Part of the Labyrinth
From Brev i april (Letter in April), Inger Christensen, 1979
Reading the late Inger Christensen’s poetry collections Light, Grass, and Letter In April (New Directions; 148 pages), as translated by Susanna Nied, is akin to stepping into a river of deceptive depth. The long-celebrated Danish poet doesn’t parade with fanfare the complexity of her work. (The first poem in Light is just six lines.) Yet progressing through these poems, a strong, invisible current pulls on the reader with gathering strength. With a plaintive tone easy to underestimate, Christensen allows her algorithmic language to work as a sort of vortex that warps one’s perception of reality.
In Nied’s crystalline translation of three of Christensen’s collections — two of which, Light and Grass, are her earliest, and all of which are appearing in English for the first time — economy and profundity share a seam. Christensen, who died in 2009, possessed a fondness for intricate frameworks in her pieces. “The structure of a work isn’t usually seen as a type of philosophy,” she is quoted as saying in the book’s introduction. “But that’s how I think of it, and I believe it’s been that way for me since my first book was published.
Not unfamiliar with Christensen’s work, Nied translated her 1981 book alfabet (Alphabet), a text that incorporated Fibonacci mathematical sequences. Christensen’s penchant for the interdisciplinary doesn’t stop with numbers. Her poems, according to Nied, bear the influences of Heidegger as well as French composer Olivier Messaien, an innovator of a musical approach to tonality known as serialism. Letter in April capitalizes on this concept, composed of a series of sections and subsections that contain corresponding and repeated motifs alongside the work of illustrator Johanne Foss.
In the atmosphere created by these poems, it is not just the body’s negotiation with its place in space-time that is jarring, but the body’s acknowledgment, or possibly ultimate acceptance, of itself. In these pieces, often devoid of any designated speaker or sign of life, the body can become its own virus, its own invader to be fought and rejected, as in an untitled poem in Light:
Beneath the skin