Introducing Ingela Strandberg
I met my friend Ingela Strandberg through her translator and our mutual friend, Göran Malmqvist. Göran, a member of The Swedish Academy and a world-class linguist, is eighty-eight years old and a generous and brilliant correspondent. As a long-standing member of The Swedish Academy and a prolific translator of Chinese and Swedish Literature, he has been a remarkably energetic and influential participant/observer in world literary arts for some time. Göran describes Ingela as “a poet’s poet,” one whose memories “are unavailable” to the reader through her poetry. For this reason, according to him, Strandberg “has remained unrecognized by the ordinary reader, even by readers otherwise well read in contemporary Swedish poetry.” He describes an interesting problem, and one we have seen before. The poet who excels beyond craft—beyond a conditioned kind of appeal—to attract the best of insiders and savants is the one lost to many readers, even educated ones. It is quite a conundrum, but also an understandable one. There is no training to learn to do what Ingela Strandberg does (nor Paul Celan or Tomas Tranströmer) but, consequently, it requires a hermeneutical leap—a sort of exegesis as opposed to analysis—to appreciate it all at the level at which it is being offered.
Göran wrote to me, “I must confess that it took some time before I got accustomed to Ingela’s free-spirited approach to certain linguistic/literary conventions such as punctuation and the division lines in a poem.” One intriguing question that offers itself up is Why did he get used to it? Or perhaps How? Their collaboration is producing some remarkable poetry in translation. I think Strandberg’s literary excellence may be infused to her privacy, and this makes her work difficult because we must be attentive to other things in order to understand and appreciate what she is doing. This isn’t personal poetry: This is metapersonal poetry, something beyond the personal yet somehow springing from it, operating at a great depth of perception regarding loss, sorrow, and our mystical lives, among other things. The emotions generated by such poetry are less like shed light or illumination and more like the sun. Like Paul Celan before her, Ingela Strandberg is a poet who is “entering forests through no path,” to paraphrase the Taoist saying.
Readers have made
a similar claim about Celan’s poetry for years. Out of this privacy, the poet
weaves a virtual space that is as compelling as Van Gogh’s. On the one hand, many
poets make a show of their private lives, detailing them and laying them out
like torn sails in the street. Such writers, for reasons of their own perhaps,
are not interested in privacy. Strandberg and other writers like her, on the
other hand, make a shadow box of their
inner lives, something very different from their private ones. This is not
merely a semantic distinction. Consider a private life laid bare as an exposure
of something—usually through rent earth. Conversely, an inner life on display is
more like that same material passed through a press where what comes out is
refined, transformed into something we haven’t seen before. It is a kind of sortilege
and requires a supreme effort as well as a hard-won strategic point of view. This
is why “shadow box” is probably an apt metaphor (think of Joseph Cornell here
and his literary animator, Charles Simic). It is a virtual space filled with
mythic objects and symbols of the mundane, which are hardly ever truly ordinary
or routine. Even in our sleepwalking we are inside a context filled with mysteries.
Ingela Strandberg’s gift is that she takes us into her shadow box where mystery
is revealed, yet not wholly explained. And it is Malmqvist’s superb
translations that allow us to access this box at all.
Here is the opening to one of the first Strandberg poems sent to me by Professor Malmqvist:
I stand at the gas station.
Everything is open around me in me.
I am getting old time
blows straight into me through me.
I don’t know how I shall face. It.
If I forget who I
am and yet still
carry me inside. The soul without a weight.
My mother. My mother who took the rebel
with her to the nursing home
ordered a taxi shouted about freedom fled
out on the motor road.
The imploding agony
merely treated to coffee
and some sedative white
that stuck to the corners of her mouth
long after death.
One sees immediately that this is poetry at another level. It only hints at “the secret” through descriptive elements that are relatively brief and accompanied by sweeping, but plainly drawn metaphysics. Though there is personal detail, it is not quite a journal or a confession. Confessional poetry achieves immediacy: It draws the reader in like a whisper we weren’t supposed to hear in a corner of the room—usually something dramatic. This poem, on the other hand, seems to open a world before us and invite us in or compel us forward as the speaker has been compelled. Why approach a poem this way? The control being exercised here is remarkable. For this is poetry past despair—a place some do not reach—and into the shadow ground beyond it where we are still here, yet we have absorbed the thing that struck us down and nearly did us in. This is what Strandberg’s poem accomplishes. In what she does not say, we hear all that she would say. But what is written down is nonetheless full to the brim with portent or meaning. One reason for adopting an approach like this is, perhaps, that there is nothing to say in the face of overwhelming psychic trauma: It is greater than we are, and we know it. This generates emotions touched by despair. Yet we survive. Strandberg’s poetry demonstrates by example that we too, perhaps, are greater than we know.Strandberg’s poem ends like this:
AmericaSisters who came
with Jello came with coffee
they didn’t believe we had coffee
everything could be sung
except coffee klatches which she detested
as much as the red bane
attacking the cows but the dream the dreams
about the railroad journey for ever
moving into hotels in the new dress
and speak English in the new
coat made by the hermaphroditic
dressmaker whom God had spared
and new strings new strings
are found the whole time the room lasts
perhaps there is also another time
a time we know nothing about
all information is secured no
it isn’t insecurity
blows around a corner of the gas station’s
western wall. Stained by oil.
I am freezing! I am broken down.
Find the ore then!
It’s cold now.
It will get colder yet.
It will snow tonight. The juggernauts drag
the sky behind them.
