by Helena Österlund (Sweden)
translated from Swedish
by Paul Cunningham

print book | bilingual edition
8” x 5” | 156 pages
Release date: October 15, 2019

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Praise for WORDS:


Dennis Cooper, author of The Weaklings (XL)

Cunningham’s translations from Helena Österlund’s Words and Colors bring us crystal stinging incantations amidst the teeth and foliage that permeate consciousness. He conveys the precision and full-bloodedness of Österlund’s mesmeric demarcations between belief, certainty, and uncertainty, and these poems make readers pitch desperately towards their own ideas about bodily senses and the language that marks desire, will, and the natural world that exists and acts. I am marked by these poems, I am shattered and sprung from these poems, and I am so grateful to Cunningham for providing me entrance to these poems.

Ginger Ko, author of Inherit

Österlund's Words and Colors features a pared-down, repetitive voice, a movement through snowy woods, and a terrifying encounter with a sharp-toothed creature. For me, Words and Colors is reminiscent of Beckett’s How It Is, another work where the contours of individual identity seem to dissolve into a blind, frantic momentum through past, present and future.

 —David M. Smith, Asymptote

Helena Österlund has achieved a transmutation, situated in the "I", that both confirms and negates her perception that encompasses everything. That "I" sees-feels-speaks and simultaneously drops a fragment from itself and absorbs another. I think that this book should be read with a loud speaker, and the public should sit far away and in a semicircle. To give room to the ice-water that, as it melts, draws the white, black, red, and pink concentric sound-poem that Helena Österlund wrote with her eyes and ears wide open. We will know then this is not a hallucination, but the word-action of paying close attention to the loud silence of night and day.

—Valerie Mejer-Caso, author of This Blue Novel

To read Words is to become a child again in language, in thrall and enthralled, in awe and horror at the ability of Words to organize what we see, know, believe. It's a language like the chalk outline surrounding a corpse, both archiving an instance and allowing meaning to bleed across syntax, cobwebs, and centuries. It's a language-shaped prism through which sound moves. It's a light shining through the blinds onto your bed and your shaking body, and the moment in which you forget the words for both bed and body: "I will hear with my eyes." It's quiet, sculptural, painful, and fucking beautiful.

—Marty Cain, author of Kids of the Black Hole


Dangerous to write something called Words. Dangerous to read it. So read it. Helena Österlund takes language at its most elemental—to be, to know, to have, to see—in order to evoke the most elemental of encounters. Light. Dark. Silence. Violence. These are some of the simplest and most terrifyingly psychological poems I’ve ever read. “Was,” “Is,” and “Will” are their names. Between “The ice will be ice” and “the ice will be water” lie science and sex, the movements that create and destroy, make you believe and make you doubt. So very dangerous, this translation by Paul Cunningham, that makes me tremble on a piece of melting ice. “The teeth were sharp / And the pain was hot / I accepted it / Complete and coherent, I accepted it / And I believed in it." 

—Aditi Machado, author of Some Beheadings

It’s a writer with great literary and dramaturgical awareness, talent and work ethic, that’s holding the pen.

 —Lidija Praizović, author of Spegelboken

A creation myth of self and language.

—Magnus Bremmer, SVD Kultur

‘It begins with snow,’ with a narrative gesture, but Helena Österlund's Words soon surpasses the stilted poetics of time as we know it. Here past, present, and future are the swirling, stilling rhythm of words as they fall, piling like snow, like silence. Time is repetition, negation—an obsessive, circular force driven by twin opposite impulses: to see and not to see, to say and not to say. Paul Cunningham’s translation reads like a slow-motion film of the sky falling, of the binary crumbling. His words are attuned to the exquisite drama of this majestic work’s every nuance.

—Michelle Gil Montero, translator of The Annunciation

“There are a few, very few, things worth talking about – and we don’t talk about them. We can’t talk about them,” writes Inger Christensen in her essay "To Talk, To See, To Do” (transl. Susanna Nied). “We don’t talk about the things…we can’t see. But those are the things that fascinate us.” These words kept repeating in my mind as I read Paul Cunningham’s stunning translation of Helena Österlund's Words, which gathers itself at the site between words and what they name. “It began with snow / There was snow / I was not snow / I was in the snow” – this incantatory poem, through pulsing rhythms and small tonal fractures, signals towards negativity and concretion alike, creating a speaker who tries to articulate what always seems on the verge of disappearing. Here I feel the pull of the elemental – “day,” “night,” “ice,” “sky,” “snow,” all figure greatly in the poem – and also the silence inside these words, the way the “I” lingers at the edge of its own utterance, considering both its slipperiness and its limitations: “It was I / and it was the snow.” Österlund and Cunningham’s ability to capture desire in a raw, unsettled form is stunning, and haunting, and I’m grateful to have felt so near to it as I read and reread this book.

-Alexis Almeida, author of I Have Never Been Able To Sing


an excerpt from A Note from the Translator

“Words” is one of two long poems that make up Helena Österlund’s 2010 collection Ordet och färgerna (Words and Colors). “Words” is comprised of three sections: “Was,” “Is,” and “Will.” There are times when we see what the poem’s speaker sees. There are times when we see what the poem’s speaker saw. And there are times when we learn of what the speaker will see. In “Words,” the future often feels reminiscent of the past. At first glance, there’s a deceivingly minimalistic sparseness to the poems. Visibly, the language might appear simple, but the poems are quite complex. Like John Cage’s own meticulously arranged patterns, blank measures, and rests, “Words” is its own musical nervous system of intricacies.

About the Author

Helena Österlund (b. 1978) lives in Stockholm, Sweden. She has published three books with Albert Bonniers Förlag. Ordet och färgerna (Words and Colors) was awarded the Borås Magazine Debut Award in 2011. Her debut novel is Min sårbara kropp (Nirstedt/Litteratur, 2019). Inspiration for her work comes from writers such as Thomas Bernhard, Gertrude Stein, Anne Carson, and Samuel Beckett. Music also inspires her and she enjoys Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Cage.

About the Translator

Paul Cunningham (b. 1989) lives in Athens, Georgia. He has translated two chapbooks by Sara Tuss Efrik: Automanias: Selected Poems (Goodmorning Menagerie, 2016) and The Night’s Belly (Toad Press, 2016). His translations of Helena Österlund’s Words and Colors have appeared in Asymptote, Halophyte Collective, Exchanges: Journal of Literary Translation, EuropeNow, Interim: A Journal of Poetry & Poetics, and Sink Review. His own poetry has appeared in Quarterly West, OmniVerse, SAND, Yalobusha Review, DIAGRAM, Bat City Review, and others. He is a Princeton University INCH scholar and holds a M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Notre Dame.