Moments and memories

Issue 2/1999 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

moments
not of wonder but of
something closely related

It is almost as a programme declaration that these words introduce Mårten Westö’s third poetry collection Nio dagar utan namn (‘Nine days without names’, 1998).

He is palpably fascinated by what might be called poetic moments and by the cracks in reality that seem to open during them. Many of the book’s poems derive their energy from these moments of dreamy unreality and alarming clarity of vision, moments when reality acquires a quite different density and the self either experiences an intense contact with the world and itself, or a strong feeling of isolation and alienation mysterious and meaning-laden moments that live on in the memory.

They are images which are often connected with a strong sense of loss, but which at the same time open the poem on the invisible and darkened, on layers and experiences that lie beyond language and control. The emotion is often linked to childhood. Time, and especially the path from child to adult, appears in Westö’ s poems as a blind flight that mows down, reduces and constricts. The consequence is feelings of a lost self which the poet struggles to regain contact with – via love and children or via poetry and music. But which can never truly be attained.

Mårten Westö made his debut in 1990 with the collection Om tröskeln (‘On the threshold’), a book of austere, low-key poems which were part of the dominant Finland-Swedish tradition – something that made him often sound older than his 43 years. It was followed by Som om det fanns (As though it were’, 1992), a more fragmented collection, which with its themes of distance, dissolution of the self and linguistic scepticism appeared more typical of the generation and the time. It did, however, have a clear connection with the first book. Looking through Nio dagar utan namn, seems an interim book, a bridge into the future but also containing tinges of doubt and a slightly crisis-like testing of different attitudes and devices.

It also followed a six -year silence, which was obviously beneficial. Marten Westö writes today with quite a different anchoring and authority, in complete assurance of his intuition, sense of imagery and musicality. The result is unusually attractive poems, characterised by long phrases, saturated metaphors and a gently swaying rhythm.

It is a gentleness and harmony that, partially, at least, has a correspondence on the thematic level. The poems breathe reconciliation with life’s circumstances and offer glimpses of happiness and meaning-charged contact. This is not, it is true, enough to completely deaden the basic unease and sorrow, but the dark shadows are integrated into the totality of life and accepted as unavoidable elements of existence. It is a reconciliation that seems to bottom out in the insight that not everything is attainable and accessible, neither for language nor for reason, but that one can live with this uncertainty and perhaps even use it for something fruitful and positive. With this as a starting-point, it seems right that the traditional apportioning of values to central dichotomies such as light and dark, visible and invisible, tends to disappear.

The following lines seem to me to say something central about the poet’s present view of life and poetry: ‘… it is as though only when we are able to / resign our striving to control the world could / we begin to care about it, and one another. But in our-/ selves there is a well-trodden zone, not yet charted / in which a constant search is in progress; the cries echo, one / measures footsteps in the snow, the bulbs / of flashlights flicker in the dark. But someone / is for always gone.’

This is an insight that produces a beneficial balance in Mårten Westö’s poems in his third collection. Against the backwards looking and slightly melancholic element in the existential questing for the self in itself and the self in relation to others – and indeed also against the need for control – is the experience of the fact that the path to self-insight and relatedness may also pass through a You. The beloved, and children, give the world name and form, become the mirror that makes the I visible – partly also in its invisible parts.

With a poetry grounded in the poetic moment, in love as existential precondition and mirror and on the sense of loss, Westö walks a well-beaten lyrical path. Other poets that occur to one during a reading are, for example, Tomas Tranströmer and Bo Carpelan, sometimes also Tua Forsström. It is obvious that Marten Westö consciously still builds on a tradition, but it is also obvious that he has attained a language that takes its soundings securely from itself and writes poetry that does not only suck nourishment from tradition but is also able to add something new.

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