by Burcu Sahin
reviewed by David McDuff
Burcu Sahin’s debut collection Broderier (Embroideries) is essentially a book about the relation between language and reality. In her delicate but severely crafted poems she weaves the fabric of her world into a verbal tapestry that is not only a record of her personal experience and memory but also a shared testimony, a voice that she gives to women whom society has rendered silent. It is also a remarkable addition to the steadily growing body of work by poets for whom Sweden is a base, but not necessarily a home: they include such names as Athena Farrokhzad, Yolanda Aurora Bohm Ramirez, Annamarija Todorov, Johannes Anyuru and Felicia Mulinari.
The reality that underlies the poems is not a cheerful one. It is a place of exile and exclusion, of exploitation and unrewarded toil, of social and linguistic isolation, of racism, alienation and anomie. Språket är inte glömt / men raderna är brutna (The language is not forgotten / but the lines are broken) reads one of the early poems in the collection, and in their bare, sparse outlines and arching fragments the poems themselves reflect this statement. At times there is a danger that the link between language and reality may be lost altogether: det finns ingen försoning i verkligheten/ kanske i dikten/ det finns ingen försoning i dikten/ kanske i verkligheten (there is no reconciliation in reality / perhaps in the poem / there is no reconciliation in the poem / perhaps in reality) is the warning that runs through much of the volume.
In an early essay, Sahin writes of the political nature of poetry:
'För mig är poesin alltid politisk. Det litterära rummet och skrivandet undflyr inte de samhälleliga normerna och strukturerna, utan är en del av att reproducera bilder, berättelser och människor. Litteraturen återspeglar inte bara ”verkligheten”, utan återskapar den på nytt.'
For me poetry is always political. Literary space and writing do not escape social norms and structures, but are a part of the reproduction of images, stories and people. Literature does not just reflect “reality” but recreates it anew.
(Poesins politiska kraft, Rummet, 2014)
The book’s political dimension is reflected in its structure, which in turn relates back to social reality: the metaphorical juxtaposition of ‘stitches’ and poems persists throughout the six sections, and the fragmentary and arduous nature of the working women’s daily lives appears in the isolation and fractured appearance of the lines on the printed page. There is a constant play on the words söm (seam) and sömn (sleep), and thematic devices of this kind are skilfully interwoven in the text.
A great deal of the anger in the poems is directed at the brokenness of the social surroundings, the inadequacy of language and the careless way in which generations are severed from each other, when the traditional roles of mother and child are reversed:
det finns inget ord
för ett barn
på sin mor
there is no word
for a child
The experience of exile and the task of establishing a life in a new and unfamiliar country is encountered in the learning of words:
med kluven tunga lär vi oss
with a cleft tongue we learn
the pronunciation of the letters
But the acquisition of new words and gestures is accompanied by a raw sense of vulnerability as an outsider and by a resentment of intrusion:
vi lär oss plocka
från våra ansikten
we learn to pluck
the gazes of others
from our faces
The poet is not alone – she stands with her mothers and sisters, fathers and brothers, in a strange new world where objects and words have lost much of their connection, and where human relations are restricted and determined by the need to survive by backbreaking toil. The hidden world of the textile sweatshops is invoked in cinematic flashes:
ni lever bland meterlånga gardiner
huvuddukar med rosenmotiv
skira överkast persikofärgat siden
ni lever som skuggor morgonens skuggor
händerna som försörjer maskineriet
you live among metre-length curtains
headscarves with rose motifs
flimsy bedspreads peach-coloured silk
you live like shadows the morning’s shadows
the hands that feed the machinery
Contrasted with the mechanised and alienated environment of exile is the world of tradition, of roots and family. In the poems this is centred on the theme of motherhood, and the image of the mothers and grandmothers. There is humour here, and tenderness, mixed with irony: våra mödrar syr / vårdar andras mödrar (our mothers sew / take care of others’ mothers), the first poem in the ‘Night Shift’ section begins.
Although the poems are phrased with the techniques and stylistic features of modernism, they are also direct, down-to-earth statements about real and lived experience. The poet speaks for whole generations of uprooted people, surveys the world that is partly their own and partly given to them, and praises the richness of their inborn and self-creating culture in the face of an uncomprehending and largely hostile environment. But the future is bleak, and does not hold out much hope for the prospects for social integration and harmony in a West that is rapidly changing, conscious of guilt, but still fettered by its history of domination and injustice:
det som finns är en öppen hand
som aldrig slutar ge
det som läggs i våra händer
ska tas ifrån oss igen
what exists is an open hand
that never stops giving
what is placed in our hands
will be taken from us again
Sahin’s is an original and uncompromising poetic voice, and one looks forward to following her development in future collections.
Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2018
Foreign rights: Albert Bonniers Förlag, Martin Ahlström
Burcu Sahin was awarded the Katapult Prize for Sweden’s best literary debut of 2018.