David Cooke admires the Swedish poet Lars Gustafsson for his careful observation of objects and his exploration of abstract ideas.

gustafssonSelected Poems
Lars Gustafsson translated by John Irons 
Bloodaxe Books
ISBN: 9781852249977

Although the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Tomas Tranströmer in 2011 may have briefly raised the profile of Swedish poetry amongst readers in the UK, it is probably still true that most of them are not familiar with the names of many other Swedish poets and perhaps even less so with those from other Scandinavian countries. This is a pity because these nations have an impressive tradition of poetry. Moreover, given the close relationship between English and the Scandinavian languages, their poetry often works well in translation. Born in 1936, Gustafsson published his first novel at the age of twenty one and has since been a prolific writer of poetry and prose in just about every genre. For many, he is now, since the death of Tranströmer, the most significant poet writing in Swedish. One is grateful, therefore, to Bloodaxe Books, who have always been supportive of Scandinavian poetry, for this opportunity to explore a generous selection of his work. Although the poems selected have been divided into nine sections of varying lengths, each section is untitled and gives no indication of Gustafsson’s bibliographic history. This may of course have been intentional, so that each poem is simply taken on its own merits. There is, moreover, a strong sense of thematic unity throughout Gustafsson’s work, in spite of a fair amount of stylistic variation. From minimalism to free-wheeling narratives, from strict metrical structures to looser couplets and quatrains, the poet seeks clarity and beauty in a world where ultimately there may be no easily apprehended meaning.

To some extent, Gustafsson’s concerns might be deemed ‘philosophical’ and he certainly has plenty of references to particular philosophers such as Leibnitz, Kant, Schopenhauer and mathematicians, too, such as Boole and Euler. However, like Auden, he is a writer for whom each poem is a ‘verbal contraption’, an idea he explores in ‘Fire and Air Machine’:

    An old-fashioned device –
    it is driven by fire and air
    the separate parts configured
    so ingeniously that the water itself,
    the deep water far down,
    far beneath all that is visible,
    in some way can be affected.

The precisely rendered details of this poem and its metaphorical suggestiveness are typical of this poet, as is his fascination with machinery. In ‘The Machines’ he goes so far as to suggest that strictly speaking: / Grammar itself is a machine. Elsewhere, in ‘Balloonists’, he explores the metaphorical possibilities of flight. At first, one is impressed by the poet’s painterly focus:

    See the tall man in the top-hat there.
    He leans out with a gaze fixed westwards.
    It’s early morning, and the light reverberates.

    The town with its clocks waits in the distance
    The church spires cast blue shadows aimlessly.
    It is completely silent, pre-departure. 

And yet there is a playfulness in the way that the poem’s protagonist observes the people who are observing the balloonists, who in turn are completely absorbed in their project, striving perhaps towards some kind of transcendence. There’s also a mysteriousness in the way that the protagonist is haunted by his memory of it all: and how they rise yet higher through the years / until the very memory sings like thin glass.

Time and again in Larsson’s poetry one senses a dichotomy between moments of insight and the enigma of human existence. In ‘From a Distant Place’ the poet sketches out his version of Descartes cogito: Whether God or not, / whether meaning or not meaning … there is action within me. Something similar lies behind the poignant imagery of ‘After Rain’ which is short enough to be quoted entire:

    The sky of summer rain is like an X-ray plate
    where light and shadows pass.
    The forest quiet and not even a bird.
    Your own eyes like a spilt drop beneath the clouds,
    with the world’s reflection: light and hazy shadows.
    And suddenly you see just who you are:
    a confused stranger between soul and clouds,
    only by the thin membrane of an image
    are the world’s deep and eye’s darkness kept apart.

