THE MUSIC OF STARTLING LANGUAGE
Tomas Mikael Bäck
The number of volumes of poetry published by Tomas Mikael Bäck (born 1946) is approaching twenty. He made his debut in 1972 with the collection Andhämtning (‘Drawing Breath’). Originally from Vaasa, Bäck moved to Helsinki to study: he majored in Nordic literature at the University of Helsinki and took courses in librarianship at Svenska social- och kommunalhögskola. His education was formative and is reflected in his work. Words are of the utmost importance for him – even by other poets’ standards – and in particular the use of language and wordplay have an important function in Bäck’s work. Nouns and adjectives occur more frequently than verbs and his expression is often fragmentary and in some ways ‘Eastern’. His debut collection also includes 13 haikus. This, however, does not mean that Bäck writes in a classical way; quite the opposite. He is a linguistic virtuoso, he plays with language, with thoughts, thus showing the world in a different light. His collection Trädgårdssten (‘Garden Stone’) from 1995 contains the exclamation ‘Nonsense as a tragic genre!’ This seemingly contradictory term depicts a sense of incompatibility, which is also discernible in the background of Bäck’s poems. Playing with language and juxtaposing startling combinations of words is a thread which runs through all of Bäck’s poetry. Often these groups of words border on the surreal, as in the collection Och hastigt förstå (1975) (‘And suddenly understand’); on the other hand, the collection Regnljus och snö (‘Rain-light and snow’) from 1984 concludes with a series of nonsense poems.
In an interview, Bäck has spoken about writing as a way of expressing his sense of being an ‘outsider’, something many poets feel. He did however find contact through books: the works of Gunnar Björling have been significant to him and the same can be said of Paul Celan. Yet what is it that Bäck writes about and from which angles do his poems open up to the reader? He surveys the human mind, but this is done in a rather philosophical way without tending towards psychology. He does seem to draw upon his own life and to reflect upon himself. Bäck himself has always underlined the debt his thoughts and poetry pay to Eastern philosophy. This can be seen as, in a way, both listening to silence and as silent listening, a careful consideration over each word. ‘Light words weigh down/ like stones’ he has written. This ‘Easternness’ is also present in the themes and motifs in Bäck’s poems. The element of water in all its forms is particularly significant and runs through his entire output. Rain and snow. Bäck’s poetry can be regarded as a series of interrupted observations, often the term ‘aphorism’ seems appropriate; at other times the poems are more akin to notes in a diary. Alongside these eastern elements, music also has an important place in Bäck’s work: classical music and jazz, both in allusion and in name, as for example in the collection Sol-sordin (2000) (‘Sun Mute’).
Andhämtning (1972), Och hastigt förstå (1975), Början av ett år (1977), Tills vi äger våra liv (1980), Denna dag (1982), Regnljus och snö (1984), Språngmarsch på stället (1985), Flytande avsatser (1986), Frågare! (1988), Spånkorg (1990), Trädgårdssten (1995), Memoarer och annan dikt (1997), Sol-sordin (2000), Väggvitt (2003), Den sextonde månaden (2005).
translated by David Hackston