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Mythology of Everyday Life

Written by: Unni Langås |

Gro Dahle (born 1962) is one of the most distinctive writers to debut in the 1980s. Her first two books, Audiens (1987; Audience) and Apens evangelium (1989; The Gospel of the Ape) were poetry collections. In 1991 she published the collection of short stories Pelsjegerliv (A Trapper’s Life), in 1992 the poetry collection Linneapasjonen (The Twinflower Passion), and in 1994 the poetry collection Regnværsgåter (Rainy Weather Riddles). She has also written children’s books, and it is not always easy to distinguish Gro Dahle the author for children from Gro Dahle the author for adults. The blurred line between the adult and the childish in her work is intentional.

Gro Dahle’s writing has a naive quality. Audiens opens with the following text: “ON THE STAIRS / I / MET / THE POPE / ON / A STEP / OF / HIS OWN. // WHAT’S / UP / POPE?” It resembles a children’s book of riddles. Questions in the form of riddles also represent the basic compositional form of the poems in Regnværsgåter.All four collections are rich in flora and fauna, telling stories about a variety of animals and plants that often possess human traits – a well-known tradition in children’s literature.

In an interview Gro Dahle once said: “Poetry is like a game, whether you read it or write it. It’s about seeking out images and finding a good tone, words that taste right – sweet and delicate like raspberry candies or for that matter stimulating like liquorice wands.”

Illustration by the author’s 3 year old daughter, Kaia Linnea Dahle Nyhus, in Regnværsgåter, 1994

However, it is too simple to stop at this characteristic. As a writer, Gro Dahle is extremely conscious of form, and constructs her poetry collections in a clear pattern. In this regard, there are parallels with Inger Christensen. Intuition forms the basis for the poems, which are then tightly composed according to an intellectual system.

Gro Dahle writes within the genre of narrative poetry. Her verse generally comprises coherent sentences or parts of sentences and with simple strokes, a little story or situation is sketched. It is usually easy to repeat the poems, but their meaning is always open to interpretation. Each of her four poetry collections also features an epic or rhetorical theme. They deal with an environment, have a gallery of characters, tell a story, or ask a series of questions.

In stark contrast to the naive, we have the sense of extreme solemnity which recurs in all her poetry collections. The titles of the first three works all feature words with religious overtones: audience, gospel, and passion, while in the fourth, Regnværsgåter, the ceremonial is represented by the child’s drawing on the cover, which depicts a funeral. In Apens evangelium, Genesis forms the subtext of the poems, and the ape has taken the place of God. He sits up in his tree talking to the humans. But his speech is only empty phrases and he does not deliver a message about a different and better world. In contrast to the authoritative version of creation, Gro Dahle calls forth another version – with a fertile woman who gives birth and raises a girl child as its main theme – in such a way that her version of creation appears to be the most natural, as though the woman and the child have always been the centre of the world.

In Apens evangelium the postmodern tendency to play with authorities is clearly expressed. In this case, the authority is the great patriarchal narrative about the creation of man, about the strong and the weak sex, about the manifestation of sin, and about life after death. This narrative is deconstructed in Gro Dahle’s text as she writes a parallel text that is non-patriarchal, non-abstract, non-ceremonious, non-hierarchical, and yet not without values: the values are inherent in the child, the milk, the animals and plants, friendship, and love. And the text is not without criticism. The rebellion against patriarchy simply takes a different form: less direct, more subtle and, first and foremost, more high-spirited.

Gro Dahle’s project of rewriting the story(ies) of Creation from the Bible is something she shares with Inger Elisabeth Hansen (born 1950). In Hablabaror. Munnenes bok (1983; Hablabaror. The Book of Mouths), Inger Elisabeth Hansen creates the world anew and in the process makes it clear that its origin is and will always be a story, the story of man. It has been essential for both Gro Dahle and Inger Elisabeth Hansen to tell this original story in a new way – a way that has not already distributed focus, power, and privileges to the disadvantage of woman.