The power of her ending is incontestable. Something very important is happening. Yet we get only bits of the story, fragments really. Fused to these fragments are philosophical observations and a manufactured or uncovered metaphysics. And the reader’s question becomes What is being illustrated here? Perhaps the answer comes down to “The juggernauts drag / the sky behind them.” What compels these lines is the mystery of vastness and what that does to or with a human being. What happens in this poem is Oedipal, a recognition of the forces before us, through us, around us— an implied acceptance perhaps. And of course the image itself is stunning. Here is the speaker/poet standing at the center of these vortices, articulating story or poem through them.
At one point, I asked Ingela what she was attempting to do when writing a poem. She wrote this about her piece “I dreamt about Sam Shepard last night,” recently published in Crazyhorse (as was her previous poem “I stand at the gas station”):
What am I trying to do when I write a poem? It´s difficult to describe, but I think that every poem surprises me. It´s like being overtaken by them. From thinking, wondering. And then the poem is there, unwritten. I like to think of them as if they were ready-made somewhere and I have ‘only’ to find them, their forms, their sounds, their meaning. It often begins with one line that appears in my mind and after that I just hope that the poem will write itself . . . If it works, the first thing that happens is that time just fades away. I´m sure you know . . .
It´s [as] if anyone else has written the poem. I guess it´s a subconscious ‘friend’, the real me. I often think that the poems have a knowledge that I don´t have. They seem to come from a very distant source.
It sounds ‘foggy’, I know, but I cannot describe it otherwise.
I had this dream of Shepard, I walked around thinking about it, I could not derive it from anything. I wrote the first line—and then the poem went on, somewhere outside time. After that, of course, I read it many, many times, changing words, deleting, shortening.
Writing is a kind of "intoxicating".
We can see from her description that writing is for Strandberg an unusual experience, somewhat shamanistic in nature. Although it is always difficult to describe these things, perhaps she alludes to something like the inverse of possession—as if one sends the consciousness out to a far place and brings back what may be found there. There are many remarkable moments in this description: the poems “overtake” her, the poems “have a knowledge” she does not have, and the poems “come from a very distant source.” With regard to writing the Sam Shepard piece, the poem “went on, somewhere outside of time.” Finally, she remarks, “Writing is a kind of ‘intoxicating.’” This is the observation I like best because it seems the most accurate. Psychic intoxication of the kind Strandberg alludes to must be something like the shaman’s meditation, a shifting of attention and perhaps a kind of opening, ending with immersion. Yet when we step out of such a space what comes back with us? And do we bring it back or does it bring us? As interesting as questions like this might be, the writer’s work remains: The medium/artist is herself at the point of composition because it takes attention to do that and someone paying it. Yet with whom or what is one collaborating when one creates in this manner? Perhaps the most interesting answer is that we collaborate with ourselves, but what we mean by self in this case is something much larger and with much greater potential than what we usually mean when we use the word.
Ingela Strandberg’s poems are often dark, I should add that one of the more thrilling
aspects of her poetry is when that darkness is lifted. The conclusion of a much
longer poem—titled “And Then”—moves me deeply. She writes at the end of this
have abandoned themselves.
Walk stubbornly up and down
the stairs banging the doors
polishing their worry.
Some nights the whole house
is lit up and shines.
The child who returns
jumping on light feet.
The lightest feet in all Grimeton.
Only in a land of the “midnight
sun” is this kind of vision possible, I suppose—where surreal contrasts are a
yearly event in summer, and the idea that things transform in surprising ways
is therefore more common. Reality is less fixed in environments like these, and
more magical as well. Between “the dead” and the lit house and the child with
“lightest feet in all Grimeton” is an Odyssey, and the map is implied but not
necessary any other way. We see its essence and that is enough; we see its
I have been thinking about what all of this means. In her last two notes to me, Ingela writes,
December 11, 2012
I´m a big fan of Wallace Stevens. Some years ago I got his Collected Poetry & Prose. I often think of what he says about poetry. Like ‘The poet is the priest of the invisible’. (Maybe a pretentious wish . . .)
Or ‘Poetry is a pheasant disappearing in the brush’. That´s what I think of every day now because we have three cock pheasants visiting our garden. Every day. Eating and fleeting over the snow, disappearing . . .
December 6, 2012
. . . lots of snow and cold. The Nobel Prize Winners are freezing in Stockholm, but I go out skiing.
Ingela’s connection to American writers is demonstrated over and over again—Sam Shepard, a chapbook titled Dear Mister Thoreau, and now Stevens. Yet we also see her connections to Swedish landscape, a very daunting and beautiful place, and her familiarity with it. This is her home, her country. Göran describes the place where Ingela Strandberg lives as “a beautiful valley in the southwestern part of Sweden, close to Grimeton (pronounced as if spelled Grimmeton) which once housed a station for transatlantic telegraph traffic that played a great role during World War Two.” What is Sweden to an American? What is America to a Swede? Much more than we might think—if we remember our shared history. I love the “cock pheasants visiting [her] garden” and “fleeting over the snow, disappearing . . . .” Ingela lives in a country where The Nobel Prize winners freeze “in Stockholm” while she goes “out skiing.” In our world, the literary one, these are iconic images—of more than one type. How Thoreau, that great iconoclast, would love to imagine Strandberg skiing while the Prizewinners freeze. Stevens too would adore her pheasants. And Shepard will surely recognize her poetic landscapes as aspects of his stage, his own meanings translated across the Atlantic and vice versa.