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Focus on Language

Written by: Anne-Marie Mai |

In the mid-1980s something new and rather unexpected took place in the work of a writer who throughout the 1970s and 1980s had focused on socially critical and language-conscious poetry. The writer was Marianne Larsen (born 1951), who launched a major series of novels about a girl from Kalundborg called Bodil and her turbulent life from the 1950s to the 1980s. Gæt hvem der elsker dig (1989; Guess Who Loves You), Fremmed lykke (1990; Foreign Happiness), and Galleri Virkeligheden (1992; The Reality Gallery) make up a realistically constructed story of formation, in which the female main character’s life story provides a framework for motifs of modernisation, art, love, liberation, and provincial and big city life in post-World War II Denmark.

Pettersson, Lena (born 1950): Utsikt-insyn, 1977.

For Marianne Larsen, the novels became an artistic opportunity to bring together and play out the motifs that have been so important in her poetry – now in a free narrative form. However, the novel project and its main character Bodil run into problems, especially in the last part. The epic tale, which alternates between characters and settings that revolve around Bodil, moves away from the female main character. In more and more sections, the point of view of the narrative becomes that of a picturesque and modernist outsider, Bodil’s mentally ill cousin Berndt who is on the run from family and institutions. The somewhat cautious, shy, and timid Bodil apparently cannot serve as a fulcrum for the criticism at the heart of the novel.

“One morning when Bodil woke up, it was all pointing at her. Every object in the bedroom, Edith and Ingvar’s double bed, the giant wardrobe, the dressing table, especially the mirror, her own hands and eyes, her hair and Edith’s clatter in the kitchen. It was all pointing at her. The fruit trees gathered around the window. She pointed at it all, was capable of doing so. With words.”

This is the introduction to the novel series about Bodil from Kalundborg, which carefully and delicately ushers in the themes of language and identity that recur throughout the series.

In Galleri Virkeligheden Bodil finds herself in an artistic and existential crisis. A large-scale decoration commissioned for a modern conference centre is causing her a great deal of grief, and her love life is more complicated and unresolved than ever. Bodil’s old boyfriend Gusta proclaims that he intends to marry someone else but that he at some point wants to have a baby with Bodil, and the love of her life, Emmy, also receives a visit from an old flame, kind cousin Berndt, who brings with him a child whom he has learned he is the father of.

Typical of the period, all these crisscrossing relationships are anything but simple, and yet it is simplicity that ultimately releases Bodil and the novel. Bodil chooses to present to the ambitious municipal art committee behind the conference centre a series of giant white wall surfaces, a so-called vision in white, only adorned with a small bit of calligraphy – a red and black heart, a violet trumpet, and the words: What is a life without loving breath? It is a simple, yet composite poetic signature that Bodil leaves on her life and her art. The dual heart is her own icon, the trumpet refers to the visionary and loving Berndt, and the words are a so-called mourning poem for Bodil’s first great love, Gusta. The small calligraphy on the large white wall is a provocation. Most people think the heart cannot actually be considered a decoration of the centre. The unveiling thus becomes a genuine happening, and Bodil and her girlfriends leave the fancy reception and the fine people of the local community with the conviction that the “revelation” was a success in every way. At home, new surprises and revelations await, however: Berndt and his son are literally hiding from the family and the authorities in Emmy’s and Bodil’s bed. However, the both symbolic and concrete discovery of the two fugitives’ best hiding place instils in Bodil a light and easy feeling that the questions can now finally be asked simply and directly: “‘Emmy, Berndt, Gusta, Nadia, Anton … what are we going to do with ourselves?’ The question circled around in her head, not heavy and disconsolate but easy and illuminating. ‘We belong together. What should we do!’”

In one fell swoop, the lyrical transformation of the difficult existential question “What are we going to do with ourselves?” into the simple, encouraging statement “What should we do!” both resolves and releases Bodil from the artistic and the psychological conflicts she has found herself in, because it is now possible to speak of solutions and modes of escape on the undeniable foundation that “We belong together”. And this lyrical transformation of language and life demonstrates both the essence and the method of Marianne Larsen’s writing. If there are modes of escape to be found from the deep-felt longing and the wild hopes, they can be found in poetry, in simplicity, and in a sense of community. This is not a naïve faith in poetry, solidarity, or the senses, but a critical understanding that questions and answers can be unexpected and surprisingly liberating when you listen to what your heart is telling you, that is, to a passion that can be expressed in language if we dare to let go of the emotional and linguistic clichés.

