Letters from the Floating World
Siv Cedering is a prolific writer of diverse aims. She has published two novels in her native Swedish, eight collections of poetry in English, and one children’s book in each language. She has also translated two volumes of contemporary Swedish poetry into English and a volume of Native American poetry into Swedish. Accomplished in many fields, Cedering’s work has been acknowledged by numerous awards and fellowships. Unfortunately, her work is still unknown to the general public, and many of her peers have yet to discover Cedering’s rich and varied achievement.
The appearance of this generous volume in a prestigious poetry series could make a difference: There is a chance now for a wider readership to discover Cedering’s striking sensibility. Her work probes deeply into mythic strains of human experience, though experience itself is most often rendered in vibrant physicality. She writes of the human body, of the senses, and of sexuality with a cleansing frankness. Attentive to craft, Cedering fashions poems of precision and grace. Her imagination darts in unexpected, tantalizing directions. It is both unsettling and satisfying to come upon this imagination at work. Letters from the Floating World should bring Cedering the larger audience and the greater recognition that she deserves.
The “selected” sections of this book provide two poems (one a six-part sequence) from Letters from the Island (1973), eleven from Cup of Cold Water (1973), twenty from Mother Is (1975), and eleven from The Juggler (1977). The remaining “new” poems constitute half of this collection and clearly were meant to appear as a separate publication. Entitled Ukiyo-E: From the Floating World, this ninety-page gathering is in itself a fascinating, significant achievement. The decision to incorporate a whole book concept into the “selected and new” format is probably to be explained by the strange exigencies of poetry publication in the United States. Rather than being subordinated in this way, Ukiyo-E deserves its own separate publication. Nevertheless, why complain? The University of Pittsburgh Press has given readers two books for the price of one.
Cedering’s special talent is to press mysterious evocations out of everyday diction and ordinary syntax. Her imagination makes juxtapositions that resonate. For example, in the middle of a short poem called “Figure Eights,” the following passage occurs: “The moon is trapped/ in the ice. My body flows// across it.” In this poem about human balance and grace, the interpenetration of various planes of action, experience, thought, and feeling is suddenly caught in this vision of the body flowing across the reflected moon. For a moment, cutting perfect figure eights becomes a kind of conjuring which lifts the speaker-skater to another level of apprehension. The speaker is, in a sense, flying beyond the moon:
I lean into the cutting edge: two circlesinterlock, number eight drawnby a child, a mathematician’sinfinity.
(The entire section is 1327 words.)