June 17, 2010

Håkan Sandell

Håkan Sandell [Sweden]

Born in Malmö, in the province of Skåne, Håkan Sandell grew up in the most ethnically diverse city in Scandinavia, and in a region that prides itself on its close ties to continental Europe. He remembers his grandmother telling him when he was very young, “We are not Swedish. We belong to a people related to the Danes and the Germans. We are Skåningar.”

Sandell published his first collection of poetry at the tender age of 19 and went on to became a member of Malmöligan (The Malmö Gang), a group of poets that also included the now very well known film director Lukas Moodysson. In 1995, Sandell and poet friend Clemens Altgård published the long essay/manifest Om Retrogardism (On Retrogardism), in which they argued their case for a broadly based revival of poetry’s traditional resources and techniques, and for the poet’s role as an integral part of society, rather than a spokesperson for a small elite.

Since leaving Malmö more than a decade and a half ago, Sandell has lived abroad, first in Copenhagen, county Cork, Ireland, most recently in Oslo. He has also traveled much, in the far north of Norway, the Faraoe Islands, Iceland, the Orkney islands, Normandy, Scotland, the Baltic countries and in the valleys of northern Wales. As he puts it—seriously, but with tounge planted firmly in cheek—“I traveled for almost ten years in mist-shrouded countries, and read mostly medieval poetry.” In Norway, Sandell has become an influential member of an artistic community that calls themselves the Oslo-retrogardists and includes many classical-figurative painters, poets, musicians and scholars. In addition to his poetry, Sandell regularly contributes art and poetry criticism as well as essays on historical subjects to the retrogardist journal Aorta, distributed in Sweden and Norway. Working closely together with linguists he has translated poetry into Swedish from Russian, Latvian, French, German, Celtic Irish and classical Greek.
Sandell has developed one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary Swedish poetry, combining a sober but unabashed romanticism with an innovative use of traditional tools such as meter and rhyme, to describe modern urban life. If it is true that his critical pronouncements have occasionally raised hackles—Om Retrogardism was hardly his last foray into polemics—he has not been without his champions. Four of his latest six collections of poetry have been published by Wahlström & Widstrand, one of Sweden’s most prestigious publishing houses, and his work is reviewed positively in the major Swedish newspapers. He has received a number of awards in recent years, including Kallebergerstipendiet from the Swedish Academy, the Essay Prize from the Organization of Swedish Cultural Journals, and a writer´s pension for life from the Writers Union and the government of Sweden.

—Bill Coyle

Cathy (Lund: Bakhåll, 1981); Europé (Lund: Bakhåll,1982); En poets blod (Lund: Bakhåll,1983); Efter sjömännen/Elektrisk måne (Lund: Bakhåll,1984); Flickor (Stockholm: Gedins Förlag, 1988); Skampåle (Stockholm: Gedins Förlag, 1990); Dikter för analfabeter (Stockholm: Gedins Förlag, 1991); Bestiarium (privately printed,1992), Fröer och undergång (Stockholm: Gedins Förlag, 1994); Mikkel Rävs skatt (Simrishamn, Studiekamratens förlag, 1995); Sjungande huvud (Stockholm: Gedins Förlag, 1996); Midnattsfresken (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand,1999); Oslo-Passionen (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 2003); Gåvor : valda dikter 1984-2002 (Lund: ellerströms, 2003); Begynnelser: en barndom i tjugotvå dikter (Tolarp: Ariel Skrifter, 2004); Skisser till ett århundrade (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 2006); Gyllene Dager (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 2009)

Twenty two things not to be trusted
(Hávamál, 85-86)

Twenty two things not to be trusted:
not night-old ice, not a winter in Skåne
with the ice shining and as yet untrodden
to a confidence inspiring terra firma.
Not winter in Skåne, not spring in Norway
with Easter Lilies rising through the snow’s crust;
never, ever, for Christ’s sake, trust
the blond from the sticks, fresh off the bus,
the bloodied thread in the labyrinth,
or that to every nice girl in a pinch
an angel comes, outfitted like a demon.
Mistrust a bit the empire’s balconies,
they have less of a purchase than the piercing
in the snake’s tongue; consider: the ice
in that drink in India will melt, consider, too,
that the red smiles and eyes as violet-blue
as the firmament above the Soviet Union
in one of Mikael Wiehe’s folk rock tunes
won’t always live up to your expectations.
For the young, these valuable recommendations;
never trust the egg laid by the rooster,
or helpfulness encountered at train stations,
doubt the dentist’s gold, the wolf’s wool
and the assurances of a golden future;
that it’s primarily for your own good
that you’ve been taken in hand, that you can depend
upon your being loved by your enemy.
No, don’t believe for a moment in the imperishable
nature of the shining ice; in the spread
wings of Icarus, in a spider’s thread,
in Christian charity with preconditions,
in politicians—or the children of politicians

—Translated from the Swedish by Bill Coyle
(first published in Words Without Borders)

Poetry rejoices…

Poetry rejoices even if the culture dies,
over the girl with her first electric, how her high,
thin voice, amplified many times
over by the loudspeaker, is like a giant’s
in the green grass of the festival site.
Over the fragile bells of digitalis, how they hide
the pistil and the pollen inside.
Rejoices over rain on the Faroe Islands,
over rendezvous on the Champs-Elysées at evening.
It rejoices over Japan, over Korea,
over arts refined over a thousand years—
the art of swordsmanship, or of drinking tea.
Rejoices over the poet, that his heart still beats.

