Translator's Note

Bradley Harmon

“The Nature of Fear” was published in Katarina Frostenson’s 1991 collection Joner (pronounced with a soft /j/), referring to both Ionians (the Hellenic people) and ions (atoms carrying an electrical charge). A watershed moment in Swedish poetry and her seventh collection of poems, Ions further cemented her status as one of the most influential Swedish poets not only of her gender and generation but of the 20th century, a contention confirmed the following year when she was elected to the Swedish Academy. Despite this stamp of approval by the literary establishment, her work nonetheless remained negatively associated with difficulty. Her poetry had been brought into a debate amongst Swedish critics about the supposed “incomprehensibility” of certain contemporary Swedish women’s poets, referred to as either the “incomprehensibility debates” or the “Ann Jäderlund-debates,” after the poet whose 1988 collection Som en gång varit äng (Which Once Had Been Meadow, tr. Johannes Göransson, 2017) catalyzed the conversation. These debates being yet another instance of distrust or disregard for women stepping outside of gendered expectations, the frequent description of Frostenson's writing as "male" because of its strong intellectual component led her to flippantly state in an interview that "a good author is genderless." While it’s true that Frostenson’s poetry challenges the uninitiated reader – with its preference for sound over hermeneutic ease, its rich intertextuality ranging from Ovid to IKEA and Swedish nursery rhymes, or its penchant for antiquated phrases and words – it does not mean that her work is entirely indecipherable.

Her reputation as a poet's poet, with monikers such as "Katarina the Difficult," have led to the unfortunate consequence of her work being perceived as apolitical, something that couldn’t be farther from the truth. For instance, her breakthrough second collection Rena Land (Pure Lands, 1980) is a thorough attack on the self-righteousness of Swedish culture, with one poem titled “De rena” (The Pure Ones) viscerally invoking Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom and echoing its biting social critique. This is just as much the case in Ions, which is divided into three suites. The second suite (which includes “The Nature of Fear”) combines inspiration from a medieval Swedish ballad about an archer who accidently murders his betrothed with the 1984 murder of Catrine da Costa. Known as the “the dismemberment murder trial” (styckmordsrättegången), the case became a historical phenomenon rivaling that of the 1986 murder of prime minister Olof Palme, even perhaps inspiring Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. In Frostenson’s hands, though, it also becomes, among other things, an investigation into the gendered, political, and existential violence of language. Frostenson herself once described the collection as evincing a “radical feminine negativity.”

In “The Nature of Fear,” and often throughout the entire suite, the poetic voice is that of a murdered woman, presumably both invocative of the murdered medieval maiden and of da Costa. But the poem also draws on the Greek myth of Artemis and Actaeon, in addition to other references unnoticed by the non-Swedish reader. Two more things to contextualize this poem: throughout the suite, the theme of the back – ostensibly as the opposite of the face – recurs throughout the suite. (In her essays, Frostenson explicitly engages with the philosopher of the face-to-face encounter, Emmanuel Levinas.) Likewise, the Dionysian ritual of sparagmos – the sacrificial ripping apart of the body – resonates across the collection. The back thus multivalently resonates as philosophical, interpersonal, mythological, and violently corporeal in its historical reference.

“The Nature of Fear” is a rich, virtuosic, and brutal poem that invites multiple readings. In addition to the Swedish and English versions published here, there are also translations into Italian and Romanian.

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