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Katarina Frostenson, Karkas fem linjer (Karkas Five Lines)

Wahlström & Widstrand,  2004. ISBN: 9146210822

Reviewed by Frank Perry in SBR 2005:2

Sounding a little more antiquated, and perhaps more intriguing in Swedish than in its English counterpart, Karkas – like “carcass” – can denote not just a body or its remains but a skeletal structure, a shell (in the sense of a carapace, a framework or a projectile). The Swedish word also refers to the “body” of a hat and to technical items used in millinery, including a sort of stiffening made of wire. There is another pattern of association relating to the idea of a mould, in or around which something is formed. This is a book of poems about death and loss but one that is so playfully inventive and constructed with so much linguistic verve, that it would be difficult to over-emphasize the centrality of the challenge it poses to the reader in following the poet down the associative paths she lays out. Especially if, as in the case of this reviewer, Swedish is not one’s mothertongue. “Lines” might be a better term to use than “paths”. The five lines referred to in the title divide the suites or sections that make up the collection. The linear or lineal is a constant theme: rivers, roadsides, the silhouettes of cities, the path traced across the landscape, rural or urban. As in the poem Stig (Track): “ett tennlöv på fältet/ i snö, ditt spår...” (a pewter leaf in the field/ on snow, your trail); or in the poems about the fallen cities and landscapes of Eastern Europe, whose devastated remains are laid out along the first of the five lines in the haunting and evocative rhythms Frostenson masters so brilliantly. The skeletal lines of a dead body? The carcass of the Modernist project? The death of language? The ravaging of the corpse of Communist Europe? Well, yes. But there is a more particular death here connected with the word “father”. A father, the poet’s own father perhaps, who has become synonymous with the lines that commemorate him. Lines that combine a musical pathos with extravagant and brilliant punning. Among the ghosts – the poetic fathers – that infest this carcass are Shakespeare, Celan and Mallarmé. The section devoted to the father concludes with a poem Hans ben de är koraller (Of his bones are coral made). While in the poem Stig, referred to above, the realization that “stig” not only means track or path but can also be a Christian name only crystallizes in the last line with “dyre prins” (sweet prince) when with a nod to Hamlet the poem is transformed for the initiated reader into a homage to the enfant terrible of Swedish letters: Stig Larsson. This is a difficult and demanding but above all beautiful book, in which short spare poems of elegiac lyricism contrast with longer works with an extraordinary sense of the rhythmic possibility of the Swedish language. It is physically beautiful as well: the endpapers display part of a painting by the Swedish artist Håkan Rehnquist, to whom Skuggan av en gåva (Shadow of a Gift), one of the book’s five “lines”, is dedicated. This is a long and moving prose poem about the difficulty of interpretation, the impossibility of translation. It ends with a lovely sonnet to the “patron saints” of music and modern poetry: Cecilia and Paul Celan, part of which is reproduced below:

Närsynt musik over fältet
man borde känna tyngd
men det är ett slags ljus som verkar i
neonstrimmor och grafiskt vitt
på en höjd ett hus
monolitiskt och molngrått
är tillståndet
det trängande, milda går
igenom, över
från dig

(Myopic music over the field/ weight should be what's felt/ only a kind of light’s at work in/ neon strips and graphic white/ on a height a house/ monolithic and mist-grey/ is the condition/ what is urgent, what gentle/ pervades, passes over/ from you.)

Also by Katarina Frostenson

  • Sju Grenar (Seven Branches). Reviewed by Brad Harmon in SBR 2019:12.
  • Tre Vägar (Three Routes). Reviewed by Anna Tebelius in SBR 2014:1.
  • Flodtid (Flood Hour). Reviewed by Anna Tebelius in SBR 2012:1.

Other reviews by Frank Perry

Other reviews in SBR 2005:2

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