Malte Persson (b. 1976) is unlike most contemporary Swedish poets: if the term ‘public intellectual’ still had meaning it would perhaps better describe the relationship most readers have with him, as he frequently enters the day-to-day cultural debate to add a shrewd angle that few of the regular talking heads would ever be able to conjure.
A few decades ago this wasn’t an unusual pursuit for Swedish poets, but now most of them have left the public sphere, either willingly or due to competition from the limitless supply of interchangeable media pundits. Persson, writing from Berlin, hasn’t. Spending a couple of eerily warm autumn weeks immersed in his sentences, rereading his work, has convinced me that he’s an utterly original poet as well.
Perhaps because I caught hold of something I hadn’t noticed before. A kind of general theme, unnamed and latent though present in each of his books: the experience of being marooned in one’s own head – and of trying, failing and again trying to reach out, make contact, using language.
More precisely: on the surface Perssons books – spanning from historical metafiction and conceptual poetry to an ostensibly old-fashioned book of sonnets and experimental lyrical poems – are all plainly unalike one another. A reader more critically inclined than I may liken his writings to a sample card, displaying an author not yet set on how to write, still searching for his stylistic fingerprint. But that’s overlooking, missing or simply ignoring what is both interesting and beautiful in his work.
By continuously trying on new ways of writing, forms and methods, never rehashing the same style or voice Persson seems to demonstrate that, sadly, no particular way of doing literature is more adequate, truthful or necessary than any other. This could, of course, be described as a way of poetically inhabiting a specifically late modern condition, sometimes designated with Henri Michaux’ phrase la grande permission: there are no rules, anything written by a poet can be called a poem, no standard exists from which that status can be denied. Through minor gestures Persson suggests that this great freedom is also a prison-house – akin to the curse of what John Ashbery once called “the Midas-like position” into which our sad present has forced the poet, who now turns any jumble of words into poetry by the trivial act of signing it.
Or as Persson puts it in his most recent book, Till dikten (2018): “Har samtiden inte pågått länge nog nu? / Nu är det ju så att jag inte är Goethe / och då är egentligen allt meningslöst, / men man måste ändå försöka”.
But more importantly, Persson’s writing adds an existential weight to all this, perhaps best phrased as a dismayed paradox – nothing is conventional enough, everything is too conventional – which should be understood in relation to the experience of loneliness I mentioned above, given poignant expression by the wildly unlike, yet unmistakably kindred David Foster Wallace in The Pale King: “How odd I can have all this inside me and to you it’s just words.”
Persson’s writing – obviously more than just words – seems to carry this experience at its core.
Not, however, as an articulated theme or motif but rather as a soft kind of sadness occasionally gestured towards in, for example, poems about the Stockholm metro (Underjorden, 2011). An aloneness lightly worn and swiftly bared in, for example, his playful and deceptively jovial metapoems (Till dikten).
It’s what makes his writing wonderful.
Persson’s writing doesn’t carry clear a moral lesson, it doesn’t unveil any societal injustices, and it’s not instructing us in how to be less cruel toward each other. But rereading it I found a distinctly literary mode of instruction: it gives expression to a profoundly sad, all to ordinary experience – a loneliness difficult to otherwise exact, even talk about – without brooding, without ever wallowing in melancholy or self-pity. Reading it makes me – as he once wrote of the late Wallace – feel less alone.
He made is debut with the bendy, not-quite-a-novel Livet på den här planeten in 2002 and has since published two more books of as peculiar, delightful prose – the great historical metafiction Edelcrantz förbindelserfrom 2008 and Om Ofissimfrom 2016, a hardly classifiable work on the philosophy and poetry of Ofissim, an eccentric intellectual either entirely fictive or a distorted mouthpiece for the author himself.
Persson has, however, always considered himself a poet first and foremost. Beginning with the conceptual Apolloprojektet (2004) he has, to date, written four books of poetry, each an improvement on the former but, as said, without establishing anything that should be described as a “style” or “voice”. Stretching from the experimental, perhaps even LANGUAGE-like, to formal verse, Persson’s poetry shows a range that few contemporary Swedish poets are capable of. Not forgetting that some of his best work has in fact been occasional poems, published in the Swedish daily Expressen.
“Efter ännu ett terrordåd”, written in response to the vile acts of terror that shook Paris and Europe in November 2015, is particularly fine example – widely read, even printed and taped to office doors at my place of work, a university in southern Sweden.
