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Harry Martinson, Chickweed Wintergreen, Selected Poems

Bloodaxe Books,  2010. ISBN: 9781852248871

Reviewed by Brita Green in SBR 2011:2

Robin Fulton’s book samples all the collections Martinson published in his lifetime, from the 1929 debut Spökskepp (Ghost Ship) to Tuvor (Tussocks) of 1973, and also dips into two of the posthumous collections (1978 and 1986). The printing is generous, with mostly just one poem per page. A few Swedish originals are included. A fully bilingual edition would no doubt have been too expensive, but several more originals could have been fitted in without adding any pages. Inevitably, any reader familiar with Martinson’s work will miss some favourites, but on the whole it is a representative selection. There is also an insightful introduction by Staffan Söderblom. Martinson’s speculative poetry is represented, including samples of the epic space cycle Aniara (1956). There are memories from Martinson’s deprived childhood and the years at sea: ‘Have you seen a steam collier come from a hurricane - / broken booms, wrenched railings ...?’. And there are images of Swedish nature, often featuring the smallest life-forms: ‘An orchid-hunting moth / waves with silent wings in the dusk of grass’, or capturing a fleeting moment, as in the short poem about the reed stalk disturbed by a passing boat: ‘on the water mirror / its shadow flicks like a whiplash’. Martinson had very little schooling, and he developed his own ‘shimmering language’ (Söderblom), forming new derivations and compounds and playing with the established meanings of words. We find in his work ‘words and phrases ... to carry with us in our own private medicine chest of comforters’, as Stefan Sandelin has put it. Translating such language is a tall order, as I know from experience. Rhythmic patterns or assonances enhancing the meaning of the words may be destroyed by the lengths, stresses and sounds of the words in the target language. A phrase that seems to hit the nail on the head in Swedish may sound contrived in English. A translator must allow himself some freedom to recreate the poetry, not just the meaning of the words. It would have been interesting to know what problems Fulton found himself facing, but the Translator’s Note at the end of the book does not discuss such things. He appears to have opted for as straight a translation as possible. Does that mean that too much is lost? Maintaining the original rhythm is one way of sounding ‘Martinsonian’, and sometimes it can be achieved by simple means like adding a short word (e.g. ‘now’), as in the first line of the final Aniara poem: ‘Jag skruvar lampan ner och bjuder frid’: ‘I bid repose and now turn down my lamp’. It is a pity that it does not always seem to have been a priority. And occasionally I am surprised by a word: ‘where the apples had stood / in darkened grass’, for instance, conjures up a strange image. When I check the original I find that Martinson has ‘aplar’ (apple-trees), not ‘äpplen’ (apples). Unfortunately, that does not appear to be an isolated case of Fulton seemingly misreading the original: ‘lov’ means ‘praise’ in Swedish, not ‘law’ (p. 48), and ‘plantan’ is simply ‘the plant’, not ‘plantain’ (p. 62). Other slight niggles are that sometimes – where it might matter – plurals become singulars, and Martinson’s creative word combinations are often normalised, as when a witness to the cataclysmic destruction of the earth, the ‘stenstumt döve’ (‘stone-mute deaf’), becomes plain ‘deaf-and-dumb‘ (p. 100). Despite such disappointments, when reading through the volume I often feel that I am genuinely in Martinson’s company. The publication of a comprehensive selection of Martinson’s poetry in English translation is long overdue and is warmly welcomed.

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