An immense and well-stocked spaceship sets out on what should be a routine voyage: shuttling eight thousand refugees to resettlement on Mars after Earth’s environment has been poisoned by a succession of nuclear wars. Early in the flight, the ship is bumped slightly off course after a near collision with an asteroid; its navigational equipment is damaged, and it will be unable to change direction. The passengers must resign themselves to years of continued existence as the ship proceeds inexorably into the empty regions beyond the solar system, heading for a destination they will not live to reach, the constellation Lyra:
Thus it was when the solar system closed
its gateway of purest crystal and cut off
the space ship Aniara from all
the associations and promises of the Sun.
Such is the narrative gist of the Swedish poet Harry Martinson’s book-length serial poem Aniara: A Review of Man in Time and Space, begun in 1953 and published in its entirety in 1956, eighteen years before Martinson won the Nobel Prize for Literature (which he shared with the novelist Eyvind Johnson). In Sweden, where Martinson was already a prominent figure, the poem was an immediate best seller and has continued to work its way into the culture, giving rise to an opera (later televised), pop and electronic musical adaptations (including a somewhat harrowing “blackened death metal” version by Necrosavant), planetarium shows, a graphic novel, and now the film adaptation that opened in the US this spring.
There have also been numerous foreign-language translations, but although Aniara has twice been rendered into English, both versions have gone out of print. The work’s reputation in the English-speaking world has remained fairly subterranean and has owed more to readers of science fiction than of poetry. Lately it has been getting increased attention. The US release of the film is one such harbinger; others are the artist Fia Backström’s recent multimedia installation A Vaudeville on Mankind in Space and Time, in which Aniara’s themes were connected with complex photographic images fusing microscopic and global perspectives,1 and a fresh musical incarnation: a choral theatrical work, Aniara: Fragments of Time and Space, composed by Robert Maggio in collaboration with the Helsinki-based Klockriketeatern, which was performed in Philadelphia in June by the Crossing, a chamber choir. It is easy enough to situate Aniara as the product of its historical moment, but it carries a quantum of unease that keeps it from settling into the past. It persists on its trajectory like the spaceship proceeding unstoppably toward nothingness.
It was in operatic form that Aniara first came to America. In 1960 the market for a Swedish opera incorporating twelve-tone serialism and electronic tape collages might have appeared limited,…
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