Pelsjegerliv, with the subtitle Stories of Destiny, is a collection of flash fiction texts that, again, assert Gro Dahle’s originality: her playfulness, her mysteriousness, her focus on the balance between the familiar and the eccentric. In this work, she depicts a series of life stories in excerpts or in their entirety. However, in contrast to biographies, it is not about humanity in its greatness, but rather about the unique in everyday life. The book begins with a short text about the birth of Odd Paulsen – incidentally, most of the texts feature a mother, a mother’s body, mother’s milk, mother’s power as a central theme and mainstay: “Welcome, said the mother, and she held him up to the light. – Welcome little person with the lolling head. The mother laughed with thick tongue and dry throat as she realised that she had given birth to a redfish.” And it ends with Odd Paulsen’s death: “And so Odd Paulsen died. On an ordinary Thursday. In the middle of the daily news, while they played a song. He had an easy death, according to those who understand these things.” Between Odd Paulsen’s birth and death, other life stories are told. There is Louie who is hopelessly in love with May-Britt and strangles a cat in response to the ultimate rejection. And Reinhart who does not get her Hedvig and instead becomes a midwife. There is the bell founder Melkior Aureli who drank mother’s milk until the age of twenty, the sisters in the park who are proud of their breasts, Nils whose love for his sister knows no limits, Åge whose life is depicted as an endless repetition of the moment of birth – except when he attempts to penetrate Anne-Sofie – and many others.

An important narrative tool in Gro Dahle’s prose is repetition, which produces a poetic rhythm in her texts and gives the events a ritual quality. Ordinary life stories and everyday experiences are presented in a new light. On the one hand, she demythologises human life by focusing on the biological and the physical. On the other hand, she re-establishes a kind of everyday mythology through imagery, repetition, and exaggeration, but without giving her text the status of something other than it is: a narrative.

Sister, Sun, Symbol

Ellen Einan (born 1931) is a highly unique voice in Norwegian literature. In her six poetry collections, she has built up an unusual and fascinating poetic landscape that has earned her rave reviews.

Ellen Einan’s poems are tightly composed and extremely rich in imagery. The compact language and the distinctive images bring excitement and mystery to the texts. The tone of the sounds and rhythm of the lines make every single stanza a musical experience.

Ask the grain, shall we have loneliness?
I ask the silver trees and ointment
and soil
and silver goblets.

Then our colour shall be the green of the woods,
and everything we own we live in.
Even the garden’s spirit must enter
and see first mother’s hatbox
filled with teddy bears.

Ellen Einan: Sene rop mellom bronsebergene (1987; Late Cries Among the Bronze Mountains).

Her vocabulary has a romantic and fairytale-like tone: grain-sister, foal, sleepy-garden, bronze-mountains, passion-trees, snowbird. Many of the compounds are comprised of words that are ordinary on their own, but together become original. The words also often characterise concrete things, but in Ellen Einan’s context they are given an aura of mysticism, as in the poem “Hester” (Horses) from the collection Nattbarn (1986; Night Child):

I live carried away by fair horses
They carried me over the child’s mountain.
I find sleep-trees
Bend low in the moss
On up high, luminescent skin
Lower death onto my field, Lord.

Ellen Einan’s poems tend to feature associations with fertility, life, and death. Biological functions are often in focus, and earthly fruits, offspring, and children are recurring motifs. Around these basic motifs, she creates a space that calls to mind biblical myths, folktales, children’s stories, and fantastic literature. Like the surrealists, Ellen Einan experiments with automatic writing, and she illustrates her own books with drawings loaded with symbolism. There is no one else like her in Norwegian literature, and yet she delivers a “timeless” problematic that has gained respect and popularity in the beginning of an epoch in search of something to fill the postmodern void.

“Ellen Einan’s body of work – like one giant continuous book – has created, with mediumistic confidence, a poetic fantasy world that can be summed up as ‘Paul Celan meets Emily Dickinson in Moomin Valley’. It is a creationist fantasy that quite simply contains vast knowledge about human life.”

The Danish poet and critic Poul Borum in the literary journal Poetica (no. 9/10 1987).

Poet of Paradox

Anne Bøe (born 1956) made her debut in 1984 and has published several collections of poetry, which all operate in the sphere between doubt and faith. They are a balancing act between hope and emptiness, a problematic that is often articulated in the form of antitheses and paradoxes, and that is clearly based on biblical imagery. In Anne Bøe’s poetry, Christianity is a resonator of imagery and stories, as well as a world view from which the poetic speaker takes her material and about which she asks questions, as in the collection Ildrose (1989; Fire-rose):

Fire-rose if you are our only
love why
is the knife stuck in you

Fingers and branches are the main elements in a circle of metaphors that can be called “masculine”. In Bøe’s imagery, the fingertips are the point of contact between the body and its surroundings, between people and the world. The tree’s branches are given a similar function. They become the connecting link between outer and inner reality – indicating a distance, a place for touch, and a place for conception. This borderland is the force field in Anne Bøe’s poetry. Between stab and tenderness, between finger and wind, lies tension and miracle (also from Ildrose):

it cracks open
on the outermost branch
out in the blue
empty space where we press
grape after grape
out through our fingertips

The fingertips metaphor points to Michelangelo’s Vatican painting of God creating Adam: God’s finger is the origin of all life. However, the finger as an organ of conception and creation also refers to writing, and Anne Bøe thematises the writing process in several poems.

