Ida Börjel’s Poem, ‘outer space, the outer spaces were’

The Swedish poet Ida Börjel.

It’s been a few weeks since I last sought out a foreign poem, courtesy of the ever-helpful Poetry International archives. Today’s poem comes from someone I’m quite intrigued by. Her poetry is as if I was walking along and picked up a Rubik’s cube and when I started trying to solve it, the colors turned into worms. That’s a compliment for Swedish poet Ida Börjel. Börjel, who is active now in her mid-40s, was born in Lund, a southern Swedish province across the way from Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. I always find it fun to orient myself geographically, at least.

According to Poetry International, Börjel has “dedicated her practice to the potential for poetry to serve as [an] instrument of historical and political inquiry, disruption, and illumination.” Well, that certainly perks my ears up. And the biography gets at what I meant with regards to her poetry being like a disorienting (in a good way) Rubik’s cube, as much of poetic project seems to be disassembling the parts of society she finds unjust and injurious and reassembling them into a new light.

Today’s poem comes from her 2014 book-length poem (I’m not sure if that just means a collection or it’s meant to be a book-length poem?), Ma, and was translated by Jennifer Hayashida.

The poem is, “outer space, the outer spaces were,” and I’ll reprint it in full here since it’s short:

outer space, the outer spaces were
the decree, word by word; in earth
Earth; there was the more I
express myself the emptier I am
tautology, the tautologies were
the anchor in reality’s
bond between fore- and background
where the government’s wordless
drones over Seine-Saint-Denis
where during the final days
in Camping family radio Alameda

The emphasis is from the poem (it was italicized in the original, but since I italicize poems on here, I changed it to bold). Two things I noticed about Börjel’s poetry from perusing other poems by her on Poetry International, is that first, she likes to repeat the same thing, sometimes in the same way and sometimes in a different way, and she even addresses that here in a meta way by saying, “tautology, the tautologies were / weighing / the anchor in reality’s / bond between fore- and background.” Even in that sentence, she uses a tautology by repeating tautology, which is the idea behind a tautology: repeating the same phrase, often in a different way. She also repeats Earth. The second thing is, she tends to end each poem with an italicized word symbolizing something in the past. And here’s certainly where the Rubik’s cube comes into play because I’m not sure what Alameda is in reference to. From Googling, the only thing that comes up is some Naval base in California, which doesn’t seem applicable to anything Swedish, or even tangentially Swedish, or anything relating to the content of the poem. I’m not sure! Alameda is a Spanish word for “walkway or promenade shaded with trees,” according to the dictionary. But in that context, where the government seems looming with its drones, and a camping family radio, “Alameda,” I have no idea what that context means. Even with the help of context clues, I can’t figure this out. Gah!

That said, I was drawn to the poem for two reasons:

  • The line “the more I express myself the emptier I am,” which, depending on how one looks at it, could be a good thing or a bad thing? That is, we all feel a burden coming off of our shoulders when we write and talk about something weighing on us. In that way, the repetitious, or tautologies “were weighing the anchor in reality’s bond between fore- and background,” i.e., the burden permeates our conscious and subconscious moments. Unloading that can help. That’s a good thing. But it could be a bad thing, too, in the sense of, those burdens make us human, and in a way, loosing those is like water from a pot evaporating away. We lose something of ourselves through that process. We give something of ourselves away. I suppose that’s the other aspect with tautology. When you repeat something, you’re almost certainly inviting varying interpretations.
  • Repetition is a great device for poetry and tautology lends itself to a poetic form. Even the first line and namesake of the poem does it, “outer space, the outer spaces were,” and then it goes from there with repeating Earth and tautology. Not just the repetition, but the way it’s done reminds me of Gertrude Stein, who I recently mentioned. There are phrases and ways of organizing sentences that reads like “outer space, the outer spaces were.”

But yet again, I’m not sure what the second half of the poem is getting at it, and what Seine-Saint-Denis means. There is a French department (which seems to be one of their levels of administrations in France; there 96 such “departments” in France) named that, but also, Saint Denis is a 3rd-century Christian martyr and saint, who is most famous for the legend of having his head decapitated, which he tend picked up and walked several miles while preaching a sermon on repentance, according to Wikipedia. That could be a great metaphor for a story about repentance, but it doesn’t seem applicable here as “the government’s wordless drones over” make it seem like Seine-Saint-Denis is a place in space and time rather than some sort of metaphor.

Also, as a small aside, sometimes I don’t notice things about a poem until I’m editing it for the blog, and now that I’m thinking about it, could outer space here means the outer spaces of society or more intimately, our minds? My brain immediately went to actual outer space, but now I’m more inclined to think it’s the former, the outer space of society and that’s why the drones are coming.

So, like I said, a Rubik’s cube that turns to worms when you try to solve it. I can’t solve this one, and so I’ll gently put it back into the dirt for the worms to go to their home. It’s also worth reiterating that if this is an excerpt from Ma, which is supposed to be a book-length poem, then I am missing a great deal of context in which to understand what is essentially an excerpt rather than a full-length, on-its-own-merits poem.

Either way, I do appreciate Börjel for making me think and for the wonderful line, which will stick in my head longer after I post this, “the more I express myself the emptier I am.”

What do you make of this poem?

3 thoughts

  1. Wow, this made me think of how it is sure impossible to know the extent of all that’s foreign to us. It made me think of the book “The Green Child” , (it’s Wikipedia page if it’s of interest ) simply because it gave my life more meaning, and I remembered my upset at reading of how it was received as being…”so vaguely and variously interpreted that it would seem to lack both the form and the content which justify such praise.”
    I can’t imagine this poem could be “correctly” interpreted, but I do imagine that it has spoken to you (and to myself possible) in the way it was intended to. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

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