Translated from Norwegian by Rebecca Wadlinger. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013. 192 pages. $17.00.
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Ugly Ducking Presse has brought Norwegian poet Gro Dahle’s thrilling book of linked poems into English for the first time. These short poems feature a female speaker rooted in the domestic sphere who exhibits a childish, surreal, sometimes psychotic consciousness. The speaker ages and grows as the book chronicles her life, beginning in a childhood obsession with her own mother and ending after the speaker has raised a child herself. In an often eerily isolated tone, the narrative swings through strong emotional extremes wherein the house itself is the constant provocative force. This controversial book raises questions about the limits and confines of familial and sexual love, using language and imagery that, in Rebecca Wadlinger’s translation, sparks.
The house lives; the inanimate becomes animate; the domestic is an active, sexual, sometimes frightening sphere: “Inside, the standing lamp touches the chair’s back. It all trembles. As I / turn out the light, the sofa silently mounts the coffee table. And / the chairs ride each other without a creak.” The domestic sphere is no still place; it is fraught by the sense that the female speaker has been confined and defined to the point of derangement. Mostly she stays just this side of acceptable, just barely OK, perhaps with some hallucinatory callings.
In a fragmented syntax that has, in the decades since this book was first published in 1996, become a familiar style, Dahle transfigures our expectations until we become aware that anything could happen here: “Leaning forward with my feet together, I am a basket for / lemons. Fused in skin and cartilage. You pull me through / the chandelier. Night-mouth against the window.” The poems never shy from violence and physicality but avoid becoming gruesome. Every metaphor asks for some new version of reality (as any good metaphor should)—it is a pleasure to behold them: “Your name grows in my mouth-hole and forms / my whole skull in its image.” Dahle goads the reader to unpack these tight, layered images; this is one of the book’s many provocations. In the world of these poems, the body is known by its appetites and through its transformations, and the line between human and animal is continually transgressed: “In secret dreams / my breasts continue to eat sugar from your hands. / Two piglets with supple snouts.” Or “Part my inner-filet in two with / your tongue. The tender meat is salted to taste.”
The night, and the nightmares it brings, haunts the house, and often the speaker herself becomes the house, or the objects within: “The night’s in all / the walls. The night’s in all the walls. The ceiling drops.” Sexual conquest reigns during these moments: “You ambush me, you block me in between the sofa / and two chairs. With my back against the carpet, I am a / helpless landscape.” A sense of attack lurks around pleasure, among the so-called comforts of home.
On the topic of motherhood this book fascinates. From the sweet but suffocating “The world is only as big as the space between / her forehead and my mouth” to the terribly true “When I strangle my child, I strangle / the child with my best intentions,” A Hundred Thousand Hours gives voice to some of the darker aspects of parental relationships, and always in imagery that forces the reader to look, to examine the familiar from another, less comfortable angle. Though there are moments of pure tenderness, these are surrounded and undercut by turns toward the dark, recalling the explorations of motherhood in the work of contemporary poets like Nicole Cooley, Rachel Zucker, and Alicia Ostriker. The narrative’s progression in time—periods of the speaker’s life are separated formally by sections—creates a complete psychological portrait, and that portrait, with its surprises and defiance, is one of the book’s great achievements.
At its best reminiscent of Pierre Reverdy’s prose poems or Margarita Karapanou’s Kassandra, there is a density and scope to this book that justifies its celebration. In moments, however, the tone can seem melodramatic or unbelievable, for example in such lines as, “It is / the child who devours me. Sucks me out of / my breast. Empties me hour by hour. She is a / cannibal. And I scream: Eat me. Eat me.” Interesting to note, too, that these moments tend to focus on the mother-child relationship, one readers are predisposed to consider overly sentimental or melodramatic. In most aspects the book avoids those traps via the vehicles of surprise and subversion, yet a sense of exaggeration remains, and it’s unclear how intentional this effect is. It may well be that the intensity of feeling enacted in these poems exactly matches the reality some parents feel, and it is the reader’s privilege to see into private moments we are not directly part of, and judge or not judge. In any case, there are far more pages of delicious mystery and provocative foreboding than anything else, poems that get to the contradictory nature of familial relationships—“I turn myself into food. I turn myself into wool. / Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Let me drown you in milk. / Smother you with bread. My baby. My baby. Hold you / so tight you can’t breathe. This is my privilege.” It speaks well of Wadlinger’s translation that the poems’ diction throughout offers a multiplicity of meanings.
Even after a poem has pursued a potentially exaggerated emotion, its tone always returns to reality: “I blend in with the patterns of the wallpaper. . . . How / I become more and more a piece of furniture. . . . The room I made mine has taken / me in its possession.” This makes the speaker seem very honest, creating a realistic portrait of a volatile, vibrant, strong person. It is hard to look away, hard to forget, hard to not see oneself in her.