A Light Darkness

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Lyric poetry from the 1960s.

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  • Cover of Metallarbetaren, no. 4, 1955. B&W photo. photographer: Ateljé Berit. Lunds Universitetsbibliotek.
  • Henning, Ester (1887-1985): The Masquerade, 1946. Watercolour and gouache on paper.
  • Photo from flea market, Mårtenstorget, Lund. Colour photo. Photographer: K.G. Olsson. Lunds Kunsthal, 1992

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A Light Darkness

“Sounding high, sounding high / when my mouth organ and I / we cry”. This is how Majken Johansson (1930–93) begins the poem dedicated to the author Nils Ferlin in the collection I grund och botten (1956; In Ground and Bottom). The lines contain much of what is essential about Majken Johansson’s poetry. There is music and the playful ballad, which mixes with melancholy and sorrow, there is the mouth organ, the simple notes of the instrument, which also creates a serious and artistically conscious music, beautiful even in dissonance, “like a rasping fuga / on a comb / and with the coda jammed in”. From the much noticed debut in 1952 with Buskteater (Bush Theatre) to the sixth and last collection of poems Djup ropar till djup (1989; Deep Calls to Deep) after many years of silence, the joy is more or less mixed with melancholy and weeping. Darkest and with strong veins of pessimism is the collection containing “Mouth Organ Ballad”. After a religious crisis and a radical conversion by the end of the 1950s, the tone becomes successively more jubilant while the tension is retained, albeit with different overtones. Hope has replaced the previous hopelessness, but even more rashly the cry of despair is heard from the deep, yet now with a hope of the presence of the divine and in the knowledge that the uttermost distress is saved by grace.

Cover of Metallarbetaren, no. 4, 1955. B&W photo. photographer: Ateljé Berit. Lunds Universitetsbibliotek.

Cover of Metallarbetaren, no. 4, 1955. B&W photo. photographer: Ateljé Berit. Lunds Universitetsbibliotek.

Majken Johansson grew up in foster care in Malmö, came to Lund to study, and influenced the literary 1950s in the university town. The academic life in Lund and the Literary club, whose writing members – the so-called Lund school – were published in the calendar Vox and in the daily newspaper Kvällsposten (The Evening Post), offered an intellectually stimulating environment. New means of expressing poetry were tested, and it was shaped with breaches of style, pastiches, and rarely used forms of verse, while self-reflecting poetry was rejected and the self-critical was recommended. Here distancing irony was cultivated along with scepticism, rather than commitment and devotion, here the grimace was preferred as protection against grand words and playfulness against gravity.

In the loosely connected group of poets known as the Lund school are found Anna Rydstedt, Åsa Wohlin, Ingemar Leckius, and Göran Printz-Påhlson. They were all oriented towards a metapoetical interest.

The introductory poem to Andens undanflykt (1958; The Escape of the Spirit) was conceived as a playful villanelle, an old French poetic form with an elegant braiding of rhymes. The group’s most prominent poet, Göran Printz-Påhlson, had introduced the form and written “Villanella för ett barn i vår tid”. (1956; Villanelle for a child of our times). “My poem was originally conceived as a parody of his beautiful and learned villenelles and intended to be sent him as a letter when I had moved to Stockholm and he remained in Lund”, Majken Johansson explains. But, she continues, “from the inception of the first line it turned serious, and parody was abandoned”. “Villanelle on a nail” becomes a rather desperate poem. “The nail seems sometimes crooked sometimes straight / through the fluid that fills life’s crevice”. Relativity and insecurity mark the existence of the disillusioned human, the poem seems to say, just like an impotent will to change everything, “to change the taste of the soup”.

The nail seems sometimes crooked, sometimes straight
through the fluid that fills life’s crevice.
Who doesn’t hope to change the taste of the soup?

Shoved together drinks under one roof
fastidious pouters and those made to shovel down.
The nail seems sometimes crooked, sometimes straight.

Shoved together in the same hole in the ice
everyone still drifting groping towards an ice floe each.
Who doesn’t hope to change the taste of the soup?

Just as these days grace and need seem to be the same thing
then through the eye-slits’ harshly fanning rift
the nails seems sometimes crooked, sometimes straight.

However you twist you still carry your back behind you
however you twist your eye lenses awry.
Who doesn’t hope to change the taste of the soup?

