THROUGH HOLES, GLASS AND STONE
Through holes, glass and stone: on the poetry of Agneta Enckell
Literary historians of the future will more than likely come to regard the poetry of Agneta Enckell as a Finland-Swedish exponent of the poetry concerned with language-critical and meta-literary issues which flourished in Sweden during the 1980’s and with good reason. In the manner of Frostenson, Jäderlund and Lillpers, Agneta Enckell creates and deals with language problems from a feminist perspective, the relationship between body and language, the male gaze, issues surrounding the ‘I’ in the poems and the possibility of a feminine ‘counter-language’.
There are however many important differences. In Enckell’s poetry there is a more profound preoccupation with psychology, something which creates a warm point of contact in the poems and creates space for both children and love. The language and the very personal note in these poems is also heavily influenced by the fact that many of her sources of inspiration come from the Finnish tradition, in particular Gunnar Björling and Tomas Mikael Bäck.
Agneta Enckell (born 1957) made her debut in 1983 with the volume Förvandlingar mot morgonen (‘Changes Towards the Morning’), a wide ranging, multifaceted collection of poetry, rooted in a hectic, contemporary urban reality. There is much in this collection which shares ties with the expansive and rock influenced poetry of the 1970’s but there are also certain aspects of this poetry which point forwards: a fixation with the body, language-critical elements, a preoccupation with being caught between extremes and working with large entities.
In the collection rum; berättelser (1987) (‘room; stories’) the form of address has been radically changed. The central issues and the driving force behind this volume of poetry are outlined in a poem which could serve as a kind of note to the reader:
klart språk. hej – se med blod simma i multiversum: den / s t u m m a kvinnan oemotsagd, ja – ofrånkomlig? ätas / för att få tillträde till språket: måste hon? sömnlös / i kannibalgrytan, rädd för sina tankar, om de inte är / nödvändiga, varken eller tillräckliga, oavslutat / orformulerade? / möjligt uppfylla krav på klarhet i språk: vem kräver? / jag?
Here, language rooted in ‘common sense’ is set against an experience based within the body and a sense of taking part in a world with many different dimensions and languages, a ‘multiverse’. One of the crucial questions here is precisely what the speaker in the poem, and women in general, must sacrifice in order to gain access to language. The poem also expresses a certain doubt and a strong ambivalence, in which remaining silent is in no way seen in an entirely negative light. Perhaps it represents, on the contrary, the beginnings of an ‘counter-language’.
The many question marks in this extract can be seen as denoting an ongoing process, a process in which the poems themselves are the work, not a final result. This problem is dealt with in many different ways throughout the volume which is dominated by a long selection of poems under the sub-heading: ‘mellan jag å jag’ (‘between I and I’), a linguistically shattered suite of poems which is held together by various narrative elements.
One of the key words here is ‘falling’, an idea which Enckell then used in the title of her next book, in which she further develops these themes in a variety of ways and confronts the question of the fine line between fragment and story. The collection falla (Eurydike) (1991) (‘fall (Eurydice)’) begins by outlining Enckell’s ‘poetics’. The final lines serve to illustrate her method as well as her aspirations:
impulserna tränger sig in/på detta tillstånd, upprepar sej, opassande / ja oanständigt blottande, i sina oundvikliga ja, nödvändiga variationer, / själens ganska hemliga ja, kroppsliga, skikt, pulserar / in i tystnaden / det tysta rummet, / å formar därigenom sin envisa mening // klarnar, sammanhagen / synliggör sej // slumpen behärskar impulserna omstukturerar verkligheten / - det möjliga b l i r verkligt, å det omöjliga // slump som mening // tystnaden som musik, rytm // upprepningen, det helt inte-effektiva, onödiga, meditation, mångfaldens / pladder, poesi som revolt å protest
Here Enckell is working with lists and repetition, with ‘posthypnotic processes in that which is bodily in the underworld.’ Her prime concern is to reduce semantic control over language and, by way of impulses from the subconscious and that which is prior to language, to attempt to create an individual feminine language. A key word involved here is ‘hole’, holes in words, holes in the skin. It is through these holes that the speaker in the poems wishes to fall – and therefore to escape: “to fall into that which does not think / which does not remember / cannot / be told”. It is from this point that the ‘counter-language’ can grow.
This language is an uncertain, ambiguous language where the material aspect of individual words holds a great deal of meaning, as the physicality of the words, their rhythm and sound. It is an ‘counter-language’ which becomes impossible to pigeon-hole within traditionally logical and closed structures because of its constantly shifting qualities. It is simultaneously a language which leans towards emptiness, solitude and a sense of losing oneself – ambivalence remains and also creates tension throughout .
A clearly discursive hold is however placed against the torrent and disorder in the poems: two stories hold the collection together and deal with the central themes on an allegorical level. One deals with the murder of a woman (words are murder) and the other with photography. In each case what is central is a fixation coming from outside, like a dead retrospective image: a theme which is dealt with in a suite of poems in Euridice.
In Agneta Enckell’s two most recent collections of poetry åter (1994) (‘again’) and sitt ansiktes avtryck, eller stenens begär (i stenens åder dom bär, stenens tidlösa begär) (1998) (‘the imprint of one’s face, or the stone’s desire (stones carry in their veins the stone’s timeless desire)’) lyrical observations have been integrated into the poetry and the lists and richness of the language have given rise to a quieter and more concise form of address; here we find a syntactical deconstruction of the language, at once laconic and yet beautiful, meditative verse.
These volumes are constructed around certain key concepts which are twisted, distorted, destroyed and stretched out – even beyond their breaking point – and afterwards are laden with extra meaning. Glass is at the centre of again, and other recurring images are also weakness and vulnerability, psychological concepts rich in meaning which lead here to the possibility of creativity.
The central concept in the latter volume is ‘stone’, a hard grey everyday object which in the poet’s eyes also has soft and living qualities: “it is in the stone’s wound that all beginning pulses. it is the child asleep like a little bird, with bluish eyelids. it is love so great that a cry of uncertainty”.
Both these collections are composed along the same multifaceted lines of tension, ripe for deconstruction. That which is hard and dead is set against the soft and maleable, closed structures against resistance and renewing, the formulated and finite against that which cannot be said and the infinite.
The last of these is perhaps the most important. In these poems there is a conscious movement towards silence, which takes the form of stammering, alluding and ‘broken’ poetry in which words are on the one hand condensed so that they become weighty and secret, on the other they become elements in a flood of associations which, in contrary, seems to detract from the importance of individual words.
This movement in opposing directions, in addition to the above key concepts laden with different meanings, can be seen as an expression of the self-same ‘counter-language’ and language-critical motivations as in . The movement towards silence is an attempt to release a new language, a language which pulses under a hard and stony exterior.
translated by David Hackston
Förvandlingar mot morgonen (Changes Towards the Morning, 1983), rum; berättelser (room; stories, 1987), falla (Eurydike) (fall (Eurydice), 1991), åter (again, 1995) and sitt ansiktes avtryck eller stenens begär (i stenens åder dom bär, stenens tidlösa begär) (the imprint of one’s face, or the stone’s desire (stones carry in their veins the stone’s timeless desire), 1998), Poesi med andra ord. En brevväxling om lyrik med Peter Mickwitz och Henrika Ringbom (2003), innanför/utanför ((1+) 3 x 13 + (1+) 13) (eller 4 olika sätt att närma sig ett landskap -) (2005)