Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 125 in December, 2010.
Tarkovsky’s Horses and Other Poems
By Pia Tafdrup
(Highgreen, England: Bloodaxe Books, 2010)
Translated by David McDuff
Review by Jim Feast
Ihave it almost as a rule that if I am comparing two poets of today, and I mean two good writers, where one is impeccably witty, subtle, given to surprising reflections and literary allusions, and the other is blunter, more direct, dealing unexaltedly with everyday topics, then nine times out of ten, it is the simple, unstrained writer who takes the laurels.
Pia Tafdrup in her newly translated Tarkovsky’s Horses stands as an example of the second type writer for she is a foursquare, plain spoken powerhouse of a lyricist. Her work deals both with current progressive themes, such as environmental destruction, and the old chestnuts, such as death, heartbreak, and heart mending.
And what she has going for her is a way with images that colors her thought with amazing force. Take these two pictures of birds.
The birds here, whose colours reflect
the fauna of innermost dreams,
are busy cruising hieroglyphically …
[they] populate the sky like an open songbook
However, while these happy images might make you think she is a benign nature poet, seeing only the bright side of her surroundings, this poem’s ending belies that supposition, for these sunny songbirds sight prey and “and dive hungrily // after a snake in the rustling grass” to make a meal of it.
Along with giving such raw glimpses of nature, Tafdrup is equally adept at charting the ins and outs of relationships. In talking of a disintegrating love affair, she says poignantly, “You … realize // that our two parallel lives don’t meet // at any point // while what we have lost points towards us // from nearly all directions.”
Still, while she ably depicts lover’s quarrels and reuniting, the central relationship in this book, which is made up of two volumes she published in Denmark, is with her father. The first part of this book talks much about her memories of how they spent time together while she grew up, and the second, with stubborn clear-sightedness, tells the story of his mental breakdown as he grows old, loses his faculties and dies.
This is a difficult subject, and one to which she brings new light by suggesting that her father, who was a farmer, an intellectually inclined one, probably suffers more from his loss of language than might a writer, teacher or another type whose whole career involved trafficking in words. I’m not sure I’m putting that correctly. I just mean that it seems more tragic when age-begetted forgetting does not revolve around, say, the name of a person or book title, but a starker fact, as that recorded in this passage:
He [her father] stands at the threshold, on the edge
of the darkness, calls the dog,
obey his master.
The dog died
many years ago.
And what’s worse, she underlines, is when it seems even free associations break down because every thought forgets the one that came immediately before: “An astromnomical chart can’t decipher that swarm // of [her father’s] thoughts which is splintering // visibly // and stands exposed like the interior of houses.”
To return to my opening point, the story she tells here is not unusual, a sad, but common one, but with her careful, informal language and perfectly fitted metaphors, she carves scene after scene so each has a memorable emotional glow.
So, in talking of her father’s burial, she indites, “The urn is heavy, it is more // than ashes and farewell, // it is the swarm // of moments // what I remember of my father; // what we all remember.” The idea that the deceased live on in our hearts is a hardly a new one, but her way of putting it, so simply yet so expressively, gives it an abiding power.
Both in her depiction of her father’s decline in the second part, and, in the first part, where the themes include homelessness, the excitement of a budding love affair, and thoughts on nature, Tafdrup expands the reader’s vision of simple things by setting them in the light of her just forged, unsullied, jewel-beautied language.