“I am a flame, searching and bold.” #edithsodergran @BloodaxeBooks


On Foot I Wandered Through the Solar Systems by Edith Sodergran
Translated by Malena Morling and Jonas Ellerstrom

As I mentioned in my review of Henry Parland’s “To Pieces”, back in the summer I was introduced to two wonderful books by Scandinavian Modernist women authors: Chitambo by Hagar Olsson, and Crisis by Karin Boye. I’d read the latter’s excellent dystopian novel Kallocain earlier in the year, and all three of these works were ones I reviewed for Shiny New Books. I must admit that I’d not been particularly aware of this particular group of Modernist writers before; but as I said, the discovery of these books led to me exploring the back catalogue of Norvik Press, their publisher, more thoroughly. I did love Parland’s only novel (and I’m still trying to track down his poetry). But I was also pointed in the direction of poet Edith Sodergran (a close friend of Olsson) and, susceptible as I am to bookish suggestions, I had to send off for a translated poetry selection and also a collection of her letters. I don’t know if I’ll get to the letters in time for #WITMonth; but I *have* read the poems, and I absolutely loved them!

Like many of the Scandinavian authors I’ve been reading, Sodergran had a short life; born in 1892 in St. Petersburg, she died at the age of 31 from tuberculosis. An intelligent woman, fluent in several languages, she was also a keen photographer. And despite her illness, she published four collections of verse in her lifetime, with one being released after her death; “On Foot…” gathers poems from all of these. It’s a slim, dual language volume which draws mostly from her first collection from 1916, and it reveals some wonderfully moving and memorable verse.

Here, take my hand, take my white arm,
take my thin shoulder’s longing…
It would be strange to feel,
for one night, a night like this,
your heavy head on my breast,
(The Days Grow Cool)

Sodergran’s poems are mostly short, rarely longer than half a page; and yet the contents are wonderfully evocative. Her work reflects on nature, the stars and the universe, and sometimes the place of women in that world. The impression is of a solitary poet; men do not seem to be allowed to get close. These are what I think would be called visionary poems, rejecting traditional structures and instead considering simply what it is to exist. Reading the poems was a moving and meditative experience. Soderberg seems to speak from the heart, and her words certainly resonated with mine.

The poems are translated by Malena Morling and Jonas Ellerstrom; and Morling provides a useful afterword which puts Sodergran in context, reminding us that she wasn’t really appreciated until after her death. It also reminded me of a fact I’d become aware of in my recent reading of these authors, and that is the proximity of the Scandinavian countries to Russia; many of the authors seem to have either been born or educated in St. Petersburg, and their countries had strong connections with their monolithic neighbour. This also gave them a certain vulnerability because of the volatile state of Russia during the First World War, Revolution and Civil War. These events affected Sodergran’s life, and those of her contemporaries, in a way I had’t appreciated before.

Beautiful sisters, come high on top of the sturdy cliffs,
we are all women warriors, women heroes, women writers,
eyes of innocence, heavenly brows, rose larvae,
heavy surf and birds adrift,
we are the least expected and the deepest red,
tiger spots, taut strings, stars without vertigo.
(Violet Sunsets)

So I loved my first experience of reading Sodergran very much. This book is published by Marick Press in the US, and I wondered whether there were any other collections available in English. Well, it transpires that Bloodaxe published her complete poems back in 1984, but this is only currently available in digital format which is really annoying; because it’s translated by David McDuff, who was also responsible for last year’s “Kallocain” and whose translations I trust. I mention this because I *do* have slight reservations about this selection.

Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland / No restrictions (via Wikimedia Commons)

For a start, and it’s a small matter, Sodergran often ends her lines or verses with three dots (just as I often do my sentences…) – which can be seen from the original poem on the left page (this is a dual language edition). However, the translators render this on the right hand page with the translation as a dash – and I really don’t understand why, because the effect to me is very, very different. Similarly, they give the title of the posthumous collection in English as “The Country that Isn’t”; whereas Wikipedia shows it as “The Land which Is Not”. I speak no Swedish, so I have no idea which would be most accurate, but I prefer the Wiki version… I confess to thinking that I’d like very much to read the McDuff translations; but I don’t know that that will be happening any time soon.

