The vicissitudes and vagaries of the life of Swedish playwright August Strindberg (1849-1912) form the basis for this 2010 collection by Ontario poet Natalee Caple. Tapping into a rich tradition in Canada of postmodern books that conduct a poetic rendering of an actual historical figure, Caple assembles an assortment of fragments, missives, interior monologues and other ephemera from Strindberg’s troubled life. The result is a sly, hagiography-free lens into a fascinating and fraught character. The added twist here is that Caple has actually re-imagined this infamous playwright as a woman in disguise.
Strindberg experienced periods of both dizzying success and heartbreaking failure over the course of his career, and much of his life on display in The Semiconducting Dictionary is punctuated by his obsession with his first wife, the Finnish actress Siri von Essen. Caple strikes a good balance in this book between matters of the heart and matters of career, exploring Strindberg’s insecurities in each camp. They coalesce into what is probably the book’s strongest poem, “The Playwright Interviews Herself to Stave off Loneliness.” Here Caple writes:
What do you want?
To be a famous playwright whose plays run day and night
everywhere in every language.
What is the greatest misfortune you can imagine?
To be without Siri and unable to write. To be unable to write.
The grandiosity of Strindberg’s vision for and of himself unwinds in this and other poems as his talents and self-image fail to live up to his ambition.
What works less successfully through this book are poems that project a rawer infatuation that the playwright felt for Siri. In pieces like “Ours [Siri]” and “She Leaves Me,” I was left with the sense that Caple was dancing up to the line of cliché and sentimentality, that she was perhaps foisting too much of her own personal emotion onto a fictional construction.
Still, there’s no denying that this book possesses a queer and original power. Whether the gimmick of turning this notorious woman-hater into a woman himself works will be left up to each individual reader. But the versatility and lyric beauty of Naple’s vision is enough to make this collection worth checking out.