Inger Christensen (1935-2009)

Via AFP: Inger Christensen, considered one of Denmark’s greatest authors and long mentioned among probable candidates for a Nobel Literature prize, has died at the age of 73, on Friday, January 2, her publisher said on Monday. Born on Jan 16, 1935 in the western Danish town of Vejle, Christensen published her first collection of poems, Lys (Light) in 1962, followed by Graes (Grass) a year later, Det (It) in 1969, Alfabet (Alphabet) in 1981 and Sommerfugledalen (The Butterfly Valley), which critics have hailed as her masterpiece, 1991.

A few years ago, New Directions started to publish her work in the US and have so far brought out ALPHABET, BUTTERFLY VALLEY, and IT, very ably translated by Susanna Nied. Here is what I wrote on her for SULFUR magazine in 2002, and below those notes, an extract from Alphabet I translated in the early 90ies for Poems for the Millennium II:

Inger Christensen — poet, novelist, essayist — is the foremost Danish experimen-talist of her generation. Maybe her single finest work to date, Alfabet (1981) is a book-length poem using two reticulating systems: the alphabet (that adamic, prelapsarian state of language, as Roland Barthes suggests, because it is pre-word & pre-syntax, & thus before misuse, lying, rhetoric, polysemy are possible) & the Fibonacci series (where each number is the sum of the two previous ones, i.e.: 1,2,3,5,8,13,34,47,81,128…) Thus the first section of the poem is one line long and starts with an “A”, the second 2 lines long, and starts with a “B”, etcetera). Concerning the series, Christensen has said in an interview:

It was by accident that I found out about the Fibonacci series. These numerical ratios exist in nature — the way a leek wraps around itself from the inside, and the head of a sunflower, are all based on this series. That’s what’s so amazing. The series itself and its pecularities are more extraordinary than any poetry collection could be. A book of poetry becomes a metaphor for a mathemetical series, rather than vice-versa.

On her use of systematic porocedures for composing poetry, she told the same interviewer:

By using a system you are trying to reveal the rhythm of the universe. In the creation story, first there is silence, and then come patterns…. a useful benefit of a system is that you can’t just write the first thing that comes into your mind; because of the resistance of the system you get onto the track of something that you wouldn’t otherwise have thought of. The gift is that you are forced to put much more of the world into the poem. Sometimes it feels as though the poem is carrying you along. You have access to a universe that begins to carry you… into something that you would never have been able to see or write.

The rhythmic-syntactic base-line of the poem is the first line’s joyous affirmation (“apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist”) — modulated, as the poem takes in more of the world, by the noted existence of destruction & evil. While the early sections are single units, with the seventh letter (‘g’) — which in the Fibonacci series cor-responds to 34 — these units start to decompose into stanzas, and with section ten (‘i’ — 128 lines) into seperate poems . As each section foregrounds words star-ting with the alphabetically corresponding letter, translation tends to lose some of the systematicity. (Thus for section 9, the Danish word “is” easily yields the English “ice,” but in the next section the “j” of “jorden” is lost in its English translation “earth”).

from Alphabet


ice ages exist, ice ages exist,
ice of the arctics and ice of the kingfisher;
cicadas exist, chicory, chrome

and the chrome yellow iris, the blue iris; oxygen
indeed; also ice floes in the arctic ocean,
polar bears exist, as fur inscribed
with an individual number he exists, condemned to his life;
& the kingfisher’s mini-drop into the ice-blue rivers

of mars exists, if the rivers exist;
if oxygen in the rivers exists, oxygen
indeed; exists indeed there where the cicadas’
i-songs exist, there indeed where chicory
heaven exists blue dissolved in

water, the chrome yellow sun, oxygen
indeed; it will exist for sure, we will
exist for sure, the oxygen we breathe exists,
eye of fire crown of fire exist, and the heavenly
inside of the lake; a handle infolded
with bulrushes will exist , an ibis exists,
and the movements of the soul inhaled into clouds
exist, like oxygen storms deep inside Styx
and in the heart of wisdom’s landscape ice-light,
ice identical with light, and in the inner
heart of the ice-light emptyness, live, intense
like your gaze in the rain, that fine life-
iridescent rain where gesture-like
the fourteen crystal lattices exist, the seven
crystalline systems, your gaze in mine,
and Icarus, impotent Icarus exists;