Anyway, I am so pleased to have made the acquaintance, albeit briefly, of Edith Sodergran; an ideal discovery for #WITMonth. I’m also delighted that I have a collection of her letters lurking on the TBR, issued by Norvik Press; I doubt I will get to this during August but will try not to leave it too soon to get round to reading it!


A Little Coda…

I’ve left the post above as I originaly wrote it; but I was a bit rattled by my uncertainties about the translation, and also the inabiity to track down the McDuff complete poems; so I did a little digging…

Like so many books during this weird pandemic period, if you search on Amazon they offer you digital versions or very high priced copies; and I have to say that my whole experience of online book buying during this time has changed dramatically. I’ve shifted to Hive, or gone directly to the publishers where I can; anything rather than be ripped off like this. I tried Hive, Wordery, Book Depository and eBay in search of a reasonably priced copy of the Complete Poems, but to no avail. And then I had a lightbulb moment – and zipped over to the site of the publishers, Bloodaxe. Lo and behold, the book could be got from them at normal cover price so I duly ordered it, and here it is with “On foot…”

And now the story takes *another* twist, because I have had a quick look at the McDuff and compared, in particular, one early poem, titled in “On foot…” as “The Day Grows Cool” and in “Complete” as “The Day Cools”. Sure enough, McDuff renders the three dots as three dots when they are such in the original, which makes me very happy and I *don’t* know why Morling/Ellerstrom messed with this. But I was also struck by one particular couplet, which is Swedish is:

Du kastade din kärleks röda ros
I mitt vita sköte –

Morling/Ellerstrom render this as:

You threw your love’s red rose
Into my white womb –

However, McDuff gives this as:

You threw the red rose of your love
Into my white lap –

To me, the use of lap or womb is quite a significant difference and allows for very different interpretation of the couplet. So as I speak no Swedish, my only recourse was Google Translate; and depending on what time of the day you put the phrase in and on what device, it comes up with either word as an option! Which just goes to show, really, what a complicated thing translation is!! I wonder if any of my Ramblings readers speak Swedish and can bring any thoughts to the debate??

Anyway – the bottom line is that I’m very happy to have tracked down the Bloodaxe book, and as I always enjoy David McDuff’s translations I shall read this feeling assured that I am in capable hands! And of course, the lesson to be learned is to always check out the publisher’s site to see if you can get the book directly from them!

“Memory wails in my faraway home”


Poems by Katherine Mansfield

Hot on the heels of my discovery of George Orwell’s poetry came the discovery that the wonderful prose stylist Katherine Mansfield was also a versifier – thanks to the fact that Michael Walmer has reprinted a beautiful collection of her poetry from 1923 and he’s been kind enough to provide a copy for review.

mansfield poems

Collected by Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry, after her death, the book also contains an introduction by him; and interestingly he states that little of her poetry was published during her lifetime – which is a shame. The book is divided into sections, covering verses from 1909-1910, 1911-13, “Poems at the Villa Pauline: 1916”, 1917-1919 and what are listed as “Child Verses: 1907”. Apparently, some of the most beautiful were refused by editors because they didn’t rhyme, and Murry implies that they straddle the line between poetry and prose. Well, whatever you class them as, they really are quite lovely!

O waters – do not cover me !
I would look long and long at those beautiful stars !
O my wings – lift me – lift me !
I am not so dreadfully hurt…

(From “The Wounded Bird” – 1919)

If there’s a running theme in Mansfield’s poetry, it certainly is one of melancholy and nostalgia. The verses reflect her longing for her homeland; they evoke her early life and her relationship with her beloved brother, Leslie, who was lost in the First World War; and a strong feeling for nature. The sea is a constant presence in her work, along with fantastic creations like “The Sea Child” and the Earth Child who features in the poem “The Earth Child in the Grass”, both of which works feature striking imagery.

