Inger Christensen: A Celebration

Posted: October 13, 2011 in Parameters
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Inger Christensen’s book-length poem Alphabet was published in Denmark 1981; it was an instant hit. It was published by Bloodaxe Books in England in 2000, translated by Susanna Nied.
Susanna Nied’s prize-winning translations of the works of Christensen have been duly recognised as the best in their field.
Christensen has long had a large and loyal German readership; they put her forward for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Inger Christensen died in 2009.

Excerpts from Alphabet have become the main source of large displays of public art in Denmark.

There are many more types of poetic expression than the personal lyric. The lyric has become predominant at the present time because of political and ideological factors: we look to the self as the source and sole repository of values; we value personal experience as the only trustable source of knowledge of the world.

The idea and ideal of community has been tugged from beneath us; likewise the ideal of a sense of futurity, of progress, to be replaced by an all-encompassing political climate where our lives seem wholly regulated by bodies of authority. Lecturer Peter Middleton quotes Julia Kristeva to effect here: “… capitalism has isolated us, in ‘islands of discourse’.” (i.e. from John Donne’s “No man (one) is an island” to the Thatcherite statement that there is no such thing as society. We may hate it as it is, but we do have to deal with it).
And who knows how to deal with David’s Cameron’s Big Society notion, at one point broken – a toy? a piece of machinery? – at another, the country as a private business in need of saving (- from everyone else?).

Christensen mostly used the playful, highly mathematical writing experiments of the French experimental OuLiPo group.
Although not a signed-up member, it can be seen that she uses many of their techniques. The most decisive are the use of strict mathematical superstructures, and insistence upon quality of sound. OuLiPo was a movement originally based around the writer Raymond Queneau, and incorporated George Perec (Life: A User’s Manual, and A Void, a novel that, when written in French only used words that do not contain the letter ‘e’). Queneau was a mathematician, and so the group tended to use highly complex mathematical structures for their writing.

One of the many listed OuLiPo experiments is that of using multiple perspectives to explore a given situation. One published example of this is B S Johnson’s novel, House Mother Normal (1971), which offers a perspective per chapter from each of the members of a nursing home, in explaining (or not) the event of the story. You cannot but wonder about Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1860), where the members of a court case each give their evidence, full of conflicting events, asides, and all the riches of the personalities involved. OuLiPo does acknowledge predecessors, designating them “anticipatory plagiarists” (: Mind Performance Hacks). One OuLiPo virtue is a mischievous sense of humour.

Christensen’s Watersteps (2001) takes us through five Roman piazzas, each with a fountain, and the same red car. There are eight similar ‘classes’ each with five ‘sections’, one for each piazza; and each ‘class’ has five components. This is a rigorous math.

Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things sequence of four lots of twelve poems, each of twelve lines in length, also points to a possible OuLiPo construction. Why twelve? Is twelve an expression of completion? We have to ask these things, because they have an intended significance.
Most recently we now have poems created upon use of the mathematical concept of pi called Pilish – or “piems” – where the number of letters of successive words is determined by pi.

The Fibonacci mathematical system was ideal for OuLiPo purposes. The Fibonacci sequence runs: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…. where each number is the sum of the two previous numbers. The implications of this system, first devised by a Cardinal soon to be Pope, are astounding, both for mathematics, and physics.

In Alphabet the repeated phrase of paragraph 1:
apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist
mirrors the first two numbers of Fibonacci – 1 and 1. The system begins with 1 repeated, and so here the phrase is
similarly repeated. It is also a numerical device of implication; where 1 is a prime number; it is also the main focus of a network of negative and positive numerical sequences, of decimals and fractions: 1 is never 1, it is the consequence of its positioning, and it is that that is evoked here. The reiteration of the clause emphases 1’s position in the matrix of math. As in the Fibonacci sequence we do not begin with 1 but with 0, in effect on the blank page preceding.

We are also required to read here that apricot stones carry a poisonous pit. As we begin with the beginning: A, and a new myth of creation, we are also required to read here that within the first creation is the means of its end. Or maybe not so equivalent: maybe, just that a degree of toxicity is necessary for life. And also, that, like the mark of Cain, is a part of creation from the very beginning.

By combining number with alphabet, Christensen is taking us back to the earliest use of languages, Sumerian, Attic Greek, but with a more modern twist.

With paragraph 2 we have:
bracken exists; and blackberries,blackberries;
bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen.

Already on a linguistic level we have an incantatory pattern forming. On the chemical level we now have bromine and hydrogen. Bromine, like hydrogen, is potentially lethal. As, indeed, are the seeds of bracken. This new pastoral suggestion now allows us a reading that suggests an early, a volatile, Precambrian period in our scientific creation myth. We now have three levels of reading: of the text, of chemistry, and botany. If we accept the time scale, four levels: botany, chemistry, textual, and time.

As a reviewer notes: “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.”
Alphabet was written during the 1970s, a period that lived under and reacted to, above all else, the possibility of immanent nuclear war, the hydrogen bomb.

