On translation and Ann Jäderlund’s latest book

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POETRY. Ann Jäderlund first became famous in Sweden in the late 80s and early 90s with a pair of books that blended pastoral imagery with experimental cut-up techniques: Som en gång varit äng (Which once had been meadow) and Snart går jag i sommaren ut (Soon into the summer I walk out). The heated reception of these books placed her at the centre of the so-called “Ann Jäderlund debates,” a discussion about “incomprehensibility” in contemporary poetry. Members of the critical establishment criticized Jäderlund for being inaccessible, and as such symptomatic a new aesthetic that was gaining traction in Sweden.


Although the debate is now long over – and Jäderlund has gone on to win many awards while becoming inarguably one of the most influential poets in Sweden – the debate offers a way of thinking about Jäderlund’s latest book, Ensamtal.

Ensamtal, a writing-through of the correspondence between Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, undoes the dominant model of communication that undergirded the original charges against her, her “inaccessibility.” Instead of offering “clear” or “accessible” poetry, or the common alternative, the embrace of “communication failure” (as in the early language poets), Jäderlund finds a beautiful, strange alternative approach. Taking a term from Ensamtal itself, I might call this approach “omklar” (around clear or about clear). These poems are indeed utterly “clear” – the language as “simple” as the poetry her original detractors advocated— but this simple language is made volatile by the small prefix “om”. Instead of imagining “clarity” as direct access, Jäderlund’s poetry creates a different model of communication, in a language of “about”-ness.

Jäderlund’s title signals the project of the book: We might read Ensamtal as the portmanteau for “ensam” (lone, lonely) and “tal” (speech); or it could be “en” (one, though to be grammatically correct, it should be “ett”) plus “samtal” (conversation). Either way, the title gives the sense of isolation, but this isolation is not so much a failure to reach a wider audience as space where language vibrates, where words are “about clear”:

If there is a theme or motif in the Bachman/Celan correspondence, it is the constant blockage of their relationship – their inability to communicate with each other or their physical inability to meet up and rekindle the original romance that sparked the correspondence. It is a book of miscommunication and communication failure. For example, this, in Wieland Hoban’s English translation, is how Bachmann wrote to Celan on December 23, 1958:

“Paul, I am thinking about your question, and this letter cannot write down everything I am thinking, only say something starting at the end. I do not think there is any answer, for you or from you, to this report; it belongs in the bin…”

Or this letter from Celan to Bachman from December 9, 1957:

“Ingeborg, my dear Ingeborg – I cast another look out the train, you had looked around too, but it was too far away. Then it came and choked me, so wildly…”

One letter has to do with the failure of “thinking” and “writ[ing] down everything,” the other about being unable to look at the other person and getting “choked” by this failure.

This “failure” is what John Durham Peters identifies as “communication failure,” the necessary result of the impossible ideal of communication as “direct contact between interiorities,” in his book Speaking into the Air. This communication ideal strangely both depends on and excludes language since we need the medium, but the moment we use the medium, we mediate the interiority that should be beyond mediation. Language both promises communication and ruins the perceived purity of our interiority. Peters suggests that this impossible ideal is a reaction to the onset of mass communication and new technologies of communication that allows us to speak or dialogue over thousands of miles in no time. He also notes that there are historical precedents for this paradigm – in, for example, St Augustine’s belief that the body pollutes the purity of the soul, or in Socrates’s anxiety about the written word.

In Ensamtal Jäderlund finds a way out of Peters’ paradox, looking to language not as direct, clear access, but as an “omklar” (about clear), poetic language, as she translates and transforms the letters between Celan and Bachman into a series of short, evocative lyrics. Rather than failures to communicate, Jäderlund finds in these correspondences a sparse, evocative and mysterious lyric that challenges the assumption of “communication” and “accessibility” by drawing its subtle energy from small twists and turns in the language.

Jäderlund’s title signals the project of the book: We might read Ensamtal as the portmanteau for “ensam” (lone, lonely) and “tal” (speech); or it could be “en” (one, though to be grammatically correct, it should be “ett”) plus “samtal” (conversation). Either way, the title gives the sense of isolation, but this isolation is not so much a failure to reach a wider audience as space where language vibrates, where words are “about clear”:


den är brusten

också där

rå och



den är brusten


Which I might translate as:


it is burst

also there

raw and

about clear

about clear

it is burst

The language is simple, but its small twists and turns corrupt the idea of easy communication – it is “about clear.” It asks us to read the wrong meaning to words or to hear the echoes of some words leak into other words.

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The Swedish language stutters falter, creates odd rhythms and puns. Many poems contain the word “brister” as a kind of model for how the words fail to comply with a simple semantic reading – “Lilla blomma/du brister” (“Little flower / you burst”) reads an entire poem. As if to stage this semantic non-compliance, many of the poems contain the word “ister” (lard, fat) instead:

Uppe på berget

finns träd och floder

och bakom berget

andra berg

vad floden vill

vet ingen

den rinner

och rinner



[Up on the mountain

there are trees and rivers

and behind the mountain

other mountains

what the river wants

nobody knows

it runs

it runs



The breakages in language may seem like a lack, a failure – but it is exactly in those spaces that the language “lards” the poem, generating a beautiful excess in the minimalist structures.

