Also in this issue, Rika Lesser’s poems


Photo credit for Rika Lesser: Photo by Perry Cohen

Photo credit for Elisabeth Rynell: © Elias Österberg


Contributor Notes

Elisabeth Rynell

Elisabeth Rynell

Translations and Introduction by

Rika Lesser

Rika Lesser

Elisabeth Rynell: Nocturnal Conversations



Elisabeth Rynell, one of Sweden’s most highly regarded women writers alive today, was born in Stockholm in 1954.  She has lived in London and traveled overland through Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to India.  For decades a resident of Sweden’s remote north (Älvsbyn, Lycksele, Umeå), Rynell now divides her time between Stockholm and Delsbo, a community in Hälsingland, farther south in Norrland.

            Her writing is lyrical, straightforward or oblique as need be—not a word is wasted—and has been praised for its emotional intensity, openness, and sensuality.  She writes of beauty and terror; over time Rynell’s tales increasingly cross into borderlands of myth and fable.  She made her literary debut with a collection of poetry in 1975.  Eleven more books ensued; four are works of fiction, one is nonfiction, and the other six are poetry, so far.

            After the sudden death of her 32-year-old husband, Elisabeth Rynell began writing works of poetry and prose that are still widely read and esteemed in her native Sweden.  The poetry collection Nattliga samtal (Nocturnal Conversations, 1990) came first; and her breakthrough novel Hohaj was published in 1997, bringing her five major Swedish awards. Hohaj has been translated into multiple languages, including German, Latvian, and Russian.  With a 2013 Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, I hope to complete an English translation of the novel within that year.

The back jacket copy for Nocturnal Conversations, from which these poems come, states:   "Elisabeth Rynell’s new collection of poems is a lamentation, a strong and poignant love song, dedicated to her dead husband."  There is no table of contents, but the book is divided into three parts, the heart of which is an extended “lay” or “lamentation” for Ulf, dead at 32.  Rynell uses the Swedish word kväde for “poem” or “song” that is used in the Eddas, specifically in Gudrun’s Lay for the dead Sigurd.

            I discovered Rynell’s work for myself while serving as the Swedish-language editor for New European Poets (Graywolf, 2008). Coming to both Nocturnal Conversations and Hohaj after more than thirty years of translating great, though primarily male, German and Swedish poets, I believe translating this contemporary woman writer is an essential project, one of superior humane and humanistic worth.










                                                                                                         to Ulf



p. 21




That you were here.

That you left.

That you were here.

And then left.

That a world existed.            

And then none.

That nothing.

And you were here.







p. 23




We gather, lost,

under small and sparse trees 

We try to hold

one another’s hands now

So afraid in life

Maybe we have trespassed here

and have no rights?

Maybe some greater

atrocity will strike us


There is something

we are struggling to preserve

So great

the pain

we gather ourselves around it

with lips curled and jaws clenched tight

as if it was the last thing we owned

We are shipwrecked

washed up on a frightening shore

its stones have peculiar forms







p. 24




How shall I birth

you who are not here?

I understand

I must give birth to you


Now I have your photograph

I must make you live

Can no one teach me

what to do?

You know I am

neither sorcerer nor witch

But I am huge with solitude

Almost like a wellspring

or the groundwater

it spurts from


your face can no longer be caressed

and often I feel a huge emptiness

which ceases


Lead me into that realm

if it exists

where I shall birth you

between my thighs







pp. 26-28




I AM THE ONE who is burning   may I

burn up   whole and new

I wake every

day to my fire   give me today

my daily bonfire   there is

no one here who can cool my brow   as if

only my brow   I'm blazing   I'm a plate

being etched    lower me sizzling into

the spring   water surround me   in me even

water can burn   yes snow even snow

my love you went out

of the room


the absence of your hands

is a fire that searches no it rages

over my skin   I burst dry

shrivel to nothing    want is

a huge heat truly huge

and how can I bloom like this

blossom like this   as if the desert

didn’t know what desert is   give me just

one scoop of order   Here in my exploding


Chaos is hunted by Chaos itself

                                                     Will Chaos

find its way out?   I wander

in the room you have left   a lost soul is

a rock by my side   I myself am

crushed stones   twisted iron

unidentified crumbs   the walls

alone are rock-solid   how

ever I throw myself against them   nothing

gives   Be calm my child

said the Karelian   for there is nothing   oh

consoling sea   thirsting ocean   here is

a fire that eats me whole con-

suming nothing   a fury without a face   a

hand without fingers   give me some

order   my presence makes ice burn   I

writhe inside my cage of being   you

are not here and I lie abandoned

on the ground   something dropped   a paper clip

a screw  an ink cartridge with no voice   with

no cry   SO I CAN SCREAM MY SILENCE   the gods

should go white   ecce homo

crawling thing  the trees

have never been

farther away   their unintentional dignity turned

away from me   take a

deeper draught   life is a fire we have

to burn in   Red is

sorrow   pulsing   My body   my

being   a heart locked up

in a room that is far too small   if I

could escape   give me space   give me








pp. 29-30




There my beloved sits

in a photograph


So I know

that time

is real

real as absence

real as presence

I know

that time


My beloved

sits in a photograph

in my room

and looks at me

through months and

events big

migrations move-


my beloved looks

at me

as if piercing

the room

with love’s

mild eyes


And I know

something of time

and time’s not           

and time’s time


Time’s not like water

trickling between my fingers

Inside the room

time stands like

an invisible piece of furniture

It has no taste

But lives somehow in the walls

Shining its unfathomable smile

through the lamp

Resembles radiation,


Is mostly

a paraphrase

A way of traveling

around something

that is unseen

My beloved no longer remains

in the room

in any of the rooms

but he radiates from the walls

and the ceiling

The floor heaves in his breathing