By virtue of the nature of publishing, poetry translations are often compilations rather than specific collections. There’s a difference between thoroughly reading a poet’s work across a lifetime and experiencing a tasting menu of small, selected bites. In the case of the latter, rather than making the smorgasbord ourselves, we must allow other chefs to frame and phrase it.
Yet the alternative—never encountering those who would be otherwise lost to us—is surely the greater loss. The Forbidden Door, by Lasse Söderberg, Sweden’s most renowned poet and translator, is a cause for celebration; that it has been selected and translated by Lars Gustaf Andersson and Carolyn Forché only makes it more devourable. Ranging over sixty years and eighteen collections (some books only represented by one or two poems), The Forbidden Door is less of a compendium than a lush introduction that offers an enticing glimpse of a prolific writer.
Söderberg’s oeuvre, like his contributions to poetry as both translator and convener—he directed the International Poetry Days in Malmö—is immeasurable. He has championed the works of famed writers by introducing them to Swedish audiences, and many of his poems contain direct odes, asides, or mentions of a who’s who of poetry, including Tomas Tranströmer, with whom Söderberg shares a birth year, as well as Octavio Paz, Mark Rothko, Arthur Rimbaud, and many others. There’s a subtle magic to the poet who translates, as poetry itself is an act of translation in which images, emotions, memories are distilled into succinct words. Carolyn Forché is certainly a master of both, as is Lars Gustaf Andersson, and this circularity of poet, translator, translator, poet enfolds and amplifies the collection like a lyric feedback machine. Andersson and Forché’s spirit in these poems is subtle, but significant. The voice is Söderberg’s, but there are also the echoes of those he has spoken for, to, and through over decades. These poems travel the globe: South and Central America, Jerusalem, Damascus, Europe, and always the limitless geography of the mind and the soul.
There are poets’ poets whose prowess is often used in service of the words of others—in English, I count Kaveh Akbar and Ilya Kaminsky in that cluster of generosity—and Söderberg is emblematic of this largesse. From “The sky over Fresnes,” referring to where Jean Genet was imprisoned, to “The poet in April,” which speaks to César Vallejo, to “The moon that Cervantes saw,” there’s a consistent theme in this collection of Söderberg engaging with and channeling poets, almost like a living ars poetica.
The first poem in the book is “Paul Eluard in memoriam,” from a 1955 collection several years after Éluard’s death. The poem is intimate and hushed; the ode of a young poet to a greatly admired maestro, one of the founders of Surrealism: “Can the urn be more beautiful than the water? / Can the death of a poet light up the world?” In this poem and others, it’s clear that Söderberg’s response is a definitive yes, and his subtle contemplation of form versus content—that urn, that water—both as philosophical construct as well as poetic, is threaded through what follows.
Several pages later, also from 1955, in “For Tomas Tranströmer (after reading 17 poems once again),” he addresses his peer’s 17 poems in a love letter that entwines environment and lyricism:
The rain is, of course, a longer poem.
But where the elements are widening,
your Swedish narrows. And in the outer archipelago of the soul
the branch of the poem is swaying.
Time—or at least the many permutations of it—is a constant focal point in The Forbidden Door. One can imagine the different Söderbergs communing along with the spirits of all the poets he has convened. “The grass in Managua” (Pebbles for the pyramide, 1989), for example, is impossible to read without considering the decades-long political upheavals in Nicaragua. It closes on, “. . . the men, / the women and the children were left / without moving, resolute . . . The ash I saw in their hands was the birth of a country.”
Yet in the middle section of the poem, the dreaminess of the language underscores the transitory nature of the self, especially in the face of inexorable history:
The place where I was
was an interval, overgrown,
the turning point between two times
that both existed,
one of them without a real beginning,
the other without a real end
and in the same way I was
my own turning point
I was cleaved in two
both strangers to each other
and still living in the same breath.
But, here between born and unborn,
I was an impermanent witness,
a grass myself among the ruins.
Almost thirty years—and more than one hundred pages—later, in the last poem of the collection, “Critique of the enthusiasm (Managua revisited) / (In response to “The grass of Managua)” (Questions about the history, 2017), Söderberg critically examines the younger man and poet he was, and what appeared to be the truth then, and now:
The place where I was
is the place where I am now.
[ . . . ]
Those who reproach
the prophetic tone of my poem
are right, and so are they who blame me
for my imagery.
They are right concerning the palmistry
that I used: sentimental luster
that I deployed generously in order to please.
My only excuse is enthusiasm.
