Lend Me Your Language
Inspired Reflections on Jila Mossaed’s Swedish Poetry
by Bradley Harmon
Medan mardrömmar mörknade
i detta hus utan tak
stirrade rummet på mig
utan att blinka
utan att andas
Sakerna såg allt, hörde allt
Mitt inres dörr var öppen
och tingen var där
för att bevittna
När jag vaknade
ville ingen erkänna
Ingen ville vittna
Alltid i tystnad
Fortfarande är mina mödrars mörka nätter
kvar i deras tystnade strupe
As nightmares darkened
in this house without a roof
my room stared at me
Its objects saw all, heard all
The door to my inner self was open
and the things were there
to bear witness
When I awoke
no one wanted to admit
No one wanted to witness
Forever in silence
The dark nights of my mothers remain
still in their silenced throats
When listening to Jila Mossaed (ژیلا مساعد) read her poems aloud, whether in Swedish or Persian, one can tell it’s the same voice. This is perhaps predictable. The prosody of the given language may be different, the words unfamiliar, but the voice is the same, as is the rhythm of the poet’s breath, the cadence of her speech. To listen to the breath of a poet, and therefore to listen to her corporeality, is an intimate experience, even through a recording. It can even feel invasive, to attune to the breath in between her words, as if you’re entering a private realm. One need not tune in to the performance of a poet to register the relational nature of breathing, to realize and reflect on the fact that all breathing is breathing with. No matter the distance one keeps from any other, the air we breathe is shared, a breathscape diffused across and around all organisms who require the inhalation of oxygen to survive. Even if two bodies proximate to each other are not in physical contact, they share the same air, for breathing is an inter-active and inter-corporeal process. In and out. This is not to say breathscapes are not existentially risky—our longstanding knowledge of airborne diseases and our new era of face masks have clearly demonstrated that. But even through the medium of a recording, while it may not bear the same physical weight of sharing air in physical space and time, breath carries meaning. Breath is not merely the aural equivalent of the blank space surrounding words on a page, for even that non-linguistic place signifies something. Like silence, breath is not the lack of meaning. Even if it is present, describable, or representable, it is always on the threshold of language, and thus hovering in the realm of signification. In the way that air is the dwelling space of the spoken voice, the empty space of the written text is the domain of the written word, where language breathes beyond the text.
That breath and the ability to breathe are also closely associated with freedom and life borders on cliché. Yet being one who breathes is a fundamentally vulnerable state, there’s always the possibility that we’re just one breath away from death. The phrase ‘I can’t breathe’ isn’t just figurative, it’s all too often a phrase uttered at the threshold of life and death, or a chronic, baseline mode of existence. The metaphorical codification of getting a breath of fresh air as a rejuvenating experience derives from the restorative power that conscious breathing can have on the mind and body, beyond the unconscious respiration that our bodies do on their own. This sense of breath as freedom is illustrated by the multi-hyphenate Swedish-German-Jewish poet Nelly Sachs. When giving her acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966, Sachs spoke of her arrival in exile to Sweden. She did not yet know the Swedish language and she hardly knew another person. Despite the anxiety, fear and terror she must have felt, what she ostensibly recalls most strongly upon setting foot on Swedish soil is the breath of freedom, as she specifically speaks of inhaling or breathing in (einatmen) that freedom: ‘Without understanding the language, or knowing a single person, we breathed in the air of freedom’ (Ohne die Sprache zu verstehen, oder einen Menschen zu kennen, atmeten wir die Freiheit ein). Sachs’s speech ended with a recitation of her poem ‘In Flight’ (In der Flucht), the last two lines of which are as follows:
An Stelle von Heimat
halte ich die Verwandlungen der Welt –
In place of home
I hold the metamorphoses of the world –
Sachs and Mossaed both migrated to and settled down in Sweden in exile, fleeing persecution. They both write of breathing frequently in their poems. To do so is hardly a novel metaphor in poetry, or in language in general, for indeed throughout history to write of breath was also to write of the soul. By the same token, to write of breathlessness is still to write about the soul, albeit in a different mode, for breathlessness is not the absence of or negation of breath, as the word would initially imply. One can be breathless while still being alive; indeed, many people around the world must adjust to a breathless form of life, many people cannot experience a full breath, whether due to ecological, political, biological, or other oppressive conditions. In Sachs’s poem, what may initially appear as a mere metaphor for freedom can also evoke another, more fundamental layer that permeates through every layer of being: the patient, sharp clarity of a deep breath after a period—or a lifetime—of suffocation. All too often, that suffocation is equated with silence, and vice versa. To the extent that speaking is a sign and symbol of life, that breathing is the rhythm that supports and punctuates it, Mossaed—in the poem above and all her others, whether in Persian or in Swedish—chooses language over silence, freedom over oppression, breath over asphyxiation, life over death. Many have not been afforded the same chance to choose, Mossaed knows this. Among other readers, she writes for them.
