Norstedts, 2009. ISBN: 9789113020471
Reviewed by Anna Tebelius in SBR 2010:1
On the back cover of this poetry collection the author tells us that he is ‘a Swedish poet fighting for the Swedish language to become more exciting and challenging’, that he is ‘a simple human who wants to do things in the right order’, who ‘loves love and hates hate’ and who ‘knows what I am worth’. Ulf Karl Olov Nilsson, or UKON, to use the acronym appearing on the collection’s front cover, was born near Umeå in the north of Sweden, in 1965. He now lives in Gothenburg, and is not only a poet, but also a psychiatrist, counsellor and psychoanalyst, editor of Glänta, and contributor to OEI and Psykoanalytisk Tid/Skrift (sic), magazines that arguably represent the pinnacle of the contemporary literary scene in Sweden. Since his debut in 1990 he has published eleven collections, some of which include recordings of his poetry in collaboration with musicians. In 2007 one of his books, Synopsis (Symposion, 2007), won him a literature prize given by the newspaper Göteborgs-Posten, the jury commenting ‘that by gently treating language as the stuff of life he has defined emotions and channelled into poetry the added value of listening’. He has been called a ‘concept poet’, a ‘tautology laureate’, and a ‘truism attraction’ by another young Swedish contemporary poet, Malte Persson. We know that Nilsson is a very prolific writer and a poet whose obsession with words overflows into many different kinds of writing. The Western world’s literary heritage deeply colours his writing, and he knows the extent of power a word can hold. He even writes elegies to the egg. This eclecticism is again played out in his latest offering, his twelfth collection Barndomstolen. In this book the trivial is mixed with quotations from Hölderlin, and the absurd is juxtaposed with the tragic. It is divided into two sections. The first, ‘Värdetautologin’ (The Tautology of Value), is a reflection on the absurdity of modern life. It is a look at an accelerated, fast-paced society in which unused languages, and people who are not valued, are disappearing. Here some countries are worth more than others, and the obvious statement that 100 Swedish crowns are worth less than 100 British pounds starts to mean something other than mere economic difference. He begins by defining:
‘My life is solely about being valuable.
My value is limited.
There is a limited amount of value.
If my value increases yours will decrease.’
Nilsson plays with the reader by stretching the words, their multiple definitions and subtle meanings, their own value and worth to their ultimate limits. One sentence is ridiculous, the next, which differs by perhaps only a couple of words, has been turned into something far more sinister. Later in the book, for example, we get:
‘(...) I beat him to death because he looked like a balcony.
I beat him to death because he reminded me of Picasso.
I beat him to death because he was copying me.
I beat him to death because he thought he knew it all.
I beat him to death because I wanted to know how it felt.
I beat him to death because he was so completely worthless.’
The themes of value and worth connect here with linguistic tautology, and ‘Värdetautologin’ becomes a kind of world within words, where the same actions are both justified and vilified, where ultimately the same thing is said over and over again. His poetry is at times conducted more like an experiment, where the outcome is not necessarily as important as the construction of the work itself. In this sense I think that Nilsson’s writing is very close to conceptual art, to the Beckettian repetitions of Bruce Nauman or the tautologies of Joseph Kosuth. It is also clear from the rest of Nilsson’s oeuvre that he is interested in found language, ‘ready-mades’. This method has a long tradition within literary circles (for example as used by the Swedish poet Sonja Åkesson), but has its origin in the works of the artist Marcel Duchamp, as seen in his 1913 work Bicycle Wheel where an upturned wheel is mounted on a stool and displayed. The idea of putting an everyday object in a gallery and calling it art because the artist decides that in a new context it becomes art, is at times precisely what Nilsson is doing. For instance we read:
‘The adoption fee for November 2007: Ethiopia 91,000 SEK, China 111,000 SEK, Estonia 93,000 SEK, Brazil 127,000 SEK, South Korea 171,000 SEK, India 97,000 SEK.’
For Duchamp everything had the potential to become art. Nilsson continues this tradition in language: for him everything has the potential of becoming poetry. The second section, ‘Barndomen’ (Childhood) uses the framework of what appears to be a manual of a child’s development from conception to birth. As opposed to the flood of words that characterises the first section, Barndomen is quieter, more analytical. Interspersed by details of the clinical progression of a new life, and what appears to be a list of birth announcements, is an extended longer poem on the idea of childhood, and the relationship of the child to itself, to its parents and the parents’ relationship to the child. What is the disjunction between the perception of oneself and the idea of being a child? Nilsson examines a childhood as something both devastating and creative, as both learning how to remember and forgetting. Nilsson’s use of deceptively simple language means that even with its experimental energy it is accessible, fun and thought-provoking. The reader, like the viewer of an artwork, is invited to be part of the poetry, as it is really in contact with and in relation to the reader that these poems are deciphered and brought to life. His work is a battle with words, and an attempt to make the Swedish language, and perhaps language itself, more challenging, more vital, and in this respect his most recent collection succeeds precisely because of the rigorous terms it sets itself.