The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1734

The Diwan over the Prince of Emgión, The Tale of Fatumeh, and Guide to the Underworld, referred to as the Diwan Trilogy, are centered on Byzantine and Middle Eastern themes, reflecting Gunnar Ekelöf’s lifelong interest in Asian cultures and languages. “Diwan” or, more commonly in English, “divan,” is the Arabic-Persian term for a poetic sequence or collection of single authorship, such as the fourteenth century Divan of Hafiz, which, like the “Diwan Trilogy,” links the language of earthly and spiritual love.

The three sections of the trilogy are connected more by their ethos or personal philosophy than by any common narrative. In each of the three component parts, Ekelöf uses different narrative materials to create a personal mythology. In The Diwan over the Prince of Emgión and The Tale of Fatumeh, the element of “story” or narrative is more pronounced than in Guide to the Underworld. Both of the earlier works deal with close relationships: in the former, between the prince and a mystic madonna-goddess figure, as well as an unnamed woman who serves as his guide and companion upon his release from prison; in the latter, between the prostitute Fatumeh and her lover. Although Guide to the Underworld explores the relationship between the Devil and a young novice, it incorporates a far greater range of spokespersons and mythologies than either of the earlier sequences.

The Prince of Emgión, who revealed himself to Ekelöf in a seance as his spiritual double, serves as the poetic persona or “I” narrator throughout most of the sequence. The Diwan over the Prince of Emgión may be separated into several major movements: the preface, comprising the opening epigraph and the first lyric; the invocation and songs of praise to the madonna-goddess in the next fifteen poems; the following group of twenty-one lyrics, which intersperse the story of the prince’s torture, blinding, and imprisonment with addresses to the divine lady and to Digenís, a soulmate and fellow prisoner of bygone days; and the concluding fifteen lyrics, which detail the prince’s journey homeward with a female guide and include further praises sung to the madonna-goddess.

The opening epigraph from the Tarjúman el-Ashwáq, a work of the mystic Sufi tradition in classical Persian and Arabic poetry, presents the major aim of the spokesperson in The Diwan over the Prince of Emgión: “The word ‘Her’ is my aim,” it states; and in “Her” name, any bartering will be with “give” and “take.” To the mutilated, blinded Emgión in his dungeon, “Her” figure is indeed a focus that takes him out of his suffering and gives him the strength to rise above physical reality. The prefatory poem further states the poetic persona’s aim or quest. A dream vision poses “the question of [his] life”: “Did I prefer the part to the whole/ Or the whole to the part[?]” Uncompromisingly, the prince replies that he wants both and, moreover, that between fragment and totality there should be “no contradiction.”

In the madonna-goddess, the prisoner finds his symbol of totality, transcendence, and survival. The opening set of lyrics addresses the prisoner’s ideal in the language of erotic and spiritual love. Although the lady presides, at least metaphorically, over the night sky, the need or “oar” that propels him toward her comes “from deep within myself.” She is an “invisible but present” force who, in spite of her nurturing actions, as when in a dream vision she wraps the speaker in a white garment and allows him to kiss her breasts, is yet aloof and unattainable. No material gifts come from her: Her true gift is that of “Distance,” given only to those “who are strong in love.” Her main effect is that of transporting the prisoner from misery to the experience of love and beauty. As the final poem of the first movement states, “beauty is a weapon/ Which fells princes to the ground.” The power of tyrants is nothing in the face of the ideal of love and beauty incorporated in the Lady.

An ayíasma, or song in praise of the holy purifying qualities of water, begins the second movement, which deals with Emgión’s imprisonment. The story of the Prince of Emgión explains this need for purification. He has beheld, he says, slaughter, treachery, and “filthy lust after power.” Now, in the dungeon, he is bloodstained and tortured. His eyes have been put out by red-hot needles so that, like Sophocles’ Oedipus, he is “a blinded man who sees.” One of the few poems with a title, “The Logothete’s Annotation,” continues his biography. In a dryly bureaucratic tone, the Logothete—that is, the emperor’s chief councillor—states that the prince was “Lord of the Marches.” He was regarded as untrustworthy, suspected of disreputable political alliances and adherence to the Manichaean heresy, a splinter movement in the medieval Christian church that claimed that two antagonistic forces, God and the Devil, control the universe.

Yet, although he salutes both God and the Devil as prophets waging an unending war, he rejects both as tyrants. Love, represented by the lady who stands above all combat, is “a chink/ Of light between their bloody lips/ The gap through which the chosen can enter.” The second movement gives way to the third, marked by yet another ayíasma. Water now cleanses the newly released prisoner of his worms and boils, and the barber’s blade cuts the pus from his eyes. More important than the water that cleanses the body, however, is that which cleanses the spirit. The prince has now achieved the true vision, an inward one.

With the final movement, a new female figure, referred to at various times as daughter, princess, wife, and sister, enters the narrative. With this companion, who may well be an earthly manifestation of the divine goddess’s love, the prince makes his way across the Fertile Crescent to his native land.

Like the Diwan, The Tale of Fatumeh is a complex poetic sequence with shifting poetic voices and a fragmented narrative that follows no linear chronological order. The general pattern consists of a framework, comprising the two first and last lyrics; a cycle of twenty-seven poems that focus on the episodes and insights preceding Fatumeh’s separation from her lover; and the final set of twenty-seven poems, whose theme is loss.

