Finland Swedish Gurlesque: Eva-Stina Byggmästar

by on Aug.26, 2010

[This post was written by Swedish writer Aylin Bloch Boynukisa. You can find her story, “I have nothing to do with birds,” in the most recent issue of Action, Yes. “Gurlesque” is a term coined by Arielle Greenberg to describe a sensibility in contemporary poetry. You can read more about it on Delirious Hem and in Lara Glenum’s essay on Swedish poet Aase Berg. And of course, there’s the anthology Aylin refers to in this post.]

A brief reflection on Gurlesque poetics in Swedish literature, part one: Exaggeration
By Aylin Bloch Boynukisa

“And I said sweethearts I said roses

I said sweethearts and I said the roses

there is so much light in here it must be the roses –

oh, so much light and I said lovely and

darling your eyes are roses and I said your

mouth is….a rose oh, let me kiss it again

and I said you are a girl and I am a rose

I said you are a rose and I am a girl and

I said girl girl there cannot be

too many roses, can there darling that’s what I

said didn’t I and then I said glorious and

wonderful and lovely I said there is so much light

in here it must be all the roses – but

darling bring in more roses and then I said

girl girl girl there cannot be too many

roses and then I said kisses –“
(Eva-Stina Byggmästar, 2006, my translation)

In her foreword to the Gurlesque anthology, Arielle Greenberg writes: “The Gurlesque was born […] in Burma and Ohio and Korea and New York and Olympia, WA and other places”. Yes. The Gurlesque was definitely born in Sweden (and Finland) (although she was born in Sweden, she’s very likely to have an immigrant mom, and since one never becomes Swedish “For Real” no matter how long you’ve lived there [here], she’s called a Second Generation Immigrant, which is the official way of saying “you don’t belong here”). Growing up in the remains of the Swedish welfare system, she – of course – turns to words and books and being impossible and horrifying and words and writing and taking everything too far. When I think of taking things too far, I think of the piece above, a piece from the Finland-Swedish1 poet Eva-Stina Byggmästar’s 2006 book of poetry Älvdrottningen (The Fairy Queen), which I find very much a part of the Gurlesque poetics. I think of Eva-Stina Byggmästar’s book in total since the entire book keeps on like this, dwelling and gorging on flowers, flowers of all kinds. Of course, this is playing with the notion that poetry is all about pretty flowers, and a remake of the traditional love poem where the troubled man-as-poet compares his love to a rose. But in Byggmästar’s poem there are just too many flowers, the “I” of the poem is just too excited, expressing her excitement repeatedly, and, it seems to be about two girls loving each others girlyness. This comes to me rather fast when I think of over-doing things; the exaggeration of the girly, i.e. overdoing the feminine into what is generally considered cute, and therefore kind of ridiculous, stupid and shallow, slowly becoming icky, abject, drag, unrespectable, whore, witch. Who is this “I” of the poem really loving so intensely, could it be herself (you are a girl and I am a rose/I said you are a rose and I am a girl), could it be multiple girls/roses/girl-roses (I said/ girl girl girl there cannot be to many/ roses), or could it be just the superficial idea of girlyness in general? Is the poem about anything at all or is it all girlish nonsense? Of course, neither of the options is preferable.

The poem itself is very easily read in the aspect of how Byggmästar has written it; there is a fluidity and lightness about it connoting the superficial girl/cuteness, but I would say that it is treacherous, a fake superficiality, it’s a death-serious drag show. Behind the fluidity that makes the reader rush through the poem, there are parts that makes one fall into lethal Gurlesque gaps. There are the roses and their layers, their buds opening like the mouth and the eyes and the room craving more roses and light, all reminding of the vagina dentata, the soft, sticky (smelly?) female body that can swallow the entire patriarchy whole if it’s not careful. An old friend of mine once said to me while writing her doctorial theses in architecture, critiquing the patriarchal structures of the architectural discourse: “the traditional belief in architecture is that there is surface (yta) in depth, but I would rather say that there is depth in superficiality (ytlighet)”. As you can see, in Swedish the words “surface” and “superficiality” stems from the same word so that all she did was swapping the words around, creating a whole new way of seeing. I believe that this is one way of thinking about the Gurlesque, and Byggmästar’s poem. So, maybe the girlish nonsense and cuteness is superficial. Maybe that’s why it’s so dangerous.

Women in combination with flowers and plants are dangerous per se. Byggmästar’s poetry dwell upon this as well. Traditional Scandinavian folk songs, especially the really old ones, tell stories about the fairy king’s daughter putting spells on innocent young men about to be married. One traditional song with unknown origin that Swedish kids learn in school is about a young girl picking flowers (the lyrics repeating the pretty flower names). This song is rumoured to be about making an abortion potion, the flowers being the ingredients, and although botanists claim this to be untrue, what the song and its context is telling us is that girls with pretty flowers have death on their minds. Byggmästar connects to this tradition (much more obvious in other poems) using anachronistic words and syntax that sometimes seem to be picked right out of the old folk songs.

Finally, I would like to add that the word “sweethearts” in the first two lines, is actually the English word “sweethearts” in the Swedish original version, making the poem deliberately dress up in some kind of language-drag in yet another way.

10 comments for this entry:
  1. Kate

    I love this translation and post, Johannes. Do you know where I can find the lyrics to the Scandinavian folk song about girls picking flowers? Reminds me of the German tale “The Rosebud” which also entangles girl, death, and flower. It is about a girl who receives help gathering wood from an imp who then gives her a flower. The girl puts it in water and is dead the next morning. And in more sideways fashion I also think of the beautifully eerie “Ring around The Rosy/A Pocketful of Posies/Ashes, ashes, we all fall down”–a game still played in my daughter’s schoolyard by girls (not boys). It’s a plague song. I like your statement that women and flowers are a dangerous combination. (Plath & her tulips; Dickinson, “I hide myself within my Flower.” Etc.)