Yet for the last splinter of our wreck
“nature’s first commandment” sounds: to live together.
The nail seems sometimes crooked, sometimes straight.
Who doesn’t hope to change the taste of the soup?

Majken Johansson: “Villanella on a Nail”, Andens undanflykt (1958; The Escape of the Spirit).

Majken Johansson calls the move to Stockholm an escape, from Lund, from neuroses, and from alcohol dependence. “I sit – I sit – I sit / on the surface of all hell”, she reports in the collection of 1956. “Then I go; first one leg / the other leg next. / I wander sobbing loudly; nobody is moved. / The other leg next.” The collection from 1958 contains, beneath a surface of jesting and irony, much of the anxiety and the searching that characterises Majken Johansson’s life in those years. She speaks in autobiographical texts about the underlying protest against the meaninglessness of life; “of futuristic fictions have I none”.

Majken Johansson has in different contexts talked about the loss of a beloved friend, about the death that came in spite of prayers to the God in whom she did not believe. “Elegi vid en grav” (eng. tr. “Elegy at a Grave”) in Andens undanflykt expresses the overwhelming feeling of love and painful grief. The sun, a central symbol in the works, is hibernating and “the summer doesn’t even last until autumn”. In the last collection the poem “Saliga augusti” (“Sainted August”) is dedicated to an initial, just like the collection nearly thirty years previously, S – as in sainted – is mentioned in several poems as the object of love. The great loss remains, and in a slightly shocking change of style between psalms and singing games the longing gains its language: “Where I go, sit or stand / I want to be where you dwell. / Otherwise sickness in me swell”. And as if Swedish is not enough, or the words become too serious, English love songs break through: “I can't stop lovin' you ...”.

Henning, Ester (1887-1985): The Masquerade, 1946. Watercolour and gouache on paper.

Henning, Ester (1887-1985): The Masquerade, 1946. Watercolour and gouache on paper.

This loss of a love is a contributory factor in the personal crisis which, paradoxically in light of the unanswered prayers, leads to conversion and confession. Majken Johansson became a recruit of the Salvation Army, and the conversion leaves trails in the poems from the 1960s, not just in an emerging staunchness of faith and joy in salvation that is most obvious in Omtal (1969; Mention). It adds new language to the old joy in language, witty as usual, with the juxtaposition of the collage of texts of different origins and an ability to break the style and expand on meaning in the most astonishing manner. Bible quotes and allusions become far more important. It also seems that the new language and the texts of the Bible become a sort of invocation against destructivity and the feeling of unreality.

Ylva Eggehorn’s (born 1950) poetry is also marked by the salvation experience and joy against a dark setting. Her poetry from the 1970s is marked by the language of the charismatic Jesus-movement, while the personal voice in later collections gives the impression of a deeper gravity. Ylva Eggehorn’s hymns are included in the 1986 hymn book, as are hymns by Eva Norberg (born 1915) and Britt G. Hallqvist (1914–97).

It has been said of Salvation Army soldier Majken Johansson that she renewed spiritual poetry. To a large extent this renewal lies in the freshness resulting in audacious collisions and an unsentimental voice. When the words from the Book of Psalms have just subsided grandly and seriously in the poem, it is followed straightforwardly and with a little Pauline assistance for the personal interpretation, “that is, that I do not lie in my vomit on a cell floor / or am continually taken care of for my liver’s sake / and helplessly do the evil that I do not want”. A highly personal testament in line with the miracles of the gospels follows, but with a new load of meaning to the word ‘saved’, free-throated, i.e. freed of swigging the liquor bottle, and the throat freed from the alcohol addiction:

And “one thing I know:
that I, who was blind, now can see”
and I, who was a drunk, now am free-throated,
etymologically speaking: saved.

The Swedish word for saved, frälst, is derived from freethroated (frihalsad), denoting a thrall who had been freed from his/her neck fetters and granted freedom.

Majken Johansson was never quite free of alcohol and dread. Time and again she reminds her readers that suffering does not end with salvation. “Still in the stairwells of memory hang-ups / anxiety hooked / at hundreds / of empty old liquor bottles”, she writes in the introductory poem (“Staircase”) in Omtal (1969; Mention).

Ulla Olin (1920-2009) made her debut as a poet as early as 1939, and in general her collections have received good reviews. Her definitive breakthrough, however, was not until 1990 with the collection Eftervärme (1990; Residual Heat) .