This breath of freedom (and its discontents) resonates in many poems by Mossaed, which often explore not only the different meanings and manifestations of freedom, but its relationality and directionality via a variety of prepositions. For example, a freedom from oppression, a freedom to speak a new language, or a freedom of speech. Many of her poems can be easily deemed autobiographical, for indeed many are written with a first-person poetic subject. Take, for example, this poem from her Swedish debut in 1997:
Jag skriver för mina barn
som blev stumma efter den här resan
för mig själv
eftersom glömskan erövrade mitt minne
och för dem
som stannade kvar och dog.
Hela dagen försöker jag
damma spegeln fri från grå bilder
hela dagen vill jag komma ihåg
ett ord som kan värma
mina barns kalla och hemska nätter
hela dagen drömmar jag
om gamla nätter
men ordens själ har försvunnit,
mina barn väntar på mig
med sina öppna ögon
men jag och världen kan inte minnas.
I write for my children
who went quiet after this journey
because forgetting conquered my memory
and for those
who stayed behind and died.
All day long I try
to dust the mirror free from grey images
All day long I want to remember
a word that can warm
my children’s cold and awful nights
all day long I dream
of old nights
but the soul of words has disappeared,
my children wait for me
with their open eyes
but I and the world cannot remember.
This poem’s title stands in subtle contrast with its topic, for its opening line can read as a response to the archetypical question posed to every author, why do you write? But in the lines that bring the first stanza to a close, we see the union of writing and refuge, and the alliance of language and survival. If the first part of the poem answers the question why write?, then the second part depicts the reciprocal struggle of writing and surviving. The challenge to clean a murky mirror, to find a language that can warm the mind and therefore perhaps also the body of a sleepless child, to vitalize the soul through language. The final line of the poem leaves the reader with a taste of grief—no doubt about it—but also the wonder that the poem exists at all despite this grief. The poem, like all poems, like life, is but one attempt at understanding. No single attempt at survival will suffice, no single poem can incarnate the essence of existence. Both are merely stages on life’s way. The first half of the poem identifies the speaker’s will to live; the second half of the poem details the struggle. Two stanzas, two sentences, two realities.
(The key word in this poem is the same as Sachs’s poem above, Swedish flykt and German Flucht. On one etymological branch, they share the denotations of flight and escape, with verb forms meaning to flee and to seek refuge and adjectival forms such as fleeting, fugitive, volatile, and elusive. But the German word has another etymology that is lexically opposite but semantically specific. It can either refer to a line, alignment, or collection of building elements, such as rooms or windows, or a flock of birds. I’ll stop the philological sidebar here, suffice it to say that it’s a curious anecdote that from a certain angle this word carries both one meaning and its opposite: a precarious moving away (ostensibly from disorder) and an intentional organization into order.)
In his book Poetry as Survival, Gregory Orr writes that when a poet writes about a disturbing or disordering experience it is risky, it inherently involves instability. At the same time the poem risks this disorder, the fact the poem arrives at all is evidence of some level of stability. Not only that, but ‘every encounter with disorder of any sort that results in a poem is a successful encounter in the most basic sense we can mean it—namely, the poet survived.’ In our era of overstimulated minds and overextended bodies, unintentional ambivalence has quietly become an automatic if unconscious (non-)reaction to the violence of the world, as the world’s atrocities blur together into a quotidian white noise, all the more so in our chronic atmospheres of ambivalence. What was once unthinkable or unimaginable has become merely unexamined or willfully ignored, fading out into such a low frequency that it is as good as silent.
