Edith Södergran’s poems never cease to enchant me. There’s a mystical quality to her undulating lines of Swedish I cannot help being drawn to over and over. Her poems enthrall readers with a curious dynamism — both delightful and brooding, elusive and yet still emotionally clear. So often her rolling verse reads like spells or charms cast to conjure a radical new self.
These poems come from Södergran’s debut collection Dikter [Poems], first published in her home of Finland in 1916. The work stands apart from most Scandinavian poetry at the time through its rejection of traditional form and meter. Södergran eschews strict pattern or rhyme and instead generates its power through linguistic inertia. In “Vierge Moderne,” the speaker’s repeated act of self-definition carries a magical defiance, particularly when it follows the opening’s assertive negation, “I am not a woman.” The poem embraces a bold maximalism influenced by Whitman celebrating the myriad possibilities of the individual. In translating, I hoped to preserve the rebellious stakes of the poem syntactically as well as through diction. I employed the more radical term “neutrois” instead of the somewhat awkward “neuter,” and used “tomboy” where the original read “pageboy”. Through this, I hope to present the complex negotiation and at times rejection of gender norms in Södergran’s work.
Complementing this bold self-definition is “Two Goddesses,” a piece showcasing the strengths of Södergran’s poetic imagination. The vivid and contrasting deification of happiness and grief creates a striking rise and fall. Too, the poet underscores this through a two-stanza form. The duality faced by the “you” is further emphasized through consonance in Södergran’s original, which I worked to preserve in the translation. Here, I hope to display the poet’s gift for transforming broad abstraction into powerful, palpable imagery.
With its innovative symbolism and unique style, Dikter was a source of scandal and confusion in its day. The boldness in both these Södergran poems was previously unheard of in Nordic poetry, and her challenges to heteronormative subjectivity baffled readers and critics. Today, Södergran is remembered in Scandinavia as one of its finest modern poets. With this transgressive history in mind, it feels necessary to carry forth her original rebellious spirit into translations today.
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