The poetry of loss and regret which Ulla Olin wrote had a new echo in the early 1990s’ Swedish poetry, while her poems in Eftervärme (1990; Residual Heat)were intensified and filled with the sorrow of the loss of a loved one. “I am not mute, I am not dead / but I have seen death in the face of my beloved”, she writes, and in the ensuing collections Solen installerad (1992; The Sun Installed) and Närmare dikt, till dig (1993; Nearer oh Poem, to Thee), she drives the poetry of loss and regret to new heights.

It is not just the biblical language that becomes a source of poetic creation. As in earlier poems, Majken Johansson utilises the simpler texts, the sounds from “the mouth organ ballad”. In the field of tension between the ballads and the happy string music of the Salvation Army, Saturday morning’s Light Programme and the morning prayers with readings and psalms, many of Majken Johansson’s poems evolve.

“I am the child of a king, I am the child of a king. Although poor and insignificant I am the child of a king”, is written in one of the Salvation Army songs. In one of the poems of the autobiographical Från Magdala (1972; From Magdala), this simple text is combined with a text from the prophet Isaiah: “In school to be dandled upon the knee and be comforted”. If your name is Majken and you are the child of a king, you are naturally a princess. When fury boils up and the language rages against the commandment not to swear, it is not God’s wrath that judges, but the paternal love that patiently outwaits the anger. “There my darling little / favourite princess”, says God, and with the privilege of daughterhood, she gets to sit on his knee and finish swearing.

Child of a King
You will be carried on the hip and fondled on the knees. (Isaiah 66:12)

When I am absolutely
livid
there is no one
who listens as attentively
as God.

“That -llish -ole!” I say.
“That -twoman!
She makes me so -llishly
-ddy -rsed!”

Then father quotes
not from the Exodus
although he could have.

“There, my own little
favourite princess” he says in
stead.
“I know
that it isn’t always
easy
for you to apply the second
commandment.”

And that the sun
which has shone beautifully all day
should not set on my anger
he dandles me on his knee
and lets me
finish swearing.

Then he kisses me
sweet and happy again.

Majken Johansson: “Child of a King”, Från Magdala (1972; From Magdala).

The princess, the Salvation Army soldier, toughened by life and with a tragicomical poise to her cap, sits on the knee of the Almighty and swears. Perhaps she quotes from her first collection’s first poem: “My name / is Ma-haha-jken / Joha-honsson”, and one can – as then – not quite tell, whether with sobbing or laughter, perhaps with an ironic grin.

Gertrude Holmén & Valborg Lindgärde

My name is Anna, / I am a human-leaf

”My name is Anna, / I am a human-leaf”. Thus Anna Rydstedt (1928–94) presented herself in a poem in the collection Presensbarn (Child of the Present), 1964. In Swedish, only a single vowel separates leaf from life. Four years previously, in Min punkt (1960; My Point), she wrote a few often-quoted lines: “I am also born and / grown to that purpose: / to be Anna in the world”, and much later, in Genom nålsögat (1989; Through the Eye of the Needle), a collection full of worry and traces of an anxiety of pain, the presentation is: “This is IAnna / My name is IAnna / I call myself IAnna”.

Anna Rydstedt left a small output, eight collections in forty-one years, from her debut with Bannlyst prästinna (1953; Banished Priestess) to the posthumous Kore in the autumn of 1994. thirteen years of silence lie between the collections Dess kropp av verklighet (1976; This Body of Reality) and Genom nålsögat (1989; Through the Eye of the Needle). But for readers of lyrical poetry it is a uniquely rich body of work.

Anna Rydstedt’s poetry is that of the discreet voice, without large measures but with a strong tension, between trust and disquiet for instance. “Teach me, dear wood, to wither happily / As the yellow leaves of autumn once”, Adam Oehlenschläger sang in a hymn. “Teach me, you leaves, / to wander gladly in the wind”, Anna Rydstedt writes. That is the attitude worth aiming for, but behind it is always the consciousness of the vulnerability of life and of transience as a condition of life.