Marianne Larsen’s grand series of novels, which seems on the verge of tipping and losing contact with its female main character, manages to succeed because it actually avoids turning Bodil into a fully-formed central figure with a more-or-less all-inclusive programme of liberation. Instead, it allows her stumbling through life and somewhat clumsy and meek insistence on her own longing and passion to stir up important social, psychological, and artistic questions. Formation and identity are associated with linguistic receptivity and imagination. That is why the novel presents neither a happy nor a sad ending to a life story, neither an insistence on nor a denial of a programme of liberation. Rather, it is a lyrical transformation, a loving respiration that suddenly provides a new outlook on life.

Direct Poetry

With the epic series about Bodil, Marianne Larsen places herself in the company of Kirsten Thorup, who nearly ten years earlier, in 1977, began her series of novels about Lille Jonna (Little Jonna).The two writers have a common background in the linguistically conscious and experimental poetry of the 1960s, which Kirsten Thorup influenced with her first poetry and text collections from 1967 and 1969, while Marianne Larsen’s first poems were published in the poetry journal Hvedekorn in 1969.

Koncentrationer (Concentrations) is the title of Marianne Larsen’s debut collection from 1971, which featured concentrated poetry that explores language and psyche, connecting words in unexpected patterns and layouts. The poem becomes an area in which the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ are discovered and investigated in surprising colours and metaphors, or captured in blind labyrinths of words. “… find green and red colours / melt them into crimson crowns” is the programmatic statement in one of the earliest poems, in which the ‘I’ is often just barely coming into view or disappearing entirely in a sense of alienation, dreams, or fear. The vision in white, which Bodil is preoccupied with in the novel series, is already perceptible in 21 digte (21 Poems) from 1972:

soft floatwords
the snowdrops are silentBBBfrom happiness I
don’t recognise them
longing for strange meat
to be human
is off the mark

Carmen Curlers. Photo. Year unknown. Kalundborg Omegnsmuseum

“A grieving, nervous youth”, as one of her early poems says, seeks development and expression in the poetic universe, attempting to push the limits of language and of the world. The simple and direct is what occupies the author, practiced here as a concentration that insists on attaching itself to every word and capturing the essence of experiences and emotions.

It appears that the pills
we make especially for women
give our dogs cancer
circulatory disorders blindness
and problems with the brain
at the same time
it appears
that the pills we make
especially for women
when ingested
according to our prescriptions
give our society benefits
in the form of increased control
over half of our workforce
as doctors we are pleased
to be able
with scientific certainty
to conclude
that women are not dogs
this they have simply never
women have to function in society
dogs do not
this they have simply never
had to do
according to our science
therefore react
from our women
everything and everyone can therefore without worry
carry on as before
with our pills

Marianne Larsen: Det må siges enkelt (1976; It Must Be Put Simply).

However, in the works of Marianne Larsen, shifting the limits of world and language is also understood as a political task. The simplicity now unfolds in an accessible and lucid poetry that seeks to expose power and manipulation. The language of poetry can call attention to oppression in a new media and information society that always manifests itself through language by rendering invisible and concealing people’s experiences and passions. While much of the political “use” literature of the 1970s is linguistically ultra-conservative and altogether tone-deaf, Marianne Larsen writes poems that ask biting and lyrically constructive political and gender-political questions. A critical awareness of language, society, and gender, and the hope of a different life underpins verse like the following from “vi ser på hinanden” (we see each other) in Hinandens kræfter (1980; Each Other’s Powers):

we see each other
hold each other
to recall a strong emotion
a new outburst
of well-being
to fill the hole in language
where there were no words before

Even though the critique of capitalism during this period could at times weaken Marianne Larsen’s verse, there was for the most part a straightforward sensuality and poetry in her work that was not to be subdued by or subsumed under categorical political declarations. However, the political and gender-critical consciousness was not forgotten later in her writing career as the times changed, and Marianne Larsen herself played through and thematised the period in which she wrote in the major works about Bodil, who began her adult life as a mythical woman at the emergence of the artists’ collective Kærlighedsholdet (The Love Team), continued as a language researcher, and ended up switching to minimalistic visual art.

