Three Contemporary Danish Poets
My Life, My Dream Dedalus Poetry Europe Series 2002 £6.95
Spring Tide Forest Books 1989 £6.95
Queens Gate Bloodaxe Books 2001 £8.95
It Carcanet Press 2007/9
Alphabet Blooadaxe Books 2000 £7.95
Reviewed by Michael Murray
When we think of modern Danish poetry three names come to mind: Henrik Nordbrandt, Inger Christensen and Pia Tafdrup.
Why these three in particular? It is probably because their work has met with the best response from European readers.
They also define three main directions of modern Danish poetry.
With Henrik Nordbrandt we have a finely tuned classicism, a classicism against which other experiments in poetry measure themselves. His is a gay, slightly exotic presence, reporting back from Istanbul, Greece, the Mediterranean, to the northern, and by necessity of geography, buttoned-up sensibility.
With a number of his Danish contemporaries still tangling with the strictures of Christian belief, Nordbrandt must represent something slightly pantheistic.
He has been greatly influenced by the mood and temperament of Cavafy in Alexandria, and like him writes an exquisite line, full of snatched joys and melancholy.
The late Inger Christensen worked within the wide field of textual experimentation. This field is, in many ways, the most challenging; it calls into question, through its reassessments of concrete language the meaning and value of the self, of society, ideas of progress, the intrinsic possibility of reform, change, improvement etc. Her use of structure is very original, employing rationales and bases from outside the literary field.
With Pia Tafdrup we meet a writer very much a part of a feminist exploration of the world. Hers is a sensuous and taboo-breaking poetry. Her European best seller Spring Tide (1983) explored an erotic, sensuous awareness of the body in and through nature.
Her prize-winning Queens Gate (2001) further explored the author’s myth-making nature, while with her later long single poem Ark, written for a Nordic Prize occasion, she breaks out of the short lines and breathless rhythms, into a much longer line and more extended cyclic structure.
Christensen and Tafdrup both look to France for ideas: Christensen to writers like Mallarme, Valery, for their focus on the text, and further, to the writings of Barthes and the Semiotic movement. Her name is often connected with the French Oulipo group (Queneau, Perec, Calvino etc) of text experiments. Tafdrup can be seen to respond to the feminist body-consciousness and language ideas of Cixous and Kristeva. Nordbrandt shares some of the awareness of the musical possibilities of language inherent in Mallarme and Valery, that Christensen also applied to her own work.
Robin Fulton as admirably translated Nordbrandt for Dedalus.
Nordbrandt’s ‘China Observed Through Greek Rain in Turkish Coffee’ - the title itself, with its digressive clauses, is as much a précis of his poetic style as it is an example of his characteristic wit – is on one level a poem concerned with the resourcefulness of the imagination, how it can bend time and space, and through the image of the semi-willow pattern figure within the cup, take us further from the humdrum into the possibility of hope:
sees the sun appear through a green leaf
which has fallen into the cup
the cup whose contents
are now completely clear.
The cup can be said to symbolise the insularity of the self, its self reliance – which in itself is a commentary on a state of emotional poise, a pause between the pull of desire, and the fall of loss, that brief state of self possession.
A Greek rain falls into the cup, displacing the contents, revealing the Chinese figure: this encapsulates Kantian ideas of the self and the world each in their separate sphere, as well as demonstrating the classical objective correlative of Eliot, but taken on, made Nordbrandt’s own.
In another reading, this is a poem ultimately of loss, using the standard pathetic fallacy of rain as tears. Again, he takes it further: the rain overflows the poised cup of the self, self possession becomes the loss of the possession of the other. Just as the narrator’s self is absent as a persona from the poem, so, by extension, is ‘the other’ absent as a presence.
The old man in the cup, with long white beard and eyes either burned to cinders or self absorbed, reflects a possible future as a survivor of desire, an ascetic in his self sufficiency. (Odd how many who claim to have sublimated desire are of an age when desire tends to die down naturally.)
Fullness and emptiness are two of the possible readings, and map out Nordbrandt’s particular developing metaphysic, as elaborated upon by Lars Arndel:
“…double consciousness… on the one hand actual presence is a constant point of reference. The other presence becomes most conspicuous and authentic when it is withdrawn…”
Gerald Rosch notes: “ (Nordbrandt)… conjures up a world where loss and fulfilment occur simultaneously. Presence, arrival and possession cannot erase absence, departure and loss… man is on the move without knowing where to”. We can see this clearly in the very fine poem below:
After having loved we lie close together
and at the same time with distance between us
like two sailing ships that enjoy so intensely
their own lines in the dark water they divide
that their hulls
are almost splitting from sheer delight
while racing, out in the blue
under sails which the night wind fills
with flower-scented air and moonlight
- without one of them ever trying
to outsail the other
and without the distance between them
lessening or growing at all.
