Reading: A Life by Edith Södergran

Edith Södergran (1892-1923) published 5 collections of poetry. She was one of the first modernists of Swedish-language literature. Browsing her poetry, I liked this one, called ‘A life’. I read an English translation by Averill Curdy that goes as follows:

A life
That the stars are adamant
everyone understands—
but I won’t give up seeking joy on each blue wave
or peace below every gray stone.
If happiness never comes, what is a life?
A lily withers in the sand
and if its nature has failed? The tide
__________________washes the beach at night.
What is the fly looking for on the spider’s web?
What does a dayfly make of its hours?
(Two wings creased over a hollow body.)Black will never turn to white—
yet the perfume of our struggle lingers
as each morning fresh flowers
spring up from hell.The day will come
when the earth is emptied, the skies collapse
and all goes still—
when nothing remains but the dayfly
__________________folded in a leaf.
But no one knows it.

The stars we can’t persuade, but the blue waves and the gray stones hold in them a promise of peace and joy, happiness. The reason of this hopefulness seems to be the fact that nature constantly renews herself: The tide / washes the beach at night. So even failed creatures like the lily that withers in the sand or the fly caught in a spider’s web, or a dayfly (the rhyme fly-dayfly sounds better in Swedish: flyga-dagslända) are no evidence that happiness will never come.

The second strophe is pretty amazing and I would have believed it if you’d told me it was written by Silvia Plath. Even though there is no formal hope (black never turns to white) our struggle itself leaves a trace. Hell doesn’t prevail yet, each morning fresh flowers spring up from it.

And what remains after the end of days? The dayfly folded in a leaf, the only image that is repeated in the poem. It is a wild expressionist vision, and I don’t quite get what she wants to say. No one knows that after everything and time itself is over, what remains is de dayfly, that being that never saw the washing tide, let alone become aware of it. A creature that, in this reading, can live without time and expectations will precisely prevail when “all goes still”

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