Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Speaking at Delphi - III


(Horace Engdahl [my tr.] on Pia Tafdrup, continued)

The unreality of reality is the fundamental problem of modern literature, and Pia Tafdrup’s writing is not, of course, free of it. In the very first poem of her first collection, a poem called “One Day” – one of the most moving in her œuvre – the poet is sitting on a bench in a park, but its planks disappear and she goes plummeting down into a childhood longing for real life where everything is in earnest. The objects in the game are dummies, which one day will be replaced by the real thing. As children we have probably all thought: one day we’ll bake real bread, sail real boats, and so on. Caress and be caressed by real bodies. When we grow up. But the poet still lacks that real bench, that real time. Life never became quite as real as we planned it to be in the days when we pretended chestnut leaves were boats.

From this point of departure, Pia Tafdrup’s poems always strive essentially for the moment when there will be a real bench underneath her and everything will be here and now. The tangible sends her into euphoria. She is a poet of the joy of touch, perhaps because the tangibility of things is seldom a real obstacle. As in Peter Pan, in an unguarded moment one can always go soaring up in the air and see everything from far above.

“I speak/ and so I soar.” The enjoyment of the sense of power in writing poems can sometimes make one think of Edith Södergran, and sometimes the poet is close to “Triumph of Being” – I am thinking, for example, of the introductory poem of Spring Tide, “Raised to Birth”, where she calls on us to live even though the signs of the times point to destruction.

It has been said that the wounded body is the centre of Tafdrup’s poetry, but I see in this view a reflection of a fashion in literary criticism which is most at home with loss, absence, cutting and silence. The wound is certainly there, but it is not a simple story of suffering. When in one of her most frequently quoted poems an angel breaks her silence, the angel being the author herself in the innocence of childhood, this destruction is the beginning of something new. It signifies the possibility of writing. When in a later poem love gives the former angel wings of stone, it is not, as I see it, in order to capture her but in order to invite her to remain on the earth, where all that she seeks exists.

As a beginner she probably saw out of the corner of her eye how busy the traffic on the Via Negativa was and was not unhappy to reject that route. Her rains are the kind that are followed by rainbows, not by Noah’s Floods or stars that come loose from their moorings. Even if one shrinks from generalizing about Danish and Swedish character, it’s hard not to reflect on how much less angst-ridden Oehlenschläger is than Stagnelius, how much lighter Sophus Claussen is than Fröding.

In Pia Tafdrup’s world, man is not free to invent himself, he has a gender (and not only a genus), he has a body and a history which calls through him. Affirmation requires a capacity for being passive, not only active, or perhaps an ability to linger in a state where active and passive cannot be distinguished between. One of those states is love, and another is religious feeling, which expresses itself in one’s relation to words: “I am a body/which language touches” (‘White Fever’). Some will perhaps be shocked when she praises the chasm of delight she experiences when the lover can do what he likes with her (“I lie down/I expose myself/I become your creature/for a moment”). But she is the girl who has learned trust in the unknown, swimming on her father’s back over the forests of seaweed in order to let go at the right moment, and soar.

Her favourite pet creatures, the whales, are a metaphor for the greatest forces in life, love, art and death. Their games in the ocean bear witness to a sovereign power on which the poet can call whenever life seems too cramped. It seems to me that it’s a breakout of this kind she describes in her recently published novel Surrender. The book is a daydream about losing control – the sort of daydream only intellectuals can have. Pascha, the main character, climbs over a fence and enters a strange house which belongs to a man she doesn’t know. “I just have to feel that I exist,” she thinks. The banality of the way events subsequently turn out is certainly a bitter lesson for this young woman, but at the same time it does not cancel the liberating giddiness caused by climbing the fence.

In Pia Tafdrup’s poems this violent encroachment does not prompt a fear of being invaded; instead, it brings fascination, delight, new eyes. This is also true of her relation to poetic antecedents, which seems unusually free of anxiety. In her texts she makes Emily Dickinson a queen without a throne. She unhesitatingly uses erotic signal words from the Södergran repertoire. When she makes the journey into her Jewish heritage in the collection Territorial Song she takes possession of The Song of Songs and the Psalms.

(to be continued)

See also: Speaking at Delphi
Speaking at Delphi - II
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