Christensen’s scientific and sensuous language resonates with a cosmic vibrancy.

Columbia Journal

Inger Christensen

Inger Christensen (Danish, 1935-2009) was one of Scandinavia’s most powerful literary voices. Her work earned not only critical respect but unusually exuberant public acclaim (“Make Her Prime Minister!” urged one reviewer). Her ingeniously crafted poetry and prose have been variously labeled as naturalist, experimental, formalist, and structuralist; essentially, her work defies labels. Each of her volumes resembles nothing else, including her own other volumes. Yet each is imbued with her characteristic visionary clarity and deep human sensibility. Christensen won numerous major European literary awards, including the Grand Prix des Biennales Internationales de Poésie, the Nordic Prize of the Swedish Academy, and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. During her final decade she was consistently mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Born in the small Danish town of Vejle, Christensen grew up in a blue-collar family. She lived most of her adult life in Copenhagen, thriving on its liveliness, but she once said that if she had not spent her childhood exploring rural Vejle’s forests, fields, and fjord, she doubted that she could have written poetry. She was a formidable intellect, fluent in four languages and knowledgeable about such diverse areas as art history, quantum mechanics, mathematics, semiotics, natural history, and music theory. At the same time, she was by nature eminently down-to-earth. After winning one prestigious literary prize, she hung the honorary laurel wreath in her kitchen, gradually using up its leaves in soups and stews. Christensen edited avant-garde literary journals, collaborated with musicians and visual artists, and was a lifelong advocate for political and social change. Her work has been translated into over 30 languages. Her entire poetic oeuvre, plus selected prose, is published in the U.S. by New Directions.

cover image of the book The Condition of Secrecy

The Condition of Secrecy

The Condition of Secrecy is a poignant collection of essays by Inger Christensen, widely regarded as one of the most influential Scandinavian writers of the twentieth century. As the New York Times proclaimed, “Despite the rigorous structure that undergirds her work—or more likely, because of it—Ms. Christensen’s style was lyrical, even playful.” The same could be said of Christensen’s essays. Here, she formulates with electric clarity the basis of her approach to writing, and provides insights into how she composed her poetry. Some essays are autobiographical (with memories of Christensen’s school years during the Nazi occupation of Denmark), and others are political, touching on the Cold War and Chernobyl. The Condition of Secrecy also covers the Ars Poetica of Lu Chi (261–303 CE), William Blake and Isaac Newton, and such topics as randomness as a universal force and the role of the writer as an agent of social change. The Condition of Secrecy confirms that Inger Christensen is “a true singer of the syllables” (C. D. Wright), as well as a “a formalist who makes her own rules, then turns the game around with another rule” (Eliot Weinberger).

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Light, Grass, and Letter in April

Light, Grass, and Letter in April is the first book in English to appear since the great Danish poet’s death in January 2009. Light (1962) and Grass (1963), her first published works, introduce her genius for the music of everyday speech, and her approaches to the themes she’d pursue throughout her life: the primacy of nature, the enigmatic boundaries between the self and the other, and the role of language as a mediator between human experience and reality. Letter in April (1979), Christensen’s most intimate book, examines love and loss, self and loss of self, echoing musical structures developed by the French composer Olivier Messiaen. It was written in collaboration with the Danish artist Johanne Foss, whose accompanying drawings helped to catalyze the poems. Fifteen black-and-white illustrations

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Set in modern Europe, Azorno is a kind of logic puzzle or house of mirrors, concerning five women and two men. One of the men is a writer named Sampel, the other is the main character of his novel, Azorno. All the women are pregnant by Sampel, but which of them is really the narrator? Has someone been killed? Is someone insane? Is the whole story part of Sampel’s book, or Inger Christensen’s? Reminiscent of the works of Georges Perec and Alain Robbe-Grillet, Azorno illuminates the prevailing theme throughout Inger Christensen’s great body of poetry and fiction: the interplay of perception, language, and reality. As Anne Carson said, “Like Hesiod, Inger Christensen wants to give us an account of what is — of everything that is and how it is and what we are in the midst of.” Ending with the struggle between two merged characters, Azorno simultaneously satisfies and unsettles, leaving us with a view of reality unlike any other.