As the antithesis to this “masculine” imagery, we have a “feminine” circle of images centring on the dissolution of form and the Eternity of water. A longer poem in Ordenes kildemor (1987; The Source Mother of Words) begins thus:

Wennberg, Ulla (born 1948): Den europeiska mystiken. Illustration from Kvinnobulletinen, no. 3, 1994

THIS IS the phase where form loosens
everything flows together, the long journey towards
things, thereafter
their night

it will be water after swamp, but perhaps
no fungus, we stumble and get up
yet again

The feminine universe of creation is characterised by images of water, slime, dissolution, swamp darkness, and birth, and the poem thematises creation (of language and life) as a lengthy and recurrent process involving the amalgamation of autonomous individuals (two letters, two bodies). This act also becomes a kind of limbo between being and not being, in that the ego must be subsumed into an other in order for conception to take place.

In the poetry collections Sinobersol snø (1993; Cinnabar Sun Snow) and Ingensteds overalt (1994; Nowhere Everywhere), the motifs are more from everyday life and the mythological material is toned down: these poems are more about creating a metaphysical space in daily life. With Anne Bøe, however, even very concrete motifs and images are given an aura of religious existentialism. For example, the poem “(Vaskesuite)” (Washing Suite) is an everyday washing scene on one level and a cleansing process on another: “in the darkest baths, we hear we sing / wash me”.

Images as Condensed Thoughts

Hanne Bramness (born 1959) writes poetry in dialogue with modernism’s great poets: Charles Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke, Edith Södergran, Inger Christensen. In her first two poetry collections, Korrespondanse (1983; Correspondence) and I sin tid (1986; In Its Own Time), the reader is assisted by “notes” – although not on the scale of T. S. Eliot’s notes – to place every reference: obvious and imbedded quotations from world literature. In this way, the two works visualise the literary tradition that Bramness draws on, and emphasise the author’s vision of the text as a mosaic of quotations. Incidentally, this collage technique dates back in Norwegian poetry to the 1960s, and is one of the forms that was revived in the metatextual trend of the 1980s.

In Hanne Bramness’ poetry collections, texts “correspond” with each other, serving to dissolve temporal and geographic boundaries, and thus achieving a type of contemporaneity. Her own voice becomes a dialogue with and a reflection on quotations. The boundary is a key motif in the work of Hanne Bramness: boundaries between countries and people, between eras and mentalities, between forms of art and modes of existence. Her oeuvre is also about transcending boundaries and allowing cracks and openings to speak.

The first poem in Anne Bøe’s debut collection Silkestein (1984; Silk Stone) goes as follows:

a prick
no more, barely noticeable
on your little finger,
tenderly into
the wide

In her third poetry collection Nattens kontinent (1992; The Continent of Night), Hanne Bramness relinquishes the quotation technique, trusting in the strength of her own language and allowing the poems to point, not to other poems, but to something “else”. The first part of the collection is a poem sequence called “Nattens kontinent” where the “night”, as the main motif, represents sleeplessness, blindness, oblivion, eternal darkness, but also the gateway to insight into something not present in wakefulness. Central aspects of the night’s processes are the child and birth, losing part of the self and giving part of the self. The poems thematise the need to safeguard memories and transitory experiences, and the voice of the text is more clearly identifiable as female than in her previous works.

the northern limits of consciousness exist

I have imagined a thought
a bird taking flight
I have imagined a light
behind the light
I have imagined
the place of pure knowledge
imagined spun back
stopped by the pounding
the limits of consciousness.

Hanne Bramness: Korrespondanse, (1983; Correspondence). The quotation is from Inger Christensen’s alfabet (1981; Eng. tr. alphabet).

One of the pinnacles of Hanne Bramness’ body of work is the poem “Hvilken dag hvilken / natt som helst” (Any Day Any / Night At All), which brings together several key motifs of her work, and is a good example of the dispassionate and text-oriented symbolism of the 1990s:

Any moment now it will rise from
wind, from the space between beats
and tones, it grows through the soil,
harvests extinct stars in
the bosom, and it encircles the night’s
axis, frozen to meat in the shadows
of a dream, the dream of simultaneity
It comes from the song, the transitions
the surrender and ruptures the seams of
the eye. From sleep it
comes from the stone’s transparency
Any day any night at all
now, oblivion will touch your first

Translated by Jenifer Lloyd