A String Untouched, Dag Hammarskjöld’s life in haiku and photographs,
by Kai Falkman (Winchester, Va.: Red Moon Press, 2006). 160 pages,
7 ½" x 5", perfectbound. ISBN 1-893959-57-0. $20.00 postpaid from
Red Moon Press, PO Box 2461, Winchester VA 22604-2156 or <redmoonpress.
I began this review before I read the book. Such is the fate of famous people; to be reviewed prematurely and on the basis of sketches and impressions. I wondered what haiku, itself a kind of sketch or impression, could add to my understanding of this famous man. Would it be enough to make him a real person for me, someone I might recognize among my fellows ?
Not all readers will bring such preconceptions to their reading of A String Untouched. I asked a friend who was born in 1959, the year that these poems
were written, if she knew who Dag Hammarskjöld was. Her guess: that
he was a philosopher. Because, she explained, he is someone who is often
quoted on matters of ethics and social justice. For those who may not know
it, Hammarskjöld was a Swedish statesman and diplomat who served as
secretary-general of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961, when he died
in a plane crash while on a UN peacemaking mission in the Congo. After
his death a journal he had been keeping was discovered and published.
That is the source of the poems featured in A String Untouched.
Diplomacy is preeminently a matter of well chosen words, so it is not
surprising to find that Hammarskjöld read widely and expressed himself
eloquently in journals and poetry. More surprising is that he should have
focused for a period of time in 1959 on the then relatively unknown (in
Sweden and the USA) genre of the haiku. We are particularly fortunate
that the author of A String Untouched, Kai Falkman, is himself a Swedish
diplomat and an accomplished haiku poet. He is uniquely well prepared
to enlighten readers on the strengths and weaknesses of Hammarskjöld’s
haiku and to place the writing in the context of the author’s life, work, native
culture, and the "haiku path."
A String Untouched is a selection of 50 of Hammarskjöld’s haiku and
41 of his photographs. Each poem is accompanied by a page or two of
commentary by Falkman, who selected them from a total of 110 haiku,
or haiku-like verses, that Hammarskjöld is known to have written. Imagine
for a moment what sort of impression any of us would have made in
the haiku community if there was nothing but our first 110 haiku to do
the work for us; not even our first 110 published haiku, but the first and
only ones we had written. The wonderful discovery of this book is how
often Hammarskjöld succeeded in producing poems that resonate as haiku
nearly fifty years later.
This is all the more impressive when one considers that his privileged
and highly cultured life did not ease his path toward a sense of "nothing
special." When he mentions a castle, he is not seeing it as most of us
would; in imagination or perhaps from a guided tour. He is remembering
where he grew up under the distant and domineering presence of his statesman
I slottets skugga
slöto sig blommarna
långt fore aftonen.
In the castle’s shadow
the flowers closed
long before evening.
Reading this, and some others, I wonder if the haiku, with its emphasis on
the indirect expression of deep emotion, may not have been ideal for a man
who must have found privacy hard to come by; a man who knew that his
diary was going to be read by strangers. The haiku emphasis on simplicity
and directness may have been an antidote to the deadening effects of
political life. Dag Hammarskjöld was much concerned with matters that
may seem remote to most of us—matters of faith and fate that are better
expressed in forms more lofty and expansive than the lowly haiku—but his
haiku reveal him reaching for something closer, if equally elusive.