by Inger Christensen
Translated from the Danish by Susanna Nied, introduction by Anne Carson
New Directions Publishing, $17.95 (paper)
Something like a history of consciousness and something like a 237-page logic puzzle, Susanna Nied’s translation of it (Danish poet Inger Christensen’s opus from 1969) investigates how language dissects, describes, and organizes the world. Christensen examines (among other things) the way the faulty engine of speech illuminates and circumscribes our perceptions of reality: “The words stay where they are / while the world vanishes / This is a criticism of the way language is used / Because it’s a criticism of the way things are.” A long poem in three parts, it meditates on how words mold power dynamics among people and environments. Christensen wrestles with the impossibility of sharing an objective reality with anyone else when all experience must be mediated through the subjective filters of language and sensory perception. In it, words and the systems of mythology they create evoke resonances—both sympathetic and hostile—between individuals. But these resonances, formed from the unreliable material of language, are suspect: “Does no interstice exist / that’s not an empty zone / and not a battle zone / just a play of lines.” In Danish the poem relies on a formal scheme of line counts and syllabics for effect. Nied wisely refrains from torturing her translation into the same shape. Instead, she conveys meaning through careful diction in phrases like “as paper at rest / while a word passes,” or “the birds fall / and in quantities of light-years we see their death.” Nied does her finest work in the subtler, more introspective sections of the poem. By contrast, the overtly political parts of the translation feel flatter, less textured than the rest of the verse. Though a few of the poems falter around a singsong rhyme scheme (“fly” and “sky”, “be” and “see”) or a precious tautology (“I think what I see with my eyes / I see with my eyes what I think”) Nied’s translation offers a lyrical and intricate adaptation of Christensen’s work.