The “preloss” cycle begins where the “loss” cycle ends, at the first meeting of the prostitute Fatumeh with her lover, who is here the poetic voice. A lyric celebrating the physical union of the newfound lovers follows. The sequence then shifts to give fragmentary details of Fatumeh’s early life. She has been born into a “world of mirrors” and sold “to the High Gate/ Which is called Death.” The daughter of a line of prostitutes, she is, at an early age, held at knifepoint and violated by a man she has spurned. Despite the sordid world in which she moves, she preserves a certain purity.

Fatumeh’s relationship with her lover is not only a union of souls, but also a finding of self, symbolized by shadows, mirrors, and eyes. The lover proclaims to Fatumeh, “You gave/ My soul a shadow/ A silver lamp you gave me.” The reasons for her abandonment remain obscure. One of the few titled poems of the sequence, “The Harem at Erechtheion,” marks the end of the love relationship and suggests that Fatumeh has been sent to a harem. Driven out of the harem, she spends the remainder of her life as one of the “roofless people,” selling her body indiscriminately until her miserable death.

Paradoxically, however, the sequence ends in a celebration of the love relationship. As Fatumeh says in a brief lyric, her lover once “washed off me/ My memories of me”; someday, when she washes his memories of her away from him, all obstacles between them will have been removed.

With Guide to the Underworld, the focus of the trilogy expands across centuries and cultures to include Greek and Roman as well as Asian motifs. As Ekelöf states in his notes to the Swedish edition, he conceived the third sequence in his trilogy as “the central arch of the ruin Diwan.” This work deals with an underworld of visions and dreams, although the true underworld is not in Hades but in the so-called world of reality.

Ekelöf prefaced Guide to the Underworld with a complex diagram of the structure of the work. The poems are arranged in a complex numerical order under the headings “Water Earth,” “Snakehead,” “The Novice in Spálato,” “Snakehead,” and “Earth Water.” The first section includes dramatic monologues and dialogues with such diverse poetic voices as those of Leonardo da Vinci, Odysseus, and the Arabian poet Khalaf-al-Akhmar. Gods from Greek mythology converse with their Egyptian counterparts in the guise of streetsweepers in Alexandria.

Like The Diwan over the Prince of Emgión, the first “Snakehead” voices the Manichaean concept that the Devil is not banished from Earth, for “a god who is always absent” has no power to abolish him. God and the Devil are thus active forces. In the major narrative segment of the sequence, “The Novice in Spálato,” the Devil plays the part of an “angel,” a term used here in the sense of prophet. He and a novice who sweeps the floor of a church become lovers. When the Devil tells the novice that light and shadow can exist only in conjunction, that good and evil are interdependent, the woman goes one step further in her reply: The world, she claims, is a “sterile realm/ of two males locked in combat.” Like the Prince of Emgión, she has directed her vision toward a madonna-goddess who “lies outside this realm of lust and suffering.” The experience of love has so transformed the Devil’s perceptions that he realizes his wisdom cannot offer light to his beloved. The lovers become, like Fatumeh and her prince, each other’s mirror and shadow. They separate, for the Devil has determined that their love shall be one of longing. This will in turn breed thirst, to be slaked by purifying water.

As the sequence moves from “The Novice in Spálato” to its final movement, “Earth Water,” the kaleidoscopic screen mirrors in reverse the “peep-show of darkness” presented in the first half.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

Most of the poems in the trilogy are written in free verse with sporadic rhymes, assonances, and repetitions. A peculiarity of Ekelöf’s work is the absence of most stops between verses. Although exclamation marks and colons may occur, periods and commas are virtually absent. As a result, the verses tend to hang in suspension rather than to flow into larger syntactic structures. Within and among the verses is a constant play with verbal echoes and paradox, as in “Let us sleep/ Each alone/ Close to each other.”

Ekelöf is fond of the surprise twist, and many of his poems are poised between contradictions. The final verses of the prefatory poem to The Tale of Fatumeh, for example, speak of how the lover’s “disappearance remains.” Similarly, a later poem in the same work begins by comparing love to a scalpel blade that cuts into the flesh. Paradoxically, the poem closes by stating, “For love there is no remedy/ Except the surgeon’s scalpel.” Ailment and cure are thus synonymous.

The Byzantine and Arabic-Persian content of the trilogy is reflected in its poetic forms. Throughout the first part of the trilogy, the song in praise of water subdivides the movements of the sequence. The Tale of Fatumeh acquires a thematic and formal division through the use of the nazm, a string of pearl beads, and the tesbih, a set of prayer beads. The final poem further elaborates this structure by incorporating a “snakehead” or dividing bead between the two series. The Arabic and Persian form of the ghazal, a short ode implementing monorhymed couplets, is used in poem 12 of the “Earth Water” segment of Guide to the Underworld. Because of the sparsity of rhymes in Swedish, Ekelöf adapts this form by ending the first verse of each couplet in ingen—that is, “no one”—leaving the alternate lines unrhymed. This is skillfully transposed in Rika Lesser’s translation.

The Tale of Fatumeh and Guide to the Underworld reinforce structurally the central theme of mirroring. The former is encircled by a “framework” consisting of the two first and two last poems. Each set echoes the other verbally and thematically. A complex mirroring structure encases Guide to the Underworld—the titles of the segments before and after the climax, “The Novice in Spálato,” are mirrored. Even in the numbers assigned to the poems this mirror reversal prevails; for example, the poems in the “Water Earth” segment move from one to thirteen, while those in “Earth Water” move from thirteen to one. The two halves, as Lesser notes in her introduction, also echo each other in poetic form. Both “Water Earth” and “Earth Water” contain two sets of narrative and dramatic poems.

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