Tua Forsström, translated by David McDuff, I Walked On Into the Forest: Poems For a Little Girl – review

Tua Forsström’s I Walked On Into the Forest almost defeats commentary – the writing is so pure, transparent and direct that saying anything to or around it can seem worse than redundant. The whole book records the poet’s trying to come to terms with the death of her granddaughter, Vanessa. Almost all the twenty-one short, numbered poems of the first section address Vanessa in language one might use to a child. Three lines from one called ‘3’ can illustrate the sheer beauty and effortless resonance of the language, in David McDuff’s translation:

There are dreams that are more transparent than water
You left perhaps to sleep far away
I write these letters to you of snow and rain

Each line is a complete sentence that hangs in the air, shedding its own gentle and slightly enigmatic radiance, at an oblique angle to its neighbour.  Occasionally, it’s true, the figurative application of an image or memory is single and explicit, as in the last of these lines:

You pressed your nose to the bus window and
happily called all the mountains volcanoes,
and you were quite right
The ground was thin under our feet

Such one-dimensional overtness is rare, however. The gentleness of suggestion that I found in ‘3’ seems to me a keynote. Memories and images are presented in a way that’s both vivid and spare, with an emphasis on elemental or elementary natural phenomena that can be evoked in very few words. An extreme is reached in the seventeenth poem of the first section, which makes even haiku look verbose. This is the whole of it:

Little grass
dear little grass

But of course the working of these poems is very different to that of haiku. The images are multivalent in a way that feeds on their context in a Modernist sequence or group of sequences. Each image or memory fragment shines both in its own light and in the shifting play of light from those around it. As the book proceeds, the focus of attention broadens to include more generalised meditations on love and loss, the beauty and fragility of life and our relations to the natural world, but Vanessa’s death remains at its heart.

Not speaking Swedish, I can’t comment on the accuracy of David McDuff’s translation, but the sensitivity of its expression is a remarkable achievement throughout.

Tua Forsström, translated by David McDuff, I Walked On Into the Forest: Poems For a Little Girl, 96pp, £10.99, Bloodaxe Books

I would like to thank Ann and Peter Sansom and Suzannah Evans for permission to post this extract from my review of books by Maurice Riordan, Threa Almontaser and Tua Forsström in issue 68 of The North.

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