Cellular Portals: A Conversation with Ursula Andkjær Olsen by Morten Høi Jensen

The Danish poet on corporeal poetics, pregnancy, and the influence of classical music.

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Even by the relatively healthy standards of the Danish poetry scene—it is not at all unusual for collections of poetry to appear on bestseller lists—Ursula Andkjær Olsen has reached an assured position as one of the most critically acclaimed poets in Denmark. In 2005 the publication of her fourth book, The Marriage between the Path and the Exit (Gyldendal), made headlines when the late editor of the Danish broadsheet Politiken, Tøger Seidenfaden, devoted one of his regular columns to praising Olsen. Since then she has published several collections of conceptual, polyphonic poetry, including The Sea is a Stage (Gyldendal), which was nominated for the 2008 Nordic Council Literature Prize, and Third-Millenium Heart (Broken Dimanche Press/Action Books), now published in English in an inventive and fluent translation by the Brooklyn-based editor and journalist Katrine Øgaard Jensen.

Originally published in Denmark in 2012, Third-Millennium Heart was lauded by critics as a bold expansion of Olsen’s imbrication of the personal and the political, the private and the social. The pained intimacy of its poetic voice is a departure from previous works, as is its abandonment of musicality for a more physical, bodily poetics: “To become more / To become thick and RED and nutrient-rich; to lay / down and make deposits. / That is my new body language.” Over the course of a few weeks, Olsen and I exchanged emails about the influence of music on her poetic voice, the language of the body, and the strange melancholy of Danish children’s songs.

Morten Høi JensenYou’ve studied musicology and worked as a music critic for many years. How has this influenced your poetry?

Ursula Andkjær OlsenThe music I know is the classical, European tradition which is fantastic and in some ways also kind of monstrous. If you think of a person singing a song as a kind of basic musical expression and then think of all the imaginative and “technological” power of the harmonic, rhythmical, and instrumental structures involved in a two-hour-long Bruckner Symphony played by more than a hundred people—you get the monstrosity. It takes a lot of abstraction and construction, a lot of math-like structural thinking, to go from this one person singing to the symphony. In that sense music is doubly rooted. It is related to both mathematical, even cosmic, systems and to the human voice—the most distant and the most intimate. I feel very connected to this double inheritance. Beyond that I think my whole way of thinking about literary form is something I’ve taken from music. I “compose” my books, work with sentences as if they were motifs, turn them and weigh them, repeat them, vary them, and often several voices emerge. This is not the case, however, with Third-Millennium Heart, which I consider one of my less musical books. My sense is that it comes from a different place, some place more sculptural, more corporeal, more spacious, things that are inside and outside one another.

Ursula Andkaer Olsen Third Millenium Heart

MHJAt one point in the book you write: “This is my new body language.” To some extent you’ve created a body language in Third-Millennium Heart that weaves itself in and out of tissue, heart valves, veins, lips, hands, and more. The body is broken down into both words and parts only to be put back together again. I sometimes felt the way I do when I read about some terrible illness: suddenly very anxious about the fragility of the human body. What does the idea of a body language mean to you as a poet?

UAOWell, generally the phrase is used to refer to that part of the body’s expression that isn’t language-based, but it quite simply just came to me as the perfect description of the language that arose in this book and revealed itself as an entirely new mode of expression. I don’t mean that I think I’ve invented a new language, but in my own case it was very unusual to speak in such a physical voice. My poetic voices before Third-Millennium Heart were less corporeal. It might sound a bit strange, but I think the musical influence that we spoke of before had something to do with it. Music is often characterized as “Geist,” “fleeting,” even “ethereal,” and so on, and before Third-Millennium Heart I often thought of my poetry as consisting of these free-floating, non-bodily voices that I could compose grand forms and systems with, rather than as a body. I don’t think my writing ever assumed the physicality of a body until this book. Before that I was pure Geist…

MHJYou were pregnant while writing some of this book. The theme of pregnancy comes up a bit; did you feel that this somewhat brutal, physical reality chased the musical, the spiritual aspects of your voice away?

UAO The short answer is YES! It came as a true learning experience, at the cost of the preceding, perhaps somewhat less complicated, condition. As if the fact of the body arriving in all its brutality and shimmering beauty meant that I became, not a more “whole” person, but a more complex, and more hybrid, person.

MHJ A common theme in this book is what you previously referred to as “things that are inside and outside one another.” Could you say more about that?

UAO There are two aspects to this notion. First: It has to do with a Danish children’s song called “Far out in the woods was a little mountain,” which is a very beautiful song, often imparted as a lullaby. I frequently sang it to my son when he was younger. It’s about, among many other things, a bird in an egg and an egg in a nest, a movement both inwards and outwards. This song became very important to Third-Millennium Heart, to its images, its movement, its way of “operating.” It became a kind of perpetuity, entirely local in its origins: “You were inside me / I was in the house / the house was by the lake / the lake was in the city / the city was in / inside the world.” This continuity of things that are embedded in each other, connected by small and large webs—it’s like an entire cosmology.