But there are other nights, where we drift
like two brightly illuminated luxury liners
lying side by side
with the engines shut off, under a strange constellation
and without a single passenger on board:
On each deck a violin orchestra is playing
in honor of the luminous waves.
And the sea is full of old tired ships
which we have sunk in our attempt to reach each other.
Nordbrandt has developed an experiential system of values; the active imagination is capable of bridging memory and time. This is the motif behind his award-winning book Dream Bridges, which won him the Nordic Literary Prize in 2000. Memory cannot be trusted, any more than time itself, to record and hold human values.
The summer is over.
It was like the other summers
as much as they were like each other
and were different
and as the Easter Island statues
opened their eyes
the moment one turned one’s back on them.
And each summer
remembered more than what happened.
‘Portrait Of The Heroine, Far Out At Sea’
(Off-Shore Wind, 2001)
I have mentioned Eliot as one reference point, another is the Swedish writer Gunnar Ekelof. We can see Ekelof’s influence in the epigrammatical concrete form capturing a metaphysical content:
No matter where we go, we always arrive too late
to experience what we left to find.
and in whatever cities we stay
it is the houses where it is too late to return
the gardens where it’s too late to spend a moonlit night
that disturbs us with their intangible presence.
from ‘No Matter Where We Go’
This is especially prominent in the later poetry:
The light stands flickering in its column, that bears nothing.
At the least touch it turns everything to salt.
I asked for a shadow and you gave me a nail,
long, rusty, and bent.
I asked you for a bed and you gave me a road
that cut deeper into my feet the higher it climbed.
I asked for water and you gave me sour wine.
I drank from a corroded cup beneath dark icons
I asked to die, you gave me gold to stay.
I asked for a story, you gave me my own.
Greece raises its angular stones from the water
and we look and are grateful and regret having seen.
Each day here costs us a century in the kingdom of death.
Pia Tafdrup has also spoken out in favour of Ekelof’s work. She comes in from a completely different direction. Much of her poetic sensibility is based on the feminist critiques and theories of Kristeva and Cixous; her body-centred explorations of the here and now utilise the rhythms and languages of desire.
For Tafdrup writing the body is very much that of the ‘Écriture feminine’ of Cixous, and of Showalter who writes, “… the inscription of the feminine body and female difference in language and text.”. Écriture feminine places “experience before language, and privileges non-linear, cyclic writing that evades the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system.”.
The book Spring Tide, translated by Ann Born, Tafdrup describes as just one aspect of her writing: ”Spring Tide and White Fever constitute two parts, while The Bridge of Sounds became a third quantity, which could not have been thought of without the preceding ones. Seen like this the three works are related to one another as thesis-antitheses-synthesis… A continuous, dynamic praxis.’ (Walking Over the Water. 1991).
It has been noted by some that Tafdrup set out from the beginning to be one of the top Danish writers; something like Auden’s career plan in English. And yet she has not been so beholden to the Danish canon. Her earlier works have been controversial, foregrounding the body, sensual experience, women’s perspectives. Her travelling companion in this was Marianne Larsen, whose writing, “analyse(s) sexual repression, class struggles and imperialism…”. Tafdrup’s previous book, The Innermost Zone, 1983 “sets out to explore unknown regions of the body and mind…” that is, unknown in literature. Tafdrup’s assault on the canon has always been from a radical perspective. Her concerns echo Rosemarie Tong’s comment on Cixous: “Cixous urged women to… the unthinkable/unthought… in words”.
Tafdrup’s two major volumes are Spring Tide (1985) and Queen’s Gate (2001). There is detectable a move from “short lines… mounting impatient rhythm… ‘(Horace Engdahl) to “a many-voiced, multi-layered…” (Bloodaxe) style. In between we have the ‘Ark’ poem (1994); a very different experiment in form, it opens:
I was writing this long and labyrinthine poem in which I opened up
and at the same time stepped into that openness, stillness, with a white voice
as word after word drank from its stream, and the further the poem extended
the more difficult it became, its syntax gradually transforming underway…
This was written for the Nordic Literary Prize ceremony, known as the Little Nobel Prize. Her structure here is the cyclic exploration of self and the world as outlined by Elaine Showalter in her writings on feminist theory.
In 1991 she published Walking Over the Water. Outline of a Poetics. (part-translated by David MacDuff), a long series of meditations examining and elaborating upon her working methods. A key part of her strategy for major recognition. At every point it can seen her intent has been to situate the feminist perspective within the Danish canon.
The great appeal of Spring Tide lies in its sensuous, breathless lines: “…to write the syntax of desire…to a great degree demonstrate it…” (The Syntax of Desire, author’s foreword). The book is based around the first recognition, enjoyment, waning, and loss of desire “in all its manifestations…”:
I lie down
I’ll be your animal
for a moment
with senses stretched out
between neck and heel
my body’s an arc of desire
I turn a shoulder
strain my head back
my throat’s free
and you can smell the blood beneath my skin
I dare to be your animal a moment
I can shine everywhere
I can open myself everywhere
you can do what you want with me everywhere
I am nearer the sun everywhere
pure drops of light
in a growing abyss of lust
Spring Tide is a book honed on public performance. The incantatory effect, the feel of transgression, the building rhythmic force of these lines all must have been electrifying.
In the structure of this poem, its paralleling of clauses, we have something of kin with Nordbrandt’s ‘Near Lephkas’, above. Both echo, perhaps, a rhapsodic, biblical style.
It is not all pleasure and sunshine, however. As Engdahl comments: “Her poetry has a shadow side… the prevailing season… is actually winter, the harsh, windy Danish winter with its endless wet snow.” And it is. The reader does not notice at first, but predominantly it is very much desire in warm places.
This darker side makes itself more known in the later book of aphoristic four-liners The Thousandborn:
Don’t look for poetry’s black box,
it hasn’t recorded any answers,
is merely full of the dream’s counter-questions
or a silence to feel one’s way into.
It is perhaps she is indeed “demonstrating …all its manifestations..”, even the desire for the dark, the cold, that is a part of all our make-ups.
Queens Gate (translated by David MacDuff) at times achieves a great elegance of line and phrase:
Clear is the water, blue as in a flame,
like a sky that floats,
the river-bottom rippled and white.
Fine clay lies deposited, almost putty-like
to squelch up between the toes,
the white separate from the blue,
the fixed from the flowing.
from ‘The Shining River’)
Here an undercurrent gathers,
here is a well with water
for the plants that withered sulphur yellow
or curled up hopelessly
in dust-grey tints before the summer’s death,
to the scorched grass that audibly
whispers to the wind,
to the fields where the harvest failed
and the creatures still cry.
from ‘The Acacia Valley’
There is the kind of almost classical reticence here, and a tone that the Scottish Gaelic writers often achieved.
As can be seen, the two poems are water-based in their imagery; the whole book with its nine sections gestates a mythology of origins:
- From water you have come.
“The Shining River’
The “white voice” of the ‘Ark’ poem echoes the ‘white ink’ of Écriture feminine.
What is of particular interest is that Écriture feminine places “experience before language…” (Showalter).
This is also one of the great appeals of Inger Christensen’s writing method, her part in the ‘systematic poetry’ movement: where Tafdrup takes the pressure from the solely textual concept of writing and focuses it on the intent, the ‘desire’ of language: not so much Barthes, more Derrida, Christensen mediates language through the interpolation of artificial forms. The poetry of both is enabled by the use of non-poetic structures, whether of thought/theory, or of form. For Nordbrandt the non-poetic enabler is the objective life, in effect, his peripatetic lifestyle.
Nordbrandt and Tafdrup look to the language of desire, a predicated use of language; Christensen’s field of knowledge takes in Chomsky’s ideas of the ‘deep structure’ of grammar, how his method posits innate skills in grammar and language. She also looks to the experiments in language use of the New York School of writers: Koch, Schulyer, Ashbery. We sense here a stance objectifying mental processes, and of the application and use of language.
Like Tafdrup, Christensen has been a great advocate of performance. Her particular forte was the jazz-poetry events she was at the forefront of promoting.
Susanna Nied’s prize-winning translations of the works of Christensen have been duly recognised as the best in their field.
Christensen has long had a large and loyal German readership; they put her forward for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
‘Systematic poetry’ utilises “arbitrary systems (to) structure expression, themselves constructed like machines, understanding their own relativity in construction, which merely repeat themselves.”
Christensen’s structure for ‘Alphabet’ is the Fibonacci numerical system. This is what determines the lines of each paragraph; it also determines through the choice of theoretical domain, the way in which the subject matter is selected, collated and expressed.
