title above is borrowed from an interview in the magazine Plaza
Kvinna (1998, 1) with a versatile young Swede who
has made a name for herself in recent years in several
branches of the creative arts. Johanna Ekström,
born in Stockholm in 1970 and now living and working
in the capital, is a writer and visual artist who has
also presented installations, sculptures and photo-graphic
exhibitions, collaborative and solo, at galleries around
Sweden. A child of writers, she grew up in an atmosphere
where language was what mattered, and she has now added
a visual dimension to her linguistic inheritance. This
can be seen not only in her art, but also in the varied
and often unusual imagery of her poetry and prose.
a writer, Johanna Ekström is still in the process
of creating herself, her growing boldness and self-confidence
attracting increasing critical attention in Sweden. She
has experimented with various genres, publishing collections
of poems, prose poems and, just a few weeks ago, a book
of short stories. Her debut in published poetry was Skiffer (Slate,
Bonniers, 1993). The poems are tactile and full of contrasts:
light and dark, sun and shadow, black and white, stone
and blood, sharp rocks and frail, torn skin. The natural
world is signalled in the title and ubiquitous in the
imagery of the poems, where it is perceived as elemental
rather than decorative, the scenery of a largely hostile
universe: fields in fog, icy wind and frost; the sea,
the sky, jagged stones. Animals pursue their instinctive
course yet mirror the human condition: a sharp-eyed eagle
surveys the landscape; a droning fly tries to drill its
way through a window pane; a flatfish hides in the sand.
The poems are full of disembodied, vulnerable human parts
yearning to make contact: a face here, a shoulder blade
there, and eyes everywhere, seeing. Humans are ultimately
perish-able and powerless, calves (a recurrent Ekström
motif) to the slaughter:
har hamnat närmare döden
Han har inte valt
Som man knuffas omkring
i en buss med ståplatser
Inte som kalvar!
Då skrattar Gud!
finds himself closer to death
It was not his choice
Like being thrown around
On a bus with no seats
Not like calves!
Then God will laugh!
of the Eye, Bonniers, 1994) is a companion volume to Skiffer rather
than a sequel, elaborating on many of the same themes.
The world seems more hostile than ever and needs to be
confronted with greater courage ó thus the title with
its connotations of not shooting until you see the whites
of their eyes. The knives of Skiffer have become
instruments of torture, and the natural world offers
frightening images: a creature burrowing ever deeper
into the earth, unable to turn round; a sightless pupa;
a beehive where one reverts to a wingless, legless, unhatched
state. As in the earlier book, the poems are minimalist,
the words sparse but emphatic; the author often spaces
the texts wide apart on the line rather than using punctuation. Vitöga was
charac-terized by one critic as "Gregorian chant
with a drum-machine accompani-ment". Despite the
sombre mood there is a note of optimism; when one reaches
the bottom, the sea bed "med sitt gröna sjötak" (with
its green sea roof), the only way to go is up: "Här
bjuds det unika tillfället / Som en luftbubbla tvingas
till ytan" (A unique opportunity presents itself
here / Like a bubble of air being forced to the surface).
hus (Rachelís House, Wahlström & Widstrand,
1995) underlines the link between Ekströmís poetry
and her work with other art forms, the interplay of
word and image which she says is so important to her.
One of its sections has texts to pictures by Peter
Hahne, another is dedicated to "Ghost", the
prize-winning cast of an empty house by Rachel Whiteread.
One of the house poems, "Här finns minnet
av en dörr" (Here is the memory of a door)
translated by Ann Born, appeared in Swedish Book
Review 1998:1 (p. 46).
dagboken (Fictional Diary, Wahlström & Widstrand
1997), Johanna Ekström moves from poetry to short
prose poems, a form which seems to suit her well. These
disjointed yet aphor-istic texts vary in length from
a single sentence to a couple of (small) pages. The
longer format of the texts allows for a filling out
of the language and imagery seen in the poems and their
subject matter ranges from the prosaic to the poetic,
from dream to nightmare. Themes familiar from her poetry
(blood, fire, rock, precipices, identity, time) resurface
here, and seemingly unhealthy preoccupations with cutting,
killing and violent death are unexpectedly leavened
by warmer, more comforting entries, such as the gentle
account of her dead grandmother baking bread. Some
of the texts purport to be childhood memories, but
at other points she admits to "reconstructions" and
questions whose memories or views of reality can ever
be valid. One entry compares summer holiday memories
to items stored in a freezer, among them raspberries,
apricots, faces, fingers, a notebook. Family members ó father,
mother, brother ó feature in many of the texts, sometimes
loving but often in cold, wintry settings and/or meeting
with sudden, shocking deaths that would appear to lend
themselves all too neatly to psychoanalytical interpretation.
It would be hardly surprising, however, if Ekström
still needed to work through some complex and unresolved
feelings about her relationship with her famous Swedish
literary parents: her mother is the writer and translator
Margareta Ekström, her father the author Per Wästberg.
Relationships are a major preoccupation of the poems.
What is the nature of love? Here we are offered a profusion
of alternatives: is it something that frees us from
the fate of isolation; that consumes and burns us;
that makes us lower our defences and offer ourselves
up; that gives us the urge to explode, unfurling like
a peony; or that we should learn to receive calmly,
in most diaries, the focus is introspective and personal.
