Reviewed by Carl Otto Werkelid in SBR 2012:2
Review Section: Poetry
Lars Gustafsson is a young boy and an elderly man – often at the same time or, rather, in the same poem. He swings with ease between times, life times, times of life. He has been known to turn into a fish because, without having tried out fish existence, you could not write a poem like the one called ‘The common roach endures its name in silence’. And, even less so, the poem which recalls the way the light reflected off Atlantic herring shoals casts a sudden ‘silvery sheen on to the bases of the clouds’. That particular poem, ‘Reflections and folds’, is one of the most beautiful in this collection. The poet himself is a fish who creates miraculous light effects on the undersides of the clouds – page after page.
But let me order the facts that can be ordered: Lars Gustafsson was born in 1936 and is therefore a man of a certain age. He has accomplished many things, been a writer since 1957, professor in Texas for a large part of the 80s and most of the 90s and elected to learned societies and academies, especially in Germany where his work is widely read. Writing comes often and easily to him, in practically every genre. His novels can reveal an oppositional side, challenging and critical of society around him, which can make him sound bad-tempered. I personally prefer his poetry; it has not a trace of grumpiness and is often sublime. Variations on a Theme by Silfverstolpe (1996) is one of the finest collections of poetry I know.
His new collection, Elden och döttrarna, is also hard to resist: new poems, interlaced with older ones – old favourites, one assumes. He seduces his readers in the very first poem, ‘The hare’, where an increasingly melancholic chain of events is brought to a close with a liberating outburst:
Nature is good’ is what it says on some box or other in the fridge. So, nature is good. And what do you know about it, you margarine merchants?
You might argue that many of the poems are somehow fuelled by wistfulness and nostalgia. Maybe so, but Gustafsson is a masterful orchestrator of the nostalgic. Threatening sentimentality is instantly diverted with unexpected somersaults, humorous asides or rough, stern observations about the self, about the personal.
He is often sophisticated, sometimes with such unobtrusive brilliance that one imagines it is sheer happy accident. Naturally, it is not. As we know, Gustafsson has been writing since 1957 – that is, publishing books. He has been writing for much longer. Should he occasionally become trivial, he is ironically aware, as when, for instance, he calls one poem ‘Trivial knowledge’. This is how it ends:
Persons with a troubled relationship with mother / become poets. Persons with a troubled relationship with father/ become boring.
So, now we know.
To sum it up: reflections, sometimes retrospective, by an elderly man who easily connects to every age in his life. And also connects to a sensitivity he chooses to distance himself from elsewhere. Here are a few perceptions: ‘In the middle of summer blows a wind/that only wants farewell.’ Another wind, a westerly, ‘leafs through an opened book/ so that it reads itself.’ In a different poem, books are conversing: ‘What do they have to say about us?’
I would like to claim that Elden och döttrarna is shot through with the kind of enlightened simplicity that only the truly great possess – and dare to sustain.
The decades pass. Possibly, it was all a joke. If so, we ought to have realised it just a little earlier.