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Harry Martinson, Views From a Tuft of Grass (Utsikt från en grästuva)

Green Integer,  2005. ISBN: 1931243786

Reviewed by Brita Green and John Charlesworth in SBR 2006:1


Views from a Tuft of Grass (first published in Sweden in 1963) collects thirteen short pieces of prose, with the translators providing an introduction, brief postscript and notes. (Purchasers beware: pp 33-64 were bound upside down in the review copy.) Again and again Martinson’s prose recreates the natural world of meadow and forest as sharply and imaginatively as his poetry. A ladybird “like a drop of solidified sealing-wax” in a folded leaf, a rowing-boat “wrinkling the glass mountain” in its wake, a bumblebee getting at the clover’s “tiny honey tunnels” by “playing the flower like a keyboard”. Paradoxically, we realize, these vivid, affectionate close-ups spring from the harshness of his boyhood, with its long hours crawling the neverending turnip rows, weeding, “butting your head into stands of wild chervil” or literally embracing summer in “an armful of newly mown meadow grass with all its fragrance and juices”. One of the joys of such writing is the precise capturing of sights or sounds, of something halfnoticed by oneself and now so much more sharply focused. And therein lies a problem with an American translation for the British reader. Martinson was a self-taught botanist and entomologist and always exact in his naming. But American common names are not always English ones. Ladybug is easy, but isn’t the bluebell the English harebell? And what are pussy toes and rutabagas? If we cannot match name to descriptive details, there is no precise verbal capture to recognize, and enjoy. With Martinson, the language is always at least as important as the message. In fact, occasionally ideas seem to spring directly out of word-play, e.g. “djur handlar, men de förhandlar inte”. When this is not picked up in translation – “animals act, but they don’t negotiate” – inevitably something is lost. A similar loss occurs when poetic compression is expanded into explanation – “som stråksnudd mot basfiol” comes out as “like a bow drawn lightly across the strings of a double bass”. Nor do occasional mistranslations help Martinson’s own lack of clarity at times, e.g. when kverulans (moaning) is translated as “hypocondria” (sic) or mytisk (mythical) as “mystical” or “mythological”. And “vi tycker om skalbaggarna att de ser mekaniska ut” means “our opinion of beetles is that they look mechanical”, and not “we like the beetles because they look mechanical”. But, in fairness, there are also many felicitous renderings of tricky, culture-bound, phrases. So Martinson’s brooks, which, lively with spring water, in Swedish sing “helan går och tömmer helan i sjön”, in English sing “bottoms up and drain the whole bottle in the lake” – a good paraphrase. Indeed, generally, the translation reads very well: natural, easy and unstilted. The pieces range well beyond nature close-ups, of course, reflecting interestingly on the peculiarly Scandinavian response to summer, exploring the significance of maps and folk-tales, and considering the language of death announcements, nature writing and poetry. The translators seem to see Martinson chiefly as an early forerunner of “ecological awareness”, and his despair at humanity’s loss of direct contact with the natural world is clear: “Thanks to their cars, people remain indoors even when they are outside” or “The nightjar is rarely heard nowadays since there is always a motor running”. But Martinson is not a campaigner – whether in verse or prose, he is above all a nature poet, his writing always tuned to human feeling.


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