Print Article

Like a Blue Wave

Written by: Unni Langås |

Eldrid Lunden (born 1940) made her debut in 1968 with the poetry collection f.eks. juli (July for instance), a brazen new book that challenged the established conventions of Norwegian poetry. The book is a prime example of the attitude towards language and literature adopted by the young generation of writers around 1965, which became the starting-point for a growing awareness of language among feminism-oriented writers in the 1970s.

f.eks. juli is a rejection of the solemn aura of poetry in general and the high pathos of the 1950s in particular. The serious tone of poetry readings and literature events is ridiculed. The aim is to knock highbrow culture off its pedestal! Poetry is not just abstract and portentous, subject-oriented and tragic. It can also be simple and straightforward or recklessly shocking and self-deprecating.

Hagen, Else (b. 1914): System, year unknown. Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo

The literary revolt in Norway in the mid-1960s was associated with a group of authors known in Norwegian as the Profilkreds (Profile Circle), which included Jan Erik Vold, Paal-Helge Haugen, Dag Solstad, Tor Obrestad, Espen Haavardsholm, and Einar Økland among its members. Closely associated with this inner circle were two women who ultimately produced great bodies of work throughout the 1970s: Eldrid Lunden and Liv Køltzow. The atmosphere was characterised by experimentation, European orientation, and high literary ambitions. Criticism and literary practice went hand in hand. The aesthetic programme encompassed a greater focus on objects; the ordinary and commonplace became interesting subjects for literature. Reality was concrete. Is there an inner core of self deep down or is identity a set of roles? This was one question that was often asked and thematised, for example in Kari Bøge’s Asmorelda (1970). It became essential to render literature visible as text: to write poetry was “to do something with language”. The reader’s attention was drawn to the difference between literature and reality, and openly encouraged to contribute to the poetic experience. Writers were not bound to categories of form and genre; they maintained a degree of scepticism towards metaphors and symbolism. The text appeared as a historically determined situation report, an example taken from a specific place and time: July for instance.

Language is power, language is oppression; there can be no liberation without the liberation of language. This is a fundamental insight for the poet Eldrid Lunden, who united feminism and consciousness of language with her three collections of poems from the 1970s, proving that literature could be a political force without losing its aesthetic quality. Her work can be read as a merging and culmination of the linguistic breakups of the 1960s and the women’s political movement of the 1970s. Both worlds meet in her poetry, which serves the function of literary consciousness-raising and has proved highly productive for both contemporary authors and a younger generation of women writers.

The young people made it a central aspect of their writing to create a new form and a new language, because form is content: it is not only what you say that is important, but how you say it. When you choose a genre, you also choose a set of conventions associated with that particular genre. When you choose an image, it is automatically accompanied by certain connotations – they can be developed or broken down, but they are there nonetheless. Language is not innocent; it carries with it attitudes, norms, and power, and it changes constantly.

About language, Eldrid Lunden has said:

“Language is not only a tool, it is a social structure, and this structure can be shaped and adjusted by those who live in it. As a result, the rulers in any society have a critical influence on language and are actively interested in shaping it. Many researchers and philosophers – from Nietzsche to Foucault and Lacan – have focused their attention in this point: who in a society have claimed hegemony over language and consequently over thoughts and values. But if you are aware of this, you can make your own voice heard.”

(1982; Essays)

Therefore language, like so many other things, is part of the reality that attracts a writer’s attention. And for female writers language is particularly important because it is recognised as one of society’s strongest tools for oppression. Language should therefore be a subject of feminist and poetic analysis, and identity and liberation are closely related to language. As Eldrid Lunden expresses it in a poem from Gjenkjennelsen (1982; The Recognition):

You must make up your mind if you want to be someone / expressed now, you must change your language / for your dear life.

Eldrid Lunden is a pioneer among the feminist poets who explore language as a mechanism of power, as well as exploring the possibilities of the poetic form. f.eks. juli was a work of rebellion. In the mid-1970s, she published the three poetry collections inneringa (1975; the inner ring), hard, mjuk (1976; hard, soft), and Mammy, blue (1977), which deal with many of the themes that occupied the women’s movement and female writers in the 1970s: Who am I? What is femininity? Who is in charge of my life? How can I express myself? How can I realise my desires and dreams? They thematise perception and creativity, as well as the relationships between woman and man, between mother and daughter, and between women. After these three compact, minimalist collections, she released the open and politically reflective Gjenkjennelsen in 1982, the more philosophical and questioning Det omvendt avhengige (The Reverse Dependency) in 1989, and the historically oriented Noen må ha vore her før (Someone Must Have Been Here Before) in 1990.

Eldrid Lunden’s influence is especially a result of the criticism she has aimed at women themselves and at the women’s movement. In an interview she once said:

“The attempts at women’s liberation we see today are not based on the women’s movement so much as on the labour movement and developments in medical science. […] In my opinion, new feminism made a real mess of things when it comes to certain key issues. For instance, by acting as though being a woman is radical in itself. But if it’s radical to be a woman, that makes it impossible to be a radical woman.”

