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Underjorden Malte Persson, Underjorden (Underground)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2011. ISBN: 9789100125646

Reviewed by Anna Tebelius in SBR 2011:2

Sonnet translated by Anna Tebelius and Malte Persson

The Swedish poet Malte Persson is interested in examining the contrasts created between old forms and new language. In his latest poetry collection Underjorden (The Underground), sixty sonnets about the Stockholm metro, a mythological underworld and a modern underground set this scene. The poems rework the literary history of the sonnet from Shakespeare to Auden and beyond, and echo with intertextual references to other underworld travellers from Homer to Rilke and Eliot. In the sonnets, the escalators taking the commuters further and further downwards to the tunnels, the trains, the platforms and the carriages, carrying their passengers across an invisible network of interlinked passageways, all become vehicles to transport the reader to a modern mythological underworld. Whereas Hades is the abode of the dead, this underground world is, for the poet, the terminus for dead time, a strange world of shadows, a place that remains caught in between, a place of echoes. The inspiration for Persson’s style can perhaps be found in the gentle modernism of Auden. The everyday occurrences for the passengers in Underjorden are transformed to become part of its mythological setting. A passenger cuts himself off from the traffic with giant headphones, God blogs to the world, and a security guard removes an illicit can of beer from a teenager. All this happens alongside Plutarch’s announcement that ‘Great Pan is dead’ and the early nineteenth century Swedish poet Stagnelius travelling back into town from a night of heavy drinking. Ultimately, the sonnets in Underjorden are a reflection on poetry itself and on the loneliness of the poet. As he travels through the underworld tunnels, all he can do is sing, but who will listen? Persson’s poet transforms into a postmodern Orpheus catching the cries and whispers of both dead writers and still living passengers. In one sonnet this desire for poetry is described:

But which is ‘the song’ amongst all songs here?
Someone shies from all that noise around
with black headphones without, from where the sound
can travel down the tunnel of his ear.

So, shall we not say what was being said
of the dead notes littering the wayside,
a thousand corpses to cross on the ride
from here down to the Hades of his head?

How is the true note from the false distinguished?
How will the song escape these human shells,
survive outside and not be extinguished?

Great Pan is dead, the mourning headlines claim,
the Pythia no further future tells.
Those few who still in song believe – the shame!

The original:

Men bland så många sånger, vad är “sången”?
Här skärmar någon av sig från trafiken
med svarta lurar varifrån musiken
kan klättra nedåt genom hörselgången.

Säg, skall det inte sägas att det sades
att de minst tusen överklivna liken
av döda toner fyller alla diken
på sångens långa väg till hjärnans Hades?

Hur skiljs den falska tonen från den sanna?
Kan sången överleva i det fria
eller blott fångad bakom någons panna?

Den store Pan är död, står det i DN,
och Pythian har tystad slutat sia.
Om någon ändå tror på sången – ve den!

The strict form of the sonnet induces the reader to consider the poems’ rhymes and rhythm and allows the poet to share its linguistic processes. With elegance and wit, Persson’s Orphic traveller sings to the underground. The form of the sonnet then serves as an attempt to lull the reader to stop and listen. Persson confidently creates sonnets that are true to form, filled with literary references and aware of their heritage yet both bold and fresh. It is a collection that has already caused considerable excitement in Sweden. The linguistic surprises within easily explain why.

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