Reclaiming the body

Issue 3/1992 | Archives online, Authors

The work of Agneta Enckell is a good example of what happened in young Finland-Swedish writing during the 1980s. The developments that took place then have much in common with what had happened earlier in the rest of Scandinavia: the strong social and political interests which a large number of the writers had explored since the mid 1960s changed character and were supplemented by a critical scrutiny of language itself, and by an examination of the possibilities and limitations of literature as a form of communication.

In Finland the writers of the 1960s, led by the poet Claes Andersson, called into question the inheritance of Edith Södergran and the modernists of the 1920s, who at that time seemed to represent a tradition that was burdensome and limiting rather than living and productive in an Eliotian sense.

The liberation that this brought with it was, however, restricted by the fact that many of the radicals of the 1960s (although not Andersson himself) quickly drifted into a Stalinist communism, loyal to the party. Most of the Finland-Swedish literary debate at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s subsequently concerned the question of how to free oneself from the limitations of political writing in portraying the world.

The generation of writers that emerged with the literary magazine KLO, which was published between 1985 and 1987 – the best-known of them are at present the short story writers Kjell Westö and Monika Fagerholm – confirmed that a change had taken place in the intellectual climate.

These writers were too young to have had personal experience of the 1960s and of politically committed writing. In an interview, Kjell Westö has characterized the difference between himself and his predecessors like this: ‘There are gaps in my relation to the 1960s writers, we don’t have the same goals. Quite simply, I don’t think in systems.’

The poet Agneta Enckell was not one of the editors of KLO, but she has designated its members as her closest literary soulmates in Finland. She is somewhat older than the KLO writers, born in 1957, and has, since her debut in 1983 with Förvandlingar mot morgonen (‘Transformations towards the morning’), published another two collections of poetry. They are Rum; berättelser (‘Room; narratives’, 1987) and Falla (Eurydike) (‘Falling [Eurydice]’, 1991). The latter was acclaimed by the critics, was nominated for the Finlandia Prize and – something very unusual for a volume of Finland-Swedish poetry – has run to two editions.

In Enckell’s poems, an individual, purely physical manner of experiencing language, and thereby the world, constitutes the most important level. For this reason, too, her very aware and linguistically critical treatment of themes such as ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ cannot be expressed in terms of systems and (feminist) ideology.

The body as an instrument of knowledge is already important in Enckell’s first collection of poems, Förvandlingar mot morgonen, which is in many ways a typical first volume. It depicts the world of a young person through poems about love and alienation, through criticism of lifeless suburban environments and through a section of poems which deal with the young writer’s experiences, so typical, of working in a mental hospital (it would not be difficult to put together an anthology of young Swedish-language writing of the 1980s entitled, ‘My experiences as a medical assistant’).

But the special feature of Enckell’s idiom is now a directly physical confrontation with the surrounding world: ‘While I am wondering / if this dream is sufficiently unpleasant / the motorway traffic tears / in through the ragged whites of my eyes; shrilly / skidding over my lungs – spitting / through my digestive tract the corroded walls of my intestines –/ through my heart / the juggernauts have left my body, singing.’

The relation between physicality and language is more explicitly the theme of Enckell’s next book, Rum; berättelser. The framework is given in the introductory poem, which functions as the book’s motto. Here an opposition is established between a striving for a ‘clear’ language on the one hand and a seeing ‘with blood’ on the other. The latter connects to a vision of the world as a ‘multiverse’, a concept that conducts an indirect polemic with the idea of a uniform world, a universe which can be described with only one language.

In Falla (Eurydike) the different ways of relating to language have intensified to a struggle between two poles, theatrically staged as ‘the female’ and ‘the male’. There is a relatively clear discursive plan in Enckell’s poetry, which really deals with the struggle for words, and for the right and ability to describe the sex and the flesh, the thoughts and the instincts. But the strength of Falla (Eurydike) is not primarily here, but in Enckells ability to concretely take language over, to portray the ‘seeing with blood’ and erase the imaginary ‘clarity’ that is built on the fact that body and woman are oppressed, while their opposites, mind (or reason) and man, are exalted.

Falla (Eurydike) is built around a few long poem cycles that form variations on certain recurring key concepts. These, representing two different strategies of action, are on the one hand the fall and the hole, on the other murder and the photograph. The fall and the hole: both presuppose emptiness, suggest both terror and voluptuous pleasure, are impossible to fix. Yet fixing is done both by the murderer and by the photographer. Neither the corpse nor the photograph will move again. And in Enckell’s poems the fixed person is usually a woman.

The question that is consequently raised is what the woman can do to free herself. The words, their meanings, cannot be unequivocally fixed, and this is precisely the point of departure for Enckell’s work with the problems of naming. That which, in her work, may be regarded as the portrayal of a ‘female’ language comes to expression not on the level of the text’s ideas, but in the poetic idiom.

The poems give a strong impression of growing out of the sounds of the words and their constituent parts, with-out being guided by rational consciousness.

Enckell’s poetry is written in a singularly musical Swedish. The timbres of the words, the syllables and the phrases have the effect of guiding the poems’ development on a level quite different from that of the ideas. This results in a reading experience that is extremely sensuous and almost embarrassingly concrete. In their portrayals of revulsion and voluptuous pleasure, the poems press close against the reader’s skin, and expand the reading to embrace much more than an intellectual decoding.


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