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The Poetic Prop Mistress

Cecilie Løveid’s lyric authorship


Cecilie Løveid (b. 1951) enjoyed recognition as a poet long before she made her debut with an ‘official’ collection of poetry. Many have read her plays and short prose books precisely because of their poetic qualities; they are well-suited to being read aloud and they are full of passages which, each in their own right, work as lyric texts. Cecilie Løveid has long been engaged in “writing not poems, but writing poetry” – to borrow a phrase from American Language poet Lyn Hejinian.

Her 2001 poetry collection was entitled Spilt (Performed; 2001). The word ‘performed’ evokes associations with the theatre, and, indeed, many of Løveid’s poems can be said to take the form of enhanced stage directions; they remind one of sketches for rooms and interiors in which interactions between people have been directed. Often the scenes have been framed by dream-like presentations of a memory or of something about to occur. The dramatic monologue holds a prominent place in many of the poems; the ‘I’ of her texts  divorces itself from the deep-rooted expectation of an authentic divulging ‘I’, and she shifts constantly between lyric and dramatic diction.


We carry up
everything that will be used
for the impromptu altar

We carry sketches
for a new sky
and a new earth

We carry suggestions
for new clouds above towns
new towns above clouds

The clouds are twirling with felt pen
are whispered, watered down,
camouflaged, washed out, winched

In sketches for new stage coulisses
a child is carried carefully forth
to sex violence and death

(from Nye Ritualer pg. 9, translated by May-Brit Akerholt)

Theatre is the fundamental metaphor in all of Løveid’s lyric works. This is perhaps not so surprising considering that the author comes from the world of drama. For her, poetic, epic and dramatic impulses have lived and worked side by side ever since her debut, the short prose book Most (Mashed) in 1972. Theatre as reality and metaphor have a special, nearly exalted status as the place for testing norms and accepted truths – as shown in the above poem, which involves a trial between the holy and profane and between the creation myth and the poetic play.

“All the world’s a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players” wrote Shakespeare in As You Like It (1599/1600), and this insight – or insistence – that the world is a theatre is the key to deciphering the constantly shifting ‘I’, and pronouns generally, in Løveid’s work. She writes, as is evident, just as well in the first person plural as in the first person singular, and many of the poems are also portraits of a ‘she’. Not only can the poems be seen to be ‘of the theatre’, but, for me, they can also occasionally seem to be genuinely theatrical: full of facts and overacting, ironic distance and intense catlike devotion – all at once. The poems ingratiate, making themselves loveable, but often also contain a teasing provocation. They are full of frivolity and lechery; they seldom attempt to seduce with beauty. The poems lay themselves bare before the reader, shameless and brazen. I often think of the ‘I’ in Løveid’s poem as a person who is present before the actors have arrived and who remains after they have gone. No one understands the theatre’s secrets better than this person.

The fundamental conditions for poetic creation that exist within the metaphor of theatre give the author an enormous reach; all types of phenomena from the real world, myths and history, can be destabilised and have their values redefined through a transformation while in the wings. The poem quoted somehow resembles a panoramic light show, and I remember that the first time I read it I thought about pop videos or of pop culture’s cosmologies, with the almost gothic, dread-like finale, with the children who are carried forth to ‘sex violence and death’. These lines can also be read as a playful rewriting of one of the Bible’s most dramatic scenes, Abraham willing to sacrifice his son Isaac because God commands him to do so.

This pop-optic view has been there right from the start of her career, in the earlier short prose books where Løveid took advantage of cut-up and collage techniques, and she doesn’t flinch from using extracts from either weekly newspaper columns, men’s magazines or plotlines from popular films. Løveid was one of the first writers to actively employ the ready made, or the objet trouvé, as the French call it – be it texts from advertisements, pamphlets or recipes – and, as such, she was one of the first to question the author’s role as an authentic hallowed authority, working away behind the scenes of the text.

This offensive strategy in relation to the use and reuse of text provided the author with a certain freedom in relation to accessing material in later years. In any case, I think that the spread of such themes as motifs has its roots in this phase of the writer’s work, when she was an eager exponent of minimalist pop-optic, collage, cut-up-technique etc., together with other central poets such as Jan Erik Vold, Eldrid Lunden, Helge Rykkja and Paal Helge Haugen – writers who were all, in one way or another, associated with the milieu around the publication Profil.

