Poor Soul, poor Girl!
I cannot imagine anything nicer
Than to be struck by lightning and killed suddenly crossing a field
As if somebody cared.
Nobody cares whether I am alive or dead.
The above poem, ‘Poor Soul, poor Girl!’ by the English poet Stevie Smith, imagines the voice of a young woman confronting mortality and her place in the world. It is a short poem. It is somewhat absurd (such nihilistic thoughts placed in the mind of a young girl – more than that, a debutante; a girl on the brink of all that the world has to offer, a figure that represents youthfulness and life itself, wishing to be struck down dead in an instant, imagining that such an act would prove compassion, or interest, or something – well if nothing else, it’s somewhat unexpected). It is nonetheless poignant. It is sad. It is also an awkward poem, strangely informal; the metre of the long second line, followed by the short third, and the colloquial term ‘nicer’, all contribute in producing a sense of the girl’s innocence of speech. Her thoughts are there: ‘Nobody cares’ – these are the somewhat trite sentiments of a girl not yet fully developed in the psychology of adulthood, and yet contemplating the matter of her ‘soul’ as each of us surely must at one time or another.
It is a poem that comes to mind as I read the work of Edith Södergran – a figure who in turn wrestled with mortality at a surprisingly young age – and mentioning Smith here at all, is merely a means of getting around to some poetry from Finland, by way of Hull.
Södergran was born in St Petersburg in 1892. Her early years were spent between schooling in Russia and holidaying in Raivola, Finland, where the family relocated permanently after the death of her father from tuberculosis. The shadow of this disease, which Edith herself was diagnosed with as a teenager, hung heavily upon her working life. All of the five volumes of poetry published in her lifetime, were written in just the four years before her death, as she fought against her declining health. Her work, often ambiguous, always wrestling with the difficult questions is surprising stuff; and for the apparent similarities between her and the figure in Smith’s poem, there is so much more in Södergran. Her poems are short, and often somewhat frightening constructions. A good translation comes from Gounil Brown’s collection of her poems (Zena, 1990). Here, the poem ‘I saw a Tree’ gives an interesting insight into the young woman confronting the apparent injustice of the world:
I saw a tree that was taller than any
and full of unattainable cones;
I saw a great church with open doors
and all who came out were pale and strong
and ready to die;
I saw a woman who smiling held the dice
and threw it once for happiness,
and saw that she lost –
Around these things was drawn a circle
that no creature shall cross.
As with Smith’s poem, it is the economy of expression here that is most moving; the final line, ‘that no creature shall cross’ is so binding. We are told that this is the way of the world; health, happiness – these things are not guaranteed and may be lost with the roll of dice – and yet despite its pathos, the poem does not rail against the injustice as Smith’s debutante might, it is coldly accepting. The figures leaving the church are ‘pale and strong / and ready to die’; it is a haunting image, the juxtaposition of the words ‘pale and strong’ place the figures already in the midst of death and yet held up by what we presume to be faith.
What Södergran’s poetry confronts is the uneasy inevitability of death, written by a woman painfully aware from her teenage years of her shortening days; and as a result there is only ever acceptance, as here in the poem ‘The Moon’:
How strangely wonderful are all things dead
and calmly silent:
a dead leaf and a dead person
and the moon’s disc –
that the moon’s course around the earth is
the path of death –
and the moon weaves her magical web that
and the moon spins her fairy net around
all that lives – […]
With time comes death, and Södergran’s poetry serves to remind us that living is the course of dying. On midsummer’s day in 1923, in the Finnish town of Raivola, Södergran succumbed to her illness and died aged 31. She has fared well since then, her writing translated into all of the world’s major languages and is she is often held up as the premier female Scandinavian modernist poet.