Inger Christensen - Bind yourself to a random person whose random circumstances cause you to no longer recognize yourself simply as a human being

Inger Christensen, Azorno, Trans. by Denise Newman (New Directions, 2009)

«One of the men is a writer named Sampel, the other is the main character of his novel, Azorno. All the women are pregnant by Sampel, but which of them is really the narrator? Has someone been killed? Is someone insane? Is the whole story part of Sampel’s book, or Inger Christensen’s?
Reminiscent of the works of Georges Perec and Alain Robbe-Grillet, Azorno illuminates the prevailing theme throughout Inger Christensen’s great body of poetry and fiction: the interplay of perception, language, and reality. As Anne Carson said, “Like Hesiod, Inger Christensen wants to give us an account of what is—of everything that is and how it is and what we are in the midst of.” Ending with the struggle between two merged characters, Azorno simultaneously satisfies and unsettles, leaving us with a view of reality unlike any other.»

«Azorno resembles a house of mirrors. Images and passages recur with slight variations. The setting shifts between Copenhagen, Zurich, and Paris; points of view also shift, leaving the reader to puzzle out which of the characters is speaking. There are five women and two men. One man is a writer named Sampel, the other is Azorno, the main character of his novel. All the women are pregnant by Sampel. Some know each other, and they meet and write letters that comprise their novel about five women and a man named Sampel, who sometimes calls himself Azorno, and who is also writing a novel that may include one or more of the women.»

«What a puzzling book! Or rather – what a puzzle of a book. How to review it? I think a good way to start is by contrasting it to books that failed me where it succeeded. About a year ago I reviewed Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist. My feelings toward that book have declined sharply, in part because it has come to represent — surely unfairly – something I despise. To me, it was obfuscated solely for the sake of appearing more substantial than it was, mistaking opaque for profound. That is about as bad in my book as being clever just to be clever. I like inovative and unconventional and even obfuscated style, but it should serve and not detract from the substance of the book. When I started Inger Christensen’s Azorno (1967; tr. by Denise Newman 2009), I was a bit wary because there are enough blatant contradictions and perspective shifts early in the text to suggest Christensen is just poking fun at the reader because, as the author, she can. (However, there were never parts with strange abstractions like in Gordimer, and I remember that being the worst part of that book.) Well, my worries quickly went away when Azorno, though not being clear in itself, clearly settled on some fascinating themes — and the obfuscation enhanced those themes (yes!).
The first line is very interesting. It also introduces the loose boundaries of the text and the uncertain nature of the facts presented.
'I’ve learned that I’m the woman he first meets on page eight.'
I admit, I didn’t wait to read pages one through seven before skipping to page eight to see who was talking. Strangely, there is no encounter of this sort on page eight, so either that first page is not talking about this book or it is lying. Disoriented, I read on to discover what it was talking about. A writer named Sampel is working on a book. Azorno is the main character. The woman who wrote this introductory sentence thinks she is the inspiration for the lovely woman Azorno meets on page eight of Sampel’s book. In the next section, another narrator takes over, though at the time the transition is not apparent. It soon becomes obvious that we are dealing with multiple narrators who are writing letters to one another. But then come the contradictions:
'But if the truth is finally to come out, there’s one thing that can’t have two meanings: Yesterday I was with Azorno here in Rome. It was the first Sunday in May, and the noon hour was unbelievably hot.
It was the first Sunday in May and the air was unusually cool. I had just said good-bye to Azorno and wasn’t sure which direction to walk now that I was alone after three uninterrupted days with Azorno, who always decides which direction to take...'
Slowly, despite the uncertainty of who the women are and where they stand in relationship with each other and with Sampel and Azorno, the women take shape in the minds of the reader. Then Christensen blurs the image, and we’re just not sure (and I never was again sure) who was real and who was imagined, who was writing what I was reading and who was the potential pseudonym. Was one of the women writing this book under an assumed name? Was Sampel himself writing it? Is it Sampel’s wife? Is it Adorno?
This might sound frustrating, and I suppose it could be if approached with the wrong expectations. However, as I alluded above, the technique is not without its purpose. Furthermore, the story itself is very compelling. See, there are five women in all. The one who is silent for the first part of the book takes a greater role in the second half. This is Bet Sampel, Sampel’s wife. Here is a heartbreaking thing she says when she finally gets her voice and is not merely the subject of the other women’s letters.
'As early as page eight I noticed a very incisive and loving account of the woman Azorno, the main character, meets.
At first I was flattered to think that Sampel had used me as a model for this compelling description, but gradually, as I read on, it became clear that he was describing someone else.'
Trying to figure out just who is the inspiration for that fabulous description, Bet narrows it down to four candidates and, using a telegram from Sampel, invites them all to their house while Sampel is away. Sampel has been away for months, and during this time Bet has found out she is pregnant with his child. All four women show up, and all of the other four are also pregnant. Christensen doesn’t let this go to melodrama, though, and the scene where the women sit awkwardly around while Bet analyzes them is fantastic. It also ends bizarrely, alluding to the possibility that someone is insane, perhaps institutionalized. And maybe someone has been murdered. Maybe not. Figuring out the truth is not the point.
There is nothing to be solved, but something to bind. Bind one to the other. Bind yourself to a random person whose random circumstances cause you to no longer recognize yourself simply as a human being, but rather as a human-made being.» -

