Online Edition: Spring 1999

Aniara

An Epic Science Fiction Poem

Harry Martinson
translated by Stephen Klass and Leif Sjoberg

by Alan DeNiro

Poetry in the science fiction genre is almost uniformly putrid--as if Ogden Nash became an engineer but still wanted to keep up with the muse. And, truth be told, much of the poetry dealing with speculative science from the "literary" side of the tracks (though with notable exceptions such as A. R. Ammons and Albert Goldbarth) comes across as crib notes in the Physics for Liberal Arts classes the non-scientists took as undergrads. Henry Martinson accomplished what many would think impossible--a literate yet accessible epic science fiction poem that warrants close attention by those interested in either the outer reaches of SF writing or the inner reaches of poetry.

What makes Aniara astounding is that the visionary aspects are fully formed in both camps. In no sense is Martinson merely interested in dressing up the "sense of wonder" that has been a perennial hallmark of traditional SF. On the other hand, this is without a doubt a poem with a capital P, not a short story with line breaks. The cadences (rendered in a very able translation from the Swedish by Klass and Sjoberg) in themselves are intriguing. Though the poems usually fall into an a-b-a-b rhyme scheme, the translators are savvy enough not to use formalism as an ironclad rule and are content enough to move to a looser rhythm when the poem calls for it.

Aniara is a spaceship (or "gondoler" as it is called in the poem) gone awry. Originally bound for Mars, the craft is instead launched out of the Solar System, and into an existential struggle that lends itself more to Teilhard de Chardin or Taoism than pulp science fiction. The cast of characters is large, and in the 102 cantos the reader is presented with a bewildering array of sensory detail:

We listen daily to the sonic coins
provided every one of us and played
through the Finger-singer worn on the left hand.
We trade coins of diverse denominations:
and all of them play all that they contain
and though a dyma scarcely weighs one grain
it plays out like a cricket on each hand
blanching here in this distraction-land.

The danger in this kind of project is that word choices like "dyma" and "sonic coins" will pass right by many readers, yet it's the pure audaciousness of such language that satisfies the most. As one follows the path of the Aniara through uncharted space, all familiar symbolic referents begin to fall away, until the reader is left with the rarest of endings in poetry--the Earned Abstraction. Few can get away with using the word Nirvana in the last line of a poem, yet by the end of Martinson's effort one becomes more and more certain of the journey that was just undertaken--that it wasn't quite as bewildering as it looked on first glance.

Aniara was written in 1953, and though the Cold War has since passed, and the Space Age has a bit of wear and tear to it, one can sense that Martinson is both enthralled and frightened by the age of machines. He is not afraid, however, to package those emotions in black humor:

The strangest omens would be seen in space
but, since they were unsuited to the program
of our day, they were promptly forgotten.

Vast, iconic, and highly stylized, Aniara is space opera in the truest, most literal sense of the phrase.

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Spring 1999 Table of Contents