Henry Parland is not only one of the most influential figures in Swedish poetry, he?s possibly one of the most mercurial figures of the 20th century. Born in Russia in 1908, he fled to Finland with his family to escape the tumult of revolution, learning Swedish as his third language in an ?migr? school. When the 21-year-old wunderkind published his only book of poems in 1929, ?Idealrealisation,? it was universally panned, with one critic?s denunciating, ?nonchalance is not spirituality.? Perhaps that critic would be surprised to find that nonchalance is not only alive and well today but is perhaps the dominant religion. Now, published for the first time in English with the title ?Ideals Clearance,? Johannes G?ransson?s terse, expert translation lets us discover the voice that?s been with us all along.

In the early 20th century, advances in poetry were entirely attributed to the High Modernists: Eliot, Pound and William Carlos Williams, who wrote dense, encyclopedic poems that tried to encompass all of Western civilization ? and some mistranslated Chinese for good measure. In the face of this, Parland wrote short, almost aphoristic poetry with no high ambition beyond a mundane fascination with socks and women?s legs. Wry and ambivalent, his voice perfectly reflects our own modern age of ironic sincerity, in which we strive for importance and things that matter while trying to not make a big deal of it.

The only thing ?difficult? here is the title, the meaning of which G?ransson?s otherwise superb translation needlessly obscures without the context of the title poem: ?The Clearance Sale of Ideals/ ? you say it has already begun/ But I say:/ better cut the prices.? Instead of grabbing onto all of Western civilization and locking it up in a big storehouse like Pound, Parland instead resembles a car salesman passing out handbills and free samples to passers-by, clearing out the glut of poetic ideas instead of building on them.

Parland?s poems have aged in such a way that they seem neither foreign nor a stuffy sentiment of the past. It is astonishing how he beats Kurt Cobain by more than 60 years when he proclaims, ?Of all words/ the greatest:/ whatever.?

Yet it would be dishonest to say this pose of ?cooling indifference? fully encapsulates Parland?s character. It is better to think of him as a skeptic who still tilts his head up towards the sky, as some of his best poems welcome the way in which the complicated, modern world intrudes upon a romantic heart, as when he compares the ocean to a woman, ?despite oil stains and drift canisters.?

If Parland belongs to any poetic movement, it would seem to be Futurism, that heady celebration of all things new and of-the-moment in the wake of rapidly advancing of technology. Certainly he gives a thought or two to the ?modern woman,? asking, ?You who think about skirts/ when you pass the windows of the department store./ What do you know/ about the legs/ of the twentieth century?? Yet there is also acknowledgment of the precarious allure that technology has, as when he writes, ?By day/ the movie theaters sleep/ like crocodiles in the sun/ … At night/ they open their hungry jaws.?

Some of his poems offer a haiku-like simplicity ? ?Youth:/ hunger/ or a weariness/ that dances?? ? and invoke an Emily Dickinson who is wiser to the ways of the world. Like Dickinson?s own oeuvre, Parland?s collection of little poems are all unnamed, and they suggest a certain intimacy to which the reader responds. He also has a penchant for devilish humor, at one point stating Christianity?s promise of an eternal life is so impossibly bleak that it ?forces nothingness to consider suicide.? In Parland?s best work, he displays a pointed understanding of the intrinsically flawed nature of human relationships: ?There was this kid/ he tore the heads off/ all his tin soldiers/ and mom and dad bought new ones.?

Throughout Parland?s work there is an undercurrent of distrust of buying into the ?adult? future we all eventually confront, and like many people we later come to idolize, he never lived long enough to betray his love of life and settle for something easier. He died suddenly at the age of 22 from scarlet fever, leaving behind a nearly finished novel, some essays and unpublished poems. Consequently, his poems remain a testament to the individual character inside us that we can never afford to give up, despite the opportunities to do so at every turn. He reminds us of this in a poem characteristic of his whimsy and poignancy:
?My lies
Large red balloons
that I buy on the street
and release into the heavens.
Once I bought a balloon
larger and redder than the rest.
It pulled me along.?

5 stars out of 5