Ursula Andkjær Olsen
translated Katrine Øgaard Jensen
Action Books / Broken Dimanche Press, 2017
Paper ISBN 978-3-943196-45-0
reviewed by Jace Brittain
Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s eighth book of poetry Third-Millennium Heart has been translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen and copublished by Action Books and Broken Dimanche press.
In a book of hyperactive opposites, Olsen positions the reader between the mirrors of one of its obsessions: mise en abyme. This space feels flooded by densely repetitive imagery and the elusive signifiers of the book’s constantly recoding vocabulary, and this space can—in the next moment—seem devastatingly empty. The subject and the form of the book both reflect this instability, and the most frequently marvelous effect employed by Olsen and Jensen is the way in which the images most brimming with energy and meaning carry the threat of imminent meaninglessness.
In fact, the reader is suspended in this phantasmagoria early on—I had this sensation that I was tearing through this book and was quickly inundated with its totemic imagery: heart architecture redefined already ten times, RED, the Tower of Babel is a tower, the Tower of Babel is a body, the Tower of Babel is the architecture of a heart, eleven times, RED again. Within this web of duplication and redefinition, small additions to this obsessive vocabulary felt like incredible departures, like waking from the dream for one slow second until these infections are absorbed and duplicated and eventually intrinsic to the ordered disorder. This is chaos, I must be tearing through this book, I thought, and I wasn’t even a quarter of the way through.
“when I was a wounded animal
I’d run into my distant interior and
perform the necessary mercy-killings myself.
Then I’d gather the bones on the skin and
resurrect by sunrise in RED radiance.”
Up close, Yayoi Kusama’s 1959 painting “Infinity Nets” (appropriately for this comparison, one of many under that moniker) loses its distant sense of control. Up close, the small yellow marks float on an unordered dark sea over which eyes trace patterns. Up close and from the side, groups of these particles form tight waves. and suddenly it seems obvious that each particle carries the potential of this ecstatic energy. After that realization, the view from ten steps back might restore a controlled order to the composition, but its punctured points never lack that focused energy again.
It seems impossible to trace the RED codes and the destroyed and re-rebuilt towers of language across the book. The book is deeply diagrammatic. Equations establish matrices of meaning for each word, and opposite or new equations augment those matrices. To make sense of this book, stepping back is intense focus and re-reading.
“We must play our babelchords to culture: it will change
beyond recognition. Every void will be a
vessel for holy spirits and nightingales and
society’s towers will grow into the sky…”
The musical quality of the poetry, here rendered literally in chords and crossed with the novel’s shifting babel-motif, resonates even in brief excerpts of single poems in Jensen’s translation. A portmanteau like “babelchords” operates as a trademarked syncopation of the book’s rhythm—certain words and definitions ring out because their strangeness carries remarkable clarity against the recursive language. What might it be like to make sense of my blood as it circulates, what patterns might emerge before rushing off, when might they re-emerge—the body of this translation makes similar demands of the reader.
Marosa di Girogio’s poetry, a imaginary garden of murderous flowers, was creeping at the edge of my mind throughout Jensen’s translation—meticulous language wildly animates the unobserved inanimates of this world, so that towers, flowers, ungraspable RED objects, bags of chlorine are hypermobile and replicated and all of them out for blood in a charged network. What felt like distant systems—one wiring the circuits of the body, another of roots and nature—became linked in my mind, each infecting the other, until it seemed to be a power of each to encircle and constrict an unimaginable range of seemingly conflicting ideas.
As the book’s circling structure approaches these questions and the technological duplication invades and overlays its most beautiful images, a powerful human force stands out from the network. A force I’ll call the radical maternal—at once digital, animal, human, and replica—takes control of the web, weaves itself into the infinite recursion. The radical maternal conflates a fierce kind of protection and a loving quality of murder. Part of the magic of the book’s recursive tendencies is in the way a pregnant woman can be carrying an emptiness and that emptiness is associated with an infinite population of replicas all of whom are deserving of these effacing dichotomies. It’s something divine in Olsen’s translation that these associations are enriched in such powerful resonance. The book’s beauty and ugliness, mercy and rage, protection and exposure, its deluge of contrasts and its infinitely empty inbetweens come under the dominion of the radical maternal. The book is a wild, stunning, compulsively readable, and violent embrace. Olsen composes a confusing and illuminated world of buoyant language, populates it with the complex and instable structural logic of oppositions, and allows the reader space to discover the infinite possibilities within these pages and to rediscover radical possibilities without.