—Translated from the Swedish by Bill Coyle
(first published in Poetry)

Your hair of snakes and flowers

When I saw one of those men touch your hair,
I heard for the first time in many a year
the ancient battle trumpets and I saw
the banners of an army winding off to war
and felt that blind power urging me to knock
him out with one punch, send him tumbling to the floor.
If nobody had held me back, stopped me,
I would—God help me—have killed him on the spot,
stomped out his blood, and spit in it. I’m sorry,
but you must be aware your winding hair
is different now, a hornets’ nest, a snakes’ lair!
yes, like a ball of snakes in a flower basket, dear.

Translated from the Swedish by Bill Coyle
(first published in Poetry)

Requiem for a Returnee

Czeslaw Milosz has moved to Krakow,
I heard from his Swedish translator yesterday,
to draw in with a deep rattling breath
the concrete dust by the building scaffolds,
breathed out again as the muse speaks her last.
And yet it seems like the scene of his death
should have remained a California
of perfected loss, peeled, wide open,
trembling with desert heat and alienation,
a well-aged alienation, where not the Beach Boys
but Chopin, Brahms and Shostakovich
are played at the cultivated funeral.
Nicely-built young American female
poets would have sparkled in the backmost benches
hour-glass shaped after a lifetime of salads
elegant too in the most stylish clothing
with small threads of cotton over their shoulders
in that self-satisfied self-preoccupation
I too will adopt any day now
in order to claim my feminine rights.
Paler, now, after the warnings about skin cancer
for over two decades leanly writing
for no one but themselves or no one
but their lovely, gold-framed reflections.
So cool in spite of the heat, and sexy
like they would be if all of the men had died out
and they were sexy only for themselves and
for the shelves in the lesbian bookstore.
Poets, yes, but more like muses
for fate, music, and watercolor painting.
Muses for sports cars, for the streetlights’
mildness in the dusk, for the blue of the waves
and of the neon letters high as falcons,
they all of them seem to be the bearers of a peculiar
bittersweet inspiration with no one to receive it.
Oh Sappho, California, sweet music,
why does Czeslaw Milosz travel to Krakow,
only, at the birth of his country, to die
like an utterly ordinary grey old man
when the long beaches’ mummifying heat
and a sea as blue as a white cat’s eye
made a background suited to a Greek god,
youthful in jeans and drunk on exile
like Odysseus’ men on milk-sweet lotus?

—Translated from the Swedish by Bill Coyle
(first published in PN Review)

(Å.A. 1962—1988)

I bind your funeral wreath, I bind in it
hollow-cheeked bluebells and after that nothing,
nothing and all thereafter loose and sparse and bright.
I put in children’s light bouquets,
grapevine, smoke of hemp, smoke-rings and smoke
like rope that does not last the night.
I call it poor man’s wreath and colorless,
fingernail-pink, edged with sorrow, yellowed.
I set in emptiness as well
and dense and heavy palms and dew belong as well.
I fill the wreath with milk and mist
that spill out that spill out onto the grave
and fasten let fall long black bands.

—Translated from the Swedish by Bill Coyle
(first published in PN Review)

The Pigeons

Healthy metallic-bright pigeons
born in the shadows of forests,
weak despite colorful armor,
silken scarves billowing brightly.
Delicate scarlet feet, perfect
feminine talons, exquisite,
too, on the male of the species.
Heartbeats expressed as attire,
throats curved and slender as serpents’,
sea colors far up in fir-trees,
seek me out now after decades.
Hardly-heard tones to the present,
notes on diminutive tongues find
greatness at last in the memory.
Pigeons in shadowy pine-trees
when ecstasy shifts into clarity,
amber-red eyes in the darkness.
Also where you lay broken,
leftovers hawks left in clearings,
fluttering shards of grey opal
weighing the wind down, the forest
stood like a temple around you.
Wings that the waters reflected,
gracing the air and the sunlight.
Meetings with you as anathema,
animate litter, not manifold
greenery that sings in one’s vision,
chased along over the sidewalks
leaving irregular circles
scratched with your feet’s curled deformities,
give back an image of purity
rinsed in grey, grape-tinted clusters
trampled down there by the corner.
Lines that recall Leonardo’s
are quickly worked over by footwear.
Soot-covered pigeons are reddened;
even in death they are blatant obscenities.
Pigeons that foolishly wobbled
in circuits from dinner to danger;
spat-upon thread-bare and clownish,
resigned past the point of timidity,
more locked than the flame of a candle.
Yet there is in the pigeon’s blue highness
cast in the form of the shadow
of a statue of horse and rider
or, when its wings are extended,
a symbol of gossamer visions,
a hint of its earlier existence
in a world that was worthwhile and nurturing
when it lived in the forests’ dominion.
Less refined minds will continue
to consider it litter and vermin—
are pigeons still able to fly, even?
If you sometime should happen to see them,
sickly and slovenly, sitting
dour in the gutters of rooftops,
close beside eggs that lie rotting,
you will see plainly a place where
a lusterless poetry flares now and then
in memory of all of its losses.

Translated from the Swedish by Bill Coyle
(first published in Ars Interpres)


English language translations copyright (c) by Bill Coyle.

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