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from the September 2017 issue

Solid but Yielding: Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s “Third-Millennium Heart”

Olsen and Jensen create a world in which humans, reconfigured as animal machines, somehow assume their most human form.

Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Third-Millennium Heart, translated from the Danish by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, feels like strolling through a wide-open space that allows room for each poem to be itself; I walk through and visit different sides of the objects, different bodies, different possibilities of living. While there is a certain level of continuity to the two hundred or so poems in this collection, there is also the possibility of choosing a single poem at random and walking away feeling fulfilled and complete, with something to meditate on for the rest of the day. I admire Olsen for this; by putting together such a large book she is able to create an entire world and a highly developed lexicon equal to that task. The translated language is gorgeous and reflects invention and renewal within English through the intervention of Danish. Jensen bends English to Danish, expanding her own language rather than forcing Danish into the contours of English in hopes of a smoother read. The poems can be jolting and provide a window into an unknown realm for those of us who do not read Danish—they are a reminder of the language-ness of language itself.

The poems here range from explorations of the human body to criticisms of late capitalism to explorations of matriarchy and the relation of these subjects to each other. The lexicon itself feels scientific, as terms and images repeated in the poems come to feel like an original nomenclature employed by Olsen and Jensen to redefine human parts or even new species. This process is visible from the very first poem:

The third-millennium heart is a
place of many chambers

complex being with bridges and passages
transporting bodies around
increasingly fleeting and flexible patterns

castle that

humans, animals, gods
work, loneliness
babel and ivory

move through.

My outwardly face; I wash it in whatever
streams by.

The heart’s chambers may be familiar but not their bridges, not what they carry. Olsen seems to suggest an impermanence which circulates within us. Not only do “humans, animals, gods” move through this space but the water at the end of the stanza is moving, a fast-moving stream we step into only momentarily. The “fleeting and flexible patterns,” however, grant surprising stability and reassurance to these words, as if the current is moving so quickly in this poem that we are bound to an active stillness.

This active stillness is constantly at play within these poems. Over and over again the narrative voice returns to the quiet turbulence of identity. This makes space for creation of a new self as well as a detachment from fixed positions and bodies.

In the translator’s note Jensen mentions creating certain words for language that seemed impossible to translate, mirroring the need to create new modes of meaning. One of these invented words is “namedrunk.” The neologism “namedrunk” reflects the general state of using language, attempting to fix meanings to symbols and repeatedly, always failing.

I take my name from my surroundings: a place so namedrunk it
matches the namedrunk in me.

I name the place after myself: a place so nameless it
matches the nameless in me.

We walk around with our distant interior, throwing
out light. O to be beautiful when the fire erupts.

The middle stanza enters into the difficult concept of the fullness of emptiness in the most concrete of ways. It feels utterly relatable; all the world is in relation and meeting us halfway. This halfway point is where the poems reside, creating a hybrid language for hybrid humans.

Olsen reminds us through her language that what we think of as natural may, in fact, be the technical; the science of ourselves is renewed in these poems. Our cyborg state forces us to remember the other elements of our being, the animal elements, to see our bodies for the machines they are, not cut off from, but forever balancing with our thoughts and feelings, meant to serve any number of purposes. The technology found in Olsen’s descriptions of the human make room to move away from some pure notion of what the human then is and can be—whether that is animal, technological, or something else. In A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway writes:           

From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.

The animal side of Olsen’s poetic voice directs us toward hard truths. Oscillating as she writes about bodies, claiming that we are in a state of flux and change and yet have always been here, more animal and also more technological at the same time. Remaining in constant flux means we may feel less enclosed in biological and cultural norms, we are freer to create ourselves as we know and believe.


The male and the female, I rub these two against each other
until everything happens, I think with babel cunt, with ivory brain
until I think with babel brain, with ivory cock, and nothing inside
me will keep you from going there, where society is not, and color
your longings with RED radiance.

You are male = dynamic = moveable = soft.

I am female = static = hard.

You are male = stiff = static.

I am female = flexible = plastic = dynamic.

Anything is possible.

The equations reveal something particular in this poem, they are an algebra of feeling. For a while, they impel the reader to focus on the words, but then they begin to fall away and the repeated “this=that” proves how malleable our characteristics are, they are plastic, yielding to what they encounter. What we are can shift toward something else without completely changing its makeup.  As Catherine Malabou, in Carolyn Shread's translation, writes in her essay L’Avenir de Hegel:

By analogy to a malleable material, children are said to be “plastic.” However, the adjective” plastic,” if it is certainly opposed to “rigid,” “fixed,” “ossified,” is not to be confused with “polymorphous.” Things that are plastic preserve their shape, as does the marble in a statue: once given a configuration, it is unable to recover its initial form. “Plastic,” thus, designates those things that yield themselves to being formed while resisting deformation.

This notion of yielding seems present in the very first line of “The individual and the entire tissue …” If each of us is the individual, phrased as such, it would seem we are webbed into something much greater, individuals only contingently.

The individual and the entire tissue

Are the larger structures fayed into the individual en miniature, or is
only the tissue itself perverted? Does the entire tissue,

the entire city with falling towers exist
inside me,
and if that exists,
do all the castles and skies, tied to spires with strings of
gold and steel, exist to force the tissue to collaborate with the air in a
dome-shaped unit, hanging by long threads from the sky
inside me,
and if that exists,
does the entire spiderweb planet, sending winces from every point of the
surface to every other point of the surface and down, exist,
no one escapes
inside me,
and if that exists,

do I exist
inside myself?

In there, I move through the most common
of riddles.

Solid but yielding. All of it exists within this narrative voice, the tissue, the string, the steel and the gold. Olsen and Jensen create a world in which humans, reconfigured as animal machines, somehow assume their most human form. Stripped of what makes us separate from the other beings in the world, it would seem we are somehow still unique in the world of Third-Millennium Heart—each piece, each person, each language, each word yielding to each other in a singular way.

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