Minimalistic word patterns and shards of imagery have always been present in Marianne Larsen’s work, gaining ground in all their fragile strength, especially in one of her more recent collections, Skyggekalender (1994; Shadow Calendar):


what we do with our words
we should do with ourselves

The work of Marianne Larsen contributes to an aesthetic offensive and experimental trend in literature that focuses on language. Both male and female writers assert themselves in this trend, which in various forms influences the literature of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark from the 1960s up to 1990. It is characteristic that women writers in a very pronounced way help shape and profile this new literary departure. A classic and scholarly modernism is followed by a literature that views art as a critical and alternative practice rather than as a corrective to the established. The women authors thematise all relationships between language, gender, and politics, forming the origin of political collages such as those of the Swedish writer Sonja Åkesson, rhetorical role-playing such as in the texts of Eldrid Lunden from Norway, biting satire and revealing drama as in the works of Kristina Lugn, and grand narrative novels like those produced by Kirsten Thorup and Marianne Larsen.

Marianne Larsen has published text dialogues in collaboration with the slightly younger 80s artist Pernille Tønnesen. In 1993 they produced Via Media, which features alternating unsigned text pieces by the two authors. One of them reads:

“I don’t know”. At the moment it’s the smallest things I’m after. Dreams no bigger than the head of a pin. Wings so far away that they are barely visible. Sundials the size of grains of sand and a spot that could just as easily be me in the distance. Tiny, little things. Pine needles on photos beneath the horizons. Parts per million of yesterday’s dewdrops on the windows. The light from miniature bonfires, burning tips of clock hands in the night.

Anne-Marie Mai

Language and Gender – Poetry between Aesthetics and Politics

In 1986 the Norwegian literary journal Vinduet invited twenty-four authors to present “the best book” in Norwegian post-war literature. Seven of the authors were women, and of them, two chose a book by a woman writer. They were Liv Lundberg and Hanne Aga, and they both choose a book by Eldrid Lunden – Gjenkjennelsen (1982; Recognition) and Hard, mjuk (1976; Hard, Soft) respectively. “Eldrid Lunden’s poetry is language that has become body, and thereby recognisable to many desperately languageless people, to everyone who sensed their own bodily sources, but who were painfully lost in the linguistic scarcity of language,” writes Hanne Aga in her contribution.

Folmoe, Trine: Musikanter. Oil on canvas

Liv Lundberg (born 1944) made her debut in 1979 with Den klare tonen (The Clear Note), a typical book of the time, which highlights poetry as “a clear note” in the midst of all manner of linguistic noise. Lundberg’s work features decidedly feminist and other political poems alongside more “central-lyrical” texts. In the collection of poems Språkets hus har åpninger (1982; The House of Language has Openings), she develops her thoughts on language and body, language and reality, in a series of texts. Like Eldrid Lunden, she regards language as being more than just a means of reflecting reality. Language can do more than recreate something that is already known or transform commonplace things into something original. Language is reality: “I create the world / when I talk to my neighbour / and when I write a poem”. Language is the natural starting point for investigating the world. As organisms in the universe, our linguistic consciousness contains mysterious depths, and in constant transformation, development, and limitlessness lie the opportunities:

But language must also have openings
and paths to the nameless

which is an organic energy
that we carry in us and are carried by

a uterus and an ecosystem
pictures waves and particles

an invisible dance a pattern
divides creates and disappears

In addition to being a statement about language, the poem demonstrates – especially through rhythm and tone – that poetry is a life pulse. Life and poetry are, yet again, seen as the opposite of alienating, cold structures in the poem “Fortsette må vi” (On we must go) from her debut collection Den klare tonen: “What happens / between and behind the structures? / The best we can do / is to understand the net / over our lives”. This duality becomes a basic figure in Liv Lundberg’s entire oeuvre, in the form of contrasts like hard/soft and life/death, which are reflected in the titles of her works Hjerterspeil (1981; Heart-Mirror), Steindrømt (1985; Dreamt in Stone), and Tveegget engel (1988; Double-edged Angel).

