He Smells of Earth

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In Norway of the 1910s and 1920s there was a now hidden and forgotten undergrowth of erotic poetry written by women such as Halldis Moren Vesaas, Aslaug Vaa, and Inger Hagerup. Exploration of erotic psychology and gender identity is an ongoing theme. This could indicate a feeling of alienation – but this feeling is productive in terms of the poetry, being a stance from which new female lyrical expression takes shape.

The thematic tension in the poems often lies in the draw of ecstasy in a total love symbiosis and the simultaneous desire for personal independent identity. The springboard, the ideology brought by women to encounters with love, is the expectation of complete happiness, of sexual, emotional, and intellectual self-realisation. The feeling of alienation and dissonance emerges when the male opposite party does not fulfil the expectations, the tone becomes resigned or accusatory, and at times masochistic.

 

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  • Catalogue from Daells Varehus, 1938. Copenhagen

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He Smells of Earth

Written by:  Sigrid Bø Grønstøl

Halldis Moren Vesaas’s debut collection Harpe og dolk (1929; Harp and Dagger) is thematically bold and innovative Norwegian poetry. The innovative aspect in the work of the twenty-two-year-old is seen in a stanza from the poem “Jordange” (earth smells):

It smells of earth and grows from your flesh
– I lie in your arms and drink myself giddy and warm
perish in you like a corpse in the ground
And sleep away the spring night in your embrace.
I sense you through the fabric of my dreams,
until joyous birdsong breaks my slumber
and the morning sun streams through the window
you open your eyes and find my mouth.

Det angår jord og gror av alt ditt hold
– Eg ligg i armen din og drikk meg ør og varm
går under i deg som ein død i mold
og søv ei vårnatt vekk innved din barm.
Eg sansar deg igjennom alt eg drøymer,
til glade fuglerøyster bryt min blund
og morgonsola gjennom ruta fløymer
du slår auga opp og finn min munn.

This, in terms of form traditional, verse is an erotic poem addressed to a man by a woman – and, in so being, much is turned upside down in Norwegian poetry. What was considered good love poetry had hitherto largely been written by men. Halldis Moren Vesaas (1907-1995) placed the woman in the position of speaker, and gives expression to woman’s experience of sexuality, love, and motherhood in lyric poetry. In terms of form and language, however, she is still safely within the late-Romantic and classical tradition that dominated Norwegian poetry right up until the Second World War.

In Norway of the 1910s and 1920s there was a now hidden and forgotten undergrowth of erotic poetry written by women. The much-loved and celebrated concert and opera singer Cally Monrad, who published seven collections of poetry between 1913 and 1941, wrote openly on matters of passionate love, as did Anne Katrine Graff in her collection En kvindes digte (1919; A Woman’s Poems).

Aslaug Vaa (1889-1965), whose debut collection Nord i leite (1934; Looking Northwards) gave weight to what would later be a strong tradition of female Norwegian poets, is also coloured by the tradition of male poetry to which she belongs. Her poetic approach and rhetoric is clearly inspired by idealistic and visionary Romantics such as Olav Aukrust and Tore Ørjasæter. Aslaug Vaa was forty-five years of age, with marriage and the care of five children behind her, when she made her debut as poet. When it comes to philosophy of life and thematics in her poetry, Aslaug Vaa is not in the same league as Halldis Moren Vesaas in terms of being “happily aware of what it means to be a woman”. It often seems natural to interpret their poems within a general existential and philosophical context. A feeling of alienation in relation to tradition, a discordant sense of life, and ideological gender rebellion can be detected in the work of both writers as tiny little undertones drowned out by an oratorical and idealistic lyrical tradition.

Inger Hagerup (1905-1985) also resembles her contemporary male poets in tone, form, and theme; her first publication, in 1939, makes her the third major debutante poet of the Norwegian inter-war period. She has Herman Wildenvey’s liveliness, Arnulf Øverland’s earnestness, and the confidence in form of them both. However, her poems have a distinctive character and tension thanks to her ability to de-romanticise and write ironically by means of small rhythmic breaks and deviations in traditionally formed verse. Inger Hagerup finds the material for this often ambivalent counter-voice in her grim and keen observations of her contemporary women’s lives and women’s ideology.

Sigrid Undset’s only collection of poetry, Ungdom (Youth), was published in 1910. That same year Ragna Rytter published her first collection; Eugenia Kielland published a collection in 1918; Ingeborg Flood was very productive between 1929 and 1945; Zinken Hopp published four collections between 1930 and 1938.