But, for the individual, silence is not immediately adverse. We often think of silence in negative terms, as a lack of language, as something to be broken or resulting from being broken, as something destructive, disintegrating or even disturbing, to the point where silence is equated with death (much as sound is equated with life). Orr writes, ‘In the silence of shame, we imagine that if others knew our story they would recoil in disgust or disapproval.’ This might be true, but in the same way that speech can be used as a tool for survival, so too can silence. It may be the case, as Orr states, that ‘to suffer in silence, like grieving in silence, is destructive of the self, since it means walling off aspects of experience and the emotions connected with them’ and thus this kind of silence ‘makes us the victim of our experience, not the master.’ Orr’s claim is that we must break (through) silence and transform it into speech in order to be able to share our selves with the selves of others and overcome the many experiences that plunge us into silence. Many things can send us into a ‘destructive or isolating’ silence, but unlike those things, silence is the one thing that, Orr believes, can be changed. On the one hand, Orr is right: it is a signal of strength to speak out and speak for. But it can also be a measure of strength to be strategically silent, whether as a form of political resistance or self-preservation. When someone chooses to go or stay silent, we (might) have to attend to other ways that might be meaning or signifying (this is what J. Logan Smilges argues in Queer Silence: Disability and Rhetorical Absence). This also makes it all the more powerful when the person who chose to stay silent chooses to speak.
To be fair, Orr is advocating for the transformation of silence into the work of poetry, of channeling creativity as a means to abate trauma and even save oneself. He is centering the therapeutic potential of poetry for the writer (but this is also valid for the reader). For example, as the epigraph for his chapter on ways of survival, Orr cites Muriel Rukeyser:
‘I don’t believe poetry can save the world. I do believe that the forces in us wish to share something of our experience by turning it into something and giving it to somebody: that is poetry. That is some kind of saving thing, and as far as my life is concerned, poetry has saved me again and again.’
I have to admit that I disagree with the claim in the first sentence, not only because it immediately and unreasonably ascribes an ethical imperative to poetry (and art, for that matter) which implores it to have value only insofar as, and to the extent that, it can save the world, but also because we tend to confuse what we mean by ‘the world.’ There is a pervasive conflation of the words ‘earth’ and ‘world,’ where the former technically refers to the physical planet and the latter to a broader array of conceptual meanings, ranging from the world as the collective everything on earth or in the universe (the Swedish word världsalltet, meaning ‘universe; everything that exists,’ is literally rendered as ‘the world’s all’) to my world as I experience it or my worldview that is based on said experience. So while I can concede that poetry may not be able to save the World (in whatever definition), it does have the capacity to change an individual’s world; for every person is a world, with their own perspective, understanding, point of view and relation to the wider World that constitutes our existence, which is inherently shared. Poetry does not, and should not, have to save the world for it to be meaningful. That a poem succeeds as a poem—that it exists at all—is meaningful enough.
Mossaed arrived in Sweden in 1996; her first collection in Swedish was published in 1997. In the intervening time, between when she entered the world of Swedish and when she made her own world through Swedish, she had buried herself in a deep feeling of muteness (stumhet), as she describes in her pamphlet essay in verse, To Breathe Words in the Forest (Att andas orden i skogen). Neither this freedom nor its manifestation in language are to be taken for granted. To be silent is not inherently to be unfree. Likewise, one can be forced into speaking; thus, speech is not innately or entirely a form of freedom. The freedom lies in the ability to choose speech or to choose to remain silent. Does freedom not walk hand in hand with possibility, if not metaphysically then at least metaphorically?
Many a philosopher has argued that the limits of one’s language are the limits of one’s world, or that we make our world through language. By the same token, many a poet has expressed the notion of language as a home. For example, again, Nelly Sachs, who maintained an affinity for the spatial, domestic dimensions of language, conceiving the text of a poem in such terms as ‘Weltall der Worte’ or ‘Landschaft aus Schreien’ or ‘So rann ich aus dem Wort’ (‘cosmos of words’; ‘landscape of screams’; ‘Thus I ran out of the word’). This refuge was not entirely secure, neither for Sachs, nor her correspondent, friend, and ‘brother’ survivor Paul Celan, whose relationship to German was famously fraught. Both poets continued to write in their mother tongues in a foreign land, Sachs in Sweden and Celan in France, conflicted about the inability to escape German like they escaped Germany.
