Wahlström & Widstrand, 2011. ISBN: 9789146221180
Reviewed by Anna Tebelius in SBR 2012:1
Water is a recurring theme in Katarina Frostenson’s poetry. Rivers, seas, rain, estuaries, river-deltas and tides return as structure, system and inspiration. Her latest collection Flodtid (2011), the final part of a trilogy that began in 2004 with Karkas (Carcass) and continued in 2008 with Tal och Regn (Speech and Rain), is filled with images of water.
The title evokes multiple visions; a biblical deluge, a post-modern flooding in times of man-made global warming, the necessary cyclical flooding for land to remain fertile, or perhaps simply time spent by the river, by the water’s edge when the tide is in. Her words are typically oppositional: sonorous and quiet, urgent and personal, aware of their limits as well as of their capacity.
Flodtid continues Frostenson’s weaving together of ideas, use of contradictory images, transformations and unpredictable leaps that have made her one of Sweden’s most revered poets.
Throughout her oeuvre, as in this new collection, Frostenson engages with a wider contemporary, socio-political and ethical critique by constantly exploring her own and her society’s use of language; its possibilities, limitations and paradoxes. In Flodtid, the deluge of words fuses a modern overflow of information with the concentrated format of poetry. We follow box-carrying bank employees without a bank to work in; stones thrown in protest which land in fields of oats; headlines that shock or baffle – all transformed into language that Frostenson relates to the natural world and to intimate space. The reader feels the rough bark described on her first page, the simultaneous impenetrability and lure of rivers like sheets of shiny metal, and the power of the flood to submerge, to drown the words and carry them away.
Frostenson examines language with an awareness of its limitations, describing moments where words are acutely insufficient, unable to act as in loss and death. In Frostenson’s poems these images of loss evoke a desire for language as invocation, a pleading to break the dams, to recover the lost and the impossible demand of language to step out of its own condition. The personal loss in Flodtid is further expanded to reflect a greater loss, an examination of global social values and how we relate to the ‘other’. Locating our own humanity as also belonging to a stranger and believing our limitations to be universal, Frostenson confronts our self-image by calling it into question. Echoing perhaps Emmanuel Levinas, whose ethics begin with the realisation of the self through the ‘other’, Frostenson writes Orden mot (Words for) which is long poem dedicated to the writer Birgitta Trotzig:
det finns inga papperslösa, det är människoansikten / det var inga båtflyktingar, det är kroppar / själar ( there are no ‘sans-papiers’ undocumented, only human faces / there were no immigrants on boats, only bodies / souls...).
It may reflect the guilt of not stopping or another human in need, as in the poem Journal Svart (Diary Black):
inte vilja hjälpa som en vändpunkt / inte vilja ändring – nej / förbli / plötslig glädje, obegriplig vanmaktkraft av tanken på en lika sorg for alla / gråta och förlåta kroppen (not wanting to help as a turning point / not wanting change – no / to remain / sudden joy, inexplicable power of powerlessness by the thought of an equal sorrow for all / crying and forgiving the body).
Like the plentiful images of water, the compositions of Frostenson’s poems ripple on the page. Their expressiveness and energy follow the movement of language like a fast-flowing river into which the reader leaps and is swept away by its current. Where many of Frostenson’s earlier collections have been perceived as difficult or hermetically sealed, Flodtid is playful and surprising. Many of the poems within it, like the experimental Maten man äter/ Klagan (The Food that one eats / the Lament) have already been heralded as future classics by her Swedish reviewers. The impressive harmony that Frostenson creates between rhythm, form and content allows Flodtid, with great subtlety and intelligence, to reveal the hidden life underneath the surface of its words.