Tuesday, August 23, 2005
A Geological Theory of Language
One of the poet Jesper Svenbro's major themes is history. Not just his own personal history, but the history of the 20th Century, the history of Greek antiquity and the geological history of the earth. He is interested in how these different scales of history collide and grind against each other or of how things that are very ancient can, in one way or another, seem very close to us.
In the poem: "Poikilothronos Sappho" he encounters the classical Greek poet Sappho who appears to him "small and dark-skinned, dressed in Lap gear/ which was so bright a blue it seemed unreal". History is foreshortened, and as close as the stars overhead:
"if you stretched your arm you might reach all the way up,
so near did the stars seem to be,
illuminating there our innermost dreams."
In his poem called 'History' he reflects on the way chance can change people's perceptions through the story of his grandmother whose life was saved by a "negro" when the boat on which she was a passenger foundered in the Thames. This gives her confidence in "the negro race", a people rarely encountered in Sweden, from where Svenbro and his grandmother originate.
The poem revolves around a number of chance encounters, accurately characterising the way in which life, all around us, every day, is driven by small coincidences. It leads you to thinking: what is a coincidence after all? Why do we look for coincidence and cherish it when we discover it?
Perhaps we long to discover an underlying organising principle to what happens in the world outside ourselves. We forget that a coincidence is just one of thousands of small possibilities bursting into fruition, as they are apt to do from time to time. Instead, the human mind picks on these particular aspects and is pleased to call them coincidental because they have the effect of reinforcing some internal pattern or longed for destiny.
The fact that a "negro" saved Svenbro's grandmother was just chance, but it was a happy chance because it led her and her grandson towards an appreciation of the blues of Josh White and the jazz of Charlie Parker and to the discovery that Parker, during a tour of Sweden, had made a recording in a barn for a farmer who liked to play music to his cows "because he thought that would make them milk the better." This last, difficult to believe, fact is characteristic of Svenbro's interest in the less well-trodden byroads of history. The poem ends:
"In the distance, a milk cow dreamed about "the Bird,"
bellowing with pleasure in the middle of its dream."
The cow is ruminating. Perhaps it has its own stream of experience, joined together by coincidence, just the way things come together in jazz, or in dreams. Anyway, that is clearly the pleasure of the thing.
Another characteristic Svenbro feature is to find an unusual metaphor for poetry and then to extend this metaphor to elucidate whatever it is he wants to say about poetry. For example, a poem called 'Intimism' which encourages poets to take their cue from Mallarmé and:
"let their gaze reel at the nakedness of the page
which has not yet been dressed in typographical attire"
He suggests that poets who reserve their talents for "intimist écriture that realises its dreams/right on the female body" would do better to follow the example of the French underwear manufacturers who owe their success to garments "characterised by a past era's taste for details/and shown in clasically black silk."
This is, of course, Jesper Svenbro's own taste. A taste for detail, particularities, historical quirks and for a style of poem that is classical, has a certain authoritative weightiness and whose 'thin, very alluring black textile' can discretely cover most of the smooth, white page.
One of the finest poems in the book is 'Material for a Geological Theory of Language' which takes the Swedish ice age landscape of 'boulder ridges' and 'rivers of ice' and advances it, very subtley, as a metaphor for the creation of the Swedish language:
"rivers of ice gushed in frigid tunnels,
dragging along linguistic material from different epochs,
proverbs like erratic blocks, grains of sand like punctuation marks,
and between them parts of speech, parts of stone, ground
against the harder rock of torrent's bed, against original language"
As the first people to discover and inhabit Sweden wandered northwards, slowly discovering this landscape, it slowly worked its way into them:
"The reindeer trotted towards the North.
The first hunters who followed in their tracks
imitated the sounds of the melting water in their speech: for the first time
they uttered the words of the Swedish language
as they whirled around like the stones in a rapid,
clattering, rattling, knocking, clicking against teeth and palate"
I love this poem not only for its skillful construction, but also for its plausibility. Here, apparent geological randomness is shown to be a process of "disintegration and concurrent construction" just as language is always in a state of flux, being mixed and reorganised by that which transports it, in this case, the first hunters.
For it can be, after all, no coincidence that the Swedish language is "a rapid, clattering, rattling, knocking, clicking against teeth and palate". Rather, it should be expected that - when people come to a new land and construct a new language from the old ones which, like the hardy reindeer, they have pushed before them - the language they construct will come to resemble that land. Reading the poem, we feel the words coming to rest, falling out of suspension, coalescing in that particular landscape.
What Svenbro believes of this language derived from geological processes, is that the language itself is a physical thing. In the poem 'A Critique of Pure Representation' he says:
"I insist on the kinship of the stone
with the hard and obstinate word "stone". At some point
its existence must be acknowledged, its uneveness be touched!
To each and everyone the possibility of speaking on his own behalf
without being represented by somebody else"
Because the word is there, as a specific presence in the world, anyone can pick it up and hurl it in their own defence. It remains a permanent threat since:
"there is a phonetics that reveals the bond/ between mountain and skeleton, rock and voice". This phonetics is: "the phonetics of resistance".
Jesper Svenbro's recently published book 'three-toed gull: Selected Poems' is published by Northwestern University Press in the US. It is a great collection of poetry, and an excellent work of translation.