Solemn, measured and superbly simple, the short rhyming poem distilled both hope and solace. And imparted itself profoundly on at least one reader, who months after it was published – not at all with the occasion it was written for in mind – found himself wandering the small town of Lund mumbling: “De dödas språk kan ingen översätta. / De levandes är svagt. Vad som än sker / är det som gäller dock detta: att fortsätta. / Att fortsätta, det är det enda rätta”.
Written by Victor Malm
Was Poetry / (Untitled)
Once was poetry,
yes – yes, it was
just like there was milk
and the sound “milk”
meaning “give me milk”
or sometimes “here’s the milk”.
Small goats grazed the hills,
hills that were and were like words.
The sun rolled its eye.
The small goats’ milk was good to curdle.
And the silence set,
and was ready to be cut,
when poetry, which was,
skipped from stone to stone
and tender grew in places
where it was but impossible to pluck
and it was aged for flavor
Once was poetry
and it still is
here and there in crevices.
Like rainwater in coffee mugs
forgotten on the porch.
It turns up from time to time
at building sites and yard sales
and has to be explained by experts.
It builds up in the food chain
making people and bald eagles
dreamy and anemic
without them knowing why.
Poetry was before
anyone thought of poets –
well, no, what do I know,
but poetry remained
at least when they were gone.
Like residue on the water glass
by the bed where the dead man
found holding his breath become habit.
Poetry was gaseous at first,
then it was liquid over our lips
as we learned to sing it, then
it crystalized in solid books.
And dammit, books are heavy,
so it’s lucky they have wings.
I can see them every day,
here from the porch, entire print runs
hurtling into the sea.
On the seafloor poems are still read,
inks dissolve and become fables
when the fishes breathe them in.
Did you know the human body
is seventy percent poetry?
Well, no, it isn’t.
The human spirit, maybe.
If you will and if it is.
Poetry is not what was
and it is not what is
but that which must be made
to be. Made? As in, created?
Well, just made. Or done, at least.
Thrown together on a whim.
Chiseled, polished, kneaded.
Written down or mumbled.
Maybe shouted from a hilltop
where the echo makes dull rhymes.
Wrung out of a mandrake
or hammered out along
the octaves of the ribcage.
Painted on an altarpiece
and in a subway underpass
and in a little pamphlet no one sees
inside the sun. In the infra
and the ultra of a language.
To lyre, drum and bass, and mortar.
Feather quills rain down over the fields.
Poetry has practiced airborne landings.
One day it will descend on us
like Christ reborn or the Russians
– or so some say. What do I know.
When ladies’ fans are opened
and when lungs are x-rayed
small black stanzas can be seen.
Timotheus from Miletus
put an extra string on his kithara
and for that was driven out of Sparta.
We carried poetry in leaking pails
and very little still remained
when we came home, and yet
certain poems were so funny
that we never could stop weeping.
It’s a clay pigeon singing.
It’s the small goats bleating.
The milk is souring. Is that good?
Stones rest, suggestively.
As the words fall here and there.
As the mountaintops are plucked.
Sing a sad song
of ink and extinction,
of your body’s burial grounds.
Poetry is the sutured wound,
an alphabetic catgut stitch.
Oh, how swell this silence-siren!
As it blares out of the archives!
Private in a public place,
in the shadow of a tombstone
this silly sprouting weed.
Such as once was poetry,
where once I found it was.Translated by Olivia Olsen
In Hell / (Untitled)
One must imagine Sisyphus is happy.
Pushing his stroller up the street.
Writing another weekly column.
Hades is like Twitter: all the others.
Hades is like Tinder: all the same.
Hades is a haiku without end.
Where demography meets demagoguery.
Where the Netflix series is the new novel.
Caught in a near unreadable diagram.
From a market research survey.
That someone calls about at dinner.
Is hell another looping GIF
where a cute animal gets hurt.
Is hell another insipid meme:
“You know you’re in hell when…”
Is hell an open office space.
An inbox with no spam filter.
Do you want to meet hot singles in your area?
Like hell I do. Now take this quiz:
Which Patriarch are you most like?
Which vintage Tupperware product?
Lucky I’m a genius, you see.
Lucky the mainstream audience
has a perfect ear for irony.
We say in hell (JK!).
In hell we argue about poetry
but nobody remembers any poetry.
All there is to read are editorials.
All there is to read is copy.
All there is to read are end-user license agreements.
All there is to read are letters of rejection.
All there is to read are milk cartons
of milk way past its sell-by date,
like a millennium ago,
when Tetra Paks were first domesticated.
In hell they play a pan-flute cover
of Sex Pistols’ “Holiday in the Sun”.
In hell the coffee machine only takes bitcoins
and nobody has any bitcoins.