In Liv Lundberg’s minimalist poetry collection Steindrømt, the contrasts between hard and soft become short, intense poems that vibrate between sharp points and gentle rhythms:

in flourishing cities
fountains of words
cry like lovers
the narrow bridges
set with stones

Over time, Liv Lundberg’s poetry concentrates more on pain and loss, often metaphorically symbolised by holes, landslides, and white flames. Eroticism, pain, and death are productive motifs in a poetic landscape with allusions to the English poet Sylvia Plath, while recalling the wound and angel metaphors of the Danish poet Pia Tafdrup.

In the novel Vinterens hjerte (1990; Winter’s Heart), which juxtaposes daily life in Latin America with daily life in Norway, angels appear in poems that “stand on guard” to protect the continued storyline. The fragmented narrative thematises violence, terror, abuse of women, giving birth in a meaningless world, and the act of taking life. However, the book is also about the physical pleasure that only a free and independent individual has the strength to give in to. In this book, Liv Lundberg thus thematises the delicate balance between pain and pleasure, and the fact that nothing is too intimate to mention appears to shine through as a kind of female poetics.

Hanne Aga’s (born 1947) poem “Forsvar håpet” (1983; Defend Hope) is a manifesto for what is worth fighting for in this world and from where we can find the strength for this struggle. Despite oppression, poverty, and war, despite screams and pain: There is hope!

Hope in your hands
which you pass over your child
The hope in the reindeer lichen and the broken machine
The hope in the leafy trees in spring
The hope in the empty torture chambers
The hope in the writing on the wall

Håpet i hendene dine
som du breier over ungen din
Håpet i reinmosen og den knuste maskinen
Håpet i lauvtrea om våren
Håpet i dei tomme tortursalane
Håpet i skrifta på veggen

Language and poetry are positive forces and working with them can be beneficial. After three poetry collections, Hanne Aga finally had her breakthrough with the lyrical novel Bror sorg (1986; Brother Sorrow). The book is a condensed story about love between a brother and a sister that ends in suffering and death. The texts represent the sister’s flashbacks from the asylum to which she was committed after her brother’s death and after giving birth to a child. The book’s theme of forbidden love is formulated with care and delicacy. It is the surroundings that are damaging.

Bror sorg shows how the literary world within which the two siblings live – the Bible and hymns – can become an authoritarian language with destructive power over the mind. The young people’s thoughts are not permitted to be played out in a creative linguistic space: “She sits there looking at him, is a wordless body. As soon as she attempts a thought, the words disappear.” The powerful and conflicting emotions in Bror sorg are communicated in a tight poetic form that leaves more room for a number of associations and hidden connections than would be the case in more direct communication.

Utan bevis (1991; Without Proof) is also a lyrical novel. The work comprises short texts with a narrative as the basic structure. The thematic core is the loss of a child, and the texts circle around sorrow and loss without clarifying any real underlying cause: “How can I describe the child? I don’t know it. They took it away – so quickly. Between two trees a gull is wandering around looking for food.” After this, the mother’s thoughts shift, verging on meaninglessness: her despair is so deeply rooted that madness seems imminent. The goal is still to handle life in the tension between body and language.

In her poetry collections, Hanne Aga has cultivated the minimalist form that Eldrid Lunden created with her work in the 1970s. Consequently, the individual poems are often very short and compact in language, while the poems in a collection, taken together, have a mutual connection that creates an inner unity in the work. The collection Gå i skuggen / Vent på vinden (1993; Walk in Shadow / Wait for Wind) is brief, bordering on silence. But because the poems are part of a context – and have her entire body of work as a resonance chamber – they act like small, vibrating points of meaning.

Commitment in a Different Language

Criticism of language comes to expression in the works of Sissel Solbjørg Bjugn (born 1947) and Inger Elisabeth Hansen (born 1950) as a more experimental approach towards the literary form. Both have found their poetic language through radical explorations of entirely different written forms beyond Scandinavian literature. Their sources of inspiration are many and heterogeneous: French and Latin American surrealism, Dadaism, nonsense poetry, documentary literature, poetry of struggle. The two poets also share a political point of departure for their writing that is associated with marginal groups – seen from a Norwegian perspective. Sissel Solbjørg Bjugn finds her motifs in the fishing and mining communities of Northern Norway while Inger Elisabeth Hansen, who studied Latin American literature, often shows a “third-world perspective”.

