That which simply is

24 October 2013 | Non-fiction, Reviews

Henrika Ringbom. Photo: Curt Richter

Henrika Ringbom. Photo: Curt Richter

Henrika Ringbom
Öar i ett hav som strömmar
[Islands in a flowing sea]
Helsingfors: Schildts & Söderströms, 2013. 78 p.
ISBN 978-951-52-3218-2
€21, paperback

Henrika Ringbom’s new collection of poems is emotionally touching and formally sophisticated – something only the very best poetry can manage. Ringbom is an experienced author whose output since her debut in 1988 has included five collections of poetry and two novels; even so, it feels as if she has taken another step forward in her writing with this latest volume.

The focal point is the loss of a beloved mother. The title, which translates as ‘Islands in a flowing sea’, emphasises the fleeting nature of all life, and the book radiates sorrow more than anything else. There has always been an intellectual, distancing quality to Ringbom’s writing. That stands her in good stead here, preventing the book from becoming too private and introverted, despite its highly personal themes.

Henrika Ringbom (born 1962) has been known for some time as an aficionado of the culture of classical Japan. She overlays the powerful emotions in Islands in a flowing sea with a typically Japanese combination of a sense of transience and restraint, like a semi-transparent screen. This volume consists of prose poetry as well as tanka poems conforming to the strict 31-syllable model. The artistic high point of the collection is a long suite of poems providing a double exposure of the travel motif in Hiroshige’s series of woodcuts entitled ‘The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido’ from the early 19th century and the final days in the life of the poet’s mother, her journey towards death.

The two journeys share images of the physical and the laboriously concrete. Ringbom’s narrator in the poems, who attends to her mother during those last difficult days, is paralleled by the overburdened porters who make their way over the difficult terrain in Hiroshige’s prints:‘There is only an uphill slope here, and a rock and tears from a child. Those going uphill, those going downhill hurry past. Solitary people and clusters plodding along. The tears thread strings throughout the night, rocks hover deadly still above the path, footsteps rapidly approach and vanish.’

The inexorability of death, but also of life, is strongly felt throughout Ringbom’s book. It is the latter that is portrayed in the suite of prose poems entitled ‘The life of a fig wasp’. The female fig wasp is a small insect that plays a vital role in pollinating fig blossoms. It is born in a fig, is fertilised immediately after hatching and flies to the nearest blossom with its eggs, pollen and parasites, only to die soon thereafter. This insect is part of the huge, blind machinery of life, the sole function of which is to propagate itself. These poems convey a claustrophobic world of compulsion and organic mass, in a state of constant transformation, impossible to survey in its entirety.

Ringbom portrays the anxiety which a lack of freedom leads to in the observer in intense dream poems where all the elements of life pass by, but with no order or clear meaning. The tanka poems stand in a tense relationship to the compact, information-rich world of the prose poems. They form moments of more settled meditation and observation. Gradually, meaninglessness emerges like a utopia: that which simply is; places where nothing seems to happen.

Sometimes I make
discoveries: places where I
can stop for a while
without hearing or
seeing anything at all of interest

Translated by Ruth Urbom


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