Tuesday, January 22, 2008

 

One of the most interesting new poets of 2007 turns out to be Henry Parland, whose first book in English (at least to my knowledge) has just been published by Ugly Duckling Presse of Brooklyn. Parland is one of the great modernists of Swedish literature, in spite of the fact that he did not come from a Swedish family, read & spoke the language for less than a decade, and never once set foot in the country. And in spite of the fact that he died at the age of 22 in 1930. Ideals Clearance, translated ably enough by Johannes Göransson, presents Parland’s first volume, the only one actually published during his lifetime.

If Parland doesn’t fit any of the readymade categories into which first generation modernists typically get slotted, part of it may be because Baltic modernism – particularly the poetry – isn’t well known in the west, outside of the Russian Futurists who really are part of a different discussion¹ (tho Parland was born in St. Petersburg & lived there & in Kiev until the age of four when his parents fled the increasingly troubled country for the suburbs of Helsinki). Parland’s outsider status in Finland seemed equally precarious & led to a constant shuffling of schools until, at the age of 14, he was placed in an academy for Swedish Finns, where he was finally introduced to the language at which he would become a master.

The other reason that Parland doesn’t fit is that his poetry seems in fact much too contemporary for high modernism. Reading him, one thinks of a later movement, like the Objectivists – think of Oppen’s Discrete Series, Zukofsky’s short poems, much of Rakosi’s work, or Niedecker’s writers generally Parland’s own age but far removed from the fluid borders of the Baltic whose own literary interventions didn’t get started until Parland had been dead awhile. Or one thinks of certain more recent writers, including the great Finnish-American poet, Anselm Hollo. Parland is somebody whose work wouldn’t seem out of place at Saint Marks, or in the summer program at Naropa, or corresponding with the likes of Joseph Massey, Laura Sims or Graham Foust. Here, for example, is the ninth poem of the sequence, “Socks,” a series that literally engages fashion.

Legs,
what do you know about legs?
you who think about skirts
when you pass the windows of the department store.

What do you know
about the legs
of the twentieth century?

“Socks” is the second of the books four sections or series. In each, something just over half of the poems appear to be explicitly about the topic identified by the title, which is why it is noteworthy that Parland’s section titles include “Stains,” “Flu” & “Grimaces.” Where the short prose poems of Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, talks around a wide range of nouns in not much more space than Parland’s short poems, her objects tend to the specific. To write, literally, about stains or the flu or, for that matter, socks, is to identify with the most transitory and incidental elements of life. This is about as far from Pound’s sense of epic as one might imagine. Even the Russian Futurists, at least during the period when Parland was alive & writing, wrote of the masses in order to raise them to heroic proportions. Parland’s focus may magnify, but even at its most optimistic is never heroic. Here is a “Stain”:

Something was –
april snow by the road,
april sun in a smile,
and a blue murmur across the ground.

This is from “Flu”:

In the next room
the pool balls laugh
but the mouth across from me
spits wordleftovers
in my face.

They fall to the floor
and run between my feet
like cockroaches
with six bustling legs.

Anyone who has ever tried to get through a workday with a fever will recognize this slightly hallucinated tableaux, the impossibility of rendering sense from another’s conversation. In the poem from “Stain,” Parland uses the literal fact of his referent, an unintelligible blue smear on the ground, to invoke other equally “unreadable” moments, a lingering dollop of snow, the flash of a smile. I can’t tell how literally sorl translates into murmur, but certainly in English the effect is perfect.

Because this edition places the Swedish on the facing page, you can test the degree to which Göransson is an interventionist as a translator & thus how much of this modernity is Göransson’s sensibility. The answer, I think, is not much. Here is the Swedish for the first poem above:

Ben,
vad vet ni om ben?
som tänker kjolar
ni går förbi Strumpcentralens skådefönster.

Vat vet ni
om det tjugonde århundradets
ben?

A more purely literal translation of the final sentence might read

What do you know
about twentieth century
legs?

Or, more literal yet, “What know you,” which would preserve the power of the single syllable words that are so critical to this poem’s impact in the original. But to do so would lose the sense of ordinary language, and this is a poem that requires the air of the demotic.To quibble that the original puts the ultimate emphasis on legs not century strikes me as missing the point. Within the constraints of translation, and of the original², this is a faithful, workmanlike job. Which means that the attitude, which is what comes across as so distinct, comes not from Göransson but Parland.

Parland is not just a good poet – tho he is that – he’s also a particularly instructive poet for somebody like myself. I’m always arguing location, location, location, and that there is no such thing as a poet, only kinds of poets. Yet Parland’s relationship to Sweden is tenuous at best. After school in Finland, he lived what little remained of his life in Lithuania, a nation whose status as such has flickered off & on for centuries. One can only wonder what would have become of Parland had he remained there long enough for the Stalinists to take over. Or if he would have fled west in advance of the Second World War – he was too young for the first. Given the history that was awaiting Parland, there is just no way to speculate as to what he might have become as a writer had he lived. For one thing, he was working on a novel for much of the last two years of his life.

So Parland is something of a test case for my idea that poetry is a system and that location is determining as a factor in the questions of what shall be read, when & how. As you can see from descriptions above, I’m mostly forced to compare him to poets whom he almost certainly never read and to some (like Hollo) whom he actually may have influenced.³ Yet perhaps by sitting as outside the system as Parland does, he casts it into an ever sharper relief. By revealing all the ways in which this brief wunderkind doesn’t fit, Henry Parland shows us precisely what “fitting” must mean.

 

¹ The ways in which Russia both is and isn’t a Baltic state would take a footnote the size of War & Peace to fully tease out. Suffice it to say that Russia has a deeply conflicted relationship to the concept of Europe as well as to its own status as a nation that is both European & Asian at the same time.

² Strumpcentralens is a word that appears just once on the entire web, at least until today, sayeth Google, and that in a PDF version of Parland’s original.

³ One modernist classic whose tone Parland’s book does remind me of, at least a little, is Blaise Cendrars’ Kodak, the volume that caused a certain film manufacturer to sue Cendrars even though it was composed entirely of appropriations from Gustave Lerouge’s novel Les mysteriuex Docteur Cornelius. Cendrars’ book was published in 1924, so it is conceivable that Parland (who read Proust in the original) did know of it.

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