The Taste of Steel / The Smell of Snow, containing poems by Pia Tafdrup originally published in 2014 and 2016 and translated by David McDuff, was published by Bloodaxe Books last year. The Tafdrup/McDuff/Bloodaxe collaboration goes back more than 10 years now. The Danish poet’s work inclines to themed series of collections – The Salamander Quartet appeared between 2002 and 2012. The current volume presents in English the first two collections of another planned quartet of books, this time focusing on the human senses. In fact, the ‘taste’ book here feels much less conscious of its own thematic focus than the ‘smell’ one, not necessarily to the latter’s advantage. There is often something willed, rather laboured, about some of the work included here, which is most disappointing given Tafdrup’s earlier books. But her curiosity about the world remains engaging, her poems are observant of others, often self-deprecating, her concerns are admirable (environmental, the world’s violence), plus there are several fine pieces on desire and female sexuality.
Her world view though, is essentially tragic: loss and the passage of time predominate. ‘Chink’ ends in a resigned tone: “Slowly life takes / the life from us”. The Taste of Steel is particularly imbued with a sense of personal, romantic loss: “The moment I begin to love, / the separation starts, / at least the fear of separation” (‘Separation’). The awkward evidence of a partner’s infidelity – a broken sugar bowl, a coffee stain on a book – are “disasters” in what the narrator thought of as “my home” (‘Stages on life’s way’). In such circumstances, even the poet’s pen assumes the qualities of an “axe” (‘Unposted letter’) and unsuspecting visits to museums yield up pessimistic clues and conclusions:
In the absence of words
poisoned arrows sing through the air,
but behind the arrows’ decoration
the idea is the same: peace
is pauses between wars.
‘Not even in museums is there peace’
In both collections, Tafdrup gathers poems into brief, titled sections of about half a dozen poems each and the ‘War’ section extrapolates the sense of personal conflict and loss to more global/political concerns. ‘The darkness machine’ opens plainly, if irrefutably, with the sentiment that a child “should be playing, not / struck in the back by a bullet”. The point is made more powerfully (because less directly) in ‘Spring’s grave’ with its repeated pleas to “send small coffins”. ‘View from space’ adopts the even more remote perspective of the Cassini space probe’s view of the planet, but also ends with plainspoken directness: “that’s where we ceaselessly produce / more weapons, practise battle tactics, / turn our everyday lives into a night of hell”. The concluding genitive phrase makes me wonder about the quality of the translation; I have neither Danish, nor the original in front of me, but does Tafdrup really use such a cliché?
You might say the Cassini viewpoint is taken up more metaphysically elsewhere in Tafdrup’s frequent sense of the world’s ultimate mystery (“the fleeting, / the unbounded, the ever / changing” (‘Undercurrent’)), forever slipping beyond the grasp of human language, an idea imaged in ‘Loneliness’ as a God who “is born at every moment, it is said, // is the life of the endless deep, / and does not cease His revolt”. Only occasionally are we conscious of such a presence – unfamiliar moments, as in the poem ‘Power cut’, where it is an electrical outage that prompts a reshaping of perception to the point of “only now / discover[ing] the world, as though we are suddenly / noticing heart and lungs”. And – returning to the theme of these collections – Tafdrup’s use of (lengthy) listing in ‘Taste’ is perhaps intended to evoke the often unremarked, radical multiplicity of the world-as-it-is through the window of one of the human senses.
This is also a method adopted in The Smell of Snow, the lists of olfactory images are even more determinedly developed in poems like ‘Smell-trace of a morning’ and ‘Benchmarks from a long day’. In this second book, most poems contain some allusion to the ‘smell’ theme. The idea is put to powerful erotic effect in ‘Your fragrance wakes me’ in which the lover, coming from a bath, is tracked and anticipated; “Not yet the taste of your kiss, / not yet caresses”. Other ‘smell’ poems yield good results: to comic effect in Tafdrup’s close observation of the noses of other passengers on an airplane; an interesting exploration of gender in a poem on men’s proclivity to relieve themselves in public places; on environmental concerns in the evocation of the smells of cleaning products; racist undercurrents when a peculiar smell is detected during a stranger’s visit (a dead mouse is later found to be the cause).
But over the course of 189 pages, the imaginative pressure driving Tafdrup’s poems can flag. The human senses theme yields poems that feel like exercises in completing a brief. A poem on the 2015 terrorist attacks in Copenhagen works well enough, except one is left waiting for the ‘smell’ to feature (eventually we get the “smell / of bloodstained February”). When poems don’t need to be written they tend towards the banal. That these are poems in translation may be part of the problem. However many times I read these 6 lines, I am still puzzled:
I pour water
in abundant quantities
in the grey misty light,
sweep like the wind through a willow
the shadow from your face,
turn a stream magnetically.
Tafdrup’s language as rendered by McDuff is for the most part clear and unexceptional (this is one of the losses compared to earlier work which leaped and surprised its reader more frequently). Lines like the above give off the aura of a passage not fully resolved in English. The book’s concluding poem also seems problematic. Its (Englished) title might leave it open to the kind of schoolboyish humour that Tafdrup would not have sought: ‘The stream of smells from below’. Its opening three stanzas lack any sense of forward movement, seeming to repeat three times the same idea that individuals on the planet are similar but different to others. Then:
Each person is referred to their own sensations,
as I am now
with the sun in my face, June,
and the chill in my back
stop [ . . . ]
This reader has little stumblings over the verb ‘referred’, with the month/interlocutor, ‘June’, and the odd juxtaposition of ‘back / stop’. McDuff’s previous work with Tafdrup has been superb, but once doubts creep into the reader’s head about the ‘bringing over’ of poems into another language it is hard to contain them. This is not Tafdrup’s best work, nor is it McDuff’s; I, for one, will be going back to the earlier Bloodaxe books by this fine poet.
NB. This review was originally commisioned and published by The High Window.
Here’s clip of David McDuff reading 3 poems from the collection: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nTS-l92qI0