Danish Poetry: The Achievement of Henrik Nordbrandt

Posted: October 20, 2011 in Parameters
Tags: , , , , ,

1
When we consider modern Danish poetry three names come uppermost: Henrik Nordbrandt, Inger Christensen and Pia Tafdrup.
Why these three in particular? It is probably because their work has met with the best response from European readers.

They also define three main directions of modern Danish poetry.
The late Inger Christensen worked within the wide field of textual experimentation. This field is, in many ways, the most challenging; it calls into question, through its reassessments of concrete language the meaning and value of the self, of society, ideas of progress, the intrinsic possibility of reform, change, improvement etc. Her use of structure is very original, employing rationales and bases from outside the literary field.

With Pia Tafdrup we meet a writer very much a part of a feminist exploration of the world. Hers is a sensuous and taboo-breaking poetry. Her European best seller Spring Tide (1983) explored an erotic, sensuous awareness of the body in and through nature.
Her prize-winning Queens Gate (2001) further explored the author’s myth-making nature, while with her later long single poem Ark, written for a Nordic Prize occasion, she breaks out of the short lines and breathless rhythms, into a much longer line and more extended cyclic structure.

Christensen and Tafdrup both look to France for ideas: Christensen to writers like Mallarme, Valery, for their focus on the text, and further, to the writings of Barthes and the Semiotic movement. Her name is often connected with the French Oulipo group (Queneau, Perec, Calvino etc) of text experiments.
Tafdrup can be seen to respond to the feminist body-consciousness and language ideas of Cixous and Kristeva. Nordbrandt, on the other hand, shares some of the awareness of the musical possibilities of language inherent in Mallarme and Valery, that Christensen also applied to her own work.

What is of particular interest is that Écriture feminine places “experience before language…” (Showalter).
This is also one of the great appeals of Inger Christensen’s writing method, her part in the ‘systematic poetry’ movement: where Tafdrup takes the pressure from the solely textual concept of writing and focuses it on the intent, the ‘desire’ of language: not so much Barthes, more Derrida, Christensen mediates language through the interpolation of artificial forms. The poetry of both is enabled by the use of non-poetic structures, whether of thought/theory, or of form. For Nordbrandt the non-poetic enabler is the objective life, in effect, his peripatetic lifestyle.

2
With Henrik Nordbrandt we have a finely tuned classicism, a classicism against which other experiments in poetry measure themselves. His is a gay, slightly exotic presence, reporting back from Istanbul, Greece, the Mediterranean, to the northern, and by necessity of geography, and climatology, buttoned-up sensibility.
With a number of his Danish contemporaries still tangling with the strictures of Christian belief, Nordbrandt must represent something slightly pantheistic.
He has been greatly influenced by the mood and temperament of Cavafy in Alexandria, and like him writes an exquisite line, full of snatched joys and melancholy.

Robin Fulton as admirably translated Nordbrandt for Dedalus Press.
Nordbrandt’s China Observed Through Greek Rain in Turkish Coffee – the title itself, with its digressive clauses, is as much a précis of his poetic style as it is an example of his characteristic wit – is on one level a poem concerned with the resourcefulness of the imagination, how it can bend time and space, and through the image of the semi-willow pattern figure within the cup, take us further from the humdrum into the possibility of hope:

…the Chinaman
sees the sun appear through a green leaf
which has fallen into the cup

the cup whose contents
are now completely clear.
(ibid)

The cup can be said to symbolise the insularity of the self, a self reliance – which in itself is a commentary on a state of emotional poise, a pause between the pull of desire, and the fall of loss, that brief state of self possession.
A Greek rain falls into the cup, displacing the contents, revealing the Chinese figure: this encapsulates Kantian ideas of the self and the world each in their separate sphere, as well as demonstrating the classical objective correlative of Eliot, but taken on, made Nordbrandt’s own.

In another reading, this is a poem ultimately of loss, using the standard pathetic fallacy of rain as tears. Again, he takes it further: the rain overflows the poised cup of the self, self possession becomes the loss of the possession of the other. Just as the narrator’s self is absent as a persona from the poem, so, by extension, is ‘the other’ absent as a presence.
The old man in the cup, with long white beard and eyes either burned to cinders or self absorbed, reflects a possible future as a survivor of desire, an ascetic in his self sufficiency. (Odd how many who claim to have sublimated desire are of an age when desire tends to die down naturally.)

Fullness and emptiness are two of the possible readings, and map out Nordbrandt’s particular developing metaphysic, as elaborated upon by Lars Arndel:
“…double consciousness… on the one hand actual presence is a constant point of reference. The other presence becomes most conspicuous and authentic when it is withdrawn…”
Gerald Rosch notes: “ (Nordbrandt)… conjures up a world where loss and fulfilment occur simultaneously. Presence, arrival and possession cannot erase absence, departure and loss… man is on the move without knowing where to”. We can see this clearly in the very fine poem below:

After having loved we lie close together
and at the same time with distance between us
like two sailing ships that enjoy so intensely
their own lines in the dark water they divide
that their hulls
…………………………………………………………

But there are other nights, where we drift
like two brightly illuminated luxury liners
lying side by side
…………………………………………………………………….
And the sea is full of old tired ships
which we have sunk in our attempt to reach each
other.

: Sailing

Nordbrandt has developed an experiential system of values; the active imagination is capable of bridging memory and time. This is the motif behind his award-winning book Dream Bridges, which won him the Nordic Literary Prize in 2000. Memory cannot be trusted, any more than time itself, to record and hold human values.

The summer is over.
It was like the other summers
as much as they were like each other
and were different

and as the Easter Island statues
opened their eyes
the moment one turned one’s back on them.

And each summer
remembered more than what happened.

: Portrait Of The Heroine, Far Out At Sea
(Off-Shore Wind, 2001)

One reference point is the Swedish writer Gunnar Ekelof. We can see Ekelof’s influence in the epigrammatical concrete form capturing a metaphysical content:

No matter where we go, we always arrive too
late
to experience what we left to find.
and in whatever cities we stay
it is the houses where it is too late to return
the gardens where it’s too late to spend a
moonlit night

…………………………………………………….
that disturbs us with their intangible presence.

: No Matter Where We Go

This is especially prominent in the later poetry:

The light stands flickering in its column, that
bears nothing.
.,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,
I asked for water and you gave me sour wine.
I drank from a corroded cup beneath dark icons
I asked to die, you gave me gold to stay.
I asked for a story, you gave me my own.
…………………………………………………………………..
Each day here costs us a century in the kingdom of
death.
: Near Lephkas

Nordbrandt and Tafdrup look to the language of desire, a predicated use of language.

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