Sissel Solbjørg Bjugn debuted in 1978 with Den første avisa på Lofotveggen (The First Newspaper on the Lofot Wall), a collection of poems and flash fiction. The work is experimental in its mixture of genres and in the combination of texts and illustrations created by the author herself.

Spenn beltet kring livet og hald lampa tend! (1981; Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit!) is “A book about the MINE” which, as the subtitle suggests, has formal and thematic similarities with Sara Lidman’s book Gruva (Mine). Under the motto that the work itself must be given a voice (a reference to the sociologist Walter Benjamin), the work is composed as a mixture of fictitious and documentary texts centred around a specific mine and its workers. Thus, the texts are oriented to the greatest possible extent towards a material aspect: the geographic location of the mine, the names of the workers, the tools and modes of transport they use, the miners’ terminology, interviews with and photos of a wounded worker, and so on. On the other hand, there is also focus on the book’s own textuality, its own concrete language, matter-of-fact, recording, and without photos or loaded words. One important exception is the title, which is part of a Bible quote (Lukas 12, 35-36) that is reproduced in the book and that allows a “light” of meaning to shine on the highly concrete reality that the text cultivates in its purest form.

One could say that Sissel Solbjørg Bjugn continues along these lines in Tornekysset (1992; Thorn Kiss), a collection of poetry with motifs from a convent in which her own lively language enters into a dialogue with – as well as rewrites – texts from the Bible. The contrast between high-brow language and low-brow language, between the universal and the private, is eliminated entirely in these texts:

Will it be long, Holy Ghost
before you proclaim me cured? May the manuscript
I have lying strewn across the floor
become a different book, a highly infectious book
a book that attacks all readers
with the virus of Christ! Amen!

Tar det lang tid, Heilagande
før du friskmelder meg? Måtte manuset
eg har liggande strødd utover golvet bli
til ei annieis bok, ei svært smittsam bok
ei bok som angrip alle lesarar
med kristusvirus! Amen!

Sissel Solbjørg Bjugn plays with language – with all language – and she exposes her own ‘I’ – “Sissel” – in a way that few others do in Norwegian literature. She breaks down borders and hierarchies, and insists that mixing the refined and unrefined can produce poetry.

Inger Elisabeth Hansen finds inspiration in Latin American literature, and her perspective is consistently international. Her first book, det er NÅ det er LIKE FØR (1976; it is NOW it is ANY MINUTE NOW), has a revolutionary passion on behalf of the starving and oppressed people in the third world:

Soon you will see your children
grow thin from fear and hate
One day they may turn towards you
Let’s call it progress, comrade

From this direct and open expression, which characterised the political poetry of the 1970s, Inger Elisabeth Hansen’s language has grown more and more revisionist. Her more recent poetry has elements of surrealism and fantasy, and her commitment is channelled into a more intellectual and imaginative form.

Cover of Inger Elisabeth Hansen: Dobbel dame mot løvenes ørken. Drawing by Ellen Rognstad.

Hablabaror. Munnenes bok (1983; Hablabaror. The Book of Mouths) is an interesting attempt to rewrite the story of Creation – and not without echoes of Inger Christensen’s systemic work with “the organism of language”. With its ambitions to produce a feminine version of creation, the book is one of the obvious contributions to this “genre”, which was later given distinctive form by Gro Dahle (born 1962) in Apens evangelium (1989; The Gospel of the Ape).

