Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Lars Gustafsson

I was only just starting to discover Lars Gustafsson's poetry, via this Christmas present, the 2015 selection translated by John Irons for Bloodaxe, when I discovered that he'd died; it was little more than a week ago, on the 2nd or 3rd of April.

This kind of thing is bound to happen occasionally to any reader of modern poetry; last year, too, I was finally getting down to reading Lee Harwood properly for the first time when news came through of his death.

It's a strange feeling. In the euphoria of discovery, delighted recognition of the solidity of the work, it's impossible to grieve. I don't only mean that I can't share in the raw grief of the poet's near ones - that goes without saying - I mean that I can't share in the heavy yet hollow feeling that long-term readers of Gustafsson will be feeling now.

When a poet has been, so to speak, your daily bread, then the poet's death is an upheaval that mysteriously changes the poetry. (I'm speaking above all of what I remember to have been my feelings when Peter Redgrove died in 2003.) The most basic fact for the reader is that there will be no new messages; only an archive. And evidently we read the poems of living poets that we "follow" in this different way: as messages, as updates, even from someone who doesn't know of our existence.

When a poet dies there's a little burst of sales and reading and celebration, like a pimple on an imposing statue's nose.  And then, for some few years, comes a period of withdrawal, when the poet lies hidden behind a screen. Seamus Heaney lies there now. We need, as poetry-readers, to take a long breath and to re-inhabit the world that exists and continues to exist without that dominant voice. Are we even really ready, yet, to think about Ted Hughes again?

And for the devoted fan, now the immediacy of communication is over, a period of doubt enters in. Was Redgrove's poetry all I had thought it when I was living it?  I became reluctant to open Redgrove's books, and I still feel that reluctance now. I want to preserve the memory of my own experience of the work's vigour and sappiness, in the days when it was still growing.

So in a way a poet has two separate readerships, those who read the living author and those who read the dead one; and they don't necessarily mix.


There's in fact a number of resemblances between Gustafsson and Redgrove; both poets with an interest in science, and with an interest in imagining beyond what science knows; both prolific, quotidian authors; both cheerfully detached from the poetic schools and conflicts of their time; both authors who have been often acclaimed, and yet perhaps with a certain defensiveness...  but already I'm carrying the analogy too far. Gustafsson's poetry, for example, is preoccupied by our inability to wholly know ourselves, or anything else. It's a philosophical preoccupation.  Redgrove's poetry is quite different in that respect.


   When the air lies still, so do the lakes,
   the great bright lakes, still like quicksilver.  ....

An organ pipe plays the deepest sounds of all, felt only as tremblings. Then the poem drops on to its titular subject: it's called "Bombus terrestris" :

   A flyer who lives in the depths of the forest
   has folded his wings, and is asleep in the rain.

   It is not at the start and not at the end.
   It is mainland, vast tracts that are far

   within maps and deep within time,
   a forest of years protective on all sides,

   and the larks soar up like a jubilant cloud,
   but always some will fall dead, and perish.

The poem continues to switch direction after this too, but that idea of "mainland" is what lodges in my mind.


And here's an extract that chose itself. It's the beginning of a poem called "Concerning everything that still hovers".

   As yet my grave is nowhere visible.
   And thus I too am hovering:
   resting, myself, unknowing,
   I too in a sea of air, an atmosphere.
   Floating with the floating,
   living with the living,
   resting with the resting,
   and, perhaps also, without knowing it,
   dead with the dead.

The hovering, existence as a continuous low hum, is a main focus of the thinking. (I find that, like Per Wästberg who introduces the Bloodaxe volume, I'm leaping from one poem to another, as if they're all part of a common statement.) So the poems are about life, really. But death is part of that.


   There is so little left.
   Of dogs for example
   only their collars.
   Normally sent home in an envelope
   along with the bill
   from the vet.
   Of the really great writers
   some extracts in anthologies
   that are soon thinned out
   over a couple of decades
   and die away in the ever-shorter footnotes
   of secondary literature as the century passes.
   Of Admiral Dönitz, Admiral Nimitz
   and Admiral Tirpitz?
   A few rectangles and triangles.
   Some red. Some blue.


Gustafsson was also a local poet. His dogs, his fishing, his family are very particular in these poems. He lived in the midland county of Västmanland, and the lake on the book-jacket is a lake that often breathes within or beside these poems.

[Image source: http://vlt.se/kulturnoje/1.3723780-bildextra-ett-ogonblick-med-forfattaren . From a group of 18 photographs, by Peter Krüger, of Lars Gustafsson at his summer cottage outside Sala in Västmanland. The pictures were published by VLT (Vestmanlands Läns Tidning) on 3rd April 2016, following the announcement of Gustafsson's death. They were probably taken the previous summer.]

[I will also be a belated reader of Gustafsson's lively blog ("blogg" in Swedish). He was posting regularly until mid-March 2016.]

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