This review first appeared in Aftenblodet – Published on 2011-03-09
Translated by Paul Cunningham
In Helena Österlund’s debut poetry collection, Words and Colors, the theme is language itself.
Like Inger Christensen, her poetry consists of constant repetition and shifts. A small amount of words multiplies into many different versions, then expands with additional nouns or verbs, giving rise to new possibilities in language. It is minimalist in the same way that a wooden house with wooden furnishings is minimalist: the material is limited, but the possibilities for design are endless.
In two equally long suites of poems, both made up of three parts, Österlund examines the difference between words and what they denote. In Words, the parts are named after the auxiliary verbs “Is,” “Was,” and “Will,” while Colors, in contrast, consists of “Red,” “White,” and “Black.”
Interactions with animals are central to the course of events: in the first suite (Words), the poetic self is situated in the eyes of a raven; the second (Colors), consists of a long struggle to overpower a wolf.
Helena Österlund’s poetic self undergoes a linguistic regression. It rinses its mouth clean—erases—language, uttering words as if it was the very first time. In doing so, it becomes gradually more aware of its own place in life. Or, as Inger Christensen explains in her study of the driving forces of writing: “When trying to write poetry, the process can often begin with a meditation on language. And this very concentration on itself—empty words and their combination—can bring out the memories that are so important.” By uttering the words again, Österlund takes a kind of phenomenological perspective on the world and the self, and most of all, the differences between them. Where does one’s body end and where does one’s environment begin?
Sometimes the difference is a preposition that consists of only one letter:
“There was snow / I was not snow / I was in the snow.” *
As with Christensen, the language is initially used to name and arrange, and here the categories are created primarily with the help of negations. Either the self is something or it is not, either the word becomes snow or it does not. But after a while, the world becomes increasingly diverse. After the name comes the separation and when Österlund’s poetic self begins to understand what the world consists of, subdivisions suddenly arise:
“The snow was still white / But it was not the same white.”
It’s as if the different types of wood in a wooden house with the wooden interior could suddenly appear as cherry, oak, and mahogany all while seemingly sharing some form of simplicity. And, after the separation, the confusion, the stage in which the effects of regression are annihilated and the world again becomes too complex for the self to overview:
“I could no longer see if the snow was white.”
Words and Colors doesn’t deliver one-liners but depends on constant shifts.
It’s a project that requires the reader to be prepared to stay with the poetry for a long time. Sometimes the repetition – which contributes enormous suggestive power – also creates a certain inertia. The same repetition that nails me to the poem also hurls me out of it, when a word has recurred so many times that I can no longer see what it means. The regression is so slow and profound that it hurts to be inside it.
I really like being exposed to such violence. Rinsing your mouth clean of language is hard work, both for the writer and for the reader.
*Translator’s note: In Swedish, the word for “in” consists of only one letter: “i”:
“Det var snö / Jag var inte snö / Jag var i snö.”
Athena Farrokhzad was born in 1983 and lives in Stockholm. She is a poet, literary critic, translator, playwright and teacher of creative writing. After several years of collaborative poetry projects and international collaborations she published her first volume of poetry in 2013, Vitsvit (White Blight) at Albert Bonniers förlag. The book circles around the topic of revolution, war, migration and racism, and how these experiences condition the lives of different members of a family. Vitsvit has been translated to several languaged and turned into a play. The same year, her first play, Päron, premiered at Ung Scen /Öst.
Paul Cunningham is the author of The House of the Tree of Sores (Schism2 Press, 2020) and the translator of Helena Österlund’s Words (OOMPH! Press, 2019). He has also translated two chapbooks by Sara Tuss Efrik: Automanias Selected Poems (Goodmorning Menagerie, 2016) and The Night’s Belly (Toad Press, 2016). His creative and critical work has most recently appeared in Snail Trail Press, Kenyon Review, Quarterly West, Poem-a-Day, DIAGRAM, and others. He is the managing editor of Action Books, editor of Deluge, co-editor of Radioactive Cloud, and co-curator of the Yumfactory Reading Series. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia. @p_cunning