Løveid is quite willing to mix trash elements with ancient ideas of holiness and devotion, and she does not shy away from setting herself up as a kitschy, indeed, a nearly tasteless diva in poems such as ‘Jaktsøl ønsker dikt ‘ (‘Hunt dirt seeks poetry’) from Svartere bunader (Blacker National Costumes; 2010): “It isn’t necessary to keep up with the court/ If one can keep court with oneself/ But a woman like me needs a refill/ from the good world”.

It is typical of Løveid that most of her monologues and portraits deal with women and the lives of woman, often with an explicit feminist perspective, as when she writes with gleeful irony about the invitation to bequeath her diaries to the Women’s Archive after her death: “The Women’s Archive has bought my diaries./ The diaries-to-be/ [ . . . ]/ I don’t feel like my diaries have changed after the agreement with The Women’s Archive was made, but the day has new meaning every single evening.” Whether the event is poetic licence or based on reality is not important; the poem works equally well as a feminist statement or as a literary production.

Feminist perspectives are, for the most part, always indirectly present in the texts – such as when the writer sketches tender portraits of young girls and their transition to adulthood, from the cruel solitude of puberty up until initiation into the sexual game between adults. Løveid is just as concerned about how women see women as about how women see men and, not least, are seen by men. She shows in her descriptions of the female and the male how complicated the power structures between them can be. This helps to give extra weight to her perspective on gender. Descriptions of women who compete with one another, who love and hate one another in the battle to attract a man’s attention, is a frequent motif. Yet other poems take up the theme of desire between women, or set the stage for desire, which is possibly only played out in a dream. Sexuality is used as power play, as calculating revenge, criticism or as an abundance of desire and love which has no idea which way to go: “I will eat and sleep and love the housewife/ just like the dog/ Go for a walk and be offered mercy/ If only I can avoid licking her/ with pyjamas on/ It requires no brain”. The absurd, grotesque and burlesque recur in the sexual tableaux which are sketched; the perversions are represented as holy, purism as potentially fatal.

Løveid’s poetics allow for a nearly endless branching out of metaphors, which expand, inter-onnect with one another or disappear without a trace. The texts generally find themselves somewhere between metaphor and allegory; in fact, often it is difficult to say which is which. The author is supreme in creating textual hybrids in terms of form, motif and theme. In contemporary Norwegian literature, Løveid is nearly always spoken of as a genre transgressor. However, as time goes by, there is something so very nearly clichéd in the appellation that I find myself becoming sceptical. Of course, the same can be said about so very many authors today, because it is rather more the rule than the exception to orient oneself across genre boundaries. A great deal of Norwegian contemporary poetry has strong epic, essayist or dramatic tendencies, or it builds upon notions of a conceptual unit. Personally, I would simply say that Løveid couldn’t care less about genre! This sounds a lot more radical than being, in an academic sense, a genre-transgressing author. Or to put it another way: when Løveid adds the genre label ‘poetry’ below the title on her latest books, it might, in fact, be setting the scene for the literary persona, which in Løveid’s world is so persistent in the background of the writing. One can say that she nearly always operates with a textual pronoun while the persona – who is more blended with the author’s personality  – tugs at the strings and pulls it all together.

I think of the persona as the author’s aporetic ‘I’, the ‘I’ who lays bare the lack of answers, the underlying doubt, the linguistic and thematic idiosyncrasies and unconscious moves etc. The author, in Løveid’s work, is definitely not dead. More likely, she or he is a disturbing, effectual voice behind what is being said, a prompter who whispers the lines from a dark grave and despairs over what the voices of the poem’s actors say or neglect to mention.

On occasion, Løveid has not been adverse to writing topical or occasional poems, or a poem which, in one way or another, takes up the radical leftist solidarity project of the 1970s. There is a lot of emphasis on collective experience, both socially and politically, in her texts from that period. But when Løveid is political, she is more like her fellow Bergen patriot, Georg Johannesen (1931–2005), a prose writer, a poet and a professor of rhetoric twenty years her senior. With regards to political questions, like Johannesen, she mobilises all her abilities in order to present paradoxes and take on impossible digressions. Her treatment of the political is intelligent, unsentimental and playful, and free from the customary pathos characterising the poetic voice that has as its aim the awakening of the slumbering masses. Her antinomic linguistic style and manner of thinking avoids the temptation to create social pornography from collective tragedies, which, in any case, is the opposite of inciting moral engagement.