Through many of the poems run Mansfield’s memories of New Zealand, appearing as almost a magical place; family and heritage are obviously important to her, and in fact Murry chose to dedicate the collection to Elizabeth von Arnim, Mansfield’s cousin.

So, as with Orwell, the question has to be asked as to whether Mansfield is as good a poet as a prose stylist, and I have to say that I think that’s not something that should even be considered. Certainly Mansfield’s poetry is often very beautiful and if read in isolation without knowledge of her prose would stand up in its own right. However, her prose was so perfect that there’s no point in trying to make comparisons of such different types of writing.


Mansfield’s life was a short one, blighted by her ongoing illness and the search for a cure. The pensive quality of many of the lyrics here can’t help but suggest that they reflect a side of Mansfield that’s not so obvious in her prose. She’ll always be remembered for her remarkably fine short stories, but “Poems” is a valuable addition to the canon of Katherine Mansfield’s work and most definitely deserves to be back in print in this beautiful hardback edition.

(Many thanks to publisher Mike Walmer for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!)

Lost in Translation?


Poems by Hermann Hesse

One of the joys of Hermann Hesse Reading Week has been the chance to discover new aspects of this great author’s work; for example, I hadn’t really considered his poetry, despite the fact that his novels are littered with it! However, Caroline mentioned his poems in one of her posts, and I thought it would be worth tracking down at least one new volume for the Week – and here it is:

hesse poems

The book contains 31 poems, selected by James Wright from those in Hesse’s Collected Works, and also translated by him. Wright was an American poet who died in 1980 and his introduction, penned in 1970 is a strange one. Wright states that he thinks many of Hesse’s 480 pages of poems are very fine; but while lauding the German author, Wright also seems to diss him a little, quoting an article that describes him as “second-rate”! This was a bit distracting, and the main thrust of the introduction seems to be to indicate a theme of homesickness as permeating the poems; well, at least, the ones translated here…

The verses themselves are presented in original German on the left hand page and English translation on the right. This is useful, as a non-German speaker like me can try to keep an eye on the original rhyme schemes and line endings. However, it was while flicking back and forward between the two languages that I spotted something odd in the poem “Ode to Holderlin”. The lines in German are:

Sehnlich wenden wir us, vom Tag Ermudete
Der ambrosischen Nacht deiner Gesange zu,

and the English version is given as:

We turn passionately, exhausted by day,
To the ambrosia, the night of your music,

Now as I said, my German is minimal, if non-existent; but it struck me that “ambrosischen” was a longer word than “ambrosia”, and I wondered if it had a slightly different meaning. I had a look at an online translation service (which I know is notoriously cranky and inaccurate!) but it came up with “ambrosial” and suggested the whole line could be rendered something like “To the ambrosial night of your song” – which to me changes the sense of the line a bit. Yes, I know, I know, translation is an impossible art, and poetry can’t be translated literally; I may be getting things completely wrong here – if I am, will a German speaker please correct me and I’ll calm down a bit. But I confess I was just a little unsettled by this.

hesse writing

Putting all this aside, though, I really enjoyed reading these poems. The verses range from “I know, You Walk” from 1899 up to “All Deaths” in 1921. The sense of yearning and melancholy they convey is strong, and seems to run through not only Hesse’s poems but also much of his prose writing. It’s something I might not have picked up on when I was younger but it seems more obvious now. The language is simple and effective in these translations, capturing verses about lost loves, ageing and loneliness. So I imagine Wright chose these particular poems to translate in order to give his collection a cohesion.

Yet I couldn’t help wondering if this is a representative selection of Hesse’s poetry writing; and unless there’s a more comprehensive collection available in English I may not be able to find out! Nevertheless, despite my reservations about this particular book, I’m glad to have had the chance to get to know another element of Hesse’s writing and I *will* keep my eye out for other poetry collections.

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