“I hverandre, uten noen – en skapelse” (In Each Other, Without Anyone – A Story of Creation) is the name of the first part of Hablabaror. Munnenes bok, (1983; Hablabaror. The Book of Mouths), in which the following excerpt gives a good impression of both the metonymic technique that characterises the poems and the humoristic undertone of the entire project:

then I began to rub and I
myself into everything with my greedy
spark to make it
open up and shine
BI said
give me
BAnd I rubbed
myself into heaven
to make it open up

Dobbel dame mot løvenes ørken (1986; Double Lady Against the Lions’ Desert) is yet another radical experiment. It makes a break with the Norwegian norms for what is considered poetry and surprises the reader who dares to enter Inger Elisabeth Hansen’s desert. The images cannot be “translated”, but constantly take on new meaning. Words for vastly different areas of meaning are juxtaposed apparently at random, based more on a principle of disruption and contrast than of metaphorical similarity. Unusual forms of animation are often used, and the apparently concise and aphorism-like wording is fundamentally enigmatic: “You tame your destruction. / It costs you a silence”.

The poetry collection can be read as a critique of a petrified society, a society in which military power, media power, and monetary power have clogged the pores of the skin, weakening sensitivity and crippling relationships between people. The motherly is a contradiction to this, for example in “Den høye og den lave mor” (The High and the Low Mother):

A holy mother breast holds the sky up.
This mountain everyone has climbed
and forgotten. Even the Lord sleeps
on his throne of milk.
[…] I remember the Lord as he was created.
The word was with me before him.

The style in Dobbel dame mot løvenes ørken is rediscovered in Inger Elisabeth Hansen’s fifth collection of poetry, I rosen (1993; In the Rose), which is, however, more uniformly composed of motifs from acts of war in Bosnia, while at the same time contrasting and expanding this circle of motifs with references to the literary heritage of our culture: Greek mythology and stories from the Bible. In this way, the book asks the age-old questions about why people kill their own children (as Cronus and Hercules did), and why women are free game (like the raped women in Bosnia and Bathsheba as she bathed). Inger Elisabeth Hansen unites a poetic and a political stance in her texts, which are not satisfied with asking why the world is the way it is, but also show how language and stories have influenced our understanding of the world. With her “anti-Norwegian” approach, she has challenged Norwegian narrow-mindedness not only by drawing “the world” into Norwegian poetry, but also by placing Norwegian culture in an international perspective.

Unni Langås

Kristina Lugn – Voice of the Vulnerable

Kristina Lugn (born 1948) made her debut as a poet in 1972 with the collection Om jag inte (If I Don’t) and has since been very productive. She has published several poetry collections and her plays have been staged at the Royal Dramatic Theatre (Dramaten) and on radio and TV. She has also written rock poetry, essays, and literary criticism.

With the poetry collection Bekantskap önskas med äldre bildad herre (1983; Seeking Acquaintance with Cultivated Elderly Gentleman), Kristina Lugn’s name began to appear on both radio and TV as well as in popular weekly magazines. In this media storm, attention was aimed not only at her poetry but at her private life as well. Like other women writers, she was identified with her literary characters. According to Kristina Lugn, her private life has actually stood in the way of the interest in her texts. The subtitle to the poetry collection Hundstunden (1989; The Hour of the Dog) – kvinnlig bekännelselyrik (Female Confessional Verse) – can therefore be interpreted as biting satire.

Nyström, Helmtrud (born 1939): Uteslutande privat, 1972.

Kristina Lugn’s great popularity stems from the fact that it is easy to identify with her texts. They are characterised by a dramatic staging that offers both suspense and opportunities for relating to the characters. The fact that the texts are built up from fragments of a contemporary everyday language further contributes to capturing the interest of the reader. Viewing her poetry as confessions is misleading for several reasons. By focusing on the interaction – or lack of interaction – between people, she not only sheds light on individual and psychological conditions, but she also focuses sharply on the eternal and existential questions of human existence. Kristina Lugn’s poetry is characterised by role-playing. The poetic speaker is seldom permitted to “be herself”, but is forced to take on different roles. This role-playing elucidates the anguish of alienation on an individual as well as a societal level. The alienation of the characters is emphasised by placing them as strangers in their surroundings and in relation to the language that they use to try to grasp these surroundings. Being on the outside becomes for them the cause of the jealous fantasies they have of the lives of others. With satire, Kristina Lugn communicates their struggle to gain access to “normal” life connections. The question ‘Who am I?’ is always present between the lines when her alienated characters speak: “I feel like a letter. Yes. I feel like a letter that has been addressed to myself. And that I haven’t had the guts to open yet”, exclaims the female main character in the play Titta det blöder (1987; Look, It Bleeds).

