[Nightboat Books; 2024]

Tr. from the Swedish by Johannes Göransson

The work of Ann Jäderlund has long been associated with “incomprehensibility” in Swedish literature, sparking a set of debates about the aesthetic and even ethical value of obscurity in poetry. Take, for instance, this perfectly opaque opening of “Reply,” from Which Once Had Been Meadows (1989):

I go to you in the monastery

The anesthesia hardens the walls

Far over there the building is murky

I arrange my desolate rays

Hard to imagine the question for which this is the reply. The speaker wafts between the medieval and the contemporary, her elliptical syntax producing the very murk she describes. While Jäderlund’s previous poetry collections are highly intertextual, incorporating texts from religious traditions, high literary canons, and popular culture, her newest collection appears remarkably plain. As the translator Johannes Göransson notes, “the words and sentences in Jäderlund’s Lonespeech are very simple: sun, dies, fly, voice, burns, speak. These are very translatable words!” Still, it turns out that paucity can be just as bewildering as excess. What are we to do with this seemingly straightforward pronouncement?

The river goes up

it lies down

just a little bit

the sun rises

I have no one

to talk to

These straightforward lines, almost humorous and Kaur-esque, challenge the reader to engage with them: does the speaker have no one to talk to, or not much to say?  Lonespeech makes the reader feel like an eavesdropper onto a conversation with no one.

Poetry has often been associated with a solitary and singular voice, from JS Mill’s definition of poetry as “feeling, confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude” to Mikhail Bakhtin labeling verse the epitome of monologic discourse. Lonespeech, indeed. In his translator’s note, Göransson explains the original Swedish title Ensamtal and his attempt at replicating this neologism in translation: “en (one), ensam (lonely), samtal (conversation), sam (prefix for togetherness) and tal (speech).” In our view, lone + speech is a euphonic and etymologically rigorous equivalent. Göransson goes on to read the collection as “a kind of catastrophizing of communication,” justifying the view of poetry “as speech to oneself, a loneliness distilled into conversation.” Yet, as he notes, Jäderlund complicates this statement by challenging the assumption that Lonespeech’s words are her own, locating their origins instead in the epistolary exchange of Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. And so her words, beyond their function in her poems, contain a trace of their original contexts. Writing in the post-war period, the German-language poets Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan had an intricate romantic correspondence that flowed into their poetry. For those familiar with the two writers’ dialogue, reading Lonespeech is like observing carefully chosen found objects that cast long shadows. The sparseness of the text is at first jarring. But as we recall the Bachmann-Celan exchange (here translated from the German by Iloe), references begin creeping over the blank page.

Jäderlund repeats words like “poisonous,” “burst,” and “clang.” While these words might appear in a variety of intertexts, some keywords and phrases clearly originate in Bachmann’s and Celan’s letters and poetry. “Darkness,” for instance, both the visual phenomenon and the word or sound that represents it. Bachmann’s poem “To speak darkness,” seems to be a response to Celan’s “Corona,” taking its title from a single line in the middle of the poem: “we speak darkness to each other.” Celan describes lovers entwined, speaking to each other so intimately that their speech becomes dark or opaque to the outside world. Bachmann writes: “I only know how to speak darkness.” She can only speak like a lover, even if that means she speaks in despair or in opacity. Early in Lonespeech, Jäderlund introduces the problem of signifying darkness: “the word for darkness / hides a dark sound.” An ominous obstacle arises in the search for a word for darkness, which implies an impossibility of communication. Later in her poem, she attributes the failure of dialogue to darkness, “I hear it / no one hears it / the sound for darkness.” If only one person can hear it, the intimate dark dialogue of lovers becomes impossible, and darkness remains a monolith and monologue. Communication, much like in the Bachmann-Celan letters, is frustrated and at times impossible.

Jäderlund captures this impossibility in the frequent line breaks of the poems, as if every attempt to speak is fractured or fragmented:

Nor did



each other

or after


can they still

speak do they

speak with.

The affect of miscommunication echoes the numerous unanswered letters Bachmann wrote to Celan in the early 1950s. Bachmann continually asks Celan to answer her, and the seventh unanswered letter begins “You must know how grueling it is, waiting for mail.” After insisting on a response, Bachmman gives up, or perhaps forgives Celan indirectly, writing in the poem “Fall Maneuver”: “Let us forget the unanswered letters to yesterday!” Jäderlund evokes this scenario with the minimal phrasing, “try then / to answer me / for real,” and “today can you answer” before returning to the impossibility of communication, “I cannot / hear / speak.”