«Inger Christensen, who passed away in January of this year, is best known in America as an experimental poet, if she is known at all. Now the second of her three novels (also the second to appear in English; Harvill Press published her 1976 book The Painted Room in 2000) is finally appearing in America over forty years after it was written.'
On page one of Azorno, the narrator says, “I’ve learned that I’m the woman he first meets on page eight.” Perhaps you have more patience than I, but if not, flip to page eight and be prepared for disappointment: there is no “he,” though there are two women. Unfortunately, we met them a few pages back. Perhaps, then, an error in the translation, a slight shift in font size that cooked the numbers? Perhaps… but there is no such meeting on page seven or page nine, and none to be found on six or ten for that matter. Yet lovers of metafiction need not despair, for Inger Christensen is merely setting the stage for her endlessly puzzling and dazzling novel, a contradictory work that may or may not be self-referential, but is never content with the confines of reality.
Five women—who sometimes appear as friends, sometimes as complete strangers—are, or have been, involved with the writer Sampel. It is Sampel’s most recent book’s eighth page that is referenced on the first page of this one, and the “he” who meets the woman is Azorno, the main character for both Sampel and Christensen. The novel (which is only about 100 pages, and really should be read in one sitting) does not have a central plot, but is broken up into different sections, each with a different narrator. In the first twenty pages or so, the women write a series of letters in which they argue over who the woman in Sampel’s book is supposed to be. A later section is presented as part of a novel by one of the women, Louise, but then another, Katarina, claims to be the author and admits she used her friend’s name as a pseudonym. In a third section, however, Randi also claims that she is the one writing the book. Later it will be Bet Sampel, who is Sampel’s wife, and finally by the end Sampel gets a chance to speak, but then he claims to be Azorno. If this is not confusing enough, the same details reappear again and again in different narratives and completely different contexts: a dog named Goethe, a drawing on the wall near a cigarette stain; even whole chunks of text are copied verbatim from one page onto another.» - Timothy Nassau