Icarus swaddled in melting waxwings
exists; Icarus pale as a corpse in
civvies exists, Icarus all the way down where
the pigeons exist; dreamers, dolls
exist; the dreamers’ hair with cancerous tufts
torn out, the dolls’ skin pinned together
with nails, rotting wood of the mysteries; and smiles
exist, Icarus’ children white as lambs
in the gray light, will indeed exist, indeed
we will exist, and oxygen on oxygen’s crucifix;
as hoar-frost we will exist, as wind we will exist,
as the rainbow’s iris, in the shining shoots of
mesembryanthenum, in the tundra’s straw; small

we will exist, as small as bits of pollen in peat,
as bits of virus in bones, as swamp pink maybe
maybe as a bit of white clover, vetch, a bit of chamomile
exiled to the lost again paradise; but darkness
is white say the children, the darkness of paradise is white,
but not white as a a coffin is white,
that is if coffins exist, and not
white as milk is white,
that is if milk exists; white is white,
the children say, darkness is white, but not
white as the white existing
before fruit trees existed, their flowering so white,
darkness is whiter, eyes melt


june night exists, june night exists,
sky finally as if lifted up to celestial
heights and simultaneously pushed down as gently as when
dreams are visible before being dreamed; a s
pace like
swooned, like saturated with whiteness, a timeless

knell of dew and insects, and nobody in this
gossamer, nobody understands that
autumn exists, that aftertaste and afterthought
exist, only these restless lines of fantastic
ultrasounds exist and the bat’s
jade-ear turned towards the ticking fog;
never was the globe’s inclination so beautiful,
never were the oxygenated nights so white,

so dispassionately dissolved, softly ionised
white, and never was the limit of invisibility so nearly
touched; june, june, your jacob’s ladders
exist your sleeping beasts and their dreams of sleep
exist, a flight of galactic germs between
the earth so earthy and heaven so heavenly,
the calm of the valley of tears, so calm and the tears
sunk back, sunk back in like groundwater again
underground; earth; the earth in its revolution
around the sun exists; the earth in its itinerary
through the milky way exists; the earth on its way
with its load of jasmin, and of jasper and iron,
with its curtains of iron, its portents of joy and random Judas
kisses and a virgin anger
in the streets, jesus of salt; with the jacaranda’s shadow
on the waters of the river, with falcons and hunters
and january in the heart, with the well of Japoto della Quercias
Fonte Gaia in Sienna and with july
as heavy as a bomb; witht tame brains,
with heart jars or heart grass or berries,
with the roots of ironwood in the exhausted earth

the earth that Jayadeva sings in his mystic
12 century poem; the earth with its coastline
of conscience, blue and with nests
where the large heron exists, with its neck curved
blue-gray , or the small heron exists, mysterious
and shy, or the night heron, the ash-colored heron exist
and the degrees of wing beats of sparrows, of cranes
and pigeons; the earth with Jullundur, Jabalpur and
Jungfrau exists, with Jotunheim and the Jura
exists, with Jabron and Jambo, Jogkarta
exists, with earth-swirls and earth-smoke exists
with water masses, landmasses, earthquakes exists,
with Judenburg, Johannesburg and the Jerusalem of Jerusalems


atombombs exist

Hiroshima, Nagasaki

Hiroshima 6
august 1945

Nagasaki 9
august 1945

140.000 dead and
wounded in Hiroshima

about 60.000 dead and
wounded in Nagasaki

frozen numbers
somewhere in a distant
and ordinary summer

since then the wounded
have died, many at first, indeed
most, then fewer, but in the end

all; in the end
the children of the wounded,
stillborn, dying,

many, continuously,
some, finally the
last ones; in my kitchen

I stand and peel
potatoes; the faucet
runs and nearly
covers the noise of the
children in the yard;

the children yell and
nealy cover the noise
of the birds in
the trees; the birds
sing and nearly

cover the murmur
of the leaves in the wind;
the leaves murmur
and nearly cover
the silence of the sky,

the sky which is light
and the light which since
then has nearly
resembled the fire
of the atom bomb

translated from the Danish by Pierre Joris

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2 Responses

  1. Bent says:

    Your Fibonacci sequence is flawed. You missed (8 + 13 = 21), and as a consequence all the numbers after 34 are off. Here is a correct start to the sequence:

    1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987…

    I guess the editors of Sulfur were not into arithmetic either…!

    Btw, I recommend listening to Inger Christensen reading aloud from her poem at this site. She will be missed, as will F.P. Jac, the other great Danish poet who died just before X-mas…

  2. Pierre Joris says:

    ah, damn… thanks for pointing this out — my aithmetic has never been very good, as even my barman knows, so I always leave a large tip, just in case…

    thanks for pointing to the Christensen's reading site. I heard her a number of times (we read together in some festivals) & always enjoyed her.

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