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Poem of the week: The snow whirls over the courtyard's roses by Tua Forsström


Poetry through cinema is expressed in Forsström's intensely visual work, inspired by film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky

This week's poem, "The snow whirls over the courtyard's roses," is by the Finland-Swedish writer, Tua Forsström, translated from the Swedish by Stina Katchadourian. It's the first poem in her 1998 collection After Spending a Night Among Horses, which is included in the four-part Bloodaxe collection of Forsström's work.

The poems in After Spending a Night Among Horses are inspired by the film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky and are interleaved with quotations from Tarkovsky's film, Stalker, and from his prose-book, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Tarkovsky once said, "There is only one way of thinking in cinema: poetically." Forsström expresses the reverse idea, of thinking in poetry cinematically. The collection itself is a montage, and many of the individual poems, like this one, draw on a similar technique, combining different settings, seasons, voices and moods in one imaginative sweep. All have a dream-like and open-ended quality.

In fact, the collection opens with five verses from the film-maker's father, the poet Arseny Tarkovsky – some melancholy stanzas, based on Per-Arne Bodin's translation from the Russian, beginning "Now the summer's gone/ as if it never was./ It's still warm in the clearing./ But that's not enough." This is followed by a quotation from the character of the wife, spoken to the camera at the end of Stalker: "Of course it's quite possible that I'm inventing this after the fact. But that time, he just came up to me and said: 'Follow me,' and I did. And I've never regretted that. Never." Both voice themes of compulsion, restlessness and sacrifice.

Forsström's first line "The snow whirls over the courtyard's roses" is like a camera direction. The image is arrestingly visual, with implied contrasts of colour, temperature and movement. While the rose-garden appears literally frozen in time, the scene elsewhere is busy, with the whirling unseasonal snowflakes and the speaker's excited, abbreviated thoughts: "Didn't bring my boots and scarf … don't know what to do with all this light!" She's not simply talking to herself but to the film-maker, testing her poet's material against his cinematic vision: "You wouldn't approve of the colours./ It's too striking, Andrei Arsenyevich, too/ much, too much of everything!"

There's a tension between abundance – too much colour, too much light, too much to remember – and the concentration and "cutting" needed for making art. But, if art is represented by the frost's grip on the iconic rose garden, destruction must be the inevitable result of such preservation. Perhaps the attraction of cinema is that it combines art with apparent fluidity and process. But creative limitations are suggested by the references to the flight and crash of the hot-air balloon at the beginning of another Tarkovsky film, Andrei Rublev. Originally, Tarkovsky had shown a peasant attempting flight with home-made wings, and the poet seems critical of his editorial decision. Depicting the "aerial balloon, a clumsy/ creation cobbled together from rope and rags," the translation catches the contraption's awkwardness in its alliteration: clumsy/ creation/ cobbled/ropes/rags. It's not immediately clear how wings would have been an improvement.

The memory triggers thoughts which seem rather abstract and personal. "Before, I had a lot and didn't remember. Difficult/ to stick to the subject. Difficult to stick to the subject. /Hope to return. Hope to return to the principle/ of wings." These repeated statements are like memos to self. Perhaps they allude to abandoned poems, and plans for future poems. Several themes from "The snow whirls …" will be explored later on.

The memory of the high twittering heard from a Benidorm hotel, for instance, is reprised in a poem where the speaker hears caged willow warblers singing from a barber's shop. Perhaps the birdsong in "The snow whirls …" is associated with hearing the news of Tarkovsky's death. The hare, though it belongs to the "zone" of the frozen rose garden, is also out of place when it almost hops into the "entrance hall here at the Foundation." These poems value the effects of dislocation, but, read sequentially, they strike up echoes with each other. Another poem begins "It doesn't usually snow in Central Sweden in October." This helps explain "the hare's calendar," and its implied disharmony with the seasonal alterations caused by humans.

Before the hare appears, the poet quotes a passage from Sculpting in Time where Tarkovsky apparently comments on Stalker, "The zone is a zone, the zone is life,/ and a person can either be ruined or survive when/ she makes her way through this life. Whether she makes it or/ not depends on her self-esteem." The poem's gently sceptical tone elsewhere destabilises a quotation which could almost be a banal homily out of a self-help manual. "Self-esteem" becomes credible, though, if translated into artistic independence and conviction.

In the end, the poem owns up to a traditional expression of piety, again suggesting Rublev, but with a characteristic twist: "one should/ not constantly give thanks, one should definitely give thanks." Maybe this chimes in with the earlier desire "to return to the principle/ of wings." The strong colours at the end bring us back to the frozen roses. Defiantly contrasting the leaden Swedish lake with the body-and-blood, white and red of the snow and roses, the poem also evokes the shift from black-and-white photography into glowing "sovcolour" near the end of Andrei Rublev.

Forsström has said that she writes every poem 50 or 60 times, and that she often travels with her notebooks to a foreign city in order to complete a poem. "The snow whirls over the courtyard's roses" seems to open a poetry workbook, to show us an intriguing display of raw material. It's a series of comments, notes and sketches for future writing, held together by the casual but constantly-renewed conversation with Tarkovsky. There are moments of lyric concentration and heightened rhythm, but they're held in a framework of increasingly long and enjambed lines which seem to exert an outward pull. While the imagery of snow and roses recalls Louis MacNeice's poem "Snow," Forsström's vision of the world's incorrigible plurality is far more discursive. There's really no zone, it seems to say, and no magical room, even for the poet: there's only the journey.

The snow whirls over the courtyard's roses

The snow whirls over the courtyard's roses.
Didn't bring my boots and scarf, leafing
through books, don't know what to do with all this light!
You wouldn't approve of the colours.
It's too striking, Andrei Arsenyevich, too
much, too much of everything!
You exchanged the wings for an aerial balloon, a clumsy
creation cobbled together from rope and rags, I remember so well.
Before, I had a lot and didn't remember. Difficult
to stick to the subject. Difficult to stick to the subject.
Hope to return. Hope to return to the principle
of wings. The fact remains: the freeze preserved
the rose garden last night. 'The zone is a zone, the zone is life,
and a person can either be ruined or survive when
she makes her way through this life. Whether she makes it or
not depends on her sense of self-esteem-' A hare
almost hopped into the entrance hall here at the Foundation,
mottled against the snow; it's October in the hare's calendar.
You seem to be a moody sort of person
and it's possible that none of this is of interest to you.
On the other hand, you yourself complain fairly often.
I'm writing because you are dead and because I woke up
last spring in my streetside hotel room in Benidorm to that wonderful
high twittering. One shouldn't constantly say one is sorry, one should
not constantly give thanks, one should definitely give thanks. Lake
Mälaren like lead down there. The rest is white and red.

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