When Kristina Lugn writes, she speaks the language of the lonely and the abandoned. It is a language filled with a special kind of irony.

Kristina Lugn’s irony is based on the fact that the poetic characters are not ambiguous and humoristic in a conscious or intentional way: they simply cannot find the right words. Instead they end up using words that come very close to the meaning they are looking for in order to make themselves understood. They often use clichés and expressions from the language of advertising, from the bureaucratic language of the public authorities, from some area of popular science, etc. They can be so foreign that they are not even found in the conventional community of language. Thus, Kristina Lugn’s writing is filled with the most unexpected collocations and associations. It is true that her writing deals with loneliness, but also with the importance of language for human existence.

From Little Girl to Big Girl

Kristina Lugn has never affiliated herself with specific women’s political groups. And yet, there is still a sense of indignation and women’s solidarity in her poetry, for it is the woman’s perspective that dominates her literary universe. However, women’s issues will never be the most important topic for Kristina Lugn. They come to light more as a result of her focus on individuals who are marginalised and oppressed in our culture.

Kristina Lugn’s works are set within the walls of folkhemmet, the Swedish welfare state: in the hopelessness of the suburban flat, at a public institution, in a department store, etc. Her texts often have a female main character – the little girl who is let down by her parents; the young or the mature woman whose identity is threatened by society’s expectations as expressed in fixed gender roles and models. The female main character always feels let down and abandoned. In the poetry collection Hundstunden. Kvinnlig bekännelselyrik the sense of abandonment is very strong. In the final poem, the loneliness is so definitive that the poetic speaker feels like she is dead:

Now I am
no one’s little girl anymore.
So now I never have to
feel abandoned anymore.
When you are dead
you are truly dead
and don’t care how sad you were
when you walked around here on earth
and looked stupid.

Nu är jag
ingens lilla flicka längre.
Så nu behöver jag aldrig
känna mig overgiven mer.
När man är död
är man sannerligen död
och skiter i hur ledsen man var
medan man gick omkring här på jorden
och såg dum ut.

Poetic Method

Kristina Lugn’s poetic method is based on a kind of analogous relationship in which the poetic speaker’s inner chaos creates an elaborate linguistic disorder. Clichés and sentences from the world of advertising, from polished journalistic texts, or quotes from well-known literary works constantly break down the syntax in an otherwise everyday language. These disparate modes of expression represent different ways of viewing the world. The clashes that occur between the different ideologies have a polarising effect, juxtaposing them. In this way absurd elements are added to the texts, which alternate in expression between the comic and the gruesome or aggressive. This method creates lost characters who cling to phrases in an effort to combat or hide their deficiencies, powerlessness, emptiness, or chaos. One could say that Kristina Lugn consciously subjects her language to disruptions that reflect the chaotic inner workings of the poetic speaker. These disruptions are not only introduced on the syntactic level. The author also breaks with the conventional links between objects and their customary names. The poetic speaker often delivers lists of disparate and contradictory concepts that do not normally belong together, as in this poem from Döda honom! (1978; Kill Him!):

A lake
a summer cottage
a small Baroque ensemble
a duck quack quack a cow moo moo
a little sister
jumped in the water
and it burned
and I know not
why the mothers forgot
to teach me
to spell my name.

En insjö
en sommarstuga
en liten barockensemble
en anka kvack kvack en kossa mu mu
en liten syster
sprang ut i vattnet
och det brann
och jag vet inte
varför mödrarna glömde
att lära mej
att stava till mitt namn.

The ostensibly disconnected items from this poem are typical for Kristina Lugn’s poetry, which force the reader into a world that is difficult to understand. She allows the meanings of words to influence each other ceaselessly and according to a set pattern.

In the battle for language and the associated confirmation of self lies a threat that triggers a very powerful sense of aggression in Kristina Lugn’s verse. It is not only the disorganised world that threatens the speaker with lethal force. The organised world does so as well. Kristina Lugn attributes to this world the possession of society’s dominating power. The characters in her texts seek access to this world in search of acceptance and confirmation. However, access to this world costs them their own identity. This path, too, leads to death.

