Andersson now

Issue 1/1997 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

I have been translating Claes Andersson’s poetry for more than 15 years. In September 1997 Sun & Moon Press brought out What Became Words, my chronological selection of his work, which includes poems from of the 15 books he published from 1962 to 1993. A month or so later, I received En lycklig mänska (‘A happy person’), one of Finland’s nominees for Shoveled snow, played with the children, the Nordic Council Prize. I want to go back to where I started; for it seems that many of my long literary relationships have begun in arbitrary (or fortuitous) ways.

In the winter of 1980–81, Professor Aili Flint of Columbia University phoned to say a Finland-Swedish poet would be coming to town. Could I read three books that were in Columbia’s library and maybe translate a few poems before he arrived? My translation of Gunnar Ekelöf’s Guide to the Underworld had just come out; we could read together at Deutsches Haus …. The first poem I translated was ‘Loneliness,’ which begins, ‘My love, the moments I spend / in your cunt I forget my … ‘ and proceeds in 14 long lines to list ailments and diseases. When I read the poem aloud in English, I was proud of myself for not bursting out laughing when I reached ‘strange subcutaneous lumps’.

As the years went by and more of the horrrors of life were upon me (friends lost to cancer, to AIDS), Claes Andersson´s constancy of tone and concern, and especially his sense of black, pitchblack humor appealed to me more and more. It further seemed to me – poet and translator always obsessed with form – that book after book brought new variations, refinements, and perfections to his favoured list poems.

In ‘(summary)’ – the last poem in Tillkortakommanden (‘Shortcomings’, 1981) – every line of the poem is itself a list of life experiences:

Having sat at meetings, ticked off items on the agenda, recommended, turned down
Approved the minutes (change ‘should’ in § 123 to ‘ought’)

– – –

Shoveled snow, played with the children,
     screamed at the children, been bitten
     by dogs

So that in 20-some-odd lines a powerful thumbnail sketch of a considered life has accreted. After much deliberation, the poets throws up his hands and simply goes on with it all:

Have asked the meaning of it all
 Brooded, deliberated, pondered, con
       structed, conceived, stopped
       thinking
 Found the questions irrelevant and
      answered with the answer of the senses

Andersson’s typically biting social criticism gives away in Under (‘Wonder’, 1984) to biting self-criticism. One strikingly self-deprecatory poem, in which every line begins with the poet´s surname, has a surprise ending:

Andersson is making a damned racket
Andersson can’t even stand up straight

– – –

Andersson should not smoke in his sleep

– – –

Andersson should uncross his eyes

– – –

Andersson where in god's name is
     Andersson now
Andersson cannot very well have
Andersson ought to not have jumped, I´ll say
     straight out
Andersson could at least have closed the 
     window behind him

Akin to the black humor is what I would call Andersson’s tongue-in-cheek or sweet-and-sour humor. This list poem from Dikter från havets botten (‘Poems from the bottom of the sea’, 1993), is replete with life-and-death reversals:

When you're dead you'll get to do everything 
     you didn't have time 
           to do while you were alive. 
You'll finally have time to yourself, you must 
     promise 
            to become very selfish.
- - -
Finally you get to tell the president and the 
      minister of defense
           what you think of them.
- - -
You'll develop your muscles, neglected in 
     later years,
           by Atlas' method: lift the world onto
                      your shoulders!
When you are dead no one will keep from
     taking back
           what life ran away with.

In En lycklig mänska (‘A happy person’, 1996) there are familiar pleasures rather than formal surprises. The eye sees things a little differently. The I is older, occasionally sentimental but at times cooler, more cynical – because more political? Whether fighting his own fear of death (see the poem entitled ‘[positive thinking]’) – or showing we have a lot of death to fear at this point in history (see ‘The problem…’ and the Whitmanian ‘I was inside … ‘) Claes Andersson continues to write poems that are as wry, human, humorous, engaged and engaging as ever.

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