/ 13 March 2019

The Week of the Festival: Littfest, Sweden

Like Rhymes Conjoin the World and Make It Whole: A review of Sara Hallström’s Jag vill att mina barn ska tillhöra (2015)

What does it mean to belong – to a place, to other people, to a professional role? Jag vill att mina barn ska tillhöra (‘I want my children to belong’), the fourth poetry collection by Swedish poet Sara Hallström, investigates the spaces bodies occupy as they interact, work and play in a room. Not any room, but the preschool, a place on the border between ‘care and world’ – the alliteration in ‘vård och värld’ belongs to those nuances that get lost in translation. And not any work, but the forming of children that someone else has left in your care, within a system of expectations and regulations, where ‘[b]odies soft with patchy warmth float between history, mass and movement’.

Sara Hallström was born in 1979 in Gothenburg, where she still lives after detours to Norway, Belgium and Scotland. Fifteen years have passed since her notable entrance to the Swedish poetry scene – her debut Vi måste ha protein (‘We must have protein’,2004) was nominated to the Borås tidning prize for debutants, while her second collection of poetry, Rötter smälter (‘Roots melt’, 2007), was awarded with the Mare Kandre Prize.

She then engaged in two collaborations with visual artists – Naini and the Sea of Wolves (2008) with photographer Trinidad Carrillo and Driva (‘Drift’, 2009) with illustrator Vanja Larberg – and published a third poetry collection, Torg, korg, eko (‘Square, basket, echo’, 2010), before the release of Jag vill att mina barn ska tillhöra in 2015Hallström has not yet been translated into English, which means that all quotes in this review are my own translations.

During recent years, work critique has emerged as an important theme in Swedish literature. This has been seen in nonfiction, especially in books by the sociologist Roland Paulsen, but mainly in fiction, both poetry and prose. Emil Boss, Johan Jönson and Marie Norin are a few examples of poets whose works have been influenced by, and helped influence, this trend. The preschool milieu has recently been poetically explored in Helene Rådberg’s Politiken (‘The Politique’, 2018), but while Rådberg comes closer to a classic socialistic critique of working conditions, Hallström rather resembles prosaists like Måns Wadensjö and Elise Karlsson. A fascination for how work organizes lives and time make the fiction of these three authors an investigation of the working subject and its act of submission, rather than of collective rebellion against the politics of work.

Besides being a poet, Hallström has studied preschool teaching and worked as a teacher in different environments. The Swedish preschool system begins after parental leave, when the child is about one year old, and continues until the child enters elementary school at six years of age. During the last decades, preschooling have shifted form, from day-care to actual schooling with a bigger focus on reading, writing and counting, but also on the development of values. This includes working against gender stereotypes, which is seen as controversial by conservative politicians and forms the school into a battle ground where traditions meet reform.

Hallström’s poetry has also before been inspired by gender theorists and artists – among them Audre Lorde, Luce Irigaray, Leslie Feinberg and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick – and often dwelled on questions of gender, normality and identity. Here, the preschool appears as a ‘women’s land’ – 95% of Swedish preschool teachers are women – but also as an area where gender is handed down, formed and deformed, by ‘[t]he rhythm in a tale that was read before you were born’. Over all, Hallström is interested in what it means to teach and be taught, how ‘[s]ounds and colours that reach into the body never leave it’.

Through a combination of skilfully orchestrated poems and numerous blank pages, Hallström shows the ways in which we create rooms that then form us and our ways of taking (up) space. Rooms can become worlds of their own, with specific rules and professional roles, surrounded by borders that separate ‘the past from the present, / class from class, / body from thought, / you from me, / house from home’. Borders that also define the nation – and divide it from within:

Borders must exist here, because other places lack them.
Because they are too weak or too dangerous,
too unconsidered or too private,
borders must exist if there is to be a place to go to
and stay.

Hallström writes that it is ‘a benefit to be disciplined’. An order appears, in the classroom as well as the poems, but an order that leaves room for play – and for song, described as a force that opens mouths and brings voices together. From focusing on love and care as an ordering of bodies and minds, a repetition of rhymes that ‘conjoins the world and makes it whole’ but also gets filled ‘with hate, aversion, silence’, Hallström’s poems develop into a vision of something else – something that does not fit into this scheme:

Eyes that see beyond rooms, floors and walls must be sick
Eyes that see through, eyes that claim to see through and further
Eyes that perceive song
They see what does not exist, they change colour through their sights 
Don’t accept the diving lines of the room, refuse division,
combine impossible elements

Through its combination of borders and breakouts, this thin volume becomes a poetic world that is both chaotic and regulated, individual and common, private and public, playful – and fierce.

By Sebastian Lönnlöv

Article commissioned and edited by Versopolis' guest editor Helena Fagertun.