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Translator's Note: Edith Södergran

I found small trace in Edith Södergran’s work of those elements that usually act upon me, such as the solicitations of sonic effect or a temperamental syntax, to draw me into poems. I had read that she was largely responsible for modernizing Swedish poetry, and yet much of her work as I encountered it in translation struck me as a bit old-fashioned, like the early work of Rilke or Yeats. I was attracted to the task of translating a poet whose aesthetic runs so counter to my own, whose own poems may well have been a form of translation since she chose to write in Swedish rather than the German or Russian in which she may have been more at ease. 

The poetry of her work resides in what she says rather than how it is said; her mood is often declarative and her landscape is the elemental one of lyric poetry, of sea, tree, rose, and stone. Södergran’s poems often seem to arrive from the shore of something vast, whether that is the sea, or mortality, or a poetic ambition so high that it may strike some readers a century later as a politely unmentionable blemish because it is so earnest. Gender and illness, as well as circumstances of history, language, and geography—all of these combined to place this poet on the margin, where she persevered to make of her poems a center. Educated as a girl in St. Petersburg, following the political unrest in Russia she and her mother lived for reasons of economy and health at the family’s summer home in the provincial village of Raivola (now Roshchino) near the Finnish-Russian border. Her work was often greeted with indifference, misunderstanding, or worse. And having watched her father die of tuberculosis one year before she received the same diagnosis at sixteen, many of the poems possess an unmistakable urgency as—through fatigue, melancholy, and despair—they reach out for life. —Averill Curdy


This poem originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2012

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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