Redbeck Press, 2004. ISBN: 1904338135
Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2005:1
Jacqueline Karp is a poet with an academic background in French and Spanish, who normally divides her time between France and her native Britain. She has been publishing her work in magazines for some time but in this, her first full collection of poetry, she is discovering the cultures of Berlin, the Czech Republic, the Baltic States, Poland and, above all, Sweden. In the opening suite of poems Swedish for Beginners, she takes the reader with her on a journey round the tourist destinations, public transport systems and coffee shops of Gothenburg, Stockholm and Uppsala, sharing her personal reactions to sights, sounds and tastes. There are also numerous encounters with memorable individuals, living or dead, famous or less so. Finding “Linnaeus is closed for the winter” in Uppsala, she can only peer through the railings along the path to his yellow house, musing on his life’s achievements. In another poem she imagines the famous Poseïdon statue in Gothenburg longing for whitewashed walls, blue seas and home: “Have they no fishy gods of their own left/ to raise on pedestals and draw the crowds?” Jacqueline Karp is unmistakably a linguist, and relishes the immediacy of the encounter with unfamiliar tongues. The sudden maraschinos of the title, the same scarlet as the surprisingly vivid lipstick of a tourist guide she meets in Potsdam, are the luxurious moments of appreciation as the poet savours foreign words, sampling the international flavours of “Sommerresidenz”, “prosze”, “hur mår du?” and “semla” on her tongue and in her ears. Swedish is “A lullaby of hushing/ sibilants and palatals”, with which she feels instinctive kinship: “my own old tongue/ stripped to the bone”. One poem in particular describes Karp’s determination to explore a language that is new to her, gamely trying to read Karin Boye in the original Swedish, feeling like an archae-ologist as she digs and sifts painstak-ingly through strata of “weird vowels” and “hollow consonants”. But she also owns up to occasional retreats into English: with the newspapers in the reading room of Stockholm’s House of Culture for example, or in conversation with a Ugandan train driver on the underground. For those of us who translate and have thus grown rather blasé about inhabiting the space between Swedish and English, it is refreshing to be taken back to those heady first encounters with Sweden’s language and culture. Having the non-English phrases checked by native speakers would have allowed Karp to correct the unfortunate little errors that have crept in, but it is certainly unusual to find a poet relating to other languages in this direct way, and not afraid of occasionally turning language teacher with her explanatory footnotes. Other modern British poets writing about Sweden may use the names of people and places, but generally go about the business of recreating an atmos-phere, recapturing a mood. It is the English language alone that is their tool. I am thinking here of Robin Robertson and of the poets who featured in the recent Swedish Reflections anthology, such as Paul Durcan, Robyn Bolam and James Kirkup. Karp’s lively, personal collection has an arresting cover photograph of the Swedish countryside by Tomasz Wisniewski, with the horizontals of an old farm fence casting feather-icing shadows on the bluish snow.