A Struggle for Life and Death

Death threatens the vulnerable people in Kristina Lugn’s world, which is clearly evident even in her earliest poems.

However, in the poetry collections Om ni hör ett skott … (1979; If You Hear a Shot …) and Percy Wennerfors (1982), Kristina Lugn does not give her characters many other options. The ominous title of Om ni hör ett skott … is amplified over time through the subsequent words: “it isn’t dangerous”. The main character Camilla is a suburban housewife married to Kurt. Camilla’s father is absent; it is implied that he is dead. The mother is present, but tragically in collusion with Kurt. Camilla’s split personality is illustrated by, among other things, the alternating use of ‘I’ and ‘she’ in the various roles she performs: the child, the lover, and the housewife.

The language she uses suggests that she sees herself through the eyes of others, and tries to form herself to please them. Her language is influenced by their language: the words that are put into her mouth are littered with drivel and clichés from other people’s modes of expression. These lines contain assessments and evaluations implying ways of viewing the world and that are not hers, and rather represent the world’s view of her, and her attempts to codify them. Om ni hör ett skott … features an absent father and a destructive mother. This psychological theme is also very clear in Percy Wennerfors. The main character’s (“a horrible little girl”) longing for the father remains the source of fantasies and creates myths about the father figure. The mother’s failures threaten the child’s life.


In the genre of drama, Kristina Lugn’s poetic method and basic theme is even more sharply defined. The scenes are interiors from various social institutions, such as a hospital, a retirement home, or an association. The principal members of the cast are a man and a woman who have what would normally be referred to as a love relationship.

In her later plays, the relationship between children and parents plays an increasingly central role in which the children – significantly – are relegated to the background.

Baby: “… Mum says that Aunt Blomma is soft in the head. Uneducated. It’s odd that my mother has left me with a stupid and uneducated person. I think maybe I should call my mother …

How dare you leave me here? I’m the best you have! If I was the best I had, I would never leave me with such a person. I wouldn’t, I tell you. Especially not now, when I am so little …”

Kristina Lugn: Tant Blomma (1993; Aunt Blumma)

Kristina Lugn’s version of a love relationship always comes with a special type of complication which recurs in play after play and which leads to the death of the female main character. The character who guides the plot to this end is a man, but also a lover or a rival who heartlessly lets the female main character down.

This plot structure is played out in När det utbröt panik i det kollektivet omedvetna (1986; When Panic Broke Out in the Collective Unconscious). The title refers to Jung’s terminology about humanity’s common layer of the psyche – the collective unconscious. Since the characters’ language emanates from this layer, the exterior of the play actually shows a dream world or mental state.

The death scene in this play is the suicide of the main character, Lillemor. She is married to the creative genius Harald, and works at his combined convalescent home, undertaker’s office, and fast food joint, which operates with only one commodity: women and their loneliness. Even in the beginning of the play it is clear that there is something wrong in this world.

Harald and Lillemor are sitting at the breakfast table. The discussion revolves around a plate of liver pâté that Harald finally asks Lillemor to pass to him. She refuses, however, with the words: “There is something not right about this pâté”.

The liver pâté is a symbol of the disintegrating identity, the body’s original space, or the contourlessness of the female identity.

Weak identity and contourlessness characterise all the women in the play När det utbröt panik i det kollektivet omedvetna (1986; When Panic Broke Out in the Collective Unconscious).Lillemor’s bewilderment in the play is caused by the approaching divorce between herself and Harald. She does not think she can survive without him, without his confirmation. This sense of bewilderment is further emphasised when she speaks about herself as two people: “It’s so much better that I get divorced from myself than that you do.” With these words, death enters the scene in this play as well. Assisted by Harald and his new mistress, the drama culminates in the last act when she is finally united with the other guests at the rest home, that is, the women.

Similar ‘body metaphors’ often crop up in Kristina Lugn’s work. They are part of a semantic sphere associated with the female body. The poetic speaker is torn between, on the one hand, fear of and disgust with the internal spaces of the body, and on the other hand, fear that its boundaries will be torn down.

Isabell Vilhelmsen

Translated by Jenifer Lloyd