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from the December 2015 issue: Knowing the Unknowable: Writing from Madagascar

After Inger Christensen: Humans, Plants, and Planets in New Danish Poetry

In 2011, when I moved from my home country, Denmark, to New York, I was pleased to discover that I shared an idol with several literary Americans. The idol was Inger Christensen (1935–2009), a Danish writer particularly known for her mathematical approach to poetry—and considered the foremost Danish poetic experimentalist of her generation. Through translator Susanna Nied’s mastery, Christensen’s poems have gained a devoted following in English. I was less pleased to discover, however, that none of my American friends—except for those who had actually been to Denmark—could name another Danish poet after Christensen. 

Meanwhile, Danish literary fiction is currently having “a moment” in the United States. In the fall of 2013, Dorthe Nors’s short story “The Heron” was published in the New Yorker in Martin Aitken’s translation. Nors was the first Dane ever to have a piece of fiction published in the prestigious magazine. Shortly thereafter, Nors and Aitken received glowing reviews for Karate Chop, a short story collection co-published in February 2014 by Graywolf Press and A Public Space. Seven months later, Naja Marie Aidt’s short story collection, Baboon (Two Lines Press), emerged in Denise Newman’s translation, winning the 2015 PEN Translation Prize. This summer, Open Letter published another critically acclaimed work by Aidt—the novel Rock, Paper, Scissors, in K.E. Semmel’s translation—as part of a “Danish Women Writers” series of five books.

So what is happening with Danish poetry in translation?

A decade after her Christensen translations, Nied has now formed a partnership with Naja Marie Aidt, whose poetry is yet to be published in a book-length translation the United States. Although Aidt writes in Danish, she grew up in Greenland and now resides in New York—all cultural experiences and impressions that inhabit her multilingual poetry collection Alting Blinker (Everything Shimmers). The book consists of three narratives: One tells the nonlinear story of a child (“the child”), from its first to its eighteenth year; another considers places where one can reside; a third narrative mentions New York along with the former Danish colonies Greenland and the West Indies. Aidt’s informal, freewheeling poetic style is vastly different from Christensen’s—yet in the poem selected for this Danish feature, Aidt’s use of nature and myth suggest that these two poets may have more than a great translator in common.

While nature is often a place of comfort in Aidt’s Everything Shimmers, an opposite representation of nature can be found in Theis Ørntoft’s Digte 2014 (Poems 2014)—a collection currently being translated into English by Julia Cohen and Jens Bjering. Ørntoft's landscapes consist of rolling sheep heads, streets of maggots, rivers of hypodermic needles, plants growing out of your downstairs neighbors' throats. Intriguingly described as a collection of "apocalyptic ecopoetics," Poems 2014 displays a heightened yet unsentimental awareness of catastrophe in nature and in humans. Through a mixture of pop culture references, breaking news, rotten economies, and flesh-eating basements, Ørntoft’s poems serve as reports from a dystopia that sometimes mirrors the state of the Western world, sometimes is the state of the Western world.

Another important Danish voice in ecopoetics—and ecofeminism—is Ursula Andkjær Olsen. A poet's poet and a critic's darling, she won the prestigious literary award Montanaprisen in 2013 for her poetry collection Det 3. årtusindes hjerte (Third-Millennium Heart)—forthcoming from Broken Dimanche Press in my translation—with these words from the jury: “Third-Millennium Heart heavily underlines the fact that Ursula Andkjær Olsen possesses one of the wildest and sharpest intellects in Danish contemporary poetry.” The speaker in Third-Millennium Heart is an ambiguous character: abusive, yet a victim; fiercely emotional, yet icy and cynical. Scholar Ida Bencke expertly addresses this deliberate obscurity in her essay "The Body as Something Else: Posthumanism and Cyborg Hearts in the Work of Ursula Andkjær Olsen":

"In [Third-Millennium Heart], an utterly monstrous character of the body is presented to us: a heart, whose arteries and chambers lead us into complex architectural constructions and mythical castle facilities. From this hybrid body space a terrifying female figure arises, spewing a long list of contradictory judgments and prophesies out over the Western world's perverted civilization and market mechanisms. The work is composed of several short, out-of-breath-like texts that aggressively branch out, pointing in wild and completely different directions.”

The speaker travels in and out of internal and external observations—with the internal mainly consisting of emotionally violent depictions of pregnancy and motherhood, while the external switches between the human body, Western civilization, and the web of planets in the universe.

Similar motifs of the body and the universe are prevalent in Niels Lyngsø’s poetry. Although Lyngsø is a well-known poet in Denmark, I happened to read his work in English—in Gregory Pardlo’s translation—before reading it in the original Danish. Pardlo’s translation, Pencil of Rays and Spiked Mace, was published by Canadian BookThug in 2004 and contains work from three of Lyngsø’s collections: Stof (Matter), Force Majeure (Force Majeure), and MORFEUS (MORPHEUS). The poem “Face (still life),” appearing in this issue of Words without Borders, however, is a brand-new translation from the collection 39 digte til det brændende bibliotek (39 Poems for the Burning Library). Hopefully a book-length translation will appear soon—Pardlo was awarded a NEA grant for his translation of Pencil of Rays and Spiked Mace, and these very first lines on the very first page might explain why: “In the convex mirror of the sea, the sky is in pieces: / stars doze in the cradled waves, / constellations flow, get displaced, the / Milky Way simmers in lengthening swells.”

So what happens next in Danish translation?

The next writer to be published in Open Letter’s Danish series is Josefine Klougart with the novel One of Us Is Sleeping (Summer 2016), in Martin Aitken’s translation. The Klougart/Aitken duo has already signed a contract with Deep Vellum for another novel, On Darkness (Winter 2016–17). Like Aidt, Klougart writes both poetry and prose, and I am certain that we will hear much more from both authors next year and beyond. Until then: let it be known that poetry is indeed being translated—and that it is coming to claim its spot in US translation, just as Danish fiction did before it.

December 2015
Knowing the Unknowable: Writing from Madagascar
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