Dog Star Notations
By Håkan Sandell, Translated by Bill Coyle
Carcanet Press Limited
2016, 104 pages, $19.99
Though currently living in Norway, Håkan Sandell (b. 1962-) is one of Sweden’s preeminent poets. He was born in the southern province of Scania, a region with close ties to Continental Europe, a connection detectable in his poetry’s familiarity with a wide range of Western culture. He is a leading proponent of the return to metrical forms in Swedish poetry, and the music of his verse is what first struck translator Bill Coyle, himself a poet, claiming that it didn’t just speak to him, but “sang” to him. Coyle explains that much of contemporary Swedish poetry after Tomas Tranströmer, the Nobel Prize winning poet, “left him cold”, but that Sandell’s distinctive, musical verse seems to him to be the work of “one of the most gifted poets writing in Swedish today.”
One can hardly find something written about the poet in English that doesn’t add the epithet “metaphysical” to his poetry, and with good reason. His poems have a largesse and a connection with the world’s mystical traditions that, despite the poems’ many contemporary concerns, give them the gravity of entering into ancient conversations. Attempts to discover the essence and origins of things, the dimensions of one’s time and place, and the pursuit for a sense of a wholeness in the world, fill the pages of the collection. Coyle considers Sandell to be the most “distinguished contemporary representative” of a strain of Gnosticism that has long been present in Swedish poetry. Coyle is quick to point out the presence of a “struggle between two visions of the material world- on the one hand, as in Neoplatonism and other theosophies, a symbol of a higher, spiritual reality, and on the other a prison of spirit” which “is present throughout the work.” Despite this constrictive sense of the material world, there is always a great appreciation of tangible experience. The poems are filled with detailed descriptions of Sandell’s surroundings and praise for the beauty of the world. There is an accessibility to his work that is directly connected to his style of lucid, sensual representation.
Sandell’s metaphysical sense plays out, as well, in the insistence on a fullness of representation that articulates so much of what is intuited but unseen, like the history of a simple object or the inside of an unbroken egg shell, the yoke sucked out through a tiny straw poked in the side. In 1995, Sandell co-authored a manifesto, On Retrogardism, in which he and fellow poet Clemens Altgard declared themselves against a contemporary poetry that had become “too insular, and, in the case of much postmodernism, too contemptuous of its own medium, to communicate meaningfully.” The manifesto advocated a return to primitive modes, especially oral forms and rhythms that might further the possibilities of expression. The very stance of Retrogardism, a seemingly paradoxical “ism”, as an avant-garde that is directed toward the past, summoning it to expand the present, fits well in the effort toward this fullness that characterizes Sandell’s work; inclusion, a filling of gaps, is the key. And this inclusivity of all that is seen and experienced is a grounding feature of Sandell’s poetry.
As part of this inclusive, backward turn, Sandell is concerned with recalling origins as a way of constituting the full presence of his surrounding objects and scenes. The effort is not just to see things anew, but to see things as freshly dynamized by the presence of their past, as in his poem “To a Young Man Who Arrived at the Party Dressed in a Lady’s Fur”, in which the shock of a strange, uninhibited party guest caused “us all to remember our beginnings.” The man at the party is transformed through his daring clothing (a fur with nothing underneath) into a drama of birth or perhaps rebirth of experience and vision: “evicted from the soft interior/ of the fur, its seamless, snug abyss” he becomes the center of attention, “at the same time exposed and cherished so intimately!” This is the moment that Sandell is after, a seemingly ordinary present expanded by the drama of the past or uncertainty about the future, a greater fullness of each moment in time.
This uncertainty toward the future arises in the poems out of a desire to affirm the whole of experience, with all its beauties and cruelties. This task of affirmation is a central aspect of the works’ sincerity and the poet’s faith in direct representation that at times might earn rebukes of naiveté. In his poem, “To a Child Two Weeks Overdue”, a man addresses an as yet unborn child and tries to coax it from its peaceful residence out into a promisingly beautiful world, where a loving mother awaits it. The question he seems to ask is a simple one: is the world worth leaving that peace? His poems often have the feel of theodicy, arguing for goodness despite the world’s cruelty or for a spark of the divine among belief’s sodden ashes. There is no naiveté here, though. Sandell knows the contemporary world is not well-suited to such thinking, but it is the very nature of these uneasy moments and questions within the poems that help reveal the tense position poetry occupies in general. In “Notation”, a poem occurring in an Orthodox church in Azerbaijan, Sandell describes this very position of poetry:
I recognize, half sacrilegiously,
the situation for the poet and poetry: the context
is long since gone, but we go on living, persisting.
Though united with cherubim and seraphim, their song
of praise has no earth under it, the severed dream
of the old meets here the young people’s longing
to reverberate with meaning. . .