Anna Rydstedt was born on the island of Öland and spent most of her life in her childhood town of Ventlinge. Stora Alvaret on Öland with its barren nature is the landscape her poetry lives in and takes nourishment from. A small, partitioned-off meadow becomes the viewpoint towards life and the world, but also a piece of the reality that is conquered through language. “Shimmer and silver are the words / I first wish to use / to describe the meadow grass in the June wind” are lines from the poem “Försök” (“Attempt”) in Dess kropp av verklighet. “No, I never leave reality, that I have fought to reach word by word, piece by piece”, Anna Rydstedt has said. “Because I have given words to reality I have conquered it into my life, where I have had to struggle a lot with alienation”.

Öland has coloured the poems. Kalmarsund’s blue waters glinting in the distance, chicory by the roadsides, “this brightly blue weed on the fiery brown soil”, it is the clear summer’s sky and the favourite colour of the clothes. Even God walks clad in blue in the child’s imagination, in clean, neat, and unwashed dungarees. Yellow is connected to the sun, burning or life-giving. But mainly, yellow’s emotional tone belongs with the positive attitude and the yellow house in Ventlinge.

Photo from flea market, Mårtenstorget, Lund. Colour photo. Photographer: K.G. Olsson. Lunds Kunsthal, 1992

Flea Market Photo, Mårtenstorget, Lund. Colour photo. Photographer: K.G. Olsson. Lunds Kunsthal, 1992

Anna Rydstedt came to Lund and studied there in order to become a priest. The disappointment in the impossibility of realising this calling, since the clergy was still closed off to women, was expressed in her debut collection Bannlyst prästinna (1953; Banned Priestess). It is a passionate dispute, written with a stronger, more affected voice than later collections. The poet is a priestess who freely gives herself to God “without a degree in exegetics”. The feeling of being chosen that pervades the poems in this collection was transferred to the poetic calling, where a Christian religiosity naturally leavens the language and thinking. And “near-sighted yet fore-sighted”, as Anna Rydstedt puts it, the question in poem after poem is how to live an authentic life, to “be Anna in the world”.

In the 1950s in Lund, Anna Rydstedt found her place in the so-called Lund school. It has been said of Anna Rydstedt and Majken Johansson that they were not alike, nor were they like anyone else, but together they added character to Lund of the 1950s. A scrupulous testing of language, a sharpening of form, they do have in common. “But why should I write villanelles when Göran Printz-Påhlson and Majken Johansson do it so brilliantly?” Anna Rydstedt said. “I had a different rhythm.” This rhythm of her own, thoughtful and discreet in the dialect of Öland, as if searching and listening, is inextricably linked with the words.

“Thereto help me the Words / in my language”, says the last poem in the last collection, which echoes the well known Wallin psalm “Where is the friend that everywhere I seek”. Anna Rydstedt’s language mingles with the words and rhythms of the Bible and the hymn. Many poems achieve the character of prayer, some even of incantation. Mostly the words are there as a self-evident part of the poetic language, lending solemnity to what is everyday and tangible. Anna Rydstedt does not hang Bible quotes like paintings in the halls of poetry, it has been said. But “the words in my language” are words with capital letters, words that in the poem become flesh and reality, this central word for Anna Rydstedt. This means that everyday language is given sacred content, but also that the holy becomes ‘everyday’ and loses its high-flown pathos. The word becomes creative.

Anna Rydstedt has often pointed to Kierkegaard’s and Grundtvig’s influence on her. One winter and five summers as a folk high-school teacher at Grundtvig’s Højskole, in Frederiksborg in Denmark, gave an in-depth connection. Grundtvig’s sacramental view of Christianity with Jesus Christ as the the Word, present in the sacrament’s ‘corporeal’ element, bread, wine, water, lie within all her ‘worldly’ poetry. “If the wafer and the wine can bring me directly into the peace at the heart of Christ”, Anna Rydstedt has said, “then everyday experiences can take me into the mindset where the experience of reality is surrounded by mystery”.

The mysteries of incarnation also offer a means of dealing with life and reality. “In the deeps of depth a sweetness dwells / in the height of heights a lightness lives / and between these we live”, Anna Rydstedt writes in Min punkt. The incarnated word’s perspective is that of the low, the leaves of grass in the orchard, the stones and sparrows in the field. Thus it encompasses a sympathy with the exposed and unsafe.

The collection Genom nålsögat, a title taken from the Bible, contains a greater anxiety than previously, and seems to reflect a serious crisis. The long suite of poems “Soldikt 1982” (Sun Poem 1982), like the collection as a whole, revolves around the search for a sound philosophy of life, a search for, as it is called in the poems, “a tougher peace / in my soul, in my core / in that which is the I, / and the self and the that”.

