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REVIEW: Dog Star Notations by Håkan Sandell, translated by Bill Coyle, Carcanet, 2016

20th November 2016


Poetry Rejoices
Dog Star Notations by Håkan Sandell, translated by Bill Coyle, Carcanet, 2016

Dog Star Notations features two decades of work from one of Scandinavia’s most prolific poets. Håkan Sandell, who lives in Oslo but hails from Malmo and writes in Swedish, was a cofounder of the ‘Retrogardist’ movement, which rejected post-modernism for a new Gnosticism. The spirituality which thus marks this collection is met by a strong sensitivity to the material world, as demonstrated in ‘Autobahn’, which refers to the ‘black river [which] came streaming along with us’. In spite of the theosophies which guide his work, Sandell is a poet accepting of modernity – neither nostalgic nor oppositional – and yet ever in touch with nature’s power.

In ‘The Trash Pile’, for instance, descriptions of nature engulf the ‘all-powerful, global conglomerate or one of its subsidiaries’ in the structure of the poem. The vastness of this piece is qualified by its specificity, and he is perhaps at his best when homing in on particular objects or moments; ‘New Jeans’, one of the most memorable poems, presents a vignette of sexual awakening and enduring intimacy in adolescence.

Translator Bill Coyle notes in his introduction that the collection’s working title, The World That Opens – which comes from Sandell’s ‘most optimistic, least ironic’ poem ‘To a Child Two Weeks Overdue’, where the narrator exhorts a baby to finally come out into the world – ‘might have seemed to trivialise all the doubt and loss that the reader will in fact encounter in the pages that follow’. But even at their most unsentimental, these are indeed optimistic poems, gravid with tenderness and generosity; in ‘The Assault’, the narrator’s urge is to ‘stroke [the] cheek’ of an assailant, ‘not strike him down’.

Sandell’s poetry works well when relating such distinctive tales, although the pieces with broader preoccupations such as ‘Time and Space’, are similarly focused and understated, and better showcase his ability to intertwine the temporal with spiritual transcendence; ‘the roof is low, and I’m a caged creature … but I fled out into nature’.

Sandell’s faith in the power of poetry is seen in both ‘To a Child Two Weeks Overdue’, and in ‘Poetry Rejoices’:

           Poetry rejoices even if the culture dies,
           over the girl with her first electric, how her high,
           thin voice, amplified many times
           over by the loudspeaker, is like a giant’s
           in the green grass of the festival site.

This also displays the musicality of Sandell’s poems; to paraphrase Coyle they do not speak but ‘sing’ to readers. There is an openness, an imagination drawn from both mysticism and reality, laced with geniality and, on occasion, humour. But there are also moments of bleak realism, and his sense of God remains elusive despite the almost liturgical strain in some of his writing. This is rare and thoughtful poetry, and Coyle has done English-speaking readers a great service in opening a new door to it.

James Antoniou

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