One example is the poem ‘Instrukser fra tilfeldigheten – Bilder fra Gaza av Kent Klich’ (’Instructions from the coincidence – Pictures from Gaza by Kent Klich’) from her latest collection, Svartere bunader, which takes its lead from a photograph shot during the bombing of Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009. Kent Klich’s photographs show bombed-out interiors of private homes and luxurious hotels after Israel’s attack. In a strange way, the poem is a mixture of a political poem and ekphrasis: a contradictory genre combination within itself. The political poem is usually connected to engagement and shows a one-on-one relationship with the phenomenon, while ekphrasis often has something aristocratic or elitist about it – it was a much-admired sub-genre within English Romanticism – borne along by lofty aesthetic consciousness. Her collections of poetry from 2000 to 2010 include a significant number of such ekphrastic poems.


Pictures from Gaza by Kent Klich

The bed is filled with cement dust
We dream of a change

The chair is covered in cement dust
We sing and play of a change

The bathtub is filled with cement dust
Water will we never forget

The fridge is filled with cement dust
Beauty is the only thing that lasts

We are waiting for instructions from the coincidence
We don’t know if they work

(from Svartere bunader, p. 22, translated by May-Brit Akerholt)

Løveid’s keen eye on the world orients itself towards things, and to the phenomenology of things – without her becoming, in any way, one of Francis Ponge’s disciples. She is too unpredictable and too purist in terms of poetic reasoning for that – and she demonstrates the impossible by maintaining an idealistic vision of the world in which everything, in every way, has become so relative, through the discoveries of the natural sciences, and the fragmentation of humanist thought into numerous smaller specialised fields. The ability humans have to create a continual story of their lives has possibly always been challenged by the system, by the powerful and by the forces of nature, but I feel that these challenges seem greater than eve today. Consequently, Løveid’s timely ability of deciphering the signs and placing them within historical and mythic contexts is seen as important – whether she takes as a starting-point a painting by the 17th-century Dutch master Vermeer or writes a poem about the Greek poet Sappho walking through Norwegian heath amid the blueberries. It is this ability to personalise the myths as well as to mythologise the realistic, the scientific or a so-called objective truth that distinguishes her literary talent.

‘Dagslyslampe’ (Daylight Lamp) from Gartnerløs (A Lack of Gardener; 2007) is an example of one of Løveid’s many portraits of women.


She sat right inside the window
and looked as if she were composed
to the windowsill
She became Vermeerian before the lit
daylight lamp
She let the fluorescent lights shine on her
The sunlight from the window warmed her back
In another window a sailboat with sun
in its sails
a wave-form, a wind-form an ocean-form
and a light breeze close to the equator
Did she want to be cheered up
Perhaps avoid an unavoidable depression
In any case she thirsted after fluorescence
And there is no narrative
that spreads
No inextinguishable story

(from Gartnerløs, p. 20, translated by May-Brit Akerholt)

This sort of tenderly sketched portrait of girls and women reoccurs throughout her entire literary work, an outline of girlish temperament in puberty and women who gaze or marvel at other women, hunting for a difference or a similarity that can develop into insight or desire. She writes about what it is to be without identity just as much as what it is to have an identity – because when does one really have an identity? Isn’t identity one of the most unreliable things we have? Isn’t it rather the shifting relationships to the surrounding world and its peoples that shape our identity again and again through continual re-negotiation?

Excess and transition are core topoi in the Løveidish world view. And it is these that shapes the impression that her work never deals just with one thing or another, but always with several relationships simultaneously. She is typically paratactic, not only in a stylistic, but also in a phenomenological sense; the political does not exclude the heartfelt, nor the private the universal. The metaphysical does not exclude humour or foolishness. And as a language artist, she operates freely amid all kinds of art and uses elements from the knowledge she has of painting, photography, music, dance, theatre, film, folklore and its study etc. With Løveid, there is no high or low in language or in reality; she uses all of language’s riches and all of poetry’s possibilities. Few texts are so interwoven with connections and, at the same time, so loaded with wholly concrete quotes, be it with roots in other literature, visual art, or the history of film and theatre; indeed, one could just as easily say that she is involved in the business of quotation across the various art forms. It is this ability to be associative without being lyrically vague that is one of her most obvious advantages. In the last decades, how many so-called body- and sense-oriented collections of poetry have been written that ground themselves in the association of bearer without bearing anything at all, being rather, at most, a postulate of hidden connections?