Gender and Nature Metaphors – Man and Soil

Catalogue from Daells Varehus, 1938. Copenhagen

Catalogue from Daells Varehus, 1938. Copenhagen

Endowing nature with spirit is so common in post-Romantic poetry that it can almost be said to constitute the genre itself. The first-person voice, traditionally male, is prone to associate the object of love – the woman – with nature and nature imagery. A number of feminist literary scholars point out that women generally revise or invert images that are handed down in order to make them tally with a female understanding and interpretation of life. It is interesting to note that it is precisely this nature imagery in love poetry that a lyric poet as traditional as Halldis Moren Vesaas turns upside down. In the previously quoted poem, “Jordange”, a man comes in from the fields after a day spent with horses and plough, he catches hold of and embraces his woman with his “brown hands”. When, after a happy night of love – “I lie in your arms and drink myself giddy and warm” – he returns to the horses and fields, the woman senses that the man is still close to her through the smell he leaves behind, “earth smell”:

You have not left me. Through the window
the smell wafts thickly from plants and green trees,
from the soil of the fields and the grass of the meadows.
You are with me in the smell that is you.

Du er'kje gått ifrå meg. Gjennom glaset
stryk angen rik herinn frå gror og grøne tre,
frå åkren molda og frå enga graset.
Du er hos meg i angen som er deg.

The striking aspect here is that the female subject is active and passive at one and the same time. The male “you” comes, meets, greets, wakes up, kisses, and goes. The female “I” waits, is caught hold of and whispered to, lies in his arms, sleeps, dreams, and yearns. Everything is apparently in keeping with acquired patterns for male and female behaviour. The new element is that things masculine are associated with soil and earth and nature. The man is erotically arousing by means of the earth smell or the smell of soil. Associating the man with earth in this way makes for an inverted lyrical image. The woman has taken on the role of a man wielding the pen; she is the thinking being who shapes a poem from an experience. The poem’s positive tribute to the worldly masculine principle is, however, not without a little ambivalence. At the same time as the female first-person is giddy from happy love, she perishes in the man like a “corpse in the ground”. Identity is threatened in the sexual experience.

This double position in a first-person voice thematically rendering herself as object, while also expressing subjectivity in the first-person position and counter-image, can be found in a number of poems written by women of the time. From this ambivalent and passive position, she often directs an accusation against the man who, through eroticism and love, can consume the woman’s identity and right to be mistress of her own life.

Love Poems with Dissonance

Exploration of erotic psychology and gender identity is an ongoing theme in poetry written by women of the period. This could indicate a feeling of alienation – the experience is different from that promised by love ideology and the general view of women. The feeling of alienation is productive in terms of the poetry, being a stance from which new female lyrical expression takes shape.

The thematic tension in the poems often lies in the draw of ecstasy in a total love symbiosis and the simultaneous desire for personal independent identity. The springboard, the ideology brought by women to encounters with love, is the expectation of complete happiness, of sexual, emotional, and intellectual self-realisation. The feeling of alienation and dissonance emerges when the male opposite party does not fulfil the expectations, the tone becomes resigned or accusatory, and at times masochistic.

In calling her debut collection Jeg gikk meg vill i skogene (1939; I Lost My Way in the Woods), Inger Hagerup might have been indicating a feeling of alienation in relation to the lyric tradition. Nature poetry dominates the Norwegian verse of the period. In the 1920s and 1930s it was possible to use nature poetry to write about the woman’s life, and the woman’s psyche, without the break with established literature being greater than the institution could tolerate. It might not be a coincidence that women writing in nynorsk (New Norwegian), with a background in the rural community, are the first in Norwegian poetry to write ‘openly’ about female sexuality.

In 1936, Halldis Moren Vesaas writes about sexual happiness and desire in nature metaphors such as these from “Nei eg får aldri nok –” (No, I Can’t Get Enough –):

Your presence is rainfall upon arid ground
Finally it arrived, a spring night dark and mild,
and now all the earth lies drinking,
open and gentle and calm,
incredulous at this blessed moment,
whispering between long, thirsty draughts:
more, more, more!

Din nærleik er regn over tørst jord
Endeleg kom det, ei vårnatt skum og mild,
og no ligg all jord og berre drikk,
open og blid og still,
kan ikkje enn si signingsstund tru,
kviskrar imellom dei lange tørste drag:
meir, meir, meir!

At about the same time, in her poem “Treet og krossen” (1934; The Tree and the Cross), Aslaug Vaa wrote about erotic love thus:

When two surrender to each other
they are subject
to the force of creation
the momentous, awesome force of creation

that it is
which causes the grass to grow
the flowers to bloom
clouds to sail across the sky
and sets auguries in sun and moon.

