Digital Feature

Malena Mörling’s Poetic Invitation to Experience Things as They Are

HUMANITIES, Spring 2024, Volume 45, Number 2
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For some weeks I have been reading the poetry of Malena Mörling—the Swedish-born poet, translator, and essayist who now lives in New Mexico.

I first met her more than a decade ago when I was working on a book about the late poet Hayden Carruth. More recently, I watched Mörling and Jonas Ellström read from their book of translations: The Star by My Head: Poets from Sweden. When asked about memorization she said it was more important than ever for one to commit a poem to memory—giving it a three-dimensional resonance. She also talked about a poem’s many textures—and refreshingly, the importance of trusting the sensory world. Less is more—that is, it doesn’t need to be embellished.   

Almost immediately I felt a kinship with her belief in poetry’s central role in our lives—which mostly defies description, as she says in this excerpt from a recent poem, “My First Sea.” 


My first language

was silent.

I learned it from my mother

and from the three spiders

on my ceiling.

They also taught me

how to read,

not only the intricate

map of its

cracked plaster

but the night sky—in summer—

the impossibly tall

cake of its light.


She is enchanted with the space between things, the distillation of what can and cannot be said or experienced. Often, she shares the perspective of a young person—that is, she sees things as they are and not with preconceived notions. She is similarly entranced with the question of what if—what if the earth were just a ball and we, its inhabitants, little more than the constellation of the perceptions about it? What if this place were just as it seems and not some other definition of earth? 

I kept thinking how close her poems were to Buddhist thought—the ideal of not wanting—but living the questions we pose, or just living, as Buddhist and poet Jane Hirshfield might say. Mörling’s first book, Ocean Avenue, was selected by Philip Levine for the New Issues Poetry Prize in 1998. He wrote that the poems may appear to be straightforward, but they are mysterious and profound, or, as Carruth wrote in a letter to me, poetry is a “direct statement of acutely perceived experience.” A belief that is sadly out of fashion, as poetry has been whiplashed by trends and touchstones of ego. Mörling knew Carruth’s message instinctively—her poems seek simplicity of mind without obfuscation; they also search for a deeper understanding of what it is to experience things as they are—trains, buses, stars, time without interruption, which is all time if you can stand still.   

This is the voice of a woman who cherishes the fresh scent of not knowing. She listens to fragments of silence to form an understanding of the day as it unfolds, as in the last stanza of “See the Second:”  


And the day,

   the day itself—

is nothing,


but a towering


of light

   we are in.


A beautiful image—an aviary of light—something wholly unknown and yet, as real as the sun coming into a room. When I think of an aviary I hear birdsong, melodious rhythms of other kingdoms—ones we sometimes get to inhabit. Ones we turn to when the quiet hour sets in. And then, almost without effort, she can circle back to being without something so elemental as the love of her mother in this excerpt from “Against Elegies.” 


After breathing quietly

I suddenly inhaled deeply

and exhaled with a final resolute push.


And that was it.

That is how I died.

That is how she showed me

how to go

on, when it is my turn.


There is a concentration in her poems that requires close reading. You will miss their subtlety if you pore over them quickly, because her questions are the questions of the ancient Chinese masters. They marvel at everyday existence, and they intimate the worn pattern of waiting in the recesses for explanation. They wonder how the moon returns for us each night with its plaintive eye. They sit with it and let it pass by. Listen to Wang Wei beneath that same moon in the eighth century in “Seeing Prefect Yang Off to Guozhou”: 


Now, amid mountain trees you come to Young Woman Shrine.

Having parted we share only the same moon.

My friend, listen to the nightjar’s song.


No doubt some of Mörling’s ability to locate her poems in the liminal sphere comes from her bilingual roots. When a person comes to a second language they do so without pretext: It is something to behold, not a uniform to wear. Consequently, her language is not imbued with what is expected. I’m sure that’s what drew Levine to her poems—yes, they are all the things he said, grounded in real life and yet, in eternity—but they are more than that. They reverberate in proximity to what we need and want from each day, each hour. They welcome what cannot be explained. Maybe that’s enough, she calmly asserts. Maybe they do not need the extravagance of art. Art that isolates. This is also an old trope in poetry—you must not write outside the lines—but it is those very lines she straddles in her meditative poems that make them interesting, that challenge our perceptions. 

Poetry turns everyday things upside down and welcomes us into an entirely different kaleidoscope of feeling and attention. It draws pictures on the walls that we never imagined—and helps us see what has been there all along. This is Mörling’s gift: She asks us to suspend disbelief and join her on this discovery. She waits in thrall for what might be shared on the subway, the bus, or in the café. And that excitement is what lies at the center of her work—as in these stanzas from “Final Analysis.” 


   What if, in the final analysis,

there is no

    final analysis?


What if, it just goes on

    the way clouds go on floating

this evening

    above all the invisible

bank accounts

    and above the rubble

that holds the details

    of our lives.


As many of her contemporaries do, Mörling writes in the margins of what is known and not known. Poets of ideas and poets of the everyday. They are not mutually exclusive; they are on a continuum of reaching to express what cannot be said. This is the tradition that most interests Mörling—that of being a learner, of not resolving the questions. She welcomes them much as she welcomes the reader to join her in this lovely, unspoken paradise. 


Poems reprinted with permission from Lumina Station, Poems, by Malena Mörling, copyright 2024 (unpublished chapbook).