There are fleeting glimpses of the outside world: some
film-makers in Bosnia, for example, a bomb alert on the
underground, a little factory in Naples and a reminiscing
gravedigger from Dresden. One text in particular expresses
the underlying paradox of the the view of life presented
in Fiktiva dagboken: "Det naturliga är
att det gör ont. Men meningen är att man ska
klara sig." (Itís natural for it to hurt. But the
intention is that you should get through.) Several of
the authorís as yet unpublished prose poems have been
translated into English, among them the following, which
is a companion piece to the family episodes in Fiktiva
dream of burning books, of whole libraries burning down.
I and my brother try to save them amongst fires and petrol
cans. We thrust our hands into the flames and sweep the
books off the shelves and hurl them out of the windows.
Outside, the snow lies glittering in the moonlight. Hoar
frost on the fir trees, tracks of roe deer, birdseed.
We know the library will explode at any minute. Amidst
the chaos of fire and smoke, our family is suddenly there.
They try to take the books from us. They leaf through
them, read the endpapers, judge them. They have opinions
about those worth saving and those we can leave to burn.
They donít realize we are all on the verge of destruction.
My brother and I wrench the books from their hands, empty
the bookshelves. Throw them out into the snow, at random.
gå förlorad (Getting
Lost, Wahlström & Widstrand, 1998) is Johanna
Ek-strömís most recent volume of poetry. It takes
as its central theme the transience and motion of a journey,
the raw and painful journey into and through a new relationship.
Many critics characterized this a collection of love
poems, but the tone is neither happy nor celebratory
and images of death and cold, blood and wounds, isolation
and loss are as insistent as ever. The title is open
to multiple interpretations about what is lost along
the way and about losing yourself, in the sense of abandoning
yourself to another person, to love. The "I" of
the poem feels at times too distant from the other person,
at times unbearably close. For Ekström, the journey
is paradoxical too: as we move forward, our surroundings
appear to move backwards; and as we travel, we are always
coming home. Some of the poems contain exotic, foreign
touches, tantalizingly unexplained: a bougain-villea,
flamingos, a hippopotamus, a fig tree, Indian temple
offerings. The poems are again minimalist in form, but
a mood, even a whole story, can be con-jured from a few
fyll denna lilla snabelsko
med det godaste du vet.
Ja, sultanens russin!
men fyll den före morgontimman,
annars är du dödens."
fill this little, curl-toed shoe
with the tastiest of morsels.
Yes, the Sultanís raisins!
But fill it before morning comes,
or know that you must die."
Ekström enjoys the visual qualities of her poetry,
seeing them as complementary to her activities in other
branches of the visual arts such as sculpture, photography,
video, even dance. Sometimes working in collabor-ation
with others, in particular with her artist and film-maker
husband Erik Pauser, she likes to create thought-provoking,
large-scale pieces, often emphasizing the element of
risk. A childís swing is suspended above broken glass
(Gunga, Swing, 1998) for example; dancers are
dressed as firefighters wreathed in smoke (Myn-ningar,
Orifices, 1998); or a huge box of tempting crystallized
sugar is mixed with fragments of glass (Schlaraffen-land,
Land of Cockaigne, 1996). There are unmistakeable echoes
of themes from her writing: pictures of her grand-motherís
hands in the suite of photographs Ingen har dött
av kärlek (No-one has died of love, 1997); the
mouths, tongues and other isolated body parts in various
of her photographs and in an untitled installation at
a Gothen-burg gallery in 1996. The vulnerability of the
human form was also a central theme in Skåda (Gaze),
an installation with dancers in Stockholm in 1997. One
of her major projects to date was Brott (Break-Out),
an installation devised with Erik Pauser in 1998. In
collaboration with the choreographer Björn Elisson,
this will be developed into a dance and art event in
Stockholm in late 2000. Ekström and Pauser are also
currently working on film manu-scripts and on a new collaborative
instal-lation with the working title "What do we
know about fear". Ekströmís new solo exhibition
is about to open at the Charlotte Lund Gallery in Stockholm.
She has also written a series of poems which have been
translated into English to accompany an exhibition due
to be staged at a gallery in Dublin.
volume of short stories Vad vet jag om hållfasthet (What
Do I know of Stability, Wahlström & Widstrand,
2000), is yet another new step for Johanna Ekström,
this time into longer prose and, in a sense, out into
the wider world. The vulnerability, alienation and disturbing
violence of her poetry and prose poems is still there,
but seems somehow less shocking because there is room
for an element of character-ization and psychological
explanation. Human relationships are once more a central
theme, and female, first-person narrators predominate.
Some of the stories grew out of travels to film festivals
around the world, others are fruits of a recent visit
to the USA, where she and her husband were interviewing
Vietnam war veterans. "Explosioner", for example,
is the bleak tale of Raymond, scarred by the conflict,
and his dysfunctional, victimized family. "Volleyball" illuminates
the conflicts of Ďnormalí family life and the unpredictability
of growing old. Ekström also explores subversion
of tradition and rebellion against convention. The anarchic "Bomull" tells
of a Swedish girl who drunkenly upsets the genteel rituals
of a male-dominated dinner at a Cambridge college. "Pretzel
Mix", translated below, mischievously depicts the
clash between the idealized, rather fossilized version
of Swedish culture served up by diplomats and embassy
staffs around the world and a newcomerís urge to let
in the diversity of the modern, cosmopolitan world. The
perfect public image of the well-groomed, efficient,
new female consul conceals an inner sense of insecurity
and disorientation. The finished translation is the result
of much discussion with the author, further proof ó if
any were needed ó of her fervent feeling for language
and the aesthetic effect of words.