The poetic absurdism of Catharina Gripenberg

30 June 2005 | Authors, Reviews

Photo: Linda Stråka

Photo: Linda Stråka

The wind blows a great deal in Catharina Gripenberg’s second collection of poems, Ödemjuka belles lettres från en till en (‘Humble belles lettres from one to one’, Schildts, 2002). In the first poem we meet three siblings who, on their way across a bridge, are scattered and thrown about by the wind. In another poem a house blows away as a family sit around the dinner table – an event that does not, however, give rise to feelings of vulnerability, but becomes an opening to the world instead.

Perhaps the wind can be seen as an image of Gripenberg’s poetic strategy, a poetry in which nothing is really held in place and where anything may happen. Behind this strategy one senses a resistance to rigidity and outward fixation and a defence of the power of the imagination and of poetry’s ability to create freedom.

Catharina Gripenberg (born 1977) had an immediate success with her first book På diabilden är huvudet proppfullt av lycka (‘On the slide the head’s crammed of happiness’, 1999). It contains narrative poems dealing with the problems of female adolescence and female identity in a playful and ironic way. The poems were securely anchored in the narrow confines of the small town, but they also reflected a contemporary reality that was saturated by mass media, where advertising and pop culture possessed equal status as accepted elements of the poems’ linguistic world.

Not many such markers of time and milieu can be seen in Ödemjuka belles lettres. The poems now take place in a more general and timeless space, a landscape that is primarily defined by language and literary tradition, including fairytales. But a number of its features are recognisable. Here there are variations on the same playfulness and disrespectful attitude, the same fast tempo and expansive agility. Where the earlier poems registered an ironic protest against the small town’s way of life and the circumscribed roles available to girls in it, the new ones seem to be directed against anything that threatens to limit or reduce the ‘I’ and its chances of expression. This is done via something that could be called the poetics of continual surprise; many of the poems resemble little fairy tales, often dreamlike and surrealistic in their mood and logic.

As narratives these texts are extremely unstable vessels, constantly buffeted in unpredictable directions by a linguistic imagination that releases chains of association or turns things upside down in carnival fashion, letting sounds and similarities take control, spicing things up with unusual word combinations and amusing details or, with relish allowing the language game to supplant the logic in a tottering dance between nonsense and language critique. The result is often humorous and seductively fresh, while the entertaining unruliness acquires a specific additional tint from the melancholy that echoes through the book.

The letter, as form and motif, is the element that holds the book together. Letters are written in order to bridge distance and create contact. But the picture of the potential for communication that comes across is not a very optimistic one. It’s a long way between person and person, it’s desolate between one and one.

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