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Light, Grass, and Letter in April (New Directions Paperbook)
Light, Grass, and Letter in April (New Directions Paperbook)
Inger Christensen
New Directions, 2011
144 pp., 15.95

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Thom Satterlee

Playgrounds, Kitchens, Spider Webs

The poetry of Inger Christensen.

Last summer I read The Girl with … /The Girl Who … trilogy by Swedish crime writer Stieg Larsson. If you're looking for a fast-paced international thriller with a modicum of social critique, it's hard to beat Larsson's books. But if you're in the mood for something a bit more introspective, if you enjoy reading, re-reading, and re-re-reading marvelously turned phrases, stunning imagery, and wholly original figurative language, then I'd like to recommend the work of another Scandinavian writer, the Danish poet Inger Christensen (1935-2009). New Directions has released a fourth collection of her work, and in doing so they complete a project to make all of Christensen's poetry available to U.S. readers.

As the title suggests, the book includes three distinct collections: Light, the poet's debut collection from 1962, Grass, her second collection published a year later, and Letter in April, which appeared in 1979, after Christensen's intervening work had established her as Denmark's preeminent contemporary poet.

Christensen was 27 and a few years into her marriage to literary critic Poul Borum (also an important figure in 20th-century Danish literature) when her first volume of poetry appeared. Light announces the themes that Christensen would go on to explore throughout her career—love, otherness, nature—and reveals her fascination with modern painters such as Paul Klee, Jackson Pollock, and Marc Chagall. In fact, the first poem in the volume owes its imagery to Chagall's Clock with Blue Wing, a key point that translator Susanna Nied shares in her helpful introduction. Other poems hint at Christensen's literary inspirations, including two of her favorite poets, Arthur Rimbaud and Rainer Maria Rilke. The symbolism of the first and the rapid metaphorical associations of the second can be seen in this brief, untitled poem midway through Light:

Like slate-gray sea
my winter-flattened brain
sways in space
a flying lighthouse swings
my fall-eyes
what we called land is the nearest stars

For me, that poem has a pleasingly mysterious quality; after several readings I only half get it, but its lines intrigue me more than they baffle me. I rank it among the best in Christensen's first collection. Others, I admit, leave me feeling a bit clueless. Some readers might find meaning in the poem "Deep Within," which appears later in the volume, but it struck me as overly vague—"what is it we have what is it we lack / what is it where are we what do we see / with a beacon's anguish, a beacon's anguish"—as well as melodramatic. But these are the poet's earliest published poems, and it would be an unusual first collection if it didn't have a few weak spots. And, as her next volume shows, Christensen's later verse led to more uniform success and the emergence of a distinct voice.

As a collection, Grass exhibits great care in organizing and ordering its individual poems. Its first eighteen poems are short, most of them less than a quarter of a page, and headed by brief titles. Then follow three longer poems, between a page and three pages long, and finally a seven-part, eighteen-page poem closes out the collection. At the same time as the poems grow longer down the page, their line lengths also increase, and for the first time Christensen makes use of wraparound lines, the kind that are so long no printer could produce a book wide enough to accommodate them, so a single "line" might run anywhere between two and six lines of a page. Reading these last poems reminds me of Whitman or Ginsberg, poets who sustained long breaths, whose passion and energy forced their lines beyond the bounds of any reasonably set margin. Here are two examples from the poem "Meeting":

I think we have sought wings on the back, I think we have sought light in the eyes, sought places, along roads, each other, God / this sloppy dishrag smack across the mouth, this vindictive face, the grin and slamming doors—the pupil that lies in wait in the dark and always claws the homecomer ….
down in the street the snow is a dirty border around a very common Scandinavian house with books, bath, and central heating, with only a slight contempt left over for what we have lost and heaped up / up here in the living room I search and search for my third hand; perhaps, hidden by snow, it has dug its way singlehandedly, fumbled its way to the heart of this, is meeting my resistance in the innermost center of a poem ….

Lines like those make it easy to see how the poet, in writing her poem, was bursting with ideas; they also make it easy to forget that Christensen wrote in Danish, not English. For phrases that retain the immediacy and naturalness of their original—"sloppy dishrag smack across the mouth,"—readers must thank the poet's longtime translator, Susanna Nied. In the second passage quoted above, Nied faced two challenges. First, how to reproduce the link between the end of the one line and the beginning of the next. The Danish reads, "hobet op / heroppe," literally "heaped up / here up," but that would sound like nonsense in English. Nied solves this problem by giving us "heaped up / up here," which is natural enough and keeps the echoed sound while losing, admittedly, the exactness of its pattern. Later in that same section of "Meeting," she faced a harder decision: how to translate the word pair "hånd … egenhændigt," literally "hand … personally" or "hand … in one's own hand." I think Nied made the perfect choice by rendering Christensen's "egenhændigt" as "singlehandedly" even though the meaning is slightly different from the original: the effect, the play on language, is what mattered more. I could mention several other places where Christensen's translator impressed me, but for readers who are unlikely to draw comparisons between the Danish and English, and since the book doesn't include the poems in their original, I'll just say that Nied is more than a trustworthy translator—she's a masterful one. Her translations of Inger Christensen's poetry, which have been Nied's lifework for several decades now, have earned her the Translation Prize from the American-Scandinavian Foundation and, more recently, the PEN Harold Morton Landon Translation Award.

Letter in April, the third volume collected in this book, originally appeared over a decade after the first two and is typical Inger Christensen—"typical," that is, of what she became known for with her other books, it (1969), alphabet (1981), and Butterfly Valley: A Requiem (1991), works that built on intricate patterns borrowed from philosophy, linguistics, and mathematics. One could say that after her second collection, Christensen stopped writing poems and started writing poetry books. Each book after Grass follows a particular "system"—in alphabet, for instance, she makes use of the number system of medieval Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci. Likewise, Letter has its own distinct system, one based on dualities and informed by the serialism of French composer Olivier Messiaen. Containing seven main sections and multiple subsections, Letter can be read straight through as one long poem, or it can be read by jumping around among the subsections, each of which carries forward a particular motif. If the structure of the book sounds daunting, the poetry itself will strike readers as uncomplicated, intimate, and lovely. A simple narrative carries the whole poem forward: a mother and her child travel to a foreign city and live there for a while, experiencing the most common things—playgrounds and kitchens and spider webs. Christensen writes in short lines, such as these: "I unwrap the pomegranate / from its purple paper / and slice it / in half. / It looks like / a kind of brain / different from ours. / Who knows, / maybe the pomegranate / itself is aware / that it's called / something else. / Who knows, / maybe I myself / am called / something else / than myself."

Accompanying the poems throughout Letter are drawings by the poet's friend, Johanne Foss. In her introduction, Nied explains how the two shared an interest in Etruscan art and decided to work on a collaborative project in which Foss passed her charcoal-on-parchment drawings to Christensen, and Christensen wrote poems in counterpoint to the images. The relationship between poetry and art adds another level of meaning, and pleasure, to this the final work in the book.

Although this gathering of three books is unlikely to receive the sort of attention that Scandinavian crime fiction is getting these days, its publication is very much a cause for celebration. Set it next to Christensen's other three books—all translated by Susanna Nied and published by New Directions—and this major voice in 20th century European poetry can now be read in English, from start to finish, and with plenty of enjoyment in between.

Thom Satterlee, poet and translator, is Writer-in-Residence at Taylor University. His most recent book is a translation of the Danish poet Per Aage Brandt, These Hands (Host Publications).

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