Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Speaking at Delphi - II

(Horace Engdahl [my tr.] on Pia Tafdrup, continued)
Pia Tafdrup made no secret of the fact that what she did was Art with a capital letter, and that the literary canon was her bread and butter. In 1991, on top of everything else, she published a poetics. Its title was Walking Over The Water. She placed herself in the ranks of authoritative figures all the way from Aristotle to her direct antecedent Paul la Cour, discussing the nature of poetry, the ways in which it is written, and how it is to be understood. It’s a triumphant hubris of the kind that’s witnessed when Swedish golfer Annika Sörenstam insists on playing with the men.

There is only one thing one with which one can successfully compare Pia Tafdrup’s writing, and that is the experience of falling in love. In her poems it’s as though that experience can only really be compared with one thing – writing. What writing and falling in love have in common is that, as phenomena, they are all-consuming. They lay claim to everything and relate everything to themselves. They are rapid, cumulative events, descending like an assault. Improbably enough, they are both triggered by words.

In Pia Tafdrup’s poems, words stimulate the blood. In what is one of the most realistic love poems I have read, she has the ‘I’ of the poem conquer the beloved by saying his name as they both wander aimlessly across a rainy urban landscape, in a way he has never heard it said before, as though he had been given a completely new name, the one he really wants to be called, a word that unclothes him. The poet whispers him naked in his own name, naming him so that he falls completely under her power.

According to the psychologists, falling in love is a controlled psychosis. Readers who give themselves to Pia Tafdrup’s texts are invited to a folie à deux for the duration of the poem. No irony that might create uncertainty about whom the poem is meant for obtrudes between the poet and her addressee. Everyone is equally worthy. There is an unfashionable generosity in this way of writing, one that seems to have conquered the public’s natural mistrust of poetry and made Pia Tafdrup a poet who is widely read.

Sometimes her poems turn inward on themselves and become metaphoric fakir acts, climbing ropes of their own creation, or drinking themselves as Indian conjurers do. But seen against the background of an intellectual era which has been obsessed with the idea of language’s self-reference and materiality, these games are infrequent and are not intended to sow doubt in the reality of things or in poetry’s ability to talk about the world. The female body and the elements are as present in her language as the grammar. The sky menstruates in the rain, the star shines like the first white spot of the baby’s head as it emerges at the moment of childbirth. The ploughed field – Pia Tafdrup is a farmer’s daughter – is like the open page in a holy book, as in the poetry of Yesenin. In the water of intercourse the sperms are fish. When love is lost they are frozen into the ice.

She makes Uranus and Gaia rise again in the dream poem “Sleep Hieroglyph” in The Whales, and yet the body remains concrete and does not enter the realm of the mythical and allegorical. I am not even sure that the relation between nature and subject can be called metaphorical. It’s an inflow and outflow between two basins, the ebb and flow of language, exultantly affirmed in the book of fortune, Spring Tide, which is written in the spirit of the full moon and the sacred number 7. In Pia Tafdrup’s most magnificent collection of poems, Queen’s Gate, this theme swells into a mighty hymn to the sea, nine pages of inspiration in the style of Walt Whitman. But that is the kind of thing that can only be done once!
(to be continued)

See also: Speaking at Delphi

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