  2. Michael Peverett

    Details here:

    The song is “Uti vår hage”

    “Uti vår hage där växa blå bär.
    -Kom hjärtans fröjd!
    Vill du mig något, så träffas vi där.
    -Kom liljor och akvileja,
    Kom rosor och salivia,
    Kom ljuva krusmynta,
    Kom hjärtans fröjd!”

    “Out in our paddock which grow blue berries.
    -Come Valentine’s delight!
    Do you want me something, so we meet there.
    Come-lilies and akvileja,
    Come roses and salivia,
    Come sweet curly mint,
    Come Valentine’s delight! ”
    (Google translation).

    The theory proposes that the blue berries are juniper (not bilberry), and heart’s delight (Valentine’s delight) is a folk-name for lemon-balm. Salivia presumably is clary. I would not want to take any purge with aquilegia in it!

  3. Johannes Göransson

    I think this is one of the best applications of the concept of the gurlesque that I’ve read.

    Also, thanks Michael P for that! Wow we used to sing this ditty every last day of school when I was growing up. Didn’t know we were singing about abortions, but I always felt most of those songs have an ominous feel to them.

    Also, I love Eva Stina Byggmästar. I’m going to try to dig up what Aase Berg wrote about this book. Her new book is really strange too – about poets – it reminds me a bit of Cathy Wagner’s “Everyone in the room is representative.”


  4. Arielle

    So wonderful to see the Gurlesque taken up in other parts of the world! Thank you, Aylin! And it’s really exciting to learn about Eva’s work. Is it available in translation in the USA?

    The story about the folksong about the flowers/abortion remind me of the American pop song “Ode to Billie Joe” which haunted me as a child–it seems like there is a veiled abortion (and overt suicide!) in it. It thrilled and terrified me as a kid that the “something” the teens in the song were throwing off a bridge could be a fetus…and this was a song that got mainstream airplay. It also has picking flowers in it!

    I’ve maintained that since I place the Gurlesque within a cultural-historic context specific to America in the 70s and 80s, in the wake of the Second Wave feminist movement, the riot grrl movement, and other such particular social moments, I didn’t want to speculate about the Gurlesque in other parts of the world where I don’t know as much about the culture and history. So I’d love to hear more about what you think is giving rise to Eva’s work in Finland or Sweden (and how old is she?). And do you think Eva’s work is illustrative of a larger aesthetic stream, Aylin? There is Aase Berg, of course…

    I wish I could come to Sweden and talk to you all about it!


  5. Aylin


    according to the cover of the book, Eva-Stina B was born in 1967, and I DEFINITELY believe, or should I say KNOW, that she is a part of a larger aesthetic stream (although she of course is a very unique poet). I also would say that the feminist movement in Sweden has a quite similar historical development as in America regarding the Second Wave, the riot grrl in the 70’s and 80’s. In the 80’s, female poets became the target of a debate called “obegriplighetsdebatten”, roughly translated, “the non-understandable debate” in the aftermath of écriture féminine. This period in Swedish literature (and debate) has had a great affect ever since. Some years ago (maybe in 2002-2003) a group of young feminist authors (among them Sara Stridsberg) started something called S.K.A.M (lovingly paraphrasing Valerie Solanas SCUM. In Swedish, the word “skam” also means “shame”). They wrote a couple of manifestos on girl literature as a response to the misogynist critique that female authors consistently have to put up with. For me and a lot of other young girls wanting to write, S.K.A.M. (and their public readings all dressed up in blonde wigs) meant everything.

    My dear friend Maria Margareta Österholm (who is currently writing her doctoral dissertation on what one could call Swedish, and Finland-Swedish, Gurlesque literature) and I are planning an introduction of the Gurlesque aesthetic on a queer seminar on Uppsala University in November. We’re thinking of re-writing parts of your Gurlesque-foreword, adapting it to a Swedish context. We’ve just found the Gurlesque, thanks to Johannes, and it’s like we’ve finally got a name for what we do.


  6. Johannes


    I wrote a post about Sara Stridsberg a while back on this blog and translated a little bit. But I don’t think a book’s been translated (though I know her work’s been translated to a number of other languages). It’s really amazing. I hvaen’t read her SKAM/SCUM stuff, but I want to.

    There’s a British guy who was working on Byggmästar translations a while back (we shared an apartment in Stockholm one summer thanks to the Swedish Author’s Association).

    Here’s a couple of pieces by Sara Tuss Efrik:
    She’s not famous, but I really like her stuff.

    Seems like a lot of Swedish prose writers are doing great work.

    Also, what i think Aylin’s post points out is that the gurlesque seems to capture a very international poetics; not poetry that has to be exported and spread, but that has popped up on its own in all corners of the world. For example Kim Hyesoon in South Korea, which has a very different historical background than Sweden and the US.


  7. Danielle

    I am VERY EXCITED to learn more about S.K.A.M.! And I love that it works homophonically as “scam,” too! Scum! Scam! Shame! Etc.!

    As a side note: the new VIDA: Women in Literary Arts ( t-shirts and buttons say “sorry” on them, a kind of joke on the fact that women writers / feminist poets are always expected to apologize for taking up space, noticing the patriarchy, etc. etc.

    Danielle–in a rush, but loving this entry!

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