(Café Existens no. 20)

The three works from the 1970s are searching and use a very compact language. The poems explore the female subject in her natural surroundings, in her body and in her relationships. inneringa is set in a village community in the Vestlandet region of Norway, where the natural surroundings and weather become external parallels to a young girl’s confined existence. She is both “surrounded” by an oppressive nature and “encapsulated” in language. Water is the dominating element in this universe; rain and moisture become metaphors for both the natural and the human.

hard, mjuk works rhetorically with contrasts: black-white, hot-cold, active-passive, woman-man. As an undertone to the entire collection, there is a sense of longing for physical closeness and warmth, combined with a desire to escape from a stagnant “normalcy” and put oneself into motion:

She wanted to transform herself
into a movement, she would logically be

To put oneself into motion can be interpreted as meaning becoming an active subject – a central issue for many female protagonists in the 1970s: their “project” is to become independent individuals who take an active approach to the world around them.

Long threads of liquid
slowly flow down with time,
the water struggles to find direction
sending its main current
through white sluices as
and nothing.

inneringa (1975; the inner ring)

The relationship to the husband is another central theme. He – or her dependency on him – is clearly a barrier to her potential for self-realisation. Sometimes it seems as though a deeper contact is unobtainable:

Time and againhe bends forward to see who she is and
remains, but the morning still
encloses her in a bell jar
and her back abruptly forms
a cold line around what remains
to be said.

hard, mjuk thematises female identity and the relations between the sexes. From a defensive – if not passive – position, the female body becomes active: senses and bodily sensitivity are the only reliable sources of reflection on language, identity, and reality.

Mammy, blue thematises the stages in a woman’s life from childhood until she is around twenty-eight years old. The attempts to be seen, to become an active subject, and to acquire one’s own language are all aspects of the same process of self-realisation:

I am Anna, I am twenty-eight,
I am visible
in the front door each morning,
an open movement in the air.

I am Anna, I am twenty-eight.
I think more and more often
On the fact that I am visible in the front door
each morning, then I sit in the car.

I am Anna, I have
a spot on my tongue
it is a word, I
know it.

Eldrid Lunden often associates femininity with metaphors involving water, rain, mucus, and mouths; whereas masculinity is connoted by “tougher” metaphors such as cars, insects, and the pulse. In Lunden’s texts, however, this rhetorical interaction is also open and dynamic. In fact, one of the key aspects of her poetry is to avoid fixed meaning, and instead break down the conventional perceptions that can cement the gender role pattern. Women are also criticised in Lunden’s poetry – mothers and sisters who contribute directly to passing on the imbalances:

The oldest currents
from mothers, the obstructing darkness
surrounding loose moisture, and the pungent
smell of the lower regions.

Images have never been entirely willing to float
up, the water which cannot be

Underlying the poem is the concept of the almighty mother, which on another level questions the way mothers raise their daughters:

Mothers who hold you close
in the great current
grab at your throat from behind
with a little white collar.

Mammy, blue is a blues about woman, a bitter-sweet song from a woman’s point of view where history and biology have established limitations that are now being overcome: a blues can also be rebellious!

Gjenkjennelsen has the 1980s’ reflective distance to the heated debate that took place in the preceding decade. The struggle for language continues to be an important issue, but now it is about language in a broader sense: both historical inheritance and brand new media images are part of a complex, male-dominated culture:

To get caught like that
To organise your own death by drowning, like
in a sea of images
that threaten to resemble
oneself almost exactly, and
“nobody has to guess
that Baby can’t be blessed
till she sees finally that she’s like all the rest”.

Det omvendt avhengige is a book about life and death, about the meaning of life and what comes after it. For Eldrid Lunden, poetry became a place where it is possible to approach the unknown with the limitations – or possibilities – that are inherent in language.

The Möbius strip parallels the way the text returns to its starting point, but only does so after a process in which “something has happened”. The Möbius strip is reproduced on the cover of Det omvendt avhengige (1989; The Reverse Dependency). It is a circular, connected strip with a half twist – which also symbolises how opposites can be interdependent.

The two poems at the beginning and the end of the collection, respectively, are characteristic in this respect: “The quiet spot in constant / displacement” begins the first poem, while the following paradox marks the end: “It is because we must be completely certain / that / everything has been said / and nothing”. If anything, the paradox is the trope of choice in this collection of poetry, while the repetition of a point of departure becomes the narrative structure that both completes the circle of the texts and opens them up to what we sense but do not understand:

Like opening doors to a room you think you know
and suddenly see light take wing, snowing through the room
through the eye. As effortlessly as though the room is
no longer there

The hare that just twists on and on throughthe hare

In Noen må ha vore her før, Eldrid Lunden makes it easier for the reader. The collection is, to a great extent, an intertextual dialogue with women and female characters from Norwegian literature: Oda Krohg, Dagny Juel, and Christian Krohg’s Albertine. Through the Oda/Dagny constellation on the one hand, and Albertine on the other, a number of problems are thematised and made relevant, including liberation, class differences, sexuality, prostitution, the portrayal of self, solidarity, and so on.

At the same time, there is a special relationship between this book and Mammy, blue. Both deal with the relationship between mother and daughter, and within their blue covers both have waves and the blues as central subjects. Movement, music, and melancholy, but also rebellion, flow like a blue wave through Eldrid Lunden’s work: nothing is allowed to settle down in this language; poetry is eternally impatient.

In the poetry collection Slik sett (1996; Like That), Eldrid Lunden again sharply articulates the paradoxes of existence and poetry:

Specks of touched and touched and untouched
Solidarity we don’t want and have
The fact that we don’t always know what
we are most pleased about or afraid of,
and yet that we must once have known
what it was.

Translated by Jenifer Lloyd