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Harry Martinson, The Procession of Memories. Selected Poems 1929-1945

Wordcraft of Oregon,  2009. ISBN: 9781877655647

Reviewed by Brita Green in SBR 2010:1

Translated by Lars Nordström

English Translation: The Procession of Memories: Selected Poems 1929-1945, translated by Lars Nordström. Wordcraft of Oregon, 2009. ISBN 9781877655647.

Lars Nordström was born in Stockholm, has lived in the United States since he was twenty, and works as a translator, writer and vine-grower. In this bilingual edition, he ‘introduces the reader to Martinson’s early work as a poet’. All five collections from the chosen period are represented: Spökskepp (Phantom Ship) 1929; Nomad (Nomad) 1931; Natur (Nature) 1934; Nomad, second, revised edition, 1943; and Passad (Trade Winds) 1945, as well as contributions to two anthologies (1929 and 1931). In a well-written and informative short introduction, Nordström writes about Martinson’s life, work and style. Memories from Martinson’s hard childhood and his years as a stoker on cargo ships are present in much of this poetry. In ‘Anni’, a childhood incident is described in imagery taken from his life at sea: ‘Do you remember? We were seven years old then / ... / All around us a yellow bay of rye / ... / blue field voles swam like whales out there in the middle of the sea? / The sun and the crickets: porpoises in the grain? / Our foster mother arrived like a heavy barge / ... / ... Do you remember, Anni?’ (1931). Martinson gives us glimpses of a stoker’s hellish life, working by the furnaces in tropical heat: ‘... the deserts of Kaolack formed / its vaulted ovens above the river / ... The steel itself begged for mercy for us’ (1943). It is no easier when the October gales howl on the North Sea: ‘You sort of lash down your inner feelings, / and you hardly have to be a Finn / to pull your knife in the docklands’ (1943). But there is also the expert’s enthusiasm for ‘Durham coal! These not quite fully developed diamonds / which a stoker at sea caresses and handles / as if they were breadfruits...’ (1931). To the young sailor, boats and buoys are living things. The coal tramp just come out of a hurricane is ‘puffing and blowing’ and, ‘Snorting, it berths at the sunny dock, / exhausted, licking its wounds...’ (1929). In a prose poem the ‘completely ordinary’ bell buoy in Zuider Zee, ‘indolently humming to herself’, swaying ‘her riveted hips’, became witness to the horrors of war. After a sea-battle ‘great numbers of dead sailors started drifting in toward the East Frisian Islands... There were bearded, old German bosuns, dressed in washed-out blue jackets, with stiff, veined hands streaked with tattoos... A small British ship’s boy still held a signal flag in his clenched fist.’ The bell buoy continued swaying and singing her song, ‘as more and more bodies in the flotilla of the dead rocked forward and went to the bottom in the whirlpool around her hips’ (1929). In his nature poetry, Martinson’s strength is observing small details and conveying his impressions effortlessly to the reader. Here, too, anthropomorphism can creep in: ‘a gate hung with broken shoulders; / the cracked, rusty eye of a hinge looked into / a grove of junipers.’ (1931). The idiosyncratic imagery reflects his exotic experiences: when the maybugs land you can see the ‘subdued golden green sheen of the wing cases / like brass from India’ (1945). Martinson’s other great interest – space – is also evident in this early poetry, e.g. in ‘The Vision’, where through the telescope the Salvation Army soldiers observe ‘the harps of heaven; / titanic, oscillating chaotic strands / of golden gas of nebulae’ (1934). Nordström has not taken on the challenge of trying to produce rhymes in the English versions of rhymed poems but, that aside, the translations follow the originals quite closely, and it mostly works well. Martinsonian innovative compounds (mentioned in the introduction) pose a special problem. Some have been retained – ‘världsskyffel’ is successfully left as ‘world shovel’, for example – but more often they have had to be broken up into prepositional or adjectival phrases, inevitably losing something of the concentrated intensity of the original: ‘junitysta vattenstenar’ becomes ‘June’s silent watery stones’, for example (1943). This is not so much a criticism of the translation as an observation about the difficulty of doing Martinson full justice in English. Nordström’s selection at first seems to have some surprising omissions. Of course many of the well-known poems are included, but where is ‘On the Congo’ or any of the poems from the ‘Li Kan’ or ‘Trade Winds’ cycles, for example? The explanation is to be found in the (somewhat sweeping) claim that ‘none of the 60 poems included have ever been translated into English previously’. (Do those published in literary magazines not count?) Be that as it may, this editorial decision means that a reader new to Martinson would not here be given a truly representative picture of his early poetry. Nevertheless, the book certainly fills a gap and is to be warmly welcomed.

Brita Green

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