[This post was written by Swedish writer Aylin Bloch Boynukisa. You can find her story, “I have nothing to do with birds,” in the most recent issue of Action, Yes. “Gurlesque” is a term coined by Arielle Greenberg to describe a sensibility in contemporary poetry. You can read more about it on Delirious Hem and in Lara Glenum’s essay on Swedish poet Aase Berg. And of course, there’s the anthology Aylin refers to in this post.]
A brief reflection on Gurlesque poetics in Swedish literature, part one: Exaggeration
By Aylin Bloch Boynukisa
“And I said sweethearts I said roses
I said sweethearts and I said the roses
there is so much light in here it must be the roses –
oh, so much light and I said lovely and
darling your eyes are roses and I said your
mouth is….a rose oh, let me kiss it again
and I said you are a girl and I am a rose
I said you are a rose and I am a girl and
I said girl girl there cannot be
too many roses, can there darling that’s what I
said didn’t I and then I said glorious and
wonderful and lovely I said there is so much light
in here it must be all the roses – but
darling bring in more roses and then I said
girl girl girl there cannot be too many
roses and then I said kisses –“
(Eva-Stina Byggmästar, 2006, my translation)
In her foreword to the Gurlesque anthology, Arielle Greenberg writes: “The Gurlesque was born […] in Burma and Ohio and Korea and New York and Olympia, WA and other places”. Yes. The Gurlesque was definitely born in Sweden (and Finland) (although she was born in Sweden, she’s very likely to have an immigrant mom, and since one never becomes Swedish “For Real” no matter how long you’ve lived there [here], she’s called a Second Generation Immigrant, which is the official way of saying “you don’t belong here”). Growing up in the remains of the Swedish welfare system, she – of course – turns to words and books and being impossible and horrifying and words and writing and taking everything too far. When I think of taking things too far, I think of the piece above, a piece from the Finland-Swedish1 poet Eva-Stina Byggmästar’s 2006 book of poetry Älvdrottningen (The Fairy Queen), which I find very much a part of the Gurlesque poetics. I think of Eva-Stina Byggmästar’s book in total since the entire book keeps on like this, dwelling and gorging on flowers, flowers of all kinds. Of course, this is playing with the notion that poetry is all about pretty flowers, and a remake of the traditional love poem where the troubled man-as-poet compares his love to a rose. But in Byggmästar’s poem there are just too many flowers, the “I” of the poem is just too excited, expressing her excitement repeatedly, and, it seems to be about two girls loving each others girlyness. This comes to me rather fast when I think of over-doing things; the exaggeration of the girly, i.e. overdoing the feminine into what is generally considered cute, and therefore kind of ridiculous, stupid and shallow, slowly becoming icky, abject, drag, unrespectable, whore, witch. Who is this “I” of the poem really loving so intensely, could it be herself (you are a girl and I am a rose/I said you are a rose and I am a girl), could it be multiple girls/roses/girl-roses (I said/ girl girl girl there cannot be to many/ roses), or could it be just the superficial idea of girlyness in general? Is the poem about anything at all or is it all girlish nonsense? Of course, neither of the options is preferable.
The poem itself is very easily read in the aspect of how Byggmästar has written it; there is a fluidity and lightness about it connoting the superficial girl/cuteness, but I would say that it is treacherous, a fake superficiality, it’s a death-serious drag show. Behind the fluidity that makes the reader rush through the poem, there are parts that makes one fall into lethal Gurlesque gaps. There are the roses and their layers, their buds opening like the mouth and the eyes and the room craving more roses and light, all reminding of the vagina dentata, the soft, sticky (smelly?) female body that can swallow the entire patriarchy whole if it’s not careful. An old friend of mine once said to me while writing her doctorial theses in architecture, critiquing the patriarchal structures of the architectural discourse: “the traditional belief in architecture is that there is surface (yta) in depth, but I would rather say that there is depth in superficiality (ytlighet)”. As you can see, in Swedish the words “surface” and “superficiality” stems from the same word so that all she did was swapping the words around, creating a whole new way of seeing. I believe that this is one way of thinking about the Gurlesque, and Byggmästar’s poem. So, maybe the girlish nonsense and cuteness is superficial. Maybe that’s why it’s so dangerous.
Women in combination with flowers and plants are dangerous per se. Byggmästar’s poetry dwell upon this as well. Traditional Scandinavian folk songs, especially the really old ones, tell stories about the fairy king’s daughter putting spells on innocent young men about to be married. One traditional song with unknown origin that Swedish kids learn in school is about a young girl picking flowers (the lyrics repeating the pretty flower names). This song is rumoured to be about making an abortion potion, the flowers being the ingredients, and although botanists claim this to be untrue, what the song and its context is telling us is that girls with pretty flowers have death on their minds. Byggmästar connects to this tradition (much more obvious in other poems) using anachronistic words and syntax that sometimes seem to be picked right out of the old folk songs.
Finally, I would like to add that the word “sweethearts” in the first two lines, is actually the English word “sweethearts” in the Swedish original version, making the poem deliberately dress up in some kind of language-drag in yet another way.