Når tvo gjev seg til kvarandre er dei under lovi av skaparviljen den store gruv'lege skaparviljen det er den som fær gras te gro blomær te sprette skyir te sigle på himlen og set teikn i sol og måne.

Halldis Moren Vesaas juxtaposes erotic love with nature awakening in springtime; Aslaug Vaa gives the sexual act a cosmic and mythical dimension. In the poems both parties, women and men, are subject to natural and cosmic laws without discord, there is “blessed moment” and growth; the representations of love in these poems constitute a vitalism with female subject. The erotic encounter is being associated with earth and the mystery of nature, not with the woman herself – as is otherwise the case in Romantic and vitalist poetry written by men.

Motherhood – Before and After the Second World War

The publication of Halldis Moren Vesaas’s two collections in the 1930s, Strender (1933; Beaches) and Lykkelege hender (1936; Happy Hands), introduces motherhood as a theme in Norwegian poetry. The writer is bold enough to write about pregnancy, which had hitherto been an uncommon literary theme. In the poem “Tider” (Times), the first-person narrator wanders “about here, waiting and hoping / that you are conceived and have begun to grow”. Depiction of the physical and psychological sides of pregnancy and motherhood might not lead to innovation in terms of language or form, but the theme is new. The motif could be the first tooth or the child that learns to say “mum”. In the elegant poem “Heggeblomar og kvite laken” (Bird Cherry Flowers and White Sheets) “our infant frolics naked / washed, wild, in freshly ironed linen”.

Inger Hagerup, with her realistic and slightly ironical poems from women’s lives, punctures the Romantic myth of the poet – the wise man with special insight in lofty concepts and spiritual values. Nor does the characterisation everyday bombast fit her pen. In writing about the individual case of motherhood, Inger Hagerup’s choice of words is direct and simple. An unvarnished insight into the inevitable and tragic aspect of the maternal experience – the child breaking away from its mother – removes any pompous sentiment. “Til barnet” (1947; To the Child) has a wise tone, which expresses wondering insight:

Body of my body, soul of my soul,
what will you be – friend or foe?
When will you withdraw your hungry hand
leaving me high and dry?

Dream of my dream, fire of my fire,
never read these bitter words!
You belong to tomorrow.
Live on and forget your mother.

During the inter- and post-war periods, when writers mobilised against Fascism, occupation, and nuclear armament, women writers developed an anti-Fascism based on the roles of mother and carer.

Zinken Hopp (1905-1987) made her debut in 1930 and wrote five collections of poetry over the course of the next eight years. Her poems are traditional in style, but they describe the new woman’s daily life in a both cheerful and ironic manner. The voice of a young woman can be heard in her poems: a woman who one moment is experiencing love in Paris or in London, the next enthusing about the washing machine, this marvel of technology.

“It is quite some achievement to ride Pegasus while wheeling a pram”, wrote a reviewer of Zinken Hopp’s third collection of poems, Kjøkkenvers (1933; Kitchen Verse).

Following the shock of occupation, it was no longer motherhood as an individual experience that was in focus, but the mother of society who made her entrance into poems written by women. War, cold rationality, rearmament, and destruction are seen as predominantly male domains. As counter-image, the women writers pointed to a maternal warmth and responsibility for care that is no longer directed at the individual child. Responsibility for care is made general. It is a case of universal care of soil, people, and existence. And it is closeness to the child that motivates Inger Hagerup’s oft-quoted anti-war poem “Til kvinner er vi født” (1951; As Women We Are Born), the last stanza of which reads:

As women we are born.
We live in communion with
everything living. We carry the children
towards the morrow, and there we want
security and happiness to greet them.

The title poem of Halldis Moren Vesaas’s first post-war collection, Tung tids tale (1945; Speech of Troubled Times), states bluntly: “There is no such thing as I anymore. / From now on it is We.” The mother of society creates, constructs, and protects life in a war-torn world.

In her final collection of poems, Bustader (1963; Residences), Aslaug Vaa juxtaposes “the joy in the child’s first steps” with “the intrigue of men’s minds”. The poem “Apokalyptisk dag” (Apocalyptic Day) expresses a critique of culture, based on the detail and the close-at-hand:

Bless every little snowflake
and bless every sparrow
– against the intrigue of men’s minds
– against unwitting concourse with titans.

Velsigna kvar liti snjosjønne
og velsigna kvar den spurv
– mot kabalen i mannetankar
– mot blinde leik med gigantar.

The post-war mother of society is a radical woman – both politically and in literature. The writing women’s active cultural contribution during the post-war period was also seen in the progressive magazine Kvinnen og tiden (Women and the Times) of which Inger Hagerup was on the editorial staff between 1946 and 1956.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch