Sweden’s ‘Retrogarde’ Poet

Review: Håkan Sandell, Bill Coyle (trans.), ‘Dog Star Notations’

Håkan Sandell
Håkan Sandell
• October 8, 2016 4:58 am


In 2003, the poet Bill Coyle was in a bookstore in Stockholm browsing the poetry shelves when he came across Håkan Sandell’s Oslo Passion. "Most contemporary Swedish poetry after Tomas Tranströmer left me cold," Coyle remembers:

Some was high minded gibberish à la L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry (or språkmaterialism, as the Swedes call it), some was social realist plodding, much simply struck me as anemic—too many short lines, too much white space hinting at a significance that the poet had foregone the hard work of articulating, too little music.

Not Sandell’s poetry. It didn’t "speak to me," Coyle writes, "it sang to me." Coyle bought the book and spent the rest of the day acquainting himself with "one of the most gifted poets writing in Swedish today, and the most distinctive." The result of that fortuitous discovery is the first collection of Sandell’s poems in English, translated by Coyle, and published earlier this year by Carcanet.

Sandell is a poet of contrasts. He is chatty and precise, musical and imagistic, carnal and spiritual. A typical poem steps out into the street with a casual observation, turns suddenly philosophical or formal, walks a bit further, perhaps meets a friend, and ends with insight or an image. The shifts in diction and syntax can sometimes dilute Sandell’s musicality, as in "Xmas. Kruse Street, Oslo," which begins:

Pull up to the table: the ghosts of Christmases past
have joined us, and man, wasn’t that a weird
winter, snowflakes burning like tears
on cheeks as insensitive, I thought, as a wax mask’s.
Because nothing means anything more in the end
than one’s empathy is able to mediate…

"I thought" and "in the end" are superfluous and, in the first case, unnecessarily break the simile. The impersonal "one’s empathy," which somehow "mediates" meaning, sounds like a German whispering in a library.

But mostly, these are poems of refreshingly foreign particularity. In the third section of "After the Concert," for example, Sandell writes (in Coyle’s fluid translation):

I wonder what you’d make of these notations
about to push off and head home, while I just hang,
all of the onions on my plate, still, the tomatoes,
too, like in childhood—that much, anyway, hasn’t changed,
although the time’s been used up. Outside the remains
of the Norwegian working class in overcoats
and some kind of pyjama-like sweatsuits, one gang
laughing, sky-high, at a sign on the convenience store,
the falling snow. And others closing time lures forth—
Somalis with their purple lips in outer darkness.
Enchanted words, still. Slush, splashes from passing cars,
all this seen from amidships. I remain on board.

Onions and tomatoes, the childlike obliviousness of a slowly dying Norwegian working class and the silent Somalis on the periphery, falling snow and darkness—the individuality of light, feeling, texture, and thought are clarified in contrast. Poetry enchants by comparison, metaphor, showing us a world full of life and death—a world of blood and hair, Sandell writes, "like a ball of snakes in a flower basket," of "fine, fish-netted calves" and eggs like "liquidated suns," or of a newborn’s fluttering hands as her "thirsty / mouth finds its sanctifying raspberry touchstone."

If poetry doesn’t enchant, what’s the point? This may be the gist of "Requiem for a Returnee," where Sandell laments Czeslaw Milosz’s return to Krakow, Poland, where he died, when it would have been better—and here’s the subtle critique—that he remained in "a California / of perfected loss," where "not the Beach Boys / but Chopin, Brahms and Shostakovich / are played at the cultivated funeral":

Nicely-built young American female
poets would have sparkled in the backmost benches,
hour-glass shaped after a lifetime of salads,
elegant too in the most stylish clothing
with small straps of cotton over their shoulders.

For Sandell, perhaps, too much contemporary poetry has become like this imagined funeral for Milosz—cultivated, trendy, and lifeless. At its best, it is full of poems of "perfected" but predictable loss.

In 1995, Sandell published On Retrogardism with his friend and fellow poet Clemens Altgård, which argued, Coyle tells us, that poetry had "become too insular…too contemptuous of its own medium" to "communicate meaningfully." Sandell put it this way in a recent English-language blog post: "the oral was lacking, the epic was lacking, the music was gone, and so on. Not true for the Modernist pioneers and masters to be fair, but certainly for what was coming out of the contemporary festival microphones…Even the vulgar was lacking. The heaven in those poems had not God, the streets in them had no life."

There’s certainly life in Sandell’s streets and perhaps even a God in his heaven. The "Dalai Lama’s exile," he writes in "Words for Justyana on Her Departure for a Retreat in Tushita," "can’t change the fact that everything unwinding / around you will be hard and soft and tactile / …the blue sky arching above you will / continue most definitively still / not to have you or your gaze for its origin." Buddhism views the world as a fiction, but in "our tradition," as Sendall calls it, "It’s in a mortal body God is made man, / not motionless at a mandala’s midpoint."

Coyle has done a great service in introducing Sandell to English-speaking readers. Buy and read the fleshy, spiritual Dog Star Notations.

Published under: Book reviews