On “White Blight” from Two Lines Online

Every print issue of Two Lines is accompanied by an online supplement—Two Lines Online—featuring prose and poetry that seems to us to have a character that would thrive in an online space.

Jennifer Hayashida’s translation of “White Blight,” by the Swedish writer Athena Farrokhzad, has a visual presence that pops, so the choice to include an excerpt from the long poem in Two Lines Online this fall came very naturally. The poem also answers the present discussion of how Europe will respond to migrants from the Middle East by foregrounding the voices of those who have broached European borders before.

Two Lines Online’s selection from the long poem, which will be published in full this year by Argos Books, captures the poem’s key concerns. In a long poem, the accretion of reference is always a vital part of the form, and in taking just a sliver it’s impossible to reproduce that effect. Yet, the poem’s vision of family as both accuser and provider of succor, its chorus of voices, and the repeated references to darkness, light, white, milk, and night, are all present in the excerpt we chose to share with Two Lines readers, which hopefully will intrigue and delight those unfamiliar with Farrokhzad’s daring and dashing writing.

As a reader, it is “White Blight”’s insistence on the visual and spatial element of poetry that is most enlivening. While rhyme and meter often must be adjusted or abandoned in translations of poetry, Farrokhzad’s yawning gaps of blank space and her innovative use of white text highlighted in black carry across to the English without change, showing the potential visual and spatial elements of literature have to infuse the text with more than the denotative power of the words can hold.

Farrokhzad’s poem brings the voices of outsiders to the fore, highlighting her family’s origins outside of Sweden in the language of the poem while the form conveys the material fact of their otherness as Middle Easterners in a sea of polar light. In Hayashida’s translation, family members order the writer to tell their story in the right way:

My mother said: Write like this
For my opportunities my mother sacrificed everything
I must be worthy of her
everything I write will be true

Yet, between demands. they also offer sustenance—milk, coffee, love, the warmth of a handmade sweater. They offer histories, access to the past, and protection—the speaker’s grandmother says, “Your mother named you after a warrior to prepare you for winter.” The speaker can thereby defend herself against the cold, the “White Blight,” through her name—through language.

In the play of ordinary family life and grander pronouncements about suffering, the past, and all that’s missing, Farrokhzad faces the challenge of trying to capture the experience of immigrant settlers in Sweden, which is so heavily politicized, as in much of Europe. She answers that by becoming the channel for the many voices of her family, and by marking out those voices in a dark otherness on the vast snowy expanse of the page so that the reader cannot ignore the slap of difference that the streaks of blackness convey.

The mother says telling family stories to outsiders requires “a particular desire to disfigure.” Translating experience, translating histories and translating languages, we always face what the mother calls “a muteness that cannot be translated.” Yet with empathy towards those stories, acknowledging the difference and the gaps, we can appreciate the shadows and the spaces that Farrokhzad and Hayashida call to our attention. “White Blight” fights against the cold by acting as bridge and translator, hearing the family’s pain, sharing their love, and yet claiming a place in Swedish literature for the poet and for the poem’s voices.

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