With Løveid, the associations are concrete and set; they work on both a visual and melodic language level as well as in her creation of ideas. Her poetics is expansive and embraces the world to the same extent that it is concentrated, naked and stripped back to basics. But the writer continually shows consideration and concern for the form of the individual poem, something that is interesting at a time when many contemporary poets choose to operate through large compositional forms and want to formulate a poetics via a project plan or a so-called concept. Løveid, however, has consistently showed loyalty to form, and not as fidelity to one device, to one form, but to a diversity of ways in which to see and think about the world.

Ceclie Løveid’s influence has been significant in both Norwegian poetry and prose over the last forty years. There are certainly clear markers of syntax and craft in today’s literature that  remind us of Løveid, and I would also like to believe, amongst other things, that the relative freedom with regard to crossing genre boundaries taken as a given today is also due to the efforts Løveid has made and continues to make.

In her latest collection of poetry, Svartere bunader, the poet continues her work as the backstage person in charge of props, a collector and archivist of old as well as new material, and the collection is introduced by descriptions of an ‘I’ who is standing and cutting and sewing, not unlike a costumier in a theatre. It is more or less a world theatre we are talking about, in which she is always standing next to her sewing table, positioned between ‘the playground’ and ‘the churchyard’, a position that gives her an optimal panorama over life from cradle to grave.

Svartere bunader
is a collection of poetry which, among other things, makes fun of the most widespread notions of Norwegian identity and history by depicting them as things that can be freeze-framed or displayed in a museum – everything from Norwegian traditional food, folk dress and national costumes (or the ‘traditional costume police’ as they are called in one poem) to author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, cross-country skiing heroes, the status of polar explorers and the historic survival of the poetocracy.

The shaping of the poet’s role here in Norway has been linked to nation-building and the spirit of independence, and it has been a unifying figure, especially during the National Romantic era, for, as we know, Norway’s independence was slow in coming. The poet, with a capital ‘P’, has, as a general rule, been a man. As a woman and a poet with an avant-garde ballast, Løveid can allow herself to make fun of most things, including most of the mightiest men from the upper echelons of power and history. But I would not call her work feminism on a grand scale; rather if is t story of an individual woman on the offensive. In yet other examples, it is the lack of the man that afflicts the ‘I’, and not the continually absent, legitimate need to tear down the patriarchy. The poem ‘Love’, for instance, establishes a scene which raises more questions for the reader than it answers:


I loved him. The weather was nice. I come to
his door and ring the bell.
He doesn’t open. I unlock the door and enter.
He is not in the kitchen.
All the doors in all the rooms are open. I walk on the
floors I washed. Up the stairs I washed. He is not at
home. His laptop glows. What does it glow for.
The wardrobe door is ajar.
I open it. He sits in there disappeared.
I walk downstairs to wait for him to come home.

(from Svartere bunader, p. 53, translated by May-Brit Akerholt)

Who is this ‘I’ who wanders in confusion through the house in search of their lover? Who is the beloved, and what has happened, and is this the beginning or the end of the relationship? The author sketches a stylised room with almost no identity where the action between those involved plays out. The text is as reminiscent of a film or theatre synopsis as of a poem. The way in which the text is stripped of details also refers to the existential nakedness of the ‘I’. The ‘I’ stands at a crossroads, and that crossroads is either the beginning or the end of something. The wings in the house are simultaneously loaded and empty of meaning, without identity, yet at the same time they are hosting the observant ‘I’, which is filled with a critical emotionality.

Cecilie Løveid often speaks in double meanings and writes with a polysemous pen, but occasionally a naked soul steps out from the metaphorical throng and the rhetorical impetuosity. Obviously there is a space that is larger than the theatre: namely, the House of Love, in which all the doors of all the rooms stand open, and in which a laptop sits alone on a table and glows.

The original version of this essay was published in Til Cecilie. Festskrift til Cecilie Løveid på 60-årsdagen, Kolon Forlag, Oslo, 2011. It has been adapted and translated into English for publication here.

© Steinar Opstad (Translated by Cameron Sharp)  

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