Anna Selby on the radical erotic poetry of Edith Södergran and O, an anthology published in Autumn 2021 by Hazel Press.
‘We tend to think of the erotic as an easy, tantalizing sexual arousal. I speak of the erotic as the deepest life force, a force which moves us toward living in a fundamental way.’Audre Lorde
The Swedish-Finnish poet Edith Södergran was a master of self-definition and self-creation, she saw herself as eld och vatten, fire and water, and anchored the source of creative power in the female body. ‘I let my instincts build while my intellect watches,’ she wrote in an introductory remark to her second collection. ‘My self-confidence comes from the fact that I have discovered my dimensions. It does not behove me to make myself smaller than I am.’
Edith Södergran’s poem ‘Instinct’ is the final poem in O, an anthology published in Autumn 2021 by Hazel Press, an environmental, feminist publisher focusing on climate change and the arts. In O, pleasure, sensuality, female masturbation, and orgasms are celebrated, touching on the sacred and offering a safe space to revel in touch, embodied connection, power, vulnerability, lust, self-love, healing, curiosity, giddy joy, tenderness, creativity, and intimacy – without the long shadow of shame. O features trans, queer, gay, bi, lesbian, hetero and demisexual poets and translators aged 26 – 76; contemporary translations from Arabic, Pashto, Farsi, Tamil, Turkish, Korean, Welsh, Spanish, Flemish, Swedish and Serbian; and reaches back over 1300 years, from medieval, feminist poets, up to Pashtun women writing in Afghanistan today, whose poems are Landays: an aural tradition and poetic form written and shared mainly by women. The landays are from The Mirman Baheer Society, a group who meet in secret, share their poems anonymously and risk their lives to write of their desires and defiance. The landays are translated from Pashto by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and poet, Eliza Griswold, who, like John Clare collecting ballads and songs, travelled around Afghanistan collecting their poems. In Pashto, landay means short, poisonous snake: the landays in O flash their tongues, are sharp, as bawdy and frank as the Wife of Bath – witty, biting – whipping their tail at the end.
Unlucky you who didn’t come last night,
I took the hardwood bedpost for a man.
The anthology’s oldest poems are translations: Zoë Brigley’s translation of ‘Ode to My Cunt’ by Gwerful Mechain, the 15th Century Welsh poet renowned for her eroticism, and Sofia Samatar’s translation from Arabic of 8th Century Umayyad poet, Dahna Bint Mashal, who went to the government because her husband didn’t have sex with her. When he tried to placate her with kisses, she reprimanded:
Give up, you won’t win me with kisses and embraces!
Only thrusts please me.
Make my toe-ring fall into my sleeve,
and my sadness flies away.
O includes poets and translators from Iran, Tamil Nadu, Iraq, Samoa, Zimbabwe, England, Argentina, Belgium, South Africa, India, Wales, Spain, North America, Serbia, South Korea, Ireland, France, Afghanistan, Finland and Turkey; with new translations by Aydin Mehmet Ali of Kurdish poet, Bejan Matur; Diana Bellissi, by Leo Boix; Kim Hyesoon, by Don Mee Choi; as well as Willem Groenewegen and Joshua Clover, Sholeh Wolpé, N. Kalyan Raman, Steven and Maja Teref, and Lawrence Schimel’s translations of Els Moors, Forugh Farrokhzad, Kutti Revathi, Ana Ristović and Sofía Rhei. The anthology closes with French-Cuban-American writer, Anaïs Nin’s poem ‘Risk’, placed as a final aphorism: ‘And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.’
When Edith Södergran wrote her poem ‘Instinct’ she had already been living with TB since she was 16. The poem is from her final collection before her death. Edith Södergran believed that an individual’s primal instinct is located in the body. Her friend, Hagar Olsson said of her: ‘In that fragile woman’s body lived a burning activity and willpower that, if liberated, as in the shape of a commander-in-chief, could overturn worlds.’
Min kropp är ett mysterium.
Så länge detta bräckliga ting lever
skolen I känna dess makt.
Jag skall frälsa världen.
Därför ilar Eros blod i mina läppar
och Eros guld i mina trötta lockar.
Jag behöver blott skåda, trött eller olustig: jorden är min.
My body is a mystery.Instinct, Edith Södergran, version by Anna Selby
So long as this brittling thing lives
you will all feel its power.
I will save the world.
That’s why Eros’ blood rushes through my lips
and Eros’ gold runs through my tired curls.
I need only look tired or unsettled: the earth is mine.
In the poem, the original Swedish pronouns, unlike English, are universal, not personal: the ‘I’ is all of us who use our creative strength, a body as conduit for an ancient, elemental life force, a creator, even in and because of pain – the ‘you’ is not singular, but plural: you all, those who don’t, those cut-off from their sexual and bodily experience, whom the speaker will save – her tired hand symbolising her ability to write and make art. The speaker is confident, independent, empowered; the poem rattles it is so attuned, and is almost molecular in its sense of vibration.
Då jag ligger trött på mitt läger,
vet jag: i denna tröttande hand är världens öde.
Det är makten, som darrar i min sko,
det är makten, som rör sig i min klännings veck,
det är makten, för vilken ej avgrund finns, som står framför eder.
When I lie on my bed, exhausted,
I know, in this tired hand lies the fate of the planet.
It is power that jitters in my shoe,
power that moves in the folds of my dress,
power, fearing no abyss, stands before you.
Edith Södergran died in 1923, when she was 31. She stands for me as a permission giver, a mythical woman, who I can return to for strength, courage and certainty. When I think of her, I see her outdoors, her cat Totti’s tracks in the snow beside hers. In one of the last poems she published, she wrote:
Is there no one who understands when in a low voice I say light words to those nearest?Extract from, Makt (Power), Translated by Ken Schubert
I follow no law. I am a law unto myself
I am the person who takes.
– Anna Selby
Anna Selby is the Editor of O. She is one of this year’s judges for The Ginkgo Prize for Ecopoetry, is doing a PhD at Manchester Metropolitan University on Empathy, Ecology and Plein Air Poetry. Her chapbook, Field Notes, which was written mainly in and under the Atlantic Ocean using waterproof notebooks, was on The LRB Bookshop’s Bestseller’s List for 6 months, was one of The Irish Times Books of the Year and was featured on BBC Radio 4, Front Row’s poetry round-up of 2020.