Winter journey

1 November 2012 | Authors, Reviews

Tua Forsström. Photo: Mao Lindholm

The Finland-Swedish poet Tua Forsström publishes rarely, and so when she does the expectations are always high. It is a pleasure to note that her new book, En kväll i oktober rodde jag ut på sjön (‘One evening in October I rowed out on the lake’), once again lives up to them.

Forsström’s poetry is simultaneously concrete and existential, rooted in attention to the everyday and open to symbolic readings. The highly-charged images in her poems mostly grow out of the sort of things that anyone can observe around them.

One of Forsström’s central themes has always been memory and its way of functioning; more specifically memory as the constructive force that reconciles us to the uninterrupted and destructive work of time, whose end point is the obliteration of the self. Her poetic ‘I’ is extremely vulnerable, perpetually threatened by loss, while friendship, love, and trust rest on a knife edge. A wind blows constantly over human beings: ‘Blows snow against the face / Blows feathers and rubbish away across the water ‘.

But against this threat stand on the one hand epiphanies, sudden, brief encounters with life’s fullness, and on the other experiences of an unexpected reassurance, of a force that takes one under its wing. Thus the new collection both begins and ends in a spirit of trust, despite the journey through the landscape of loss that it describes.

Forsström (born 1947) is one of the most important Swedish-language poets of her generation, has received many literary awards in Finland and Sweden and been translated into several languages. Six years after its predecessor Sånger (‘Songs’) comes En kväll i oktober rodde jag ut på sjön her eleventh book of poetry since her debut in 1972. With less than fifty pages, the book is by no means large, but it is every bit as compressed, intense and through-composed as one would expect of Forsström.

Typically for Forsström, the new collection is anchored in a recognisable environment and in everyday tasks. The book’s very title indicates this: the season is autumn, October, a cold month with early evenings as winter clearly prepares for its arrival. The lake marks the presence of the natural scenery that often plays an important role in Forsström’s poems, and rowing is a rural everyday chore which here acquires a significance that is ambiguous and hard to define.

A recurring symbol in the collection, which in this way links concrete reality with an abstract, dreamlike feeling of discomfort, is the dead fish of which the ‘I’ tries to rid itself: ‘I rowed out to drown those fish scraps / I had begged at the market with the compost / in mind and which had occupied my freezer / ever since. Not even the axe had any effect on them. ‘

Many of the poems are about the place of the ‘I’ between the parents, dead long ago, and the children who take possession of the world as if it were new. The feeling of abandonment can be strong, as at the end of the following poem, dedicated to the poet’s mother: ‘Soon it will snow on the water, the snow will melt / in the water, soon it will snow on the islands and I / will remember what it was like to come home, someone / had taken care of everything in the meantime. ‘

As so often in Forsström’s poetry, snow has an important place in the collection, emblems of approaching cold, death and destruction, on the one hand, and of renewal, beauty, playfulness on the other. Then in the book’s final poem reconciliation is achieved between the two perspectives, obliteration and being looked after, in a sudden and typical experience of reassurance: ‘And then I hear again that voice, / mysterious and clear / You are old now little child / don’t be afraid little hare.’

 Translated by David McDuff

Tua Forsström
En kväll i oktober rodde jag ut på sjön
[‘One evening in October I rowed out on the lake’]
Helsingfors: Schildts & Söderströms, 2012. 43 p.
ISBN 978-951-52-3035-5
€24, hardback


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