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Volume 38.1 Autumn 2007

book review:

A String Untouched, Dag Hammarskjöld’s life
in haiku and photographs

by Kai Falkman

Reviewed by John Stevenson

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. com>.

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 father.

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.

Highly recommended.

 

 

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