Mossaed offers her own perspective on writing in exile, in a new language. Mossaed’s poetry was once censored, and is now banned, in Iran. When she writes in Persian, it’s published abroad. In To Breathe Words in the Forest, Mossaed opens with this first line: ‘Every language that gives me the freedom to express myself against injustice is the language of my heart.’ [Varje språk som ger mig frihet att uttrycka mig mot orättvisan är mitt hjärtas språk.] Throughout the essay (as well as in her speech upon induction into the Swedish Academy), she recounts her journey into Sweden and into the Swedish language. A few years after her arrival, she realized that the North would be her ‘grave.’ It was then she decided to buy curtains for her windows, and decided to answer in Swedish rather than English. Fabric is a frequent symbol in her poems. In this instance, in the same piece, Mossaed admits that in the journey into Swedish her poetic language had to become simpler, had to ‘change clothes,’ thus catalyzing exponential possibilities in her poetic world through the fusion of the spirit of her poetry as part of a tradition inherited from and shared with poets such as Hafez, Rumi and Forugh Farrokhzad, and the garb of Swedish.
Mossaed’s poetry is infused with the possibility of language, rather than its limitations. Yet there is a thread running through her poetry, of the bumping into or being distressed by the limits of language. Not the speculative limits entertained and explored by intellectuals of all stripes, but the quotidian, even banal, limitations that every language learner, indeed many non-native speakers of a language, encounter regularly. Wittgenstein was right, sort of: the limits of my language may indeed be the limits of my world, but what of my second language, or my third or fourth? Does not being a native Swedish speaker inherently limit my world? It depends on what we mean by world. Wittgenstein, so it seems, was speaking of the language faculty, the fact that we have language at all, regardless of which language it might be. If anything, it gives me access to a world, whether I make it my own our not. The difficulty of this growth runs throughout Mossaed’s work in Swedish, such as this stanza from the collection How I was missed here (2018; Vad jag saknades här):
Jag är försvunnen
på stadens gator
Kan inget alfabet
I have disappeared
onto the city streets
Knowing no alphabet
Or this couplet from one her early poems, where the speaker recounts the pathos of breaking down into tears, finding respite against a tree whose name is unknown to her:
Jag gråter vid ett träd
som jag inte ens kan namnet på
I am crying against a tree
that I don’t even know the name of
Mossaed ranks among a growing number of ‘exophonic’ writers, authors who write in a language that this not their own. Think, for example, of Samuel Beckett, Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), Joseph Brodsky, Don Mee Choi, Ilya Kaminsky, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vladimir Nabokov, Yoko Tawada and (at one time) Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. These writers, Skrikanth Reddy writes in his introduction to a special issue of Poetry Magazine on Exophony, featuring a poem by Mossaed, ‘project their own cultural histories into a new language, as writers always have done, and will always do. They are translators of themselves.’ But we have to be careful not to conflate modes and methods of translation. Mossaed herself states her position: ‘To be able to write directly in Swedish was my goal from the beginning. I didn’t want to translate my poems into Swedish.’ (Att kunna skriva direkt på svenska var mitt mål från början. Jag ville inte översätta mina dikter till svenska). Mossaed doesn’t translate her words from one to another language; that is what I have done. She translates her experience into words, whether Persian or Swedish; that is not what I do. I only have access to her experiences through her words, which when read through my English, take on a shade of my understanding, which is then passed on to the reader.
The experience of exile gives a new contour, if not an entirely new foundation, to the meaning of survival. I myself cannot speak from a place of exile as it is traditionally understood, not in the way that Mossaed, Sachs, or Celan experienced it. I can only approach it second hand. Mossaed gives us a sense in To Breathe Words in the Forest: ‘To live in exile means that you have to dare to find replacements for everything you wish you had from before.’ [Att leva i exil innebär att du måste våga hitta ersättningar för allt som du önskar att du hade kvar från förr.] For Mossaed, exile is a total and complete existential shift. The many replacements that one will have to seek out and accept are too numerous to count, but there are several throughout Mossaed’s poetry. One is language, another is landscape.
