Be you a globetrotter or a home-bird, Pia Tafdrup’s words, aptly translated by David McDuff, will grab and carry you across the world and pack you into her own personal recollections. The two collections in Salamander Sun & Other Poems deal with the tension between the poet’s desire for freedom and her deep-rooted familial ties and responsibilities.
Having already published the English translation of the first two instalments in 2010, Bloodaxe now offer the two final collections to complete award-winning Pia Tafdrup’s powerfully emotive The Salamander Quartet.
The first of that final pair, The Migrant Bird’s Compass, is divided into three parts, of which only the central section is named: “The Element of Motion”. Section I and Section III are each comprised of a single poem, while the central section consists of fifty-six poems of very variable lengths.
Beginning with its longest poem, “Leaving Home”, a reply to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Autobiography”, the reader is introduced to the poet as a child and to her family. By linking her poem to Ferlinghetti’s pastiche, Tafdrup emphasises the longing for new experiences which pervaded her childhood. The strain between the hold of her family and the need to leave the familiar landscape of home, is communicated elegantly in Tafdrup’s lines, which flutter with ease from nostalgia to critical insight.
The poem “First Flight” is not only a great example of both these aspects, but it also showcases an example of the recurring bird imagery found throughout these collections. The poet’s hunger for flight is shown to have started early in life as she describes the feeling of
[…] the warm wind
between the buzz of insects
and the scream of gulls
[…] flew by a route that led away,
where tomorrow begins.
Although here Tafdrup is only a baby lifted into the air by her father’s feet, she is already longing for that distant horizon. Her words are able to capture the moment’s lightness, in that simple interaction between a father and his child. At the same time, she demonstrates the power the patriarchal figure has on her subtly:
looked down at my father,
the pilot, who controlled the direction.
The second collection, Salamander Sun, has a more structured chronology. Composed of sixty poems, each representing a year in Tafdrup’s life, they begin in 1952, the year of her birth and end in 2011. There is a definite thematic continuity from the previous collection, as both have a clear autobiographical feel and examine the same central concerns of family and travel. Having taken her life as its subject, Salamander Sun clearly communicates the poet’s personal growth. It is also an interesting experiment as it seeks to reduce a full sixty years into more or less the same number of pages.
The reader witnesses the poet’s journey into adulthood highlighting important moments, defining the stages of development, from the loss of milk teeth,
Taste of iron in my mouth. Blood words.
Cave language. Tongue pit.
as a daisy growing in grass,
the awkward changes puberty brings,
The nose doesn’t go with the eyes,
the eyes don’t go with the mouth, the teeth are too big
if I smile,
to emergent political views,
As told as an ominous prophecy
that when the
I will be the first to be shot.
As a whole, the two collections work well together. While remaining two separate entities, they have enough in common to create a smooth transition and interaction. In tandem with her personal struggles and inward journeys, Tafdrup brings the reader to a variety of different countries to share the tastes, smells and memories she has collected along her way. Certainly, this is a journey worth sharing.