«Whether “Azorno” is a novelesque prose poem, or a poetic novel written in prose is up for debate—as is much of the nature of its contents. A hall of mirrors, the book was written by acclaimed Danish poet Inger Christensen, who died in early January of this year at 73. Denise Newman’s translation of “Azorno,” released in January, marked the first time since its publication in the late 1960s that the novel has been available in English, and while the book’s experimental nature makes its absence rather unsurprising, the arrival of its 105 pages is long overdue.
To crystallize the plot of “Azorno” is to reduce the atmosphere that makes it beautiful and in which its quavering logic (and, in turns, illogic) dwells. Who does what is beside the point. The book’s central drama is also its opening one. It is the question of which woman meets Azorno on page eight, page eight being that of the mysterious novel within the novel ostensibly. The eponymous Azorno is cited as the protagonist of Sampel’s book, yet Sampel is also called Azorno, both by himself and by the women who may or may not surround him in reality—whatever reality may be. Incidentally, no such encounter can be found on page eight of this book, though it does play out on many others, recurring in different guises and gardens as one of the novel’s central tropes. And it is this drama’s—the question’s—unresolved nature that is most easily illustrative of its beauty.
The novel’s kaleidoscope of females—Xenia, Louise, Randi, Katarina, Bathsheba—all write novels or letters, but beyond existing on the page to the reader at hand (which is to say Christensen’s) they are themselves written by one another in turn, defined as characters within each others’ dramas. And throughout the text—or perhaps texts—author and creation become blurred beyond distinction.
Christensen’s book collapses the so-called fact and fiction that separate the characters’ interior and exterior spaces. Like Sampel and Azorno, the five women—four of them claiming to be lovers of the author/protagonist and one of them his wife—are not quite interchangeable. Each possesses her own subtleties of speech, and yet they are constantly interchanged. They call for one another, assume each others’ names, and send each other off on rescue missions that feel more like sabotage. All the while the book’s metafictional mystery of the woman on page eight plays out amidst murders and pregnancies that, truth be told, do not actually exist. As Randi narrates in an aside midway through the novel, “By the way, I don’t think Katarina was even trying to get close to the truth, if once again, just for a moment, I consider the truth to be the actual circumstances.” The “truth” and “actual circumstances” only coincide for mere moments: it is the rest of the time that we are concerned with. When Randi relays Katarina’s story a few lines later “etc., etc., etc.” replaces the version of events. What is relayed are Katarina’s emotional and physical demands—and the accusation that Louise is caught in a daydream.
It is the reader most of all who feels caught in a daydream, shuffled between the novel’s ever-changing “I”s and shifting versions of events. Goethe is a smiling dog who eats sandwiches. Goethe is porcelain statue. A suitcase is packed by Randi. A suitcase, topped with the woman on page eight’s ubiquitous white hat is packed by Bet. And by Sampel.
These recursive moments extend throughout the book, resonating with the more formal structure of poetry or music, which so often relies on reiteration and redoubling. The lyricism of the text is ever present, and Christensen’s prowess as an experimental poet, known for her groundbreaking works in verse—in particular “It,” “Alphabet,” and “Butterfly Valley: A Requiem,” all of which have been translated into English in recent years—cannot be forgotten when reading her prose.
The emphasis on cadence and the special weight of each word that appears in novels written by poets such as this pose quite a challenge to any translator, particularly one attempting to shift the paradoxically melodious and halting prosody of Danish into English. In many ways, its no wonder “Azorno” has gone untranslated for so many decades—I only wish I knew what transformations the Danish words underwent in the original, and how Newman’s version compares. Christensen is constantly playing with language puzzles, and it is Newman’s task to maintain this play with an entirely different set of pieces. A paragraph might break down into a single sentence, which is then distilled to a word; “explain” is deconstructed to “plain” then to “in,” which in turn begins a new phrase.
However, it must be said that Newman’s version does contain the odd off word, small moments here and there that stick out of sentences. These words are most often slightly more colloquial than seems appropriate, alerting the reader to the text’s transmutation. However, far more tangible are the marvelous moments in which Newman’s work succeeds, conveying in prose both vivid and dreamy the physiognomy of botanicals, the silence beneath seas, and the sounds of fountains whose tones vary slightly from that of rain.
It is rare for a text to be lovely, lilting, and dealing in love, without ever lapsing into the saccharine. “Azorno” is hard to pick up and put down—not simply because the maze is hard to enter again until it has already been read through once and returned to, but because you simply may not want to leave its swirling eddies of worlds. The novel could be accused of slightness, and in many ways it does feel like a beautiful exercise more than it does a finished masterwork. But despite its small spine and recursive nature, “Azorno” contains multitudes, and it is to the novel’s credit that it asks more questions than it ever answers. Just whose daydream this is we never know for sure, but at Christensen and Newman’s combined best it feels like our own.» — Anna K. Barnet
Inger Christensen, Alphabet, Trans. by Susanna Nied (New Directions, 2001)

«In Alphabet, Christensen creates a framework of psalm-like forms that unfold like expanding universes, crystallising into words both the beauty and the potential for destruction that permeate our world and our times.»