Mossaed writes starkly and directly about the natural world, and of her and humanity’s relationship to it, often employing a rich, poignant imagery that echoes the lucidity that made Tranströmer so successful and therefore translatable (or vice versa). I would venture to say that Mossaed has inherited Tranströmer’s status as the Swedish purveyor par excellence of simple, crystalline images. For example, this stanza from How I was missed here, which recalls for me Tranströmer’s poem ‘Den halvfärdiga himlen‘ (‘The Half-Finished Heaven‘):
Jorden har svårt att andas
Rinnande floder av klorofyll
The earth has trouble breathing
through the asphalt
Flowing rivers of chlorophyl
When Tomas Tranströmer was awarded 1990 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, he spoke of two ways at looking at a poem. One way was to see it as impossible to carry over from its original language into another. The other, contrary, view is to understand
the poem as it is presented is a manifestation of another, invisible poem, written in a language behind the common languages. Thus, even the original version is a translation. A transfer into English or Malayalam is merely the invisible poem’s new attempt to come into being. The important thing is what happens between the text and the reader. Does a committed reader ask if the written version he reads is the original or a translation?
A poem, then, is always a translation of experience into words, which through writing are themselves first and foremost of act of memory, a resistance to the ephemeral. Poetry itself is a translation of silence, one that inhales nothingness and exhales life and language. In a sense, all understanding is a form of translation. Or at least, the mechanics function similarly, bound both to time and to the unknown or the unfamiliar.
Låna mig ditt språk
Lär mig ordens rötter
låt mig leka med dina ord
låt mig skapa
nya konstiga meningar med dem
låt mig ge orden
låna mig ditt språk
låt mig ta dem med på en äventyrlig resa.
Lend Me Your Language
Teach me the word-roots
let me play with your words
let me create
new strange sentences with them
let me give the words
lend me your language
let me take them on an adventure.
Mossaed wears her heart on her sleeve, and its blood infuses her poetry. If I were to describe her poetry in one word, at this moment, it would be palpable. If I were to describe her poetic voice in one word, at this moment, it would be earnest.
But what is it, then, the breath of a poem? Where does it occur, and how? This essay began with a gesture to the (recorded) breath of the poet, but the breath of the poem is of another kind. I’m reasonably sure that there are no lungs concealed between a book’s binding and its spine. I’m reasonably sure that its pages do not respire, even if the trees from which they were produced did. No, the breath of the poem is no material process, no biological rhythm. Nor is it merely a matter of metaphorical rhetoric or imaginative figuration. The breath of the poem is rather akin to the spirit of the poem, inspired by the poet, exhaled by her and inhaled by the reader. Like the real air that is shared by those that breathe, the poem is a shared space, even if it is temporally disjointed, indeterminably delayed on its journey from writer to reader.
Ibland kommer orden till mig helt döda
som hårstrån eller naglar
De andas inte på pappret
Sometimes the words come to me entirely dead
like a strand of hair or nails
They do not breathe on the paper
So begins one of the opening poems in Mossaed’s latest collection Delayed Words (Orden är försenade). Here, as elsewhere, in every poem, the poem is a meeting place, a breathscape, whose inhabitants are prepositionally related towards one another, however temporarily, however separated by time and space. In that same poem, she writes that even though it ‘takes time to breathe life into them’ [Det tar tid att blåsa liv i dem], that eventually ‘the paper accepts them / one at a time’ [Pappret tar emot dem / ett efter ett]. Though Mossaed may write of words dead on arrival, it is the work and wonder of poetry to animate them.
We are grateful to Jila Mossaed for granting permission to include translations of her poems in this essay.
The references in this essay are found the following books:
Jila Mossaed: Månen och den eviga kon (1997); Sju vilda oceaner (2000); Att andas orden i skogen (2018); Vad jag saknades här (2018); Ljusets alfabet: En triologi (2019); Orden är försenade (2022)
Jennifer M. Hoyer: ’The Space of Words’: Exile and Diaspora in the Works of Nelly Sachs (2017)
Gregory Orr: Poetry as Survival (2002)
J. Logan Smilges: Queer Silence: Disability and Rhetorical Absence (2022)
Other sources found via associated hyperlinks.
Bradley Harmon is a writer, translator, and scholar of Scandinavian and German literature, philosophy, and film, currently a PhD candidate at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA. His translations of Jila Mossaed’s writings have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Lyrikline, Loch Raven Review, and Swedish Book Review.