Throughout the suite of poems, this search is expressed through linguistically strong verbs: “The I thunders against its limits / The sound hits the borders of the I”. Two almost archetypal symbols for the self recur in the work of Anna Rydstedt: the house, and the child.

The house with floor, walls, and basement as a traditional symbol of the I in “Sun Poem 1982” merges with the actual maternal house, the yellow house in Ventlinge. “Begin to win back the I in this unfinished room … the South gable room.” It lends comfort and protection from the scorching sun, but also room for freedom and identity in the large, light room, the parlour:

Seek Anna
Seek ann-other and Anna
and ANNA
Let her emerge from herself,
out of her self’s recesses,
out of her own recesses,
out of all of her soul’s recesses,
out of all her soul’s basement recesses.

My own identity I feel
strongest in the parlour.

With differing attitudes, among them this search for the I, the relationship between mother and daughter is central to the works, not least in the suite of poems “Mamma i världen” (Mother in the World) in Jag var ett barn (1970; I Was a Child), and in the last collection of poems, Kore (1994).

In “Sun Poem 1982” the search for the I, for “IAnna”, is a process of giving birth: “Give birth to my self, the child, this child, myself”. A search for the “The child within” is also found in the dreams of the night, the not-so-unusual woman’s dream of the little child that needs food and care but cannot be found.

While the poems expressly deal with the I, identity and consciousness, they also deal with language. “The Domains of Words” in the poem “Carry the Big Child” are closely connected to the child. This central mother-daughter theme also influences the actual relationship to the biological mother, Elin Helena Viktoria. The naming of the meadow at the farm in Ventlinge, “Elin’s June Meadow” or “Elin’s Winter Meadow”, is a kind of declaration of love for the mother. Contained within the poignant poems from the mother’s illness and death from cancer, a night in October 1965 at Borgholm’s hospital, are childhood memories. The mother’s care for the sick child is now exchanged for the daughter’s care for the dying mother.

The last collection of poems builds on the Greek myth of Kore, the girl taken from her mother, Demeter, and condemned to spend half the year, when the soil is barren, in the underworld as Persephone, the consort of Hades – or Pluto. In Anna Rydstedt’s interpretation Demeter stands in her quilted coat and boots and weeps for her daughter. “Var är mitt Barn – Flickan?", Demeter continually cries in despair. But Demeter, the mother as the symbol of life, herself replies with consolation and hope. “Tålamod, Kore, min flicka”, she says in a telephone call to the underground, and in words often repeated in Anna Rydstedt’s poetry she adds, as if it were an incantation: “It will be well”. The daughter is split between a positive outlook, Kore, and a part where death is alluring. In her fear of “Persephone in me / who wants to remain with the dead” Kore sends a prayer to Demeter: “Pull me across the river / Pull me back up again, O Mother!”

Death is present throughout Anna Rydstedt’s works not just as the mystery of life, but also as a physiological and social reality. The sunny Öland is never idyllic. In the lightest summer “Even the young lambs that will die in September” are grazing, and for the pigs in the butcher’s van on the ferry, Kalmarsund becomes “Styx for the pigs of Öland”. The author moves the borders further into the tabooed regions of death in a balancing act between the high and the low, the concrete and the abstract. Without sentimentality, with a precise, factual language, though with a large – and soft-spoken – commitment, the mother’s death and the grief for her is processed in a number of poems in Jag var ett barn (1970; I Was a Child).

“A light darkness” is an expression that recurs in Anna Rydstedt’s poetry. It reminds of the baroque poetry of the seventeenth century with its oscillation between the feeling of mortality and the paradoxically bright hope, but it also speaks to the essential trust so often found in Anna Rydstedt’s works and which makes life as a ‘human-leaf’ possible. “But you are mid-leap”, are the lines from the mother’s deathbed, “between there, which isn’t here, / and here, which isn’t there”.

In a light darkness
They bloom, lilac, chestnut.
In the light darkness bloom
and shadows of lilac, chestnut.
Or are they real?
It is a summer in the shade of graves.
It is a summer in the shade of churchyard trees.

Anna Rydstedt: “Bird in the World”, Genom nålsögat (1989; Through the Eye in the Needle).

