Edith Södergran (1892-1923) was born in St. Petersburg and lived most of her life just over the Russo-Finnish border in the small town of Raivola. Between the ages of 10 and 16 she attended a German boarding school in St. Petersburg, so her earliest poems were written in German. At home the language spoken was Swedish; around her in Raivola Russian and Finnish were spoken. Actually, the Swedish her parents spoke was marginal and archaic, and though Södergran finally chose to write all her poems in Swedish, experts say that even her mature poetry "was sometimes uncertain about word forms, gender, conjugational shifts, etc." At the age of 16 she contracted tuberculosis, probably from her father (whom it quickly killed), and she spent much of her short life in sanatoria. This and some unrequited loves with older authority figures made for a rather unhappy life.
She drowned her sorrows in languages and poetry, learning all the languages I've mentioned so far, but also French, English and Italian. Her primary influences were Goethe, Heine, Whitman (!), Rimbaud, Mayakovsky, Severyanin (completely new to me) and the German expressionists like Mombert and Lasker-Schüler. And she read and read and read Nietzsche's writings. The reception of her very direct, original and modern poetry was predictably cool,(*) but now she is recognized as one of the finest poets in the Swedish language. I've admired her poetry ever since I read Nelly Sachs' translations of them into German.(**)
It is difficult to put a finger on what is characteristic in Södergran's poetry. It is direct and simple, with no linguistic, structural, intellectual or emotional complications. And yet there is a quiet profundity in her best poems. I believe this is due to the distinctly different angle with which she viewed the world. To some readers (and a good number of her contemporaries) Södergran was mentally unbalanced, whereas to others she was a visionary who saw what few can perceive. Each must make up their own mind, though both could be right. Certainly, she had a hard time dealing with people, and the few times she went to Helsinki most of her contacts just shook their heads in dismay at the eccentric behavior of the unpolished young woman.
Sometimes she gave beautiful expression to the disjunction she felt with her surroundings.
I am a stranger in this land
that lies deep under the pressing sea,
the sun looks in with curling beams
and the air floats between my hands.
They told me that I was born in captivity -
here is no face that is known to me.
Am I a stone that someone threw to the bottom?
Am I a fruit that was too heavy for its branch?
Here I lurk at the foot of the murmuring tree,
how will I get up the slippery stems?
Up there the tottering treetops meet,
there I will sit and spy out
the smoke from my homeland's chimneys.
To All Four Winds
No bird strays here into my hidden corner,
no black swallow that brings longing,
no white gull that tides a storm...
In the shadows of the rocks my wildness stays awake,
ready to fly at the slightest whisper, at approaching steps...
Soundless and blue is my world, blessed...
I have a door to all four winds.
I have a golden door to the east - for love that never comes,
I have a door for day and another for sadness,
I have a door for death - that one is always open.
Though, of course, not all of her poems speak to the reader with equal force, there are many which are mysteriously meaningful in the way one encounters only in the best poetry.
I saw a tree...
I saw a tree that was greater than all others
and hung full of cones out of reach;
I saw a tall church with open doors
and all who came out were pale and strong
and ready to die;
I saw a woman who smiling and rouged
threw dice for her luck
and saw she had lost.
A circle was drawn around these things
that no one crosses over.
I find her attraction to both Whitman and Nietzsche curious, for Whitman fantasized an unbounded expansion of his self for the purpose of accepting and absorbing all things, whereas Nietzsche's fantasized expansion was for the purpose of obtaining power over all things. These seem to me to be directly contradictory; but, then, aren't we all. Here is one of her Whitmanesque poems.
I am no woman. I am a neuter.
I am a child, a page and a bold resolve,
I am a laughing stripe of a scarlet sun...
I am a net for all greedy fish,
I am a skoal to the glory of all women,
I am a step towards hazard and ruin,
I am a leap into freedom and self,
I am the whisper of blood in the ear of the man,
I am the soul's ague, the longing and refusal of the flesh,
I am an entrance sign to new paradises.
I am a flame, searching and brazen,
I am water, deep but daring up to the knee,
I am fire and water in free and loyal union...
Although she wrote more purely Nietzscheesque poems, this one is unusual for trying a connection between fatigue/fragility and power.
My body is a mystery.
So long as this fragile thing lives
you shall feel its might.
I will save the world.
Therefore Eros' blood hurries to my lips,
and Eros' gold into my tired locks.
I need only look,
tired or downcast, the earth is mine.
When I lie wearily on my bed
I know: in this weary hand is the world's destiny.
It is the power that quivers in my shoes,
it is the power that moves in the folds of my garments,
it is the power that stands before you -
there is no abyss for it.
Strange on many levels...
I'll close with what is probably the last poem she wrote; the initial quatrain is engraved on her tombstone:
Arrival in Hades
See, here is eternity's shore,
here the stream murmurs by,
and death plays in the bushes
his same monotonous melody.
Death, why were you silent?
We have come a long way
and are hungry to hear,
we have never had a nurse
who could sing like you.
The garland that never adorned my brow
I lay silently at your feet.
You shall show me a wondrous land
where the palm trees stand tall,
and where between rows of pillars
the waves of longing go.
I hope you were right about that, Edith. In any case, I will be reading your work until he comes to sing to me...
In this edition (1984), David McDuff translates all of her poetry and provides a 50 page essay on her life and work.
(*) In fact, the turmoil of the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Russian Revolution, which set Finland free from the Russian yoke, also had the effect of complementing this lack of resonance, finally reducing Södergran to desperate poverty and accelerating her decline into an early death.
(**) And I think Sachs' translations are better than the English translations I've read. If you read German, they are collected in Volume IV of Sachs' Werke.