Another poem reads:



jag måste


mitt liv


[Go numb


I have to


my life]

Here the rewriting of Rilke’s famous exhortation is re-valenced with the strangely active negativity of “go numb.” The “ister” here seems so out of place that it is almost like I want to say that the poem forces you to read it entirely as a failed “brister.” Nevertheless, the lard does bring something important to the poem – as it does every time it appears – an “about clear” quality that almost overwhelms the poem. In Jäderlund’s world, the things and stuff – the senses of the world – inevitably both trouble the idea of poetry as “communication” and creates a different kind of communication – refracted, intensive, weird.

Other times the “lard” moments almost ask the reader to misread the poems, generating poetry of the kind of lazy misreadings that often take place on line:

Ställ dig så att vinden

blåser på dig

från köket

köket är en kammare

som går på huvudet

I luften du är

gjord av luft


[Stand so that the wind

blows on you

from the kitchen

the kitchen is a chamber

that goes on the head

in the air you are

made of air]

As in other poems, there is so much movement in such few words, and the poem is vertigo-inducing. The kitchen may be “kammare” (chamber”) but it goes “on the head”, in my mind causes the “kammare” to carry an echo of “kam” – comb! Similarly, in the very airy final couplet – in the air are you are/made of air” the “gjord” (made) echoes “jord” – earth, soil. It is as if the pun pulls the body back down in the earth. The speaker keeps wanting to “fly” but the language is on the side of gravity, depression, and continually pulls them down.

Unexpectedly, to understand Ensamtal, with its translations, refractions and vibrations, it might be worth revisiting the notorious debates that surrounded her early work. In his notorious attack on Jäderlund from 1989, Tommy Olofsson wrote this curious piece of criticism:

”Dikterna betyder så litet som möjligt, bäddar tryggt in sig i sina egna motsägelser och släpper ifrån sig ett minimum av belöning åt den som vill löpa linan ut och är beredd att ta Ann Jäderlund på orden. De antyder mening, men stänger sedan om sig. De låter sig villigt möbleras med traditionella motiv och symboler, men sedan smäller de igen dörren. Genom nyckelhålet viskar poeten med flickaktig förtjusning.”[1]

“The poems mean as little as possible, bedded safely in their own contradictions and releasing a minimum of reward for the one who wants to read the whole thing and is ready to believe in Ann Jäderlund’s words. They suggest meaning but then close themselves in. They are willing to be decorated [as in furniture] with traditional motifs and symbols, but then they shut the door. Through the keyhole the poet whispers with girlish delight.”

As many critics, led by Åsa Beckman, pointed out, this conceit was misogynist: the poem that is not “accessible” is in a sense prudish; it seduces the man but closes the door on the man rather than giving him sex (her poem is a “tease”!). There are other sexist elements: Jäderlund’s poetry is “decorated” with symbols like the female domestic realms, rather than using these tropes for in-depth, profound communication.

However, is shutting the door on the critic that demands “accessibility” such a bad thing? Perhaps more importantly, why is the conceit of comparing her writing to moving furniture around such an insult? The furniture suggests the traditionally feminine domestic sphere, and the moving around of the furniture suggests a lack of meaning, a circularity; it seems to leave out the idea of interiority. Alternatively,: the interior is just a room, not a soul. So Jäderlund’s poems are the opposite of great (male) poetry of communicating interiority; they are moving stuff around.

However, if we discard these assumptions and read the quote against the grain, we might find that Olofsson very astutely identifies a poetry that problematizes the ideal of communication of interiority. Instead of the traditional idea of the poet as a great revealer of the soul, Jäderlund becomes a translator of language, a poet as “möblerare” of language. She moves the words around, and she alters them, she erases – she corrupts the great original.

Jäderlund’s poetry is mysterious. We can sense a narrative, a conflict. We may not know exactly who is doing what to whom, but the mysteriousness is what not only makes the poem interesting (even irresistible) and – indifference to what Charles Bernstein would argue around the same time in “The Artifice of Absorption” – absorbed in the way riddles are absorbing. We might say that the poems display an extreme case of what Daniel Tiffany has called “verbal obscurity”: “a resistance to understanding or communication inherent in language, a semantic condition allowing certain pragmatic effects of language to prevail in one’s experience of a text.” Furthermore, along with it, a “lyric obscurity” that is “an event, a speech act.” Nevertheless, this act is not only a negative, a failure to communicate; it contributes to the “charm of language.” I am charmed by Jäderlund. “Charm,” the Latin root of which is “carmen.” That is “song, verse, incantation.” Or, later in the middle ages, “a spell.”

[1] Originally in Svenska Dagbladet, but I found the quote on Rasmus Landström’s Blog: https://rasmuslandstrom.wordpress.com/2009/09/09/st-tommy-af-svenskan/



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