In hell they show a live-feed of heaven
24/7 in pretty shitty resolution.
Overall the figurative language
isn’t all that great in hell.
No matter how modern it seems.
Because hell is only a craze.
But what a craze it is!Translated by Olivia Olsen
Memento Mori / (Untitled)
Wanderer, now listen up:
An iPhone is a tiny tombstone
made from some black and shiny mineral.
Maybe from a cemetery for small pets.
Armored guinea pigs and dancing
parrots and other viral triumphs.
All equal in the face of dissolution.
Even Grumpy Cat will die one day!
Each lapidary epigraph
maxed at 140 characters.
Once. You. Got. Ten. Thousand. Likes. /
Now. No. One. Evermore. Says. Lol.Translated by Olivia Olsen
EPITAPH / or Elegie for faire POESY / that in Our Age at Long Last hath Expired / (Untitled)
O, hear me, Passer-by! For resting here –
no, rest is really not the fitting word :
Here lies fair murdered Poetry interred.
Like the from misshot arrows wounded deer
that dashes through the forest unbeknownst
to both the hunter and the bow he drew*,
so Poetry to Lethe, bleeding, flew:
fell silent to its whiteout-waters’ flow,
and left poor language – wretched shard of Babel –
the sad fields of utility to till.
Now Poetry is dead, and dead it will
weigh upon each word, it’s absence able
to haunt unspoken, and forever chill
the souls of the damned thugs that got her killed.
*) Aen. IV: 69-73Translated by Olivia Olsen
Regarding the Situation of Poetry in Our Day and Age / (Untitled)
Poetry: there isn’t much to recommend it, really.
It lacks, for instance, awesome special effects.
Such as giant balls of fire. Furthermore:
The line too labors, and the words move slow,
– or whatever Elvis sang in Vegas.
Hark the vaudeville poet’s cry:
With verse I used to entertain,
but now I entertain in vain;
I was a well-known, well-liked bard,
but being that is now too hard.
Poetry is not a social medium.
Mme. Blavatsky was. Poetry, no.
Sometimes poetry gets a grant. A small one.
Then it runs off right away and spends it on something dumb.
Poetry sometimes gets recited by Morgan Freeman.
It really shouldn’t be.
But what happens, happens.
And yet – yet: Poetry.Translated by Olivia Olsen
Entertainment / (Untitled)
When we grow ashamed of the amount of poetry we’ve been reading and feel the need to engage in something more serious, we turn on the TV. We watch, perhaps, a news program about the global situation, which is extremely serious, if not acutely alarming; or perhaps a drama series with a complex narrative structure, which, over the course of several seasons, portrays the development of a number of fictive characters though the use of long story arcs; or perhaps a documentary film about owls, those wisest of animals that have never learned to read but are deep into networking and mindful presence. The TV has both sound and image, which poetry mostly pretends to – not only that, but our modern televisions and computer screens on which we stream our TV programs are able to display an enormous number of different colors, which they make use of to depict a multitude of objects and events – whereas poetry, for the most part, only has two: black, and white, with which it desperately tries to give itself airs. Poems are often short (such as limericks, a kind of ludicrous joke told in rhyme, and haikus, which are the same thing, but without the rhyme or any sense of fun) so that even an idiot can read all the way through without losing concentration, whereas TV programs, for example awards ceremonies in which significant contributions to the television-related arts are celebrated, can go on for hours, if not days. However, we aren’t as smart as we like to pretend we are, and generally fall asleep in front of the TV before it is quite done showing us what it intended to show – or else, more often than not, we quickly go back to reading poetry.Translated by Olivia Olsen
The Poets / (Untitled)
Poets are the partisans of language.
They ponder this
in the pale light of their laptop campfires.
Afar they see great shadows move
a thunderclap that they believe is language.Translated by Olivia Olsen
First Person Shooter / (Untitled)
The zombie apocalypse starts here.
Where the alphabet abruptly ends.
Where all things undescribed well in.
I no longer know who you are.
I think you are the one that reads.
I think you are the one that writes.
I no longer know who I am.
An “I” can be switched with a “you”
or any other given pronoun
often without it changing much.
That’s how they are, the poems, monsters.
Breath of wanton phantoms.
A furtive apparition’s avatar.
Where all the undescribed wells in.
The author’s dead. So’s literature.
A flicker in a corridor.
Chasing what? Something authentic?
Upgrade your rhetoric, loser.
You run. She shoots.
I eat. He calls.
You fall. One dreams.
But nothing is for real.
But everything’s for real.
close parenthesis.Translated by Olivia Olsen