Esteban Rodríguez on The Trilogy, an Action Books poetry collection by Bruno K. Öijer

Horace Engdahl, the former Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, once said that the United States was too isolated from the literary world and didn’t translate enough to participate in larger literary conversations. The statement was not met without controversy, but considering the fact that less than 3% of books published in the United States are written in a language other than English, Engdahl might not have been too far off the mark. Ask even the most ardent poetry readers who Bruno K. Öijer is and you will most likely be met with blank stares and an awkward amount of silence (in stark contrast to the late Nobel-winning Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer). But Öijer has long established himself not only as an important figure in Swedish poetry, but world literature, one that if not yet recognized by English-speaking audiences, should be and should be soon.

The Trilogy is composed of the three collections that cemented Öijer’s place in the Swedish literary establishment, While the Poison Acts, The Lost Word, and The Fog of Everything. Although written a few years apart, there is a consistency to them that is enviable not only because you could ostensibly swap poems between collections, but because they are compelling, rebellious, and unsettling in a manner that is both profound and powerful. There is surreal quality to Öijer’s work, and his poems are composed of a blend of dreams, nightmares, and a constant confusion the speaker attempts to navigate, hoping to find light in a dark, mercurial world:

you floated in a
condition where you could not
distinguish light from nightfall but could still
sense the whirlpools of eyes
seeking shelter in the bestial face

The “bestial face” can, obviously, represent a devil-like figure, one that lies waiting in the shadows for the speaker to commit even the slightest of sins. But perhaps the creature is the speaker themselves, and who they’re always trying to seek shelter from is no other than the face in the mirror.

In other poems, the speaker comes face to face with both uncertainty and destruction, and the environment that they once knew changes quite quickly due to the violence enacted upon it:

I see a tall tree
and the men who kill it
I see them flock
around the felled trunk
and break into
the branches and the foliage
before twilight I see
their half naked excited bodies
walking around kicking in
a soft hum, in a green dust
of women’s oval faces

The “half naked excited bodies” are in stark contrast to the men destroying the trees at the beginning of the poem, but we shouldn’t be surprised, should we, since with every inch of violence wielded against the earth, someone somewhere is benefiting from the ashes of others?

In one of the last and longest poems in While the Poison Acts, Öijer combines hints of narrative with the grandeur of Metaphysical and Beat poetry. From “Draft for One of Death’s Speeches”:

I was gasoline
in the masculinity of darkness, the ticking meter
between your ribs, a negative response
to the millionaire’s question, a dead
heat between love and sex, the frightened
rabbit’s eye inside the magician’s hat, I
became the river your burned behind you, a treasure map
trying to ease its x, a flame where
no moths gathered, a scraped knee
hurled through a scoured castle, I was a leaf of grass
surviving the drought, a match box
held tight by a child afraid of the dark, the mannequin
who stepped through the bullet-proof glass and followed
you home

Metaphors that go for three or four pages can seem like an exercise in an introductory MFA workshop, but Öijer’s colloquial and sharp language is far beyond the trite and cliché-riddled phrases of a student, and line after line, we are led through the inner struggle to go against the status quo. Whether we are better when we rise from the rubble is, in many ways, irrelevant; what matters is that we rise.

These sentiments continue into The Lost Word and The Fog of Everything. The former is ripe with hallucinatory episodes, but the relief, however brief, is welcomed after every hell the speaker has been through. From “Everything Heaped Up”:

I woke up
with the feeling that spirits
had cast a spell on me
and arranged my blood and my lips
so that I could see and talk again
in a hard wind they took the time
to point out the remote place
where my heart was buried
and afterwards
I tried to remember all the scenes
something had attacked me
a boy full of cobwebs had
brushed away his face
the queens of spades and hearts
had met in my hands and hissed at each other
I saw no heaven or earth
everything heaped up in an hourglass
where the sand
and all of time ran out

Time has ceased. The speaker may or may not be dead. But they are trudging forward, continuing to “live” in any way possible. This disconnectedness extends further in The Fog of Everything, and in scenes where the world appears normal (normal in comparison to the landscapes depicted earlier), the speaker reflects on how far from others they can feel they’ve always been. From “First Snow”:

in a cab home
I was safe
their stiff different faces
slid off me
and would never catch up with me again
it didn’t concern me
but they must have gotten used to life
until they no longer noticed it
and I leaned back in the seat
I tried not to think
the world was anyway a quiet and perfect place

Perhaps that is all we can do—imagine that the world is quiet and perfect, even if we know it is anything but. As Öijer so succinctly puts it toward the end of the collection, “we are born / with an immense longing” and “somewhere / in the winding weave / of glittering ink / lies the answer / to our lives.” When we close Öijer’s The Trilogy, there’s a chance we will have an answer to one of our ever-lingering questions, but even if we don’t, we will have experienced something strange, unsettling, and utterly unique. Öijer is nothing short of brilliant. Prepare to be entranced.

The Trilogy, by Bruno K. Öijer (Translated by Victoria Häggblom & Bruno K. Öijer). Notre Dame, Indiana: Action Books, April 2020. 256 pages. $20.00, paper.

Esteban Rodríguez is the author of Dusk & Dust (Hub City Press, 2019) and the micro-chapbook Soledad (Ghost City Press, 2019). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, ShenandoahThe Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives with his family and teaches in Austin, Texas.

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