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When I Was Eleven I Knew It All extract

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Issue number: Finland-Swedish Special Issue


from When I Was Eleven I Knew It All

by Emma Ahlgren

translated by Nichola Smalley


A girl falls into
a head

a body

a state

then she is stuck


So opens När jag var elva visste jag allt (When I Was Eleven I Knew It All, 2019), the second collection of poetry by artist and poet Emma Ahlgren. Composed of short poetic fragments, the collection explores a young woman’s life and the many roles and states that she comes – or is made – to inhabit.

Jumping back and forth through time, the poems in this collection build to form a multifaceted portrait of a life, the darker sides of which often recounted with disarming honesty. With their concise, exact language and striking, associative juxtapositions, the poems tread the line between humour and tragedy, the mental and corporeal, the mundane and the transcendent.

This excerpt is taken from near the start of the collection. At times, Ahlgren enters into direct dialogue with Sylvia Plath’s Ariel; As in the source text, these instances are denoted by italicised text.

poet Emma Ahlgren sitting on sofa next to dog.
Emma Ahlgren. Photo: Alexandra Harald.


from When I Was Eleven I Knew It All


When I was one I was gripped by mortal fear.

I was worried about how

my parents treated me.

I was scared that my siblings would
stick spiked objects

into my fontanelle.

(lolly sticks, pens, toothpicks)



Sometimes I would scream a long while until

I stopped.



We try to settle

place a chair in

the hall she curls

melts into the seam
between back and




In the foetal stage I was long and slim

slipped supply into situations.

I came and went.

Now I hide myself in a face

in a daughter’s nostrils

in the corners of my grandmother’s mouth.



When I was twenty-three I bore a son.
He was blue and white.

With the spirit of his fatherland
he filled his lungs.

Inside me there was a vanishing and swelling                       void.



Shortly thereafter I began

a relationship

with a handheld

We shredded and made smooth
purees of sweet potato and other things.



When we were finished there was

nothing left of me.



We feed the children with
forks and knives

mouths gaping kindly
the potatoes hiss.

Her life lies in
a wreath around

her legs bound
to an ever more

evasive nature.



I came down with sudden
The doctors could not get a handle

on me.

A nurse claimed
I was too much

of a handful.

That I flinched from their plastic-gloved hands.



We stroke her thin skin
on hand.

It lies smooth and
threatening over us


a sharp piece of paper.


the inner and the outer

between taking pains



About the book

När jag var elva visste jag allt

Schildts & Söderströms, 2019, 68 pages.

Foreign rights: Schildts & Söderströms.

We are grateful to Schildts & Söderströms for permission to publish this translated extract.

Emma Ahlgren is an artist and poet. När jag var elva visste jag allt is her second collection of poetry, after 2018’s Isotopia. In 2022 she published her first prose collection, Hur Kärlek Fungerar (How Love Works)

Nichola Smalley is a prizewinning translator from Swedish and Norwegian.