While eternally awaiting a response indicates a breakdown in communication, the necessary delay or deferral built into exchanging letters prompts the question of “time” and who does or does not possess it. In Celan’s “Corona” and Bachmann’s “Deferred Time,” the poets reflect on the beginning of their epistolary exchange. At the end of “Corona,” Celan continuously repeats the line “it is time,” implying that it is time to announce and sing out the love between the couple in the poem: “it is time that they know!” But Bachmann sings a different tune: “Harder days are coming / Which, with the revocation of deferred time / become visible on the horizon.” Bachmann’s gloomy pessimism contrasts with Celan’s vitality and excitement. Jäderlund presents a third, damning option: time belongs to neither poet, but another beyond their reach possesses it, “someone has time.” Time itself becomes threatening:

You know

it is poisonous

it is open


it has time.

Only a Medusa-like figure that is both poisonous and open-minded could possess time: everyone who sees her becomes frozen. Jäderlund lingers on the question of time, uncertain. 

We don’t really know

you know

don’t we know

is it the friend

someone has time.

A friend, an intermediary figure, involved but apart from lovers might have the requisite distance to possess time, but in this deeply intertwined dialogue, unlike on the page, there may be no space for time.

By erasing and editing the Bachmann-Celan exchange, Lonespeech revises assumptions around minimalism. Jäderlund evokes the experimental form of the 1950s-70s, when visual artists such as Agnes Martin and Donald Judd and musicians like John Cage, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich focused on “sparseness” and “lessening.” As scholar Adrian Warner reminds us, minimalism always pushes against assumptions of what makes a work of art. Minimalist sculpture, for instance, challenges the reader to view a specific “pile of brick or stack of wood” as an art object; minimalist music makes the listener sit with the repetition of a particular note. Objects are taken out of their normal circulation and placed into a structure that “simply exists,” lacking a clear “referential or allegorical meaning.” Jäderlund’s texts, read without any intertexts, certainly greet the reader with a challenge of making sense of words removed from their contexts:


it is burst

even there

raw and



it is burst

The poem is “awe” itself, collapsing the gap between sign and signifier by avoiding the subject: what is the “it” that bursts? What remains “raw”? The actual object of “awe” remains unrepresented in the poem. The neologism “clearabout,” as Göransson points out, couples together the “clarity” and “about-ness” of the language used to describe this moment of awe: “It doesn’t arrive in a straight line. It warps.” Jäderlund’s evasive description of the moment of awe evokes apophatic theology, a set of religious discourses that defines the grandeur of the divine by the failure of human language to describe it. Minimalism is often noted for its apophatic quality, the impossible “referent” of the artwork often attaining a spiritual dimension. Awe becomes defined recursively, only pointing to itself as a failure to describe its object fully.

In general, minimalism stresses the limits of art and representation. The poet and curator John Perreault describes minimalism as a kind of quest that strains against the boundaries of its given medium:

Paradoxically, the closer an artist gets to the mythological “essence” of his particular medium the faster his medium becomes something else. . . . Concretist poems become graphic art. Prose becomes poetry or music. . . . This paradoxical “media transportation” indicates perhaps that . . . there is no ideal art or essence of painting or sculpture, no “nature.”

Lonespeech is a dialogue edited down to a poem, its minimalism acknowledging the blank space around its “cut-out” phrases. Words from Bachmann and Celan’s epistolary exchange, itself about the failure of communication, are deracinated and brought together as objects, as words in themselves. But the shadows of the words’ original contexts remain as a haunting presence, their absence paradoxically extending the poems beyond their blank space boundaries. In true minimalist form, absence paradoxically occupies a space, becomes a presence. Something is missing, and the missing is felt. As Jäderlund reflects towards the end of the collection:

The words are names

the words are the root of

all names

as if stealing

names are nothing

Jäderlund opens with a positive statement about the function of words as names for objects. She then reverses the direction of this equation: all names come from words, taking them out of the circulation of language “as if stealing.” Placing “words” over “names” depersonalizes the text even further. If a person has a name and an object has a word, people are reduced to things, to words, in and out of context. Jäderlund offers a deconstructed and pieced-back-together version of a dialogue in which words, rather than people, stand together, relate, and attempt to communicate on the page. Writing our co-authored review, we spoke darkness to one another, stitching together a dialogue of poets, balancing texts and intertext, and uncovering each text’s plural origins.

Iloe Ariss is a PhD candidate at Columbia University in the department of Germanic Languages. Her scholarly research interests range from the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt to the psychoanalytic tradition of Freud and Lacan. She has a published article on Arendt, titled “Friendship and Metaphor: Thinking and Writing in Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch and Letters.” Her dissertation project is a media analysis of dreams in German literary and theory texts in the twentieth century, beginning with Freud’s Traumdeutung. She is also a practicing electronic musician in New York, under the name iL03.

Venya Gushchin is a poet, literary translator, and PhD Candidate studying Russian poetry at Columbia University. His writings have appeared in Cardinal Points, KinoKultura, Jacket2, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Most recently, his translation of Yevsey Tseytlin’s Rereading Silence was published by Bagriy & Company.

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