«The ecological crisis forms the starting point for a part ecstatic homage to the world and nature, which in spite of everything is still found: partly in the active sense that it exists, partly in the passive sense that it is discovered and understood – by the poet and by us.» – Erik Skyum-Nielsen

«Inger Christensen’s use of systems in no way inhibits the evolution of her poetry. On the contrary, it is as if the poetry comes about by virtue of the systems; as if it emerges in the interplay and friction with a random, but fixed order. In alphabet, Inger Christensen has created a system by combining the alphabet with Fibonacci’s numeric sequence, in which each number is equal to the sum of the two preceding numbers: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 etc. alphabet is about the relationship between people and nature and, like it, is itself a form of creation. With the word exist as the pivot, the poems move – from the first wondering confirmation apricot trees exist – out into the world to life and death, the planet and calamity.» – Christian Egesholm
“One of Scandinavia's most honored poets, veteran Danish writer Christensen originally published her book-length Alphabet 20 years ago to great acclaim; this translation by former San Diego State Univ. English instructor Susanna Nied is the first in English and was awarded the American-Scandinavian PEN translation prize. The lengths in lines of each of this slim volume's 14 poems from "[a]" to "[n]" are based on the Fibonacci sequence. Beginning with zero and one, the sequence runs 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 600; "[a]" begins where (0 + 1 = 1). One assumes the 977 lines "[o]" would have required finally overwhelmed the poet and forced her to stop at ["n"]; Ron Silliman's similar alphabetic project makes no such allowances. As used here with controlled repetitions, the sequence gives the whole an almost medieval sense of restriction, as in the last four lines of "[e]": "afterglow exists; oaks, elms,/ junipers, sameness, loneliness exist;/ eider ducks, spiders, and vinegar/ exist, and the future, the future." Abstracted cold war fears and post-'70s ecological concern and alienation give way to litanies of real world outrages "chemical ghetto guns exist/ with their old-fashioned, peaceable precision// guns and wailing women, full as/ greedy owls exist; the scene of the crime exists" which culminate in a post-nuclear holocaust nightmare, with birds and children somehow having survived in caves. The scenario may seem dated, but the threats remain very real, and Christensen's poetic appeal for sanity and humanity remains an abstracted call to action. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.” – Publishers Weekly

«Inger Christensen's alphabet is built up under two formal constraints. It is an alphabetical sequence: each of the fourteen sections essentially begins with a successive letter of the alphabet, from A through N, with that letter then often dominating the section. (Note that the eighth section, in fact, does not literally begin with H in the English translation, and the eleventh doesn't begin with K.) So, for example, the third section (in its entirety) reads:
cicadas exist; chicory, chromium,
citrus trees; cicadas exist;
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum
The poem is also built up based on Fibonacci's sequence (where every number is the sum of the two previous numbers), which goes: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987, etc. Forgetting about the first two numbers, Christensen's first section has one line, the second two, the third three, the fourth five, the fifth eight, etc. (Note however that it doesn't quite seem to add up at the end.) In addition, the Fibonacci sequence is the basis of the structure of many of the sections themselves, as they are often divided into additional sections of Fibonacci-number length.
The measured but ultimately explosive growth of the Fibonacci sequence, feeding on itself, is appropriate for the poem.
alphabet is a poem that both basks in the wonder of the world and nature, and is keenly aware of the man-made threats to it. It begins: "apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist". Even here the seeds of danger are present, unmentioned but inescapable. The apricot is an attractive, tasty fruit, but, as Christensen surely expects here readers to know, its pit contains poison.
The second section reads:
bracken exists; and blackberries, blackberries;
bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen
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.
Chromium, dioxin and doves, "harvest, history, and Halley's / comet": Christensen builds the poem up slowly. Existence dominates. She lists. She contrasts. Threats become more real: guns, poison, "half-lives, / famine, and honey" Even in mentions of oxygen and milk there is an undertone of present threat.
She finally acknowledges: "atom bombs exist", and succinctly describes the events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The eleventh section begins: "love exists, love exists", and it almost sounds plaintive by now. The hold weakens: "people, livestock, dogs exist, are vanishing". Then:
hydrogen bombs exist
a plea to die
It is this ultimate threat, and living with it, that is the focus of the poem. Christensen offers numerous approaches to it. There is the descriptive, the analytical, the emotional. The formal constraints allow her to try to express the unspeakable. "alphabets exist", and at least these building blocks allow for some sense of order in an overwhelming world.
Nuclear devastation is not the only fear. Man's assault on nature, in whatever form, is a concern:
defoliants exist
dioxin for instance
denuding trees and
shrubs and destroying
people and animals
Poetry holds some hope for her. She forces herself to write, to tackle the issues head-on. She repeats: "there's no more to say" -- and still finds more to say:
there's no more
to say; we kill
more than we think
more than we know
more than we feel;
there's no more
to say; we hate;
there is no more;
Repetition is used throughout, to good effect. There is a constant echoing -- but it is neither clumsy nor annoying, resounding convincingly even in the translation.
The formal constraints are not a burden on the reader, and, in fact, powerfully support the poem. Christensen's poetry is also quite impressive throughout, from simple images ("as tree after tree foams up in / early summer") to some of the starker scenes of life and death.
An interesting, worthwhile piece.» - The Complete Review

