Sunday, November 16, 2014

I see them with my blurred understanding - more Inger Christensen

All of Inger Christensen’s poetry in English comes from one translator, Susanna Nied, who worked closely with the poet, who knew English well.  So I have been able to enjoy six books of Christensen’s poetry, five tiny and one the beast, it, I described yesterday.

The first two, Light (1962) and Grass (1963) seem typical of a lot of European poetry written at the time.  I would never have guessed that the highly formalized, schematic, and long it (1969) could have grown out of them.

Christensen also wrote some novels around this time.  Azorno (1967) and The Painted Room (1976) are in English, both translated by Denise Newman.  They both seem to me like good but unexceptional imitations of the French New Novel.  The Painted Room is about Andrea Mantegna and the perils of being an artist in the Mantuan court, which could be pretty exciting in different hands.  These are formalist, intellectual novels. 

Likely I am misunderstanding most of these works.  Luckily, from here on out Christensen returned to poetry, and the poems are shorter, warmer, and easier.  “Luckily” really just applies to “easier” – I don’t mind the help.  The books are Letter in April (1979), alphabet (1981) and Butterfly Valley: A Requiem (1991).

Since alphabet is built from a two-part scheme combining the alphabet with Fibonacci numbers, that is not the poem to use to make my case:

I write like wind
that writes in water
with stylized monotony  (59)

The formal poetry in fact is personal, working with the world as she sees it.  But it does help that Letter in April has people, characters, the poet and her daughter on a vacation in Italy:

We arrive early one morning
almost before we’re awake.
The air is pale, a bit cool,
and it curls a bit over our skin
like a membrane of moisture,
We talk about spiderwebs
– how do they work –
about the rain that washed the water
as we slept along the way
while we rolled
over the earth.
Then we’re at the house
and we bathe in the dust of the gravel walk
as among sparrows.  (103)

The next poem continues the water imagery as it moves into the house (“this waterfall / of images”), but another direction is offered as each poem in a section is marked so that the poems can be read in at least two different orders.  I can stay outside and follow the spiderweb theme rather than the house theme.  The result is not too different stories but rather two different poetic ways of thinking.

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.  (109)

the title poem of Butterfly Valley lacks people, aside from the poet,  but has butterflies.  She is in Macedonia, watching the butterflies.  The work is a sequence of fifteen sonnets, as traditional a scheme as Christensen uses, except – of course there is another rule – the first line of a poem is the last line of the previous poem.  Then the fifteenth and final poem is nothing but the first lines of each of the previous fourteen poems.  Every scrap of that last poem has thus appeared three times. 

Up they soar, the planet’s butterflies,
pigments from the warm body of the earth,
cinnabar, ochre, phosphor yellow, gold
a swarm of basic elements aloft.

Is this flickering of wings only a shoal
of light particles, a quirk of perception?
Is it the dreamed summer hour of my childhood
shattered as by lightning lost in time?

No, this is the angel of light, who can paint
himself as dark mnemosyne Apollo,
as copper, hawk moth, tiger swallowtail.

I see them with my blurred understanding
as feather in the coverlet of haze
in Brajčino Valley’s noon-hot air.  (Sonnet I)

And now you have the first two lines of the last poem, too.  “Butterfly Valley” is the most openly beautiful poetry of this tricky poet, beautiful in the way most people understand beauty.  But Christensen finds beauty in form, in repetition, less an antipoet than a poet of the greatest possible purity.


  1. Do not scold me for this statement (which I think I have made previously some months ago): I have always been uncomfortable (yes, that is the word) with poetry in translation because of all that can be lost in the translation. Nevertheless, your Christensen postings are intriguing. I'm not quite sold on reading Christensen, but you are persuasive. Well done!

  2. "The work is a sequence of fifteen sonnets, as traditional a scheme as Christensen uses, except – of course there is another rule – the first line of a poem is the last line of the previous poem. Then the fifteenth and final poem is nothing but the first lines of each of the previous fourteen poems."

    That is a traditional form of sonnet sequence in itself. I've come across them in French and Italian- can't remember where, I'm afraid.

  3. Roger, I was wondering, but I could not find the form, out of ignorance, not knowing where to look. So then truly traditional. Thanks.

    No question, RT, much is lost, yet translators keep hacking away. These particular translations at least have the official stamp of approval of the translator. They were more or less written on her kitchen table.

    1. Heroic crown of sonnets is the term:

    2. Thank you. "The Bulgarian poet Venko Markovski wrote and published more than 100 crowns of sonnets, which also contained acrostics dedicated to various historical figures." Good lord.

  4. Re: lost in translation
    Over the years, I've sampled maybe a dozen translations of Dante's Divine Comedy, even Sinclair's prose translation, and I am amazed that each translation can be so different. The differences bother me -- but no so much that I've taken time to learn late medieval Italian. In any case, oddly enough, I remain most impressed with John Ciardi's translation. Perhaps that is because his translation was the first I read when I was a college freshman. And, after all, isn't it true that we always have a soft spot in our hearts for the first time?

    1. Penguin in the U.K. published a series of books: Homer/Virgil/Horace... in English consisting of selections of one poet into English by a variety of historical translators which showed just how varied they could be.

    2. They were in the US, too. I remember those. There was Seneca, too. And, breaking the pattern, Baudelaire.

    3. A variorum of Fleurs Du Mal translations you say, amateur lecteur, - mon semblable, - mon frere!

    4. Thanks - I must have picked up that Baudelaire book a dozen times. I was a fool to put it down.

    5. " There was Seneca, too. And, breaking the pattern, Baudelaire.".... and Dante too, it seems, though I missed that one.
      Many years ago there was a contest in the Sunday Times for translations of one of Baudelaire's "Spleen" poems which had several thousand entries. I think a selection was published.

  5. Mandatory Borges quote:

    Around 1916, I decided to apply myself to the study of Oriental literatures. As I was reading with credulous enthusiasm the English translation of a certain Chinese philosopher, I came across this memorable passage: “It matters little to a convict on the way to his execution if he has to walk along the edge of precipices; he has already given up on life.” To that phrase, the translator had appended an asterisk, and indicated that his interpretation was to be preferred to that of a rival sinologist who had rendered the same passage thus: “Servants would destroy the works of art to avoid having to pass judgment on their beauty or defects.” At that point, like Paolo and Francesca, I read no further. A mysterious skepticism had crept into my soul.

  6. That is the best kind of skepticism. Animals that belong to the emperor, animals drawn with very fine camel hair brush, animals that are included in this classification, etc.