BooksWeekend

A Poet Invents Her Voice

Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Third-Millennium Heart is a beautiful monster of a book coming at you straight, with no padding of preface or foreword to warn you what you might be in for.

Ursula Andkjær Olsen (images courtesy Action Books)

One of the most striking and eerie books of poetry to come my way in 2018 — although it was actually published the year before — was Third-Millennium Heart, the eighth collection of poems by the Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen, but her first to be translated into English. It’s a long poem made of many small parts incessantly reiterating and then negating each other, grouped into eight parts or movements, the last of them just three lines (three pages) long.

This beautiful monster of a book comes at you straight, with no padding of preface or foreword to warn you what you might be in for or fill you in on what just hit you, and I guess that’s how it should be: This poetry is new, and it should come at you in all its newness.

But when I read some poetry that’s been written in a language of which I know nothing, I always want some clues, not so much to the poetry itself, but to the problems of finding an equivalent in English. What were the aspects of the original that had to be sacrificed, what were the dimensions of the poet’s language that seemed crucial to put across? “The third-millennium heart is a / place of many chambers,” is how the book begins, and I had to wonder whether a translation could really recreate every chamber, or whether it would have to leave one out.

Luckily, Third-Millennium Heart does have a one-page Translator’s Note at the end, and it does offer some clues as to how Jensen approached a book by a poet given (as I learned) to puns, neologisms, and twists on idiomatic phrases, and for which the poet has invented a voice that is, as she says, “abusive, yet a victim; fiercely emotional, yet icy and cynical.”

I would have loved to have heard more. Reading a translation from an unfamiliar language, I always feel as if a part of me is standing over my own shoulder like a bad conscience, asking, “What makes you think your reaction has anything to do with what you’d feel if you could read this as the poet intended?”

Of course that doesn’t stop me from reading English versions of poetry written in Russian, or Urdu, or Swedish, and hoping that what I’m getting is more than a shadow of what the poetry might really be. It does stop me, usually, from attempting to write down and publish my response to what I’ve read. What a nightmare it would be to learn, afterward, that what I praised so mightily as the mark of the poet’s brilliance or condemned as the weak spot in an otherwise intriguing work was precisely an invention or compromise of the translator!

And so even though Third-Millennium Heart continued to resonate with me well after I’d put it up on the shelf, it hadn’t occurred to me to write about it. That changed back in November when, as I was getting ready to make a brief visit to Copenhagen, I received a press release from Action Books, the co-publisher of Third-Millennium Heart, announcing that the book and its translator, Katrine Øgaard Jensen, had just received a National Translation Award for Poetry — a prize given by the American Literary Translators Association — with a citation noting how she “captures the book’s jarring quality in a remarkably smooth rendering.” That combination of aggressiveness and equanimity was part of what I’d found so striking about the book.

I’m a believer in serendipity, so that email from Action Books was my signal to follow up with a response: Congratulations! I’m just on my way to Copenhagen, would Ursula be available to meet and discuss the book? Yes, she would.

The woman I met at the Café Atelier September, Gothersgade 30, did not immediately convey the fierceness of Third-Millennium Heart. This thoughtful, soft-spoken and good-humored poet would not have been the one I’d have imagined as the writer of such self-aggrandizing, self-deprecating lines as “I ornament myself with / abysses painted on my forehead like a quality-conscious pig” or “I call myself man, woman, victim, wise-ass, but really I’m just a dickhead.” That’s good. I’ll take inner truth over surface verisimilitude every time.

Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Third-Millennium Heart (2017)

I started by asking Olsen about the title, Third-Millennium Heart. “I wanted the book to be a sort of external organ,” she replied. “Like you can have a heart that you can share with others.” She went on to explain that her educational background was not literary; she’d studied musicology, and in the past worked as a music critic.

She attributed her interest in working with a long form, with the book as a totality rather than as a compilation of individual poems, to her attachment to European classical music and its modern descendants. And then she went on to speak of “a kind of network thinking, with the heart being the center” of the network. “I’m trying to talk about the condition of being so connected, the way we are now.” For her, this inevitable relates to the economy — “the vessels,” as she says, through which things circulate. She speaks of the impact on her, several years ago, of reading Marcel Mauss’s classic anthropological study The Gift (1925), with its evocation of a system of circulation that could include gods, things, animals, people, words — “everything is in the same big system. I saw it around me when I read that book, I saw all these connections, all these lines between things.”

Her intention was to make such a system visible in her writing. “It goes into your body and then out again and then through all our bodies. The system is both organic and non-organic. I use the word ‘massage’ a lot in the book. It’s the idea that you have to massage the world and then things will flow.” It’s a sinister flow, though, at least as it comes across to me in lines like “I massage, and reality penetrates my heart. / I massage, and my heart separates from reality again.”

The question I’d been entertaining from the start had become even more urgent now that I knew she’d studied music: What’s the sound of her poetry like in Danish, what’s its physicality, its rhythm?

She explained to me that, in English many of the terms pertaining to the body are Latinate, which lends them a technical sound, while in Danish, they are more concrete. Our “ventricle” is their hjerte kammer, or “heart chamber.” In the poem, therefore, the parts of the heart become rooms, they take on an architecture, they can be parts of a city. “The heart could be a castle, for instance. You can jump from level to level very fast. The architectural words are very important in naming the body.” And that extends to her own relation to the text. “I’m living in the metaphors. I’m not using them.”

She went on to say that she thought Danish tends to have softer sounds than English. I think this is true — I always have the strange sensation, when I am in Denmark, that all the words sound alike, that the differences among them are somehow evened out to such an extent that a foreigner can’t quite catch them. She explained that with previous books, she’d typically worked not by writing, but — again, I can’t help but thinking of her musical training — by saying the words, repeating them over and over, emphasizing the aural dimension.

With Third-Millennium Heart it was different: It began with scattered notes, and then she said to herself, “What is this? I don’t know how to read this. Maybe I should just throw it away.” But then she realized, “Maybe it’s interesting that I don’t know how they sound. So I went on working with them. And in fact I have a more sculptural feeling about them than my earlier work. Of course, since then I’ve read them many times and they certainly are readable. But they have a kind of hard rhythm, in Denmark people said it was like a Black Mass, it has this boom, boom, boom, boom, maybe a hammering beat. It has a ritual feeling to it, a lot of repetition. It was new to me to be so violent, so brutal.”

Olsen remarks that she was nervous when the book came out. She didn’t feel that it had a clear place in the landscape of contemporary Danish poetry. But the book was well received; “it wasn’t as strange to people as I thought it would be.” I noted that what’s so striking about Third-Millennium Heart is its way of being totally subjective and totally objective at the same time — that it is conveys a sort of collective or externalized subjectivity.

My conversation with Olsen taught me to be more trusting of her translator. The poet whom I met may have seemed far indeed from the “fiercely emotional, yet icy and cynical” speaker who emerges from this at once claustrophobic and ecstatic book, but what I learned about her special feeling for language was totally in accord with what Jensen’s translation conveys. It’s a kind of lucid expressionism that allows the poet or rather the poem to say, grandly and not without truth, “I am not telling anyone how to feel / just telling it like it is. I am exposing the structure.”

Third-Millennium Heart (2017) by Ursula Andkjær Olsen, translated from the Danish by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, is published by Broken Dimanche Press (Berlin) and Action Books (Notre Dame, Indiana) and is available on Amazon and other onine retailers.

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