«Inger Christensen's alphabet is a poetic masterpiece—as is Susanna Nied's wonderful translation. Each of the collection's 14 sections begins with the corresponding first letter of the alphabet, up to n. The number of verses in each section is determined by Fibonacci's mathematical sequence, in which each number is the sum of the two previous numbers (0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13 etc.). Thus, "a" has one line, "b" has 2, "c" has 3, "d" has 5, and so on. As the length of the sections increases, so does the intensity.
Intensity, though, is there from the start. The first line of this book-length poem reads, "apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist". This sets the tone immediately. The theme of the work is one of teeming life versus utter destruction. Throughout the book, the poet leads the reader back and forth between the two, often in the same section. The resulting contrast makes the reader feel both all the more deeply. Thus, in section 7 we read,
branches exist, wind lifting them exists,
and the lone drawing made by the branches
of the tree called an oak tree exists,
of the tree called an ash tree, a birch tree
and a few lines down,
guns exist; in the midst of the lit-up
chemical ghetto guns exist
with their old-fashioned, peaceable precision
guns and wailing women, full as
greedy owls exist; the scene of the crime exists
There are no periods in the entire poem. Instead, we are given commas and semi-colons. Thus, all elements of the poem blend into each other. Everything is connected in the poem, as it is in the universe.
The choice of the Fibonacci Series is no coincidence. Based on the number Phi (1.618…), the Fibonacci Series, also known as the Golden Mean, the Magic Ratio, and the Divine Proportion, "can be found throughout the universe, from the spirals of galaxies to the spiral of a Nautilus seashell […] the Divine Proportion presents itself in the very physical nature of Creation. It is seen as the beauty and organization within the cosmos. It is the harmony and glue that holds the unity of the universe" (
This poem reflects the Divine Proportion: the spiral of galaxies and sea shells. And so, the poem moves like a spiral. Words or images recur… one gets a sense of traveling with the poet through the Milky Way, perhaps, or perhaps something smaller, but just as magical in nature. Let us use the example of apricot trees, which opened the poem. We return to them several times—in section 6:
and fruit trees exist, fruit there in the orchard where
apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist
in countries whose warmth will call forth the exact
colour of apricots in the flesh
in section 11:
somewhere a wild
apricot tree stands still for a moment
and blooms, but just with a very
thin veil on the outspread branches
before going on regardless
and in section 12:
I met only the blank scrutiny
of an apricot tree in bloom, turning
around as it left suddenly
to name but a few. Other images also come up repeatedly: ice, snow, blackberries, and various birds. The reader gets the sense that these repetitions are taking place at parallel points on a spiral.
A poem so passionate about life could have risked slipping into sentimentality. But it never does. One reason for this is the stark contrast between these vibrant elements of nature, and the totality of destruction. The third page of section 10 begins, "atom bombs exist" (24), and goes on to describe, in alternating statistical and poetic fashion, the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In section 11, a mere two pages after the blooming apricot tree, we read:
hydrogen bombs exist
a plea to die
as people used to die
one day in ordinary
weather, whether you
know you are dying
or know nothing…
and in section 12, just after seeing "the Madonna/in a matted thicket/of green blackberries", we are suddenly pounded with cobalt bombs:
cobalt bombs exist
wrapped in their cloaks
of cobalt-60 isotopes
whose half-life
ensures the most
harmful effects
This back and forth between life and death is one of the aspects that lend the poem its power.
Another aspect is the music of the piece: not only the images, but also the language itself moves like a spiral. Just as the shape of the poem as a whole is cosmic, so too, the rhythm reflects the music of the spheres: "bracken exists; and blackberries, blackberries;/bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen". Christensen is not afraid of repetition. The confidence and authority in the speaker's voice do not leave the reader room for doubt. Though most of the poem does follow this type of rhythmical pattern, she avoids redundancy; she occasionally breaks the pattern with pages that have an altogether different shape and rhythm:
so here I stand by the Barents Sea

