Sunday, March 30, 2014

Nothing in an intelligible language - Lars Gustafsson's profession

The first two books of Lars Gustafsson’s that I read were collections, tiny little selections from his work covering a career of twenty years or more.  I read each poem as a poem, but I also read the books like I read novels, like I read Niels Lyhne, scouring them for the little markers that connect one poem to another the way Jacobsen’s flowers and moss pulled distant scenes together.

Or more simply if I do not understand a poem I move to the next one.  Perhaps it will have a clue to the previous poem.

A well-written novel, within my usual sense of “well-written,” has to contain such clues.  A book of poems, especially a selection, has so such obligation.  Individual poems may well be radically dissociated.  Not usually, though.

Thus I discover that Gustafsson is fond of images of flight – birds or balloons or the Wright brothers – and that he loves dogs.  “I don’t know if I like cats. / Dogs are more my sort of animal” (from “Sleeping with a Cat in the Bed”).  And he has not just a poet’s but a philosopher’s interest in language.  In “Of Course Superman Is Clark Kent” Gustafsson describes his early philosophical training in the ideas of W. V. O. Quine “who always  / greeted me so kindly at the tobacconist’s / on Harvard Square,” including their preposterous results (“that Clark Kent is not Superman…  Did we really believe all this / in my youth?”).

A Time in Xanadu (2002, tr. 2008 by John Irons) is the one complete book of Gustafsson’s poems available in English.  It begins with a poem about language:

(Let L be a language
composed as follows:
V is a vocabulary
with words for love, hate, despair,
dreaming and waking, snaps and stinging nettles.  (“Monologue for Some Prince in Denmark”)

Until those snaps and nettles appear this promises to be the worst poem ever written.

In this book, Gustafsson kindly organizes the poems by subject – Reminiscences (mostly about Gustafsson’s Swedish childhood), Philosophies, Everyday Life (like that cat) – which encourages me to read across the poems.  If, for example, I do not get much out of the moldy surreal “Walk through a Dream Landscape,” I at least note “the boats / Tugging at their moorings” at the end of the poem, since they seem to reappear several poems later:

The Tired
The tired old boats
break their moorings in the first autumn gale
and go adrift,
heavy, half waterlogged,
and quietly philosophical
until they start to rot away in the reeds

Or I can wonder about a later dream landscape in “I Often Dream Here,” more clearly Swedish, that inspires a cry of “What does his place want of me?”

Whether any of this is intended I do not know.  Do the poems follow a plan or do they spill out of the same place?  “I did not choose this profession.  \ This profession chose me” Gustafsson writes in “The Profession,” where poetry or inspiration is like a radio that is always on.

Not the old set there, you blockheads!
I mean a different one, a so-called “inner” radio
where four or five stations fuse
crackling into noise and interference!
And nothing in an intelligible language!

So the poets job is clear enough.  “Of course Superman is Clark Kent.”  L and V “may grow into a song.”


  1. I'd not thought about arranging by subject as a poetry 'thing' before, as I generally dip in and out, and would rarely - as you so bravely did - read from front to back cover. I shall think about that next time I pick up a volume.

  2. Sometimes it helps or makes sense, sometimes not. A poem is often published in more than one way, all by itself in a magazine, for example, surrounded by a review of a new biography of Winston Churchill.

    It is great advantage that poetry books are so short. If you want you can kind of simultaneously read the whole thing and dip in and out until a sense of "what is the poet doing here" gels.