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Inger Edelfeldt, Efter angelus (After Angelus)

Norstedts,  2004. ISBN: 9113009338

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2004:2

Central to this collection of poems is the impulse to narrate and perform, to tell new stories or to retell old ones in novel ways. It is perhaps no surprise to learn from a recent magazine interview that Edelfeldt, an accomplished stand-up comedienne who lists madrigal-singing among her hobbies, intends these poems to be recited, almost like musical items. The tone is set by the opening poem Intro, which refers to a head that is like a flute, a memory like an open mouth, a wakeful eye, a longing for the carnival. But then we are brought up short by one of those unexpected gear-changes that are another hallmark of Efter angelus, and the poem concludes: “The whole/ long drawn out/ landing/ mankind made/ on the moon”. Perhaps the astronauts, too, are telling or becoming a story as we watch them?
This intriguing, sometimes baffling set of poems is open to a multiplicity of interpretations, and that is certainly deliberate on Edelfeldt’s part. Or, as she said to one interviewer, “Whenever a poem gets discussed, people want to know what it means. One of the points of writing poems is to avoid the need to explain.”
Efter angelus has a less unified feel and linear development than Edelfeldt’s debut anthology Salt (1999, reviewed in SBR 1999:1), which was an account of the emotional turmoil of a love affair flaring up and dying. The new collection explores in tantalizing glimpses the act of storytelling itself, perhaps most strikingly in the poems where Edelfeldt subverts familiar tales. Her Medusa, for example, in the two suites of poems The Snake Princess, now has a benign gaze that will turn nothing to stone. Her cast-off snake skins and lizard tails hang fluttering on a clothes line in the sunshine, while she is turning into a tree and reaching out her branches to her beloved, with young female vipers raining down from her foliage. A Hans Christian Andersen tale gets a similarly feminist reworking in The Mermaid’s Song as the plot goes into reverse and the mermaid is reeled back into the depths, regains her lost voice and calls to her prince from her underwater garden. But this storytelling can be a perilous venture; there are shades of Icarus in the recurrent kite-flying images and Medusa’s lament: “Too close to/ THE SUN/ no tale/ can become clear”.
The poems teem with the traditional language of fairytale and mythology: mother-of-pearl beds, gingerbread houses, emperors and nightingales, princesses and mirrors, poisoned chalices, snakes. But the vocabulary also has a highly innovative aspect, as in “portable astonishment”; “hot blood/ a steaming cup of it”; and “grief/ as dry and folded/ as a serviette/ for a guest/ who never came”. My own favourite poem is an atmospheric description of an abandoned school – or perhaps it has merely closed for the holidays – where the soporific sounds and scents of the natural world in high summer settle over the trappings of education like pollen on blackboards, and bees drone through empty classrooms.

Also by Inger Edelfeldt

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