out there is the Barents Sea

and it looks like the Barents Sea

is always alone with the Barents Sea

but around behind the Barents Sea

the water stops at Spitzbergen

and just behind Spitzbergen

ice drifts in the Arctic Ocean

and so on, around the world. Nature's design is never abandoned. The poem moves as the cosmos does: cyclically, but with breaks in its otherwise spiral-shaped motion.
Christensen expresses the need for the poet to imitate nature in all she does: "a dreamer/must dream like the trees, be a dreamer/of fruit to the last". She must also think like nature:
… said
to myself: think like
a bird building nests,
think like a cloud, like
the roots of the dwarf birch
think; like a leaf on a tree
thinks; like shadow and light,
like shining bark thinks
Toward the end of the book, the work takes on a meta-poetic bent. The writer must not only live like nature, but also write like it:
I write like wind
that writes with clouds'
tranquil script
or quickly across the sky
in vanishing strokes
as if with swallows
Yes, Inger Christensen does. And Susanna Nied translates like it. This book is not for the weak of heart; but for those courageous enough to take on the universe, and particularly this little planet within it, it is a marvelous feat, "a design as simple as laughter". As for myself, I can only hope that the poet will one day write a sequel to this alphabet, beginning with o and taking us to z.» - Deniz Perin
Inger Christensen, Butterfly Valley: A Requiem, Trans. by Susanna Nied (New Directions, 2004)

«A collection of four beautiful and innovative works of poetry. Inger Christensen, often cited as a Nobel contender and one of Europe's most revered poets, is perhaps best known for her groundbreaking work Det (It), a cycle of poems published in 1969. Her first book published in the US, Alphabet, met with a tremendous response: "Seductive," said Boston Review. "A visionary reincarnation of the natural world in the atomic age," wrote The Chicago Review. Butterfly Valley: A Requiem collects four medium-length works, each startling for its beauty and formal innovation. "Butterfly Valley" is a sonnet cycle in which the glowing colors and beauty of butterflies are described, and yet also their obvious fragility and mortality: memory is uncovered in the poem like the fluttering of their wings. In "Watersteps," the fountains and piazzas of Rome coalesce, brought alive by the imagination in the poem's shifting rhythms, lines, and overall structure. In "Poem on Death" the poet seeking immortality faces the whiteness of the page as the blankness of death: "it feels so odd/ immodest to think/ about death when no one/ you know has died/ it means that each time/ you look at yourself in the mirror/ you look death in the eye/ without crying/ like a clear and fully/ comprehensible answer/ but to questions/ you dare not ask." "Meeting" describes a "coming together," yet examines our failure to connect and the ability of language to overcome this. It is written in extended sections, with pathos, anger, and sly humor.»
Inger Christensen, it, Trans. by Susanna Nied (New Directions, 2006)