“There is no answer”

“Girls who potter with poetry are plethora at the moment, little lyrical Lucia attendants with neat Christmas tree candles”, is a line from a review, close to Christmas 1959. Busk Rut Jonsson (born 1925), whose first poetry collection, Tuppfjät (1959; Hands-breadth), the article concerned itself with, did not, however, belong with these lyrical ‘Lucia attendants’. She was rather, the reviewer found, a “boisterous person with go, sparkle, and lustre”.

There is a truth in this, namely that there were many women poets in the 1960s. Many publishers produced sequences of lyrical poetry by new young talent and Barbro Dahlin, Barbro Pilkrog, Ruth Halldén, Kerstin Thorék, Filippa Rolf, and Ragna Kellgren received positive reviews. The most important increase, at least as concerns publication of poetry, did not take place until a decade later, when the number of women writers of Swedish language original poetry collections increased from 18.5 per cent to twice that.

“It shines in the shadow of the city of learning / a keyhole where you sometimes entered / and jubilant lilacs dewed / against young and partially quite untouched skin”, Filippa Rolf writes in 1950s Lund. Her love poems, as in Ungdom (1959; Youth), are central, and breathe wanting and waiting. The disciplined form of the early poems contrasts with the strong streaks of anxiety and suffering, but in the fourth collection, Dikter (1963, Poems), angst breaks out. The voice is often inflamed, and the lesbian love has become stuffy, mutuality impossible.

Voices are now raised demanding a break from the word-intoxication of the 1950s, from these low-voiced and discreet poems. The poem must be important, they say, touching on the social and political reality. ”By the day’s toil sedated / I board the commuter coach”, Busk Rut Jonsson writes with effectful tension between mundane and poetic language. In many collections, questions of human existence as endurable in a divided life are thematised, as is artificiality, the loss of connection, and inner desolation, but also thematised is the longing for an encompassing whole. Underneath the feeling of spiritual suffocation and restlessness, there is a longing to be able to rest, to quote Ruth Halidén, “at the uttermost edge of the firmament”.

Counter forces are sought in the commonalty with God, with or without mysticism, or in an experience of love. But in vain. God is absent and silent. “There is no answer / And the thought that it is decomposing bodies / that makes the landscape hilly / comes and goes”, Ruth Halidén writes in her second collection Landskap i gult och guld (1963; Landscape in Yellow and Gold). With significant frequency, the fellowship of love is described as agonising and an impossibility.

The language of poetry still seems to offer an alternative. When Barbro Pilkrog (born 1937) in her first collection of poems, Tendens mot ljuset (1963; Tending Towards The Light), speaks of words saved “under the ashes of phrases”, it is with great faith in the ability of poetry to offer not just beauty, but resistance.

In her first collection, Tendens mot ljuset (1963; Tending towards Light), Barbro Pilkrog lets a number of poems be “drawings in narrow frames”. In one she gives a swift kiss to a man, sitting among others in a library “with a set distance between each person”. A specific situation loaded with almost existential dread: “solitude pierces him / like the needle pinning the insect”. A large white spider emerges as a symbol of fear, the man gets up, his briefcase hits the floor and “the face turns up blind / as leaves turned by wind”.

A linguistic intensity and an ironic playfulness can be seen in Barbro Dahlin (born 1940) to form a sort of defence against the underlying experience of isolation and anxiety. But at the same time, a significantly more noticeable distrust towards poetry as language can be found. Beauty is not the answer to human longing for freedom. Poetry simply does not work, and many of the early women poets of the 1960s are silenced; most of them for good, others to return in the mid-1970s.

In her collections of poetry from the 1970s, Barbro Dahlin expands the motif of captivity to incorporate humankind’s relationship with a society that has in many ways created her solitude as well as her estrangement. Three different actual and enclosed environments are successively deepened into universality. In Dikter från Carlslund (1975; Poems from Carlslund), we are invited to a home for retarded children, where the author worked as a child psychiatrist. One year later, Sista tåget genom Sverige (1976, Last Train through Sweden) takes us on a journey through an abandoned and once more overgrown country. In the collection from 1979, Att bygga en livbana (To Build a Path Through Life), the poems are primarily located on Öland, the “land separated”, not like Carlslund by a wall, but surrounded by water.

