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Northern Miniaturist

Brian Lynch

It is not love, it is
hope that saves. To
hope is perhaps weariness,
but in the desert where there is
no other coolness than death,
the shadow of the future
is all that remains.

This short poem is typical of the work of Gösta Agren, one of Europe’s finest and yet least known poets. Agren was born in 1936 in Ostrobothnia, the Swedish-speaking part of northern Finland. Poetically he is as granular as Paul Celan, if not as world-dense. Politically, he has something in common with the late RS Thomas. But whereas Thomas’s dualistic Welshness was tensed against Englishness, Agren’s quasi-separatism stands on historical ground that is trebly troubled: his Swedishness is subjected to a Finlandic spirit that is itself dominated by Great Russianism.

Yet Agren’s work transcends local histories. This poem, for instance, is called “Capitalism”, but its meaning ripples out wider than an economic or political theory:

Not to have is to long
for all one has not. It is
to be constantly forced
to have what one lacks.
To have is to fear losing
all that one has. It is
to be constantly forced
to lack what one has.

Similarly, the poem called “The Prisoner” is about more than the experience of jail:

My crimes have been
committed, the cell locked.
I am free.

There are many poems as tiny, and as huge, as this. This for example:

It is impossible
to prolong life; let
us magnify it
with simplicity.

At other times, though, the mood is less abstract. The effectiveness of the following poem depends in large part on the change of tense in the last line:

Through the slow shadows
the cows approach, warm
evening mothers, that rather
stay than go. Their eyes
are great flowers, their bodies
are full of grass. Almost plants
they are, groping their way home
on gently walking roots.
It was summer. Summer.

Sometimes the insights are grounded in a painterly, almost photographic, realism. This can be seen in a poem called “The Widow”:

You have gone. I wait
here, between the wallpaper’s
hoarse silence, near the naked rock
of the kitchen table. Like this
I have sat long. What
I gave away is now
all that remains.

The method is aphoristic but the aphorisms do not come naked into the reader’s mind, clothed only in intelligence or wisdom, as even the best aphorisms often do. However curt and abstract they are, these are poems and they are bedded in the immediacy of particular experience. Agren’s language is always simple but, when the thought is extended, following its line can be difficult, and this is a large part of the pleasure. Note how in this poem the social cement of its subject, “Politeness”, is seen as securing not togetherness but separation:

Politeness is the deepest
emotion. I protect you
against me. To bow is
self‑respect. When you greet
your neighbour in the street‑throng
you have just recognized
yourself. Life
condenses to a ceremony. Everything
meaningless stops,
cruelty and kindness, hate
and love. ‘Good day’.
And you part anew.

In the following poem, called “Circle”, it is difficult not to think of the fall of the Berlin wall, but the fatalism is stonier than any history and yet hope-filled still with sympathy:

All is as before. The clock
draws near. Every story
must at last be told;
every answer diminishes
the question. You have moved
in your sparse constellation
of years; you have waited.
Nothing is as before, for
nothing has happened. You never
dared to receive, and your gifts
were only a protecting wall.
It is getting light; in the east
red organ music rises. My friend,
you have misunderstood everything.
Life is not the goods, it is
the price. Empty-handed you turn round,
but it does not matter. All is as before; soon
you will be home again.

Sometimes the pleasure of the reading is obtained in the endeavour to bestride language-gulfs that are at once narrow and wide, and always deep. As for instance in this entire poem called ‘Life and Weeping’:

To weep is
the weak person’s way
of living.
To live is
the strong person’s way
of weeping.

It is a long time since a Swedish writer won the Nobel Prize. Despite the political sensitivities involved in both Sweden and Finland, I can think of no better candidate than Agren.

The poems quoted here come from A Valley in the Midst of Violence – Selected Poems by Gösta Agren, published by Bloodaxe. The limpid translations are by David McDuff.


Brian Lynch is a poet, novelist, playwright, screenwriter and art critic. His latest novel, The Winner of Sorrow, based on the life of William Cowper, was published in 2005.

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