Even if, ultimately, the mystery of why the world exists may not be grasped intellectually that doesn’t mean to say that we can’t celebrate its beauty and richness. ‘Episode’ is a prose poem in which the philosopher Leibniz, strolling with a Bavarian princess, expounds what seems at first a fairly abstruse point in philosophy: For if an object exists, there is no sufficient reason for there to be a further such object that completely resembles the former. On overhearing this, an officious courtier determined to prove the falsity of the philosopher’s claim, attempts, with increasing frustration, to find two leaves that are identical. It would seem that Gustafsson, like Louis MacNeice, rejoices in ‘the drunkenness of things being various.’

Frequently as a counterweight to the poet’s more obviously philosophical mode, the the tone adopted is more childlike. In ‘Happiness’ he evokes memories of childhood and the joy his protagonist experiences when he comes across the two marbles in the earth / that he as a two-year-old had hidden there and lost. Throughout Gustafsson’s poems memory is presented as a powerful force and something to be thankful for. In ‘The Conditions’ he recalls the fleeting passage of a bike race that one day passed by his window. He tries later to recapture it: I looked and looked. It could have lasted an eternity. / And understood that of such stuff all days are made. Frequently his memories evoke the importance of commonplace, even quite mundane objects. In ‘Elegy’ his point of departure is a box of screws. However, this theme is most cogently expressed in a sequence of longer elegies such as ‘Elegy for Lost and Forgotten Objects’:

    I remember what they looked like, how they felt in my hand,
    Even remember the hammer on a summer’s day

    in the distant forties when I was
    much too small to be able to lift it properly,

    and how my father carefully took it away from me.

    The world, a labyrinth for lost

    and forgotten objects, from the old swords
    in the never-opened bronze-age burial sites

    to the reading glasses that got lost the day before yesterday …

His fascination with everyday objects is also the inspiration behind ‘All crazy small objects’. However, for Gustafsson, the world and all the things it contains are merely there and explain nothing beyond themselves. As if debunking Baudelaire and his theory of correspondances, he states bluntly: They do not speak of course. / and neither are they ‘symbols’ / of something or other.

It has already been suggested that Gustafsson has a certain affinity with W.H. Auden and the more one reads him the more one sees a similarity of outlook, even though there is no indication that Gustafsson shares the English poet’s religious faith. Nonetheless, both are obsessed with metaphysics and in particular our perception of time. Both also contrast human consciousness with that of the animals. The Swedish poet is clearly a dog lover and has written several poems about ‘man’s best friend’ of which the lengthiest and most memorable is ‘Elegy for a Dead Labrador’:

                                                     Our friendship
    was naturally a compromise; we lived
    together in two different worlds: mine
    mostly letters, a text that passes through life,
    yours mostly scents. You had talents
    I would have given a great deal to possess:
    the ability to let a feeling, eagerness, hate or love,
    surge like a wave through your entire body,
    from nose to tip of tail, the inability
    ever to accept that the moon is a fact.  

Elsewhere he suggests that human perception is not only different from that of the animals, but that we have ways of changing the world that are not available to them. ‘The Silence of the World before Bach’ is a wonderful poem in celebration of human creativity and, in particular, of music. In its opening lines he poses a question: There must have existed a world before / the Trio Sonata in D, a world before the A minor Partita, but what was it like? Consciousness may not in the end be something we can ‘explain’ but in ‘Come Tired Body’, the poet asserts that what’s important is simply the fact that the mind exists. Witty, poignant, challenging, Lars Gustafsson is a poet who does not shy away from exploring ideas, however imponderable, a poet, for whom, to quote Aristotle, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.


David Cooke’s retrospective collection, In the Distance, was published in 2011 by Night Publishing. Work Horses, was published by Ward Wood in 2012. His poems and reviews have appeared in the UK, Ireland and beyond in journals such as Agenda, The Bow Wow Shop, The Interpreter’s House, The Irish Press, The London Magazine, Magma, The Morning Star The North, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Reader, The SHOp and Stand. His latest collection is A Murmuration (Two Rivers Press, 2015) and After Hours  is due from Cultured Llama Press in 2017.