“To split open the word drawer”

Åsa Wohlin (born 1931) like Anna Rydstedt and Majken Johansson belonged to the so-called Lund school of the 1950s, and she was with Strofer från en sovstad (1957; Songs from a Dormitory Town) the last to debut in this circle of poets. Irony and diminishment as a strategy and a possible means of standing life were trademarks for many of the Lund school members, and are likewise found in Åsa Wohlin. In the lines “Lovely to be anxious at the height where the wind / screams like a newborn baby and / age falls / like rain through heaven’s net”, the hard-to-bear emotions are displaced to outside the I, which thus paradoxically both strengthens and reduces them to an ironic grin.

The tendency of many women writers of the time to question the possibility of love as a means of transcendental fellowship is clearly seen in Åsa Wohlin. The debut collection from 1957 has a number of love poems under the heading “Here fled a smoke …” and love is described as a fleeting wisp of smoke. “His heart was like space / and I was small like a sun and froze”, she writes. His heart was like the stone, turned into jewellery, to a tombstone and finally to “a millstone around one’s neck”.

The disappointment in impossible love is even more caustically depicted in the collection Mellan ja och nej (1965; Between Yes and No). “You want your hole in peace / You have it”, is the brief text of a poem, ironically titled “A love poem”. In this collection there is even a distrust of the ability of poetic language to foster communication, which gives the collection an almost anti-poetic character. The languages of the mundane and the abstract are obstacles between people rather than aids to unite them, and poetry as the possibility of real speech does not seem to offer an alternative. Crushed, fragmented, the poem seems to abolish itself. Perhaps that is the reason why Åsa Wohlin falls silent as a poet.

Ingrid Arvidsson and Åsa Wohlin are each in their own way representative of the women poets of the 1960s with their central questions of identity and language. They also mirror the tendencies of the decade in their production rhythm. Ingrid Arvidsson’s first collection came as early as 1951 and she has, besides criticism of film and literature, a relatively rich lyrical production until her latest collection in 1992. Like many other writers, she falls silent as a poet by the mid-1960s, but returns ten years later. Åsa Wohlin, on the other hand, has a very sparse production, which nevertheless attracted a lot of attention. Two collections of poems, 1957 and 1965, are followed by silence in the world of poetry.

“A Radiant Path Towards the Uttermost Dark”

“A narrow strip / quiet lives / was her country”, Ingrid Arvidsson (born 1919) writes about the artist Anna Ancher in her latest collection, En glimmande vägg (1992; A Radiant Path). Just as the Skagen painter had her own ”land encompassed in light / between surrounding seas” as her artistic motif, Ingrid Arvidsson seeks in the language of poetry to capture a “narrow strip / quiet lives”, or as it is expressed in the final poem of the collection: “A narrow foothold between the deeps. / Narrow and strong”. The chaotic darkness is often close in this work, but does not exist ‘outside the frame’, existing rather inside it where it lends the poems a fertile tension.

The plains of Scania with space and freedom around the childhood town is significant in Ingrid Arvidsson’s work. This also contains a tension between life and death, idyll and threat. Over the plain is heard the howling of the watchdogs as well as the song of larks – “Through the heavenly jubilant choirs / rings a subterranean bark” – and through the finest high summer’s day, an ice-cold breath of air like,“a Siberian draught along the floor”.

One of the important symbols is the tree. “Trees in the North”, the poem that introduces Livstecken (1964; Signs of Life), testifies to the rebellious life expressed every spring in verdure and blooming. They gain “green wings” as if to fly away in freedom, they invite in “birds to learn from them”.

But always in vain. Always in chains.
Always certain of the light sough
certainty that seethes through the saw
that when once the axe loosens the bands
they will not soar but fall
heavily, with broken feathers and extinguished song.

Thus the trees in this authorship evince the presence of death in the midst of life and the longing for freedom in spite of the needed submission to necessity. At the same time, the obstinate ‘yet’, a central word in Ingrid Arvidsson’s poetry, can be heard in the soughing of the tree tops.

Like the “black branches of naked oaks” in a poem are seen like a drawing in Indian ink against the pale gray sky, the words become significant signs. I know, says the poetic I in “The Old Letters”, that “everywhere love exists hidden in the world / and words await being woken from their harbour”. And like fishing boys with their swift bird bodies in Livstecken dive for silver coins and snatch their booty “up from the seas of forgetfulness”, thus the poet dives for words, likewise through “ink blue deeps”, and saves them from the forgetfulness and brings them into life.

Valborg Lindgärde

Translated by Marthe Seiden