Second: In the summer of 2010 I visited the Rudolph Tegner Museum in Northern Zealand. Surrounding the museum is a sculpture park, with a sculpture called The Embrace of Darkness. It depicts a woman sitting between another woman’s outspread legs. When I saw it I thought there ought to have been a third woman sitting between the other woman’s legs. And then I thought, I could create that sculpture myself. But once I wrote the poem, I felt there was a counter-poem missing in order for it to become a kind of portal. So I wrote the poem with men arching over one another. The women emerging, the men arching, embracing one another—it’s a striking gate, I think. And once that gate had been erected, I felt a book was there ready to come through.

MHJ My mother used to always sing that song to me too. There’s something deeply melancholic about it, don’t you think?

UAO The Nordic tone… The loneliness of the forest. I think I started to sing it to my son because Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen made a version of it on CD with choral music that I used to listen to quite often. In his version it was actually more cheerful, or at least more wobbling, breathless, less rueful. My son made a version of the text when he got a little older, a version that goes: Far deep in mommy, there was a little mountain, the prettiest mountain I’ve ever seen. The mountain lies far deep in mommy, etc. A writer I know interprets the original text as being about letting go, the child letting go of the mother, and about letting go of being awake, and that the movement in the text from mountain to tree to branch and finally to child to pillow creates a kind of bridge unto sleep. It’s as though a bunch of extension cords are inserted between the child and the parent, extra umbilical cords that make it possible to let go without severing the connection, like a rupture that is diluted instead as the child drifts off into sleep. I suppose my own version in Third-Millennium Heart is more of a parent’s wish for a child, an egg on the pillow. And perhaps it feels more like an abyss than a series of extension cords.

MHJ This entire cosmology, as you call it, also opens up the intimate, corporeal experience to the social and the political. I thought—perhaps in a somewhat banal way—of the old feminist slogan, “The personal is political.” Why did you take up social and political critique in this book?

UAO Probably, and simply, because I have a hard time concentrating on myself for too long at a time. So perhaps it’s more a case of Third-Millennium Heart landing in these much larger issues that I was already occupied with—society, global economics, technology, nature, the entire world—and then spreading its pressure wave of body thought and language into the surrounding landscape. Since you bring up that wonderful slogan, I might as well tell you that at one point during or immediately after my pregnancy I read an article about breastfeeding that discussed ways of “increasing [milk] production.” That wording gave birth to Mother Market, one of the characters in the book.

Thus the connection has more or less been established between a physical, corporeal experience and the globalized economic system. From it we collect “our gifts,” food, water, heat, and so on, that we used to receive from Mother Nature. Maybe it’s also because being pregnant and giving birth and breastfeeding was not a purely intimate experience for me. It was a very intimate and very alienating experience. I don’t mean by this that it was a “wrong” or bad experience. I don’t necessarily view alienation as an evil, but rather as a condition and opportunity for expanding your consciousness: to become a stranger to yourself and to consume this strangeness is a way of growing and becoming richer. So in that sense having a child is like being inside and outside yourself at the same time, I think.

MHJ I wonder if you could say something more about the structural choices—split lines, one-sentence poems, equations/equal signs, the role of italics, the all-capped words like GLORIA, RED, DELTA. You made up words too.

UAO Since the book is an organ, a heart, it has a network-like structure in which every cell (every poem but also in the extreme: every word) is supposed to be connected with every other cell/poem/word. This is part of what I think of as the music-like structure of the book, but also what makes it a network. Musical form is maybe more than any other art form network-based because of its level of abstraction, of not referring to an outer world. The lines in italics are like the canal system of the book. The equations maybe also. The all-capped words might be seen as signals in the blood stream. I also think of the language and the structures in general as having a kind of clinical harshness to them. I wanted to make the feeling of the cuts—for instance the line breaks and the very short poems—all the more brutal. A biblical-clinical ambivalence.

MHJ This is the first of your works to be translated into English. I’m interested in hearing your take on the translation and the translation process—what it was like to surrender your work to it?

UAO I am very happy with Katrine’s work! I have had a lot of other not so nice experiences with translation, mostly I think due to the fact that I always work in large scale forms, not so much in single poems. So for me it is a very big deal to have a whole work translated. I think the English translation emphasizes the alienated—almost hangar-like—feeling of the body, and I am very excited about that. I keep seeing these big steel structures moving in and out a very large hangar area—and I like it.

Morten Høi Jensen is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (Yale University Press, 2017). He has contributed to Bookforum, The New Republic, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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