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by Inger Christensen

Translated by Susanna Nied

With a contribution by Anne Carson

It is the masterwork by Danish poet Inger Christensen (“a true singer of the syllables,” said C. D. Wright), often cited as a Nobel contender and one of Europe’s most revered poets. On its publication in 1969, it took Denmark by storm, winning critical praise and becoming a huge popular favorite. Translated into many languages, it won international acclaim and is now a classic of modern Scandinavian poetry. it is both a collection of poems and a single poetic epic, forming a philosophical statement on the nature of language, perception, and reality. The subject matter, though, is down to earth: amoebas, stones, and factories; fear, sea urchins, and mental institutions; sand, sexuality, and song. The words and images of it recur in ways reminiscent of Christensen’s other works, but here is a younger poetry, wilder, and crackling with energy. The marvelous and complex use of mathematical structure in it is faithfully captured in Susanna Nied’s English translation, which won a 2005 PEN Translation Fund Award.

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Butterfly Valley

Inger Christensen, often cited as a Nobel contender, is one of Europe’s most revered poets. Winner of the Nordic Prize of the Swedish Academy and the Austrian State Prize for Literature, she is perhaps best known for her groundbreaking work Det (It), a cycle of poems published in 1969. Her first book published in the U.S., alphabet (New Directions, 2001), met with a tremendous response: “Seductive,” said Boston Review; “A visionary reincarnation of the natural world in the atomic age,” wrote Chicago Review. Butterfly Valley: A Requiem collects four medium-length works, each startling for its beauty and formal innovation. “Butterfly Valley” is a sonnet cycle which describes the glowing color and beauty of butterflies, and also their fragility and mortality. Memory is uncovered in the poem like the fluttering of their wings. In “Watersteps,” the fountains and piazzas of Rome coalesce, brought alive in the imagination by the poem’s shifting rhythms, lines, and overall structure. In “Poem on Death” the poet seeking immortality faces the whiteness of the page as the blankness of death: “it feels so odd! immodest to think / about death when no one / you know has died / it means that each time / you look at yourself in the mirror / you look death in the eye / without crying / like a clear and fully! comprehensible answer / but to questions / you dare not ask.” “Meeting,” written in extended sections, describes a “coming together,” yet examines our failure to connect and the ability of language to overcome this.

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Finally available in English translation, alphabet is a startling and gorgeous work by Denmark’s most admired poet, Inger Christensen. Susanna Nied’s remarkably beautiful translation was awarded the American-Scandinavian PEN Translation Prize by Michael Hamburger. alphabet is based structurally on Fibonacci’s mathematical sequence, in which each number is the sum of the two previous numbers. The poetry herein reflects a complex philosophical background, but also has a visionary quality, each line discovering the metaphysical in the simple stuff of everyday life. The end result is a framework of psalm-like forms that unfold like expanding universes, crystalizing both the beauty and potential for destruction that permeate the world and our times. As Michael Braun, a German critic, put it, “Inger Christensen is no apologist for blind, rapturous singing, but probably the most form-conscious and reflective writer of poetry in Europe today.”

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Christensen’s scientific and sensuous language resonates with a cosmic vibrancy.

Columbia Journal

The Condition of Secrecy exudes—and induces—the same fugue-like state induced by the best poems, especially long poems, and particularly Christensen’s own.

Michigan Quarterly Review

What sets Christensen above other poets, moralists, mystics, and scientists is that she rarely instructs by telling how to see, but instead gets readers to experience an alternate way of seeing through the reading of her verse. From one essay to the next, her luminous prose (conveyed in graceful, intimate English by her longtime translator Susanna Nied) confirms what was already evident in the poems: that Christensen was one of the eminent visionaries of the 20th century.

Los Angeles Review of Books

She whispers to me in my own writing, a brilliant, fierce literary mother whom I will read and reread again and again.

Siri Hustvedt

Christensen is at her most intriguing when posing questions, as when she wonders, ‘Does art originate from the same necessity that gives rise to beehives, the songs of larks, and the dances of cranes?’ These profoundly imaginative questions make for a thought-provoking reading experience.

Publishers Weekly

Christensen’s probing, questioning, hopeful voice was an important one and is missed, but we can still hear it in this provocative book.

Kirkus Reviews

Inger Christensen manages to make wit, passion and questioning, and astonishing design serve each other’s ends as one, and she does it in a way that is utterly her own.

W. S. Merwin

Despite the rigorous structure that undergirded her work – or, more likely, because of it – Ms. Christensen’s style was lyrical, even playful.

New York Times

Famous in Europe, unknown here, Inger Christensen is a formalist who makes her own rules, then turns the game around with another rule.

Eliot Weinberger

One of Scandinavia’s most honored poets.

Publisher's Weekly

[Christensen] manages to make wit, passion and questioning and astonishing design serve each other’s ends as one, and she does it in a way that is utterly her own.

W.S. Merwin
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