The repeated phrase of paragraph 1 of Alphabet: apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist is a numerical device of implication, where 1 is a prime, it is also the main focus of a network of negative and positive numerical sequencies, of decimals and fractions: 1 is never 1, it is the consequence of its positioning, and it is that that is evoked here.
The reiteration of the clause emphases 1’s position in the matrix of math. As in the Fibonacci sequence we do not begin with 1 but with 0, in effect on the blank page preceding. Christensen is well aware of the weight of a space. Her earlier book It in the original Danish, used a typewriter font, where the space holds equal weight with the letter. We are also required to read there that apricot stones carry a poisonous pit. Within the first creation is the means of its end; or maybe not so equivalent, maybe, just that a degree of toxicity is necessary for life.
By combining number with alphabet, Christensen is taking us back to the earliest use of languages, Sumerian, Attic Greek, but with a more modern twist.
With 2 we have:
bracken exists; and blackberries, blackberries;
bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen
Already on a linguistic level we have an incantatory pattern forming. On the chemical level we now have bromine and hydrogen. For hydrogen to exist as one element would introduce a stability; two elements are already part of a molecule. Bromine, like hydrogen, is potentially lethal. As, indeed, are the seeds of bracken. This pastoral suggestion now allows a reading as the suggestion of early, a volatile, Precambrian period,
We have three levels: of the text, of chemistry, and botanical. If we accept the time scale, four levels: botany, chemistry, textual, and time.
As the ‘Complete Review’ notes: “The useless abundance of bracken, succulent berries -- and corrosive bromide: the unbalanced mix all around us. Hydrogen seems, here, almost safe, but the "bomb" suffix is not long in coming.”
With 3 we get:
cicadas exist; chicory, chromium,
citrus trees; cicadas exist;
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum
The levels expand: arboriculture, botany, chemistry, entomology, physiology: from basic classifications, to subclassifications. We move from Platonic forms, through Aristotelian classification, to knowledge.
Following the Fibonacci/alphabetical systems through the book we arrive at N, with six hundred and ten lines. Mathematically ‘n’ can be any number.
From basic forms we gradually emerge into a world of killing, the hydrogen bomb, pain. With 5 we also get, delightfully:
early fall exists; aftertaste, afterthought;
seclusion and angels exist;
widows and elk exist; every
detail exists; memory, memory’s light;
afterglow exists; oaks, elms,
junipers, soreness, loneliness exist;
With M and N we arrive at actual times, with dates: morning June twentieth……..evening June sixteenth….morning June twenty-sixth. To get here we travel through excerpts from lives, suggestions of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, and:
in mid-November, a season
when all human dreams are the same,
a uniform, blotted out history
like that of a sun-dried stone
a couple of mute parents stand there,
a dog, and some children run around,
an arrival they try to imagine
as water that’s raised to my mouth
I lay sleeping inside my hotel room;
:the stories we have inside ourselves we cannot always make sense of, but continue to pick over in our isolated moments.
‘13/M’ begins with metal, the ore in the mountains and then explores the hidden or covered things:
darkness in mine shafts, milk not let down
from mother’s breasts, an ingrown dread where
whisperings exist, whisperings exist
the cells’ oldest, fondest collusion
consider this market, consider this import
and export of fathers, half bullies
half tortured soldiers…..
layered light, as if behind
layers in a fresco the snow
on the mountains……..
13 also replicates the Fibonacci numbering in stanza lengths. We have five, eight, then thirteen line stanzas, and then followed by new sets. The interweaving of themes and items from earlier sections tie-in here; we once again come across bromine, but applied differently, and apricot trees: their applications multiply and evoke moments from a life, from an ideal of living. The fabric grows wonderfully rich and rewarding, full of complex patternings.
The Fibonacci system deals also with the proof of the Golden Mean.
Christensen has exhibited a growing concern with ecological matters, as evident in her Butterfly Valley: Requiem. This sequence is a series of conventional sonnets, the last line acting as the opening line of the following sonnet. The last sonnet of the sequence, sonnet fifteen, consists of all opening/closing lines. This sequence perhaps represents her approach to that Golden Mean.
Charles Lock and Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen, in their Guardian obituary notice, noted of Butterfly Valley: Requiem ‘ the division of its 14 lines having been recognised in the Renaissance as akin to "the golden ratio".
Ecology also has begun to feature more in Nordbrandt’s work; Tafdrup’s writing has long shown a cognizance of ecological matters.