fragment it provokes no further discomfort; the Swedish does.

The most pervasive problem is that it's precisely the meanings that att can never bear, the adjectival/pronominal that and the prepositional to, that are most likely to cross our minds in that fleeting moment when we are struggling to construe what can't be construed.

Here's an instance of how these problems with att can mount up:

     jag kryper till en fot
     att kryper
     att himmel
     luft och

     I creep to a foot
     to creeps
     that sky
     air and

For the reason mentioned above, Hertzberg avoids "foot / that creeps" - which would seem to the English reader all too simple to construe. His choice, "foot / to creeps", preserves the syntactic violation, but it does so at the expense of rousing a memory of "creep to" a couple of lines earlier - an echo that isn't there in the original text; the real structural connection, with "that sky" a couple of lines further on, is completely obscured. And when we read "that sky", we instantly construe "that" as a demonstrative adjective; as if a meditative rambler was pointing out "that sky over there", as happens in many another poem, but not in this one.

How much does all of this matter? Well, in this particular passage I think the thread of Björling's poem is irretrievably lost. But though the problem appears radical, overall it matters less than you might expect. In poem after poem the package of words and disjunctions (even if they are not quite the right disjunctions) delivers an eloquent charge that silences my doubts: this, I'm convinced, is something like what Björling is like - so to speak. And of course there are some other aspects of these poems that translate into English particularly well: a good few of Björling's key words (e.g. fot, hand, finger) cross the language barrier automatically.

3. "bluebells"

     - has not scents' eyes
     has not day
     and has forsakenness
     - the bluebells at the driveway

(beginning of V,1)

Blåklockor does literally translate to "blue bells" (though klocka also means "clock", "watch", "the time" - which complicates the ringing of bells that subsequently drifts through the rest of section 5). The reference here is to the circumboreal Campanula rotundifolia, which is called "bluebell" in Scotland but "harebell" in England. Some of the implications (all in marked contrast to the English bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, which does not grow in Scandinavia) are: land cleared of trees, full sun, high summer, and no or hardly any scent. The same poem ends:

     that the summer
     On worldspaces'
     the onetimegrave

(Photo from Den virtuella floren by Arne and Anna-Lena Anderberg)

Gunnar Björling's You go the words, translated by Fredrik Hertzberg, is published by Action Books (ISBN: 978-0-9765692-5-1).

UK readers can buy it from SPD.

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