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Lennart Sjogren has had a long and distinguished career as a poet since his debut in 1958 with Hall portarna oppna (Keep the Doors Open). In Fageljagarna (The Bird Hunters) he has retold a story he heard in his childhood on the island of Oland about three men who drowned during a bird-hunting trip on the ice.

Sjogren gives his collection the subtitle "Suite of Poetry," and the musical pattern is obvious in this antiphony, where the voices of the drowned and those left behind are contrasted. Indeed, while reading it, one can often imagine how the cycle would sound set to music.

We follow the descent of the drowning men as the water receives them, a spiraling road toward oblivion, where "we were among those gliding unevenly / like eggs we were sinking downward / toward a nest." The memories of life during the cycle of dying are surprisingly trivial yet haunting in their immediacy: earthworms disappearing into the ground, the salt on the family table, the dream of a woman's breast, and the heat of the skin against cool sheets.

In Sjogren's unfathomable waterworld "the sea cow bellows / . . . and the beehives on the bottom stand full of the honey of sea bees." Here the hunters' death becomes a strange kind of rebirth, a process whereby they are stripped of all human markings to become merged into an embryonic unity of all that is living and dead, a final state of "unknowledge" - to borrow a term from Sjogren's collection Ormens tid (The Age of the Serpent), where it is used as the sine qua non of poetic creativity.

Sjogren's images vibrate with ambiguity and hidden meaning; the language is the language of Bible and sermon. Not by chance does the poet describe the hunters' death in words that evoke Genesis 1: "we opened ourselves / to the sea / and the sea was in us." But it is not a language of faith; his temple is dark and cold. Christianity's sacred symbol of the fish becomes in Sjogren's poetry God's eye staring through a dead fish, and the bird of transcendence and rebirth is turned into birds of prey: eagles "dethroned rulers awaiting their own death / they drew life from hunger / they hewed pieces of cadavers from the ice / and crowned themselves with the longest night." And at the center of the hunters' universe beats "a great / a heavy heart."

Sorrow rules the land of the living, sweeping her gray shawl around houses that nest "like dead birds on dead eggs." The bread and salt of sustenance become the salt of sorrow and bread of stone. Strange dead birds with their breasts full of pellets and empty eyes hunt the people, and the water of their nourishment is a continuous reminder of their loss.

But in the end even here the bird of prey does not rule forever; one spring a wagtail appears at the border of the field bringing not a message from the dead but a message from the living to the living. Seeing eyes note the bird, a stirring goes through the living dead, life goes on.

Sjogren's poems are not easy on the reader, for his poetic world is one in which the forces of creation and destruction are locked in a never-ending battle and God's indifference seems to rule forever, totally beyond good and evil; the waves taking the lives of the bird hunters "are not driven by evil / they were before the time of evil / . . . knives of the night that cuts apart all notion of a human face." But even to this world the little spring bird comes.

Rose-Marie G. Oster University of Maryland
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Author:Oster, Rose-Marie G.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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