The dreams of the old, that is to say, those harkening back to a more deeply religious world, meets the longing of those who have no basis for connection with the divine. The poet, intuiting the sense of both young and old, stands to connect their song of praise with the earth beneath it. And throughout this collection, Sandell aims to do just that.
The occurrence of “Notation” in an Eastern Orthodox church is not the only invocation of the Slavic world. There are numerous references to Slavic cultures throughout the collection, revealing these various cultures’ persistent influence on Sandell’s work. Coyle explains that Sandell’s interest in Eastern Orthodoxy and the possibility of his converting are curbed only by the presence of a single clause in the conversion ceremony: the rejection of all of Satan’s works and pomp. “Do I really have to renounce all his works and pomp?”, the poet asks, “Couldn’t I just renounce the vast majority of them?”. The relationship to the Slavic world doesn’t end with one of its primary religions, though: there are a few Slavic poets present in the collection as well. A poem dedicated to the Russian poet Elena Shvarts, “The Evil One” is considered by Coyle to be a rather lighthearted example of Sandell’s sympathy toward some of the so-called “works and pomp” of Satan. Another poem, “Words for Justyna on Her Departure for a Retreat in Tushita”, written with Russian poet Regina Derieva “in mente”, is a meditation on the differences between the Eastern Buddhist conception of the world and a general Western conception. Though referencing many Western philosophical, mystical and poetic systems, Sandell ultimately finds his reason for appreciating the West in its sense of the tangible world as something connected to the intangible, rather than the former being an illusion of the latter. In this poem, as in many others, Sandell returns again and again to his appreciation of and efforts to affirm the material world. Many Russian poets have long been concerned with the connection of matter and spirit, and mention of such Russian poets helps to place these poems in a larger context of poetic thinking.
Besides the Russians, Sandell shares many concerns with another Slavic poet, Czeslaw Milosz, to whom he directs the poem “Requiem for a Returnee”. Reflecting, again, on his own relation to the material world, Sandell positions himself in opposition to one of Milosz’s decisions. The Nobel-prize winning poet, who once asked “What is poetry which does not save nations or people?”, returned to Poland after spending much of his later life as an exile in California, and Sandell does not sympathize with this, as if it were a duty-bound move alone, done in answer to Milosz’s question, with the poet giving his life back to the people of his nation. However much this was Milosz’s motivation, and not simply a desire to return home after so long, Sandell would clearly prefer to have remained in California, where Milosz lived and taught at Berkeley as an émigré:
Oh Sappho, California, sweet music,
why does Czeslaw Milosz travel to Krakow
only, at the birth of his country, to die
like an utterly ordinary grey old man
when the long beaches’ mummifying heat
and a sea blue as a white cat’s eye
made a background suited to a Greek God,
youthful in jeans and drunk on exile
like Odysseus’s men on milk-sweet lotus?
The question may ultimately be ambiguous, but the evocation of California is not. For Sandell, poetry tries to praise, but it also delimits the heights of duty, and thus can remain reveling in the material world. Sandell is a sophisticate, moving easily through the world’s culture and religions, but he always returns to a tangible present to affirm it, choosing it over any enclosing ideals.
Despite this apparent love of the material world, the earlier-mentioned Gnostic strain is always present, creating a skepticism and hesitancy toward the world that is subtly present even in affirmations. In his poem “Trash Pile”, one of the best in the collection, Sandell finds in a pile of refuse a drama of matter aspiring to spirit, symbolically echoing a human longing for transcendence and benediction: “You dream in vain of the cocoon’s emancipation,/ for what higher purpose and meaning continuing to live,/ with only spasms standing in for the resurrection/ deep in the interior’s seething fermentation”. Sandell has a very real sense of what he is seeking, and what may still be generally sought in the daily lives of people, for he is a poet very present in his surroundings, not lost in metaphysical contemplation, nor closed to its possibility. He makes a practice of starting low, in a bar, a trash pile, or simply looking at pigeons, and then moves higher through thoughts or images, trying to connect the earth to a song of praise, to find that higher freedom promised by so many mysticisms. The poetry of Håkan Sandell, in the translations of Bill Coyle that capture well the musicality he claims “sang to him” in the originals, is fresh and lucid, playful but deeply intelligent. He is a poet open to the world’s cruelties and mysteries alike. I, for my part, am always interested in finding profoundly direct and spiritually urgent poetry translated from abroad, and I believe Sandell’s work is just that.
HÅKAN SANDELL was born in 1962 in Malmo, in southern Sweden, but has lived abroad for most of his adult life, in Denmark, Ireland, and Norway. He debuted at the age of nineteen, and has since published eighteen collections or pamphlets of poetry, most recently Ode till Demiurgen (Ode to the Demiurge) in 2013. He is also a translator and critic, and a co-founder of the artistic movement known as Retrogardism. He has received several major Swedish awards for his poetry and essays, and selections of his poetry have been translated into German and Hungarian.