With 3/C we get:
cicadas exist; chicory, chromium,
citrus trees; cicadas exist;
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum

The levels expand: arboriculture, botany, chemistry, entomology, physiology: from basic classifications, to subclassifications. We move from Platonic forms, through Aristotelian classification, to our modern forms of knowledge. And zeroing in from the macrocosm to the microcosm, from the external world to the brain’s inner world, as source and site of knowledge, intelligence: self consciousness as the self’s consciousness.

Following the Fibonacci/alphabetical systems through the book we arrive at N, with six hundred and ten lines. Mathematically ‘n’ can be any number.

So far in the poem sequence, we have moved from basic forms to gradually emerge into a world of killing, the hydrogen bomb, pain. It must be remembered that mathematics is the vehicle of proof for the sciences. And the sciences, as amply illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci’s Renaissance work on armaments, capable of application to many and varied fields of human activity both peaceful and not.

With 5-E (eight lines) we also get, delightfully (I am sure I don’t need to point out here that in the Danish the predominant consonant is E, which also ushers in a dominant alliterating pattern):

early fall exists; aftertaste, afterthought;
seclusion and angels exist;
widows and elk exist; every detail exists; memory, memory’s light;
afterglow exists; oaks, elms, junipers, soreness, loneliness
eider ducks; spiders, and vinegar
exist, and the future, the future.

With 13-M and 14-N we arrive at actual times, with dates:
morning June twentieth……..evening June
sixteenth….morning June twenty-sixth.

To get here we travel through excerpts from lives, suggestions of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, and:

in mid-November, a season
when all human dreams are the same,
a uniform, blotted out history
like that of a sun-dried stone

a couple of mute parents stand there,
a dog, and some children run around,
an arrival they try to imagine
as water that’s raised to my mouth

I lay sleeping inside my hotel room;
:from ‘12/L’

These are the stories we have inside ourselves we cannot always make sense of, but continue to pick over in our isolated moments.

‘13/M’ begins with:

metal, the ore in the mountains, exists
and then explores the hidden or covered things:
darkness in mine shafts, milk not let down
from mothers’ breasts, an ingrown dread where

whisperings exist, whisperings exist
the cells’ oldest, fondest collusion

consider this market, consider this import
and export of fathers, half bullies
half tortured soldiers, consider…..


layered light, as if behind
layers in a fresco the snow
on the mountains, its shapes……..

13 also replicates the Fibonacci numbering in stanza lengths. We have five, eight, then thirteen line stanzas, and then followed by new sets. The interweaving of themes and items from earlier sections tie-in here; we once again come across bromine, but applied differently, and apricot trees: their applications multiply and evoke moments from a life, from an ideal of living. The fabric grows wonderfully rich and rewarding, full of complex patternings.

Where the lyric concentrates images, their reverberations, networks of associations, within as small a compass as possible, Christensen, especially in her earlier work It – of which Alphabet is in some ways an admitted response – schematises rather than concentrates. Structurally it is very strictly arranged into three sections whose line count is, in the original, very tightly controlled: each line of Prologos has sixty-six characters in the original; Prologos has eight sections.

The body of the book, Logos, consists of three sections: Stage, Action, Text each of which has eight sub-sections: symmetries/ transitivities/ continuities/ connectivities/ variabilities/ extensions/ integrities/ universalities.

These subsections “attempt to analyse and categorise the words that language’s use to show relationship… as applying to the network of relationships… writing builds up as it goes along “ ( Ann Carson, from Introduction). All this in no way lessens the effectiveness of expression, but allows the playout of implications to be fully explicit. The intent of It is to be a ‘philosophical and political exploration of the nature of language, perception, and reality.’

If there is a reference in this work to The Book of the It, a precursor to Freudian psychoanalytical explorations, by George Groddeck, I suspect it has been subsumed and overridden early on.

It must be noted that the Fibonacci system deals also with the proof of the Golden Mean.
Christensen exhibited a growing concern with ecological matters, as evident in her Butterfly Valley: Requiem. This sequence is a series of conventional sonnets, the last line acting as the opening line of the following sonnet in traditional style. The last sonnet of the sequence, sonnet fifteen, consists of all opening/closing lines. This sequence perhaps represents her approach to that Golden Mean.

Charles Lock and Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen, in their Guardian obituary notice, noted of Butterfly Valley: Requiem ‘the division of… 14 lines having been recognised in the Renaissance as akin to “the golden ratio”.

Can we read Christensen’s major works as working towards this great ideal, this universal; of the possibility of the concept of ultimate meaning in all the apparent randomness of the world?

Are the images Christensen uses purely random? And do we mean by that ‘mathematically random’? Is it random in the way that creation appears to be random? Is there such a thing as random? All these questions are implied by the system she uses. She requires a response from the reader: for her writing is part of a two-way process.

We may have lost all sense of security, safety; Inger Christensen here posits the possibility of a higher sense of stability, of a grand working towards/unravelling of, a nontheistic scheme of things of which we are all a part of; in effect, where we are perhaps the instruments of the process.


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