During the 21st century, the concept of poetry has been challenged by some Swedish poets, where the conventional collection of poems grouped into different sections has been superseded in favour of other ways of structuring poems. It may be in an epic form, or as a conceptual poem, or as an attempt to undermine literature from a critique of language itself. A book of poems can look like just about anything and resemble the work of an artist.
This is the tradition to which Ida Börjel has belonged, since her debut in 2004 with Sond (Probe). She has, since then, only published three additional titles, Skåneradio (Radio of Skåne), Konsumentköplagen (Consumer Rights Act) and Ma. The scarcity has not prevented her from being established as a central figure in Swedish contemporary poetry.
Although Börjel, with her latest book Ma, published in 2014, works in a tradition that clearly stems from the Danish poet Inger Christensen’s 1981 book Alfabet (Alphabet, translation by Susanna Nied), her version is different and has completely managed to rid itself of its sources. Where Christensen handed us a poem written in the present tense, Börjel’s edition is written in the past tense, which makes the poem even more dramatic. She is presenting a world where it is already too late.
Here, Börjel moves through the alphabet, from A to Ö, in a long poem that takes the form of a creation myth that both comments on history and gives a contour to the present. It involves a way to relate to the present through a historical filter. The historical writing she is engaged in is also an appeal to the future: Do not repeat these mistakes, is her implied message. It is an encyclopaedic poem that points out apartheid and Treblinka, the Arab Spring, soccer hooligans, climate change and the unreasonable interest rates of banks and lenders.
It is also a poem that conducts the void that occurs when the world goes awry. Here are references to the 20th century disasters, which are added in parallel to the challenges of the 21st century, in the form of terrorist deeds and refugees – when the poem reaches the letter ‘L’, we end up in Lampedusa. It is a poem that can be said to prosecute Europe. There are also poems that reveal the hypocrisy of Swedish arms exports. It manifests itself in a profound criticism of the neutral Sweden’s flatness against the Nazis during World War II. Here Börjel’s assignment is twofold: She is scraping the old wounds, and she also puts a bandage upon them. She brings solace – but does not forget or forgive anything. She calls for action and gives her book incentives to a new approach to the world.
Where is the poetry to be found in this particular poem? There are poems that make use of a poetic expression in fragmentary form. Remarkably, the tone of the poems changes under the letter ‘M’, and expresses sadness and uncertainty, as if the speaker becomes the child in need of a mother’s comfort:
I can’t think I don’t know
where I am I don’t know how to
read the emblems as cracks
or force them into rose, read
the frozen images or freeze my love
in anger/in my hands in the snow
there is no distance
how can events be worded
(translation by Jennifer Hayashida)
With Ma, Ida Börjel shows why resistance is so important. It is difficult to do justice to a book so dependent on the whole. This is a book that needs to be read in its entirety, to fully experience the sophisticated conclusions. Then the different voices of this poem, the various accusations, also appear. In its tone, Börjel moves between the elegiac and the inflammatory, between the hymn and the colloquial. This book can also be read as an illustration of Borges’ idea of the circular book: Reading Ma invites you to confront what lacks an ending or closure.
Out of the demolition, some kind of love is developed. It is an indispensable love, maybe in particular because there is so much that speaks against it. During the four years that have passed since Ma was released, its status as a necessity has not only been preserved, but also increased. It has also become more relevant during this time. Exactly one hundred years ago, just before he was killed during World War I, Wilfred Owen stated that ‘all a poet can do today is to warn’. Ida Börjel adheres to this approach, but she does it in her own way:
night and year
there was iceberg
the economic iceberg
the nuclear iceberg the
organic; iceberg theory was
colossus code; sediment
small hands move through
sixteen-hour work day
and a lone polar bear on a floe
On a hopeful note, the entire book ends with the word ‘aorta’, which implies heartbeat and life. Therefore, I also read Börjel’s book as an indication of a desire for new life, and that is a force stronger than all the destructive things created by humanity.