Between Eros and Thanatos

Issue 3/1989 | Archives online, Authors

Tua Forsström’s poetry is deeply disturbing. Inside her clairvoyant linguistic structures there appear realities and visions that like icons establish a strong and direct link with visions, perceptions, memories, desires and dreams which I myself recognise but which are concealed. Reading her becomes a crossing of borders: I have been in this room before! This reality filled with ambivalence and antagonistic forces, this magnetic field between Eros and Thanatos touches me to the marrow of my experience!

There is something magical, somnambular about her language. She writes plainly, clearly, simply. With great precision she avoids all worn-out metaphors and symbols; in her poetry the trees are trees, the water water, the apples apples:

There remains language of alien
signs, images stored layer upon
layer: They must be solace and
reflection of our dreams
Eye bright with water, the water,
the clouds, the stratosphere’s
night-gleaming clouds

One of her collections of poetry is called Where the Notes End. The title indicates the nature of her poetics: the poem begins in the border country between waking life and dream. The familiar features of the everyday, the figure of her daughter Linda, the mist over the water early one morning, the basket of apples, the red schoolbag, the high-rise blocks of the suburbs, all these familiar sights acquire in her poetry an illumination, a sharpness of contour that allow us to see the familiar as the truly unique and significant. In this way we recognise it all: the simple reacquires its simple beauty, our reality is deepened and rendered more clear.

Her poetic method is a dialectical one. She works with opposites, affirms the deep ambivalence in all experience. Memories, dreams, inner and outer catastrophes and devastations permeate the experience of the now, philosophic and scientific pronouncements collide with the obvious and the concrete. Her poems often have an elevated seriousness, an inward fervour that may sometimes lead one’s thoughts to the Finland-Swedish modernist Edith Södergran, even when she is speaking from the middle of every­ day life. Serious she may be, but never high-flown, pompous or too beautiful:

Don't laugh! I believe in the possibility of change
I believe in the awkward, the confused, uncertainty.
The child who shows us the inside of things, the nightjar's
darkness-loving purr from the ditch-bank 
Don't reproach me. I can't be like that 
Don't reproach me. I know no other way of
coming to you
I am imprecise and untruthful, I upset
the furniture, but out of this chaos perhaps we can... 
Don't reproach me. I am completely physical. 
The half-heartedness, love, the lack of seriousness,
the capitalised life as shadow and seeming!
the terrible slow struggle,
Physical. Drifting high-rise blocks, drifting continents and
the little girl in blue overalls under
the spruce trees, vision-still winter forest
Only the lingering movement of 
snow falling from a bough

Tua Forsström’s poems give a sense of having crystallised under a great pressure. Many of them are about grief and desertion, they are a kind of cartographical survey of the landscape of grief, exercises in renunciation and in the affirmation of loss of love, sexuality and communion with others. In their refusal to abnegate the forces of hate and destruction they often become paradoxically hope-inspiring, in the way the life can feel hope-inspiring when one has experienced the worst, the most painful. The love poems are sensual, concrete, nakedness against nakedness, belly against buttocks, a kneecap in the belly, the skin, the sex, the orifices, the obvious, true. And her language has a musicality, a quiet thoroughness and a lustre, as in an adagietto by Mahler:

One never swims out into the same waters 
In the light night waits immediately below 
One falls like a leaf through the space
of seconds, a wind blows
darkness against your cheek.

Since her debut with A Poem about Love and Other Things in 1972, Tua Forsström has published six collections of verse. It is really the same poem she is constantly writing, even though the language of the most recent collections has become more and more economical and exact and the more explicit social engagement of the early collections has gradually altered in the direction of an increasingly personal and universal engagement with private things.

The poem she is constantly writing concerns the only subjects that are worth writing about: Love, Death, Growth, Renunciation and Miracle. Her world is one and indivisible. It excludes nothing, it strives for the simple without the falsehood of simplification. It is a world that contains layer upon layer of experience, memory, dream and vision. It contains the shadows that the slaves cast on the wall of the cave in Plato’s State, as well as the scent of freshly mown hay, the emptiness and hatred that remain after a shipwrecked love, ‘Juvena Skin Concentrate on Face and Throat’, the snow leopard ‘that silently pursues its prey six thousand metres above sea-level’ and the moments of rejoicing in the fact that one exists, that one still retains all that threatens to pass and vanish without trace.

Indeed, perhaps that is the most important driving force and motive of her verse – the recreation in poetry of something that one has lost in oneself, something one once possessed and was, but has grown distant from. Or perhaps the reconquering of memory, the only thing that can give life continuity and steadiness. She herself has said in an interview: After all, we consist of our memories, dreams and hopes just as surely as we consist of water and other molecules. Dreams are the secret room in which all may find personal worth.’

If one is to attempt to place Tua Forsström’s poetry within a literary-historical context one may assert that she writes in a modernistic tradition; her relation to language as her own reality, her avoidance of the ornamental and the overexplicit, her crossings of the frontiers between inner and outer worlds, her use of the inverted and paradoxical logic of the dream, all these things connect her to lyrical modernism.

Yet she has little in common with the mainstream of modernism which the Finland-Swedish modernists, led by Enckell, Björling and Södergran (my previous comments notwithstanding) represent. They strive for a form as ‘pure’ and compressed as possible, with condensation and a pared-down nature symbolism as characteristic features. Rather one may see her as belonging to a tradition that includes Rilke, Hölderlin, Paul Celan and the great Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf, in which the use of symbols and metaphors is replaced by a linguistic expression that stands in an ‘iconic’ relation to inner reality and experience, without ‘representing’ them. Instead they create their own ‘parallel’ reality, their own linguistic universe which does not stand ‘in place of’ something else, but forms its own unique lyrical world.

‘But,’ says Tua Forsström, ‘Rilke! first and foremost Rilke! That fellow can certainly write!’

Translated by David McDuff

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