At this juncture in my own three-quarters-or-so-passed-life, this acute candor sparks a critical self-reflection. What of my own enthusiasms, those youthful causes that with the passage of decades feel less pure, less right? How do the sepia-toned stances of our past appear in the unforgiving light of the present? And what do we expect of the poet: is it their responsibility to offer one singular truth that is unchanging with time? It’s a bold act to finish the collection with this poem as final comment on Söderberg’s canon, but from the comprehensive vantage point provided by Andersson and Forché, I found myself wanting to return to a much earlier poem where Söderberg could well be describing his later self. From “The poet writes for the wind (for León Felipe)” (The impermanent, 1963):
For whom does the poet write?
For everything that wanders and suffers,
everything that over and over is beaten to the ground
and disappears. For the grey stones
because they resemble humans.
For everyone and no one.
One wonders if the young Söderberg had an inkling that sixty years later, he would also be writing to himself, about himself. Again, there is this circularity—a suspension of time, or perhaps an expansion of it.
The book’s language is often deceptively simple; accretively, it indicates a life in words, but also a life in the world, spinning fast, with resonances and connections, frictions and contradictions. This can lead to a powerful politicism. From the translators’ excellent introduction: “. . . to be within poetry to is to be attentive toward everything that happens, including political life.” Söderberg’s work reflects this occupation, in a way that could be of any time, and certainly our own:
The words I dream about
live in everything that ignites unrest:
bruises, bloodstains, nipples
and the flipsides of medals.
Söderberg’s lyricism frequently extends into the politics of empire. Walt Whitman visualized America thus: “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, / . . . Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs,” and, in “With heart-chalk,” (The meal of the General and other -poems, 1969), Söderberg asks him this question:
What has happened to your America,
Walt Whitman? What has become
of the strong love that you celebrated
and the institutions you distrusted?
[ . . . ]
Your America is no longer yours.
Therefore I will, without hesitation,
write over your name Walt Whitman, with heart-chalk the word Vietnam
He ends the poem less with an erasable mark than a scalpel: “Your America is no longer yours / . . . I will, without hesitation, / write over your name . . . / with heart-chalk the word Vietnam.” It’s impossible to read this without a painful awareness of the world in which we live, of its repetitions of history, and the chasms that keep forming between idealism and reality, rhetoric versus action. More so, without considering the question of who writes the narratives, and how those who are allowed to sing with open mouths are often only a slice of the population, with no awareness of all the other voices in their midst who are silenced.
In 1972, from the collection A rose for a revolution, “A part of America (Guantanamo)” reads as incisively as twenty-first century poetry, which again reminds me of the long stretch and flexible fabric of temporality. When Söderberg wrote this, could he have had some inkling of what was to come? Are our poets writing from the past into the future?
There soldiers are on guard
in towers and sniper nests.
They are watching us in their filed glasses,
We are watching them in our field glasses.
The heat between us waits and waits.
In some instances, Andersson and Forché have selected only one poem out of an entire collection. What were the other poems like? Was the chosen poem an outlier or representative? This is missing context, although ultimately it also feels like a critic’s plea for more, more, more. This is one narrative that the editors have selected for us from a lifetime of poems. As much as I would have liked to experience the breadth of this oeuvre, it is still exceptionally valuable to read what is in hand right now: these snapshots of a poet who links poetic modernity of the early/mid-twentieth century into contemporary poetics.
Perhaps one of the reasons I’m so entranced by this collection is its presences and absences: vivid vistas and teasing glimpses that are intimate, yet also suggest there’s so much more to know, and deeper relationships to be had. That’s what I most look forward to with poetry, beyond the thrill of the first read or the tenth: that ability to return repeatedly across the seasons of my own life, to revisit the poem and myself. This extensive yet still relatively partial collection offers that and more.
I did find myself wishing that I could hear Söderberg’s literal voice; I searched to no avail for a video or audio of his poetic recitations. There’s so much to gain from listening to a poet’s physical voice—understanding that language is secondary to experiencing the tone, the pauses, the aural color—another teasing absence.
In his poem “With Jorge Guillén” (Arrows towards the moon, 1992), Söderberg writes about the famed Spanish poet, but could also be describing himself:
He builds joy. His life’s work
soon finished. As when
sea and heaven meld together
in a sun-drunk shimmering.
Luckily, Söderberg’s life’s work isn’t yet finished. For English readers, our experience of it has finally begun: sunrise.
© 2022 by Mandana Chaffa. All rights reserved.