«it is the masterwork by Danish poet Inger Christensen ("a true singer of the syllables," said C. D. Wright), often cited as a Nobel contender and one of Europe's most revered poets. On its publication in 1969, it took Denmark by storm, winning critical praise and becoming a huge popular favorite. Translated into many languages, it won international acclaim and is now a classic of modern Scandinavian poetry.
it is both a collection of poems and a single poetic epic, forming a philosophical statement on the nature of language, perception, and reality. The subject matter, though, is down to earth: amoebas, stones, and factories; fear, sea urchins, and mental institutions; sand, sexuality, and song. The words and images of it recur in ways reminiscent of Christensen's other works, but here is a younger poetry, wilder, and crackling with energy. The marvelous and complex use of mathematical structure in it is faithfully captured in Susanna Nied's English translation, which won a 2005 PEN Translation Fund Award.»

«Christensen's sprawling, cosmically ambitious, book-length poem became a national hit in Denmark soon after its 1969 publication, and it's not hard to see why. The segments' diverse shapes prose litany, chiming quatrains, stuttering free verse, telegram, prose diary show mastery enough for almost any taste, while the overarching ideology liberation for the whole human person from institutions, laws, mere forms perfectly fit the late '60s' radical mood. Christensen begins by describing the creation of the whole world, narrows her focus to modern Danish society, then imagines recreating it, first in lyrical fragments ("A happy machine/ A wild imagination/ A fantastic din") and then through extended parables in which patients from an insane asylum learn to love one another and orchestrate social protests involving mass nudity. Drawing on Nietzsche, quoting Blake and Novalis, Christensen promises "crowns of gold for the holy/ fables for the freedom of matter," and argues that "the completely unreasonable activity is in reality reasonable, because it ends in a vision." Nied (who also translated Christensen's Alphabet) duplicates the Danish poem's mathematical schemes while also conveying its freshness and sense of freedom. Poet and classicist Anne Carson contributes a helpful introduction.» - Publishers Weekly

«Something like a history of consciousness and something like a 237-page logic puzzle, Susanna Nied’s translation of it (Danish poet Inger Christensen’s opus from 1969) investigates how language dissects, describes, and organizes the world. Christensen examines (among other things) the way the faulty engine of speech illuminates and circumscribes our perceptions of reality: “The words stay where they are / while the world vanishes / This is a criticism of the way language is used / Because it’s a criticism of the way things are.” A long poem in three parts, it meditates on how words mold power dynamics among people and environments. Christensen wrestles with the impossibility of sharing an objective reality with anyone else when all experience must be mediated through the subjective filters of language and sensory perception. In it, words and the systems of mythology they create evoke resonances—both sympathetic and hostile—between individuals. But these resonances, formed from the unreliable material of language, are suspect: “Does no interstice exist / that’s not an empty zone / and not a battle zone / just a play of lines.” In Danish the poem relies on a formal scheme of line counts and syllabics for effect. Nied wisely refrains from torturing her translation into the same shape. Instead, she conveys meaning through careful diction in phrases like “as paper at rest / while a word passes,” or “the birds fall / and in quantities of light-years we see their death.” Nied does her finest work in the subtler, more introspective sections of the poem. By contrast, the overtly political parts of the translation feel flatter, less textured than the rest of the verse. Though a few of the poems falter around a singsong rhyme scheme (“fly” and “sky”, “be” and “see”) or a precious tautology (“I think what I see with my eyes / I see with my eyes what I think”) Nied’s translation offers a lyrical and intricate adaptation of Christensen’s work.» -Rebecca Porte
Inger Christensen, The Painted Room: A Tale of Mantua, Trans. by Denise Newman (Random House, 2000)

«This story places the reader in front of the painting of Prince Gonzaga and his household as depicted by Mantegna on the wall of the Bridal Chamber in the palace, and many of the characters - Marsilio the secretary, Nana the dwarf daughter of the house, Bernardino, young son of the painter - put in pieces of the elaborate puzzle of court intrigue and human relationships. Some were to end happily, others in violence and tragedy.»


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