Tua Forsström (b. 1947) is perhaps, along with Gunnar D Hansson, the least-celebrated great poet writing in Swedish (if the term affronts: “great” is simply a useful part of critical heuristics, for selecting and directing attention where it is merited). Born in Borgå, Finland, she is part of the Finno-Swedish tradition of writers, rarely fairly appreciated and attended to by mainland Swedish criticism and research. Her most recent book, En kväll i oktober rodde jag ut på sjön (2013; One Evening in October I Rowed Out on the Lake, translation into English by David McDuff, 2015), is a short, beautiful, meditation on aging, sickness and solitude.
She publishes little and infrequently. Each book is short, seldom longer than fifty or so pages, which makes her a rare breed in contemporary Swedish poetry, where notable poets, such as Johan Jönson, Göran Sonnevi, Katarina Frostenson, Gunnar D Hansson and Marie Silkeberg are writing increasingly longer works, sometimes spanning several books, creating a kind of writing in flight, actively reappraising both the traditional form of the lyric poem and the material form in which it is published.
In short, the collection of poems is gradually being replaced with the book-as-project. Swedish poetry is changing, and has been changing for the past two decades, into a more expository, less lyrical, form. Explicitly attentive to its own metapoetic processes, thematic development and overarching forms – forms that (re)invent and comment upon themselves, leaving the single and particular poem by the wayside, eyes are fixed on the poetic procedures created and followed, and the sequences of which they form a part.
Forsström is, in that sense, more traditional: A lyric poet, conveying emotions and thoughts through the first person, in a distinct (perhaps “personal”) style, characterized by syntactic disjunction and a melancholic, almost mourning, mode. The elegance of her writing is carried by the playful, disjointed use of imagery – fashioning an eerie unsteadiness, strangeness, at the core of her poetry – countered by blunt, saddening interjections of an existential or metaphysical kind. And the environment is always present. Forests, lakes, an unceasing sense of snow falling over a seemingly unpopulated and desolate milieu – from the outside looking in, one could of course describe it as quintessentially Scandinavian. It is not nature writing, though, but a kind of writing in which the environment is always there, not as backdrop, as a kind of meaningful and material surrounding in which life is set.
The last poem of En kväll i oktober rodde jag ut på sjön contains most of these features, and I cite it in David McDuff’s excellent translation:
The next chapter is called: before we forget
the next chapter is called: the darkness
the rain the kindness
It is already October and blowing hard
I must drive firewood home
I must turn the key in the lock
And then I hear again that voice,
mysterious and clear
You are old now little child
don’t be afraid little hare
It could be read as a kind of soliloquy: The poet is talking to herself, and overhears thoughts that are barely conscious. Thoughts telling her, as if she were a child, not to be afraid of what is to be expected. Old age is coming, and with it a gradual loss of memory, dusk – a metaphorical winter. And outside of her thoughts is autumn. October winds are blowing and it is time to stack up firewood for the very real, and cold, winter. The poem intertwines the mental and physical, making them barely separable, and creates a sad, though somehow soothing, picture of aging, or rather the realization of time becoming sparse. And courage is required to endure it (“hare” is a conventional Swedish metaphor for “coward”). The poem thus enacts a clever poetic revitalization of the formulaic Swedish saying “livets höst” (which roughly translates to “autumn years.”)
Perhaps it could be said that this kind of ambiguity is the way in which Forsström’s poems work: They, as well as certain leitmotif words, tend to have both literal and metaphorical resonance, neither more important than the other. Like in the poem above, thought and language are interconnected with the natural world, which is not idealized or depicted as a distant other, but a lived environment.
Since publishing her first book in 1972, En dikt om kärlek och annat (A Poem on Love and Other Things), she has written another thirteen. A relatively large body of work, yet remarkably consistent. It may be a stretch, but I believe that three single lines from her latest book, describing a kind of wish or desire, encapsulate the entirety of her poetic endeavor:
I give no interviews and think in the morning
and the evening when I fall asleep about one thing. That one goes
up to someone and means something. That one will stay.
This wish, as I understand it, is of a way in which language could be used to establish a durable and above all meaningful connection between oneself, the world and others. To escape the solitude of writing, break out of the prison-house of language, and make contact. Actually mean, not just say, something.