Word as gospel

Issue 2/1997 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Prophetic tones have entered Gösta Ågren’s work since he won the Finlandia Prize in 1989. In his collection of poetry, Timmermannen (‘The carpenter’, Söderströms, 1996) he brings new life to St Mark’s gospel, that universally known archetypal folk-tale of the West, like the church painters of the Middle Ages.

Ågren nevertheless leapfrogs over his base text, with its overwhelming meaning: not satisfied with illustrating the Bible in a suitable form for modem people, he uses Jesus’s story as a springboard toward universally human questions. He reaches the living quick of the myth. The reader must listen carefully to his lines, for even the Pharisees did not understand the proofs of Christ’s identity. ‘Every miracle is an answer, / and they did not have a question.’

In Timmermannen, the poem leaps from the destinies of the gospel toward the problem of the conscious and the unconscious, the meaningfulness of words and uninterpreted reality. The text works on its own terms and does not presuppose the Christ myth for its interpretation. On top of the old fresco new, living pictures are painted. Ågren sees the gospels as only one attempt, among many, to solve the equation.

That impossible equation is life itself.

The collection focuses on the figure of Christ, in which the drama of existence with its conflict is incarnate. Christ understands the language of desire, but views life from outside biological ecstasy, from the depths of his being. He lives in the world although he moves ‘outside the secret which people gathered together / always form.’

Rainer Maria Rilke’s angels were creatures of intermediate space; in Timmermannen Jesus has the double nature of god and man – he is a messenger who brings people messages from their own souls. Jesus accepts his fate but preserves his freedom, he lives within society and outside it, rebels against the law and fulfils it with his story. Because of these paradoxes of his, the Nazarene offers society a model of social ethics which is not bound to commandments or hierarchical morality.

Ågren reveals in a few lines how a movement that sought justice was able to tum into an enemy of justice. Timmermannen is the poetry of social ethics after the bankruptcy of the political left: ‘Love is / a secret, / waiting for wind, not a choice / be­tween loving or not. / As commandment, degraded / to demand, it will soon be / fanatic like a wound, / a form of hate.’

Like Emmanuel Levinas, Ågren emphasises the ethical demand presented by the anonymous existence of the other. In one poem, ‘against evil rises a story about a face’. For both thinkers, social ethics are physical and universal: they cannot be detached from the other layers of existence or be bound to a watertight social programme.

Reality is and remains inscrutable, it is -to adapt an expression familiar from an earlier collection by Ågren – the biological obscurity of the brain, which words describe with difficulty.

The difficulty of description is not, however, visible in Ågren’s own use of language. Let this portrait of the Centurion represents the terrifying accuracy of his language: ‘He stood in the restless / torchlight, calm like a face without / man, and accepted the money / from the member of the council.’ Similar thumbnail sketches are drawn of Judas and of John the Baptist; these characters come to life in Ågren’s hands.

In fact, Timmermannen is a description of the experience of reading St Mark’s gospel: the collection of poetry tells of an individual way of experiencing this ancient story and the poet’s own existence beside the traffic jam that can be seen from the window, seen through the Biblical story: ‘The fact that human beings can no longer bear / living in a story from which what is absent / is sense, makes the story / sensible.’

Ågren does not construct mechanical paradoxes as much as in his previous work. He achieves, in Timmermannen, such an accuracy and intensity that the poems do not merely speak of miracles, but are them. The poem turns into a secret that is clear as day: Ågren gives a face to the miracle. He rewrites the carpenter´s drama: a story about longing that conquers violence.

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