Podium, 2011. ISBN: 9789189196490
Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2011:2
This is a definitive collection of Harriet Löwenhjelm’s idiosyncratic, fascinating poetry and illustrated with her own paintings and drawings, many of which were designed to accompany the poems; by contrast with earlier collections, the link is respected here. Löwenhjelm, an ingenious, complex poet and artist, was little known and appreciated in her lifetime (1887-1918), which was cut drastically short by tuberculosis. In the distinctively tall, sinuous figures she is fond of drawing, grace and character are captured with a few strokes of her pen. The poems, mostly in rhyming verse, combine zest for life, irreverent humour and unorthodoxy with flashes of melancholy and a questing, sometimes desperate faith. ‘Human hearts are hard and small’ but she implores ‘God’s only born, bleeding son’ to help us – for who else will? Elsewhere she can be lighthearted, playful and fanciful; a duality captured in the title of Elisabeth Stenborg’s 1971 thesis Pierrot och pilgrim (Pierrot and Pilgrim), an important source for Boel Hackman, whose Foreword and Notes are excellent. This new, comprehensive anthology is all the more timely because so many of the primary sources have been lost, even since 1971. Aged 21, Löwenhjelm began at the Academy of Art in Stockholm, where she helped write and stage student revues. Two years later, she had to pursue her study of painting and graphic art privately, but never relinquished her artistic ambitions despite the obstacles facing women. She wrote poetry at an early age and, together with her younger brother Crispin, created Clondyke, a fantasy world peopled with aristocratic characters with romantic names like Cajus Vivotrasca; the children’s own background was very privileged. Not unlike the Brontës’ invented worlds, the make-believe served as a limbering-up exercise for Löwenhjelm’s more mature writing. Much of her work remained unpublished until well after her death, but in 1913 she published a selection under the title Konsten att älska och dess följder (The Art of Loving, and its Consequences). The range is wide, from brief aphorisms to verse plays and suites several pages long. The vocabulary is exuberant and strewn with unusual, archaic words, helpfully glossed by the editor. The quirkier poems have particular appeal, with such inventive lines as: ‘Your lower lip looks a newborn llama’s/ Don’t dally, throw on your kimono/ and clothe your legs in bullaceblue pyjamas.’ Löwenhjelm’s Scottish mother, and a trip to Oxford in 1908, may explain her frequent use of English, but French also features prominently, and occasionally Danish and Norwegian, especially in the poems to her beloved friend Elsa Björkman. One of these (in Swedish), is memorable for its painfully personal imagery, distilling the poet’s strong emotions: ‘the rag I soaked in caustic soda/ was my soul’s bizarre apparel/ … But you are the cross I have been given to bear/ day out, day in, though it is made of sugar candy.’ Some poems have exotic themes, possibly inspired by a visit to Ceylon (1904- 5), where her sister and brother-in-law were running a tea plantation. However, her meeting with the Orient had already occurred in stories and art; she could conjure up an exotic mood in just a few lines. One memorable scene of diplomatic intrigue is set in flower-scented Stamboul, with lutes and dancing slaves. Nostalgic quests take her not only abroad but also back in time, to primitive, spear-wielding folk. Mammoths, dodos and even unicorns are pursued with cries of ‘tally ho!’ in a sequence of nonsensical hunting poems. The seasons, above all the coming of spring, are frequent subjects, often in reflections on the hopes, joys and pains of the human condition. World events occasionally intrude, as in the lament for the death of Kitchener and a whole crew of sailors when the Hampshire was sunk by a German mine in 1916. In the sanatorium she entertains her fellow patients by writing verses about them, but the tone becomes darker and more desperate in the final months of her illness: ‘My tongue is in consumption’s power /…/ my breast is all constriction’. It is indeed sad that this sparkling and surprisingly modern talent left the world so prematurely.