infinite energy borrowed from the future
out of nothing
like debt (45)
It has been four years since my first encounter with the work of Danish experimental poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen through her book-length poem Third-Millennium Heart. I was, at the time, grieving the death of my mother a year and a half earlier, and in a process of coming to understand the nature of the particular absence her loss had left in my own sense of identity.
Dramatic and intense, the poem follows an expectant mother-figure like no other, her language pulsing like blood through arteries and veins, her vision pushing beyond patriarchal capitalist dynamics toward a new conception of the body and the kind of life it can nurture and contain.
As I described it in a blog post, “we are held captive by a demanding chimeric voice, witnesses to the realization of a possible future reality which, not unlike the mechanistic hive-mind typically associated with cyborg imagery, envisions a hive-heart existence.” I was so swept up in the flow of this epic, inventively translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, that I was moved to create an experimental poetic response of my own which was published at Minor Literature[s]. (The PDF is reproduced here.)
Last year, a follow-up volume, Outgoing Vessel was released in translation. Reading, perhaps, more like a companion piece, rather than a continuation, the enigmatic speaker here is a more isolated, inward focused figure. Through an atmosphere heavy with grief, anger, pain and existential disconnect, her rhythmic chants progress toward the articulation of a radicalized technological ontology. Now, in the place of a new life/lives, the poet talks of an orb, an indestructible object that she carries within her body—a planet of her own that ultimately figures in a re-imagining of a new human beingness. The tone, often harsh and seemingly unforgiving, ultimately leads to an affirming vision, even more boldly futuristic than that of the preceding cycle.
Now, a third work—My Jewel Box—has arrived, bringing with it another striking shift and a remarkable sense of closure. That is, at least in my experience, the three volumes form an echoing, interconnected epic, with a grand operatic arc, one in which the speaker/singer evolves through different ways of seeing and understanding herself—in society, in the universe, and finally as vital link in the ongoing chain of life. She returns to earth, one might say, but as an ever-dynamic force, she bends earth (along with air, water and fire) to her own imagination. The connection with Third-Millennium Heart is possibly the most obvious, but in the move from a gestational to a generational reality, I would suggest that the strongly internalized, starkly solitary exploration of Outgoing Vessel can be read as a necessary recalibration of the individual self in contrast to the communal self that is governed and influenced by our interpersonal and transactional relationships with others. Now, the self is redefining herself once again.
interrupt me in my work
i sat there and
i’m in the deep laboratory
connecting myself to
the unrest, how it feels
it has a pronounced gravity
soft, possibly smooth, and heavy
it calms the body, even though
it isn’t still
is it my child, is it my mother
is it myself
is it alive
an incredible labor (18)
Like its predecessors, My Jewel Box is comprised of a series of poetic sequences that together form a single, book-length poem. Photographic artworks by Sophia Kalkau mark each section, the continuation of creative partnership that has enhanced the entire trilogy. Olsen employs reiteration, chant-like passages, shifts in tense and intention, neologisms and a distinct sonic intensity to propel her poetry forward. Motifs and themes from the earlier works also reappear, drawing on threads that run throughout the trilogy. In Danish, she is lauded for her daring use of language, so, as ever, the trust and chemistry that exists between poet and translator is critical. Olsen sees herself as the first translator of the ideas, and Jensen as the second, granted the freedom to work with the language to capture the inventiveness and spirit of the original. The result is a collaboration that is very special.
My Jewel Box opens with a surreal poem that involves the speaker’s sister and their mother’s body. Her parents and her child will also appear later in the longer poems that close out each sequence, hinting at a somewhat more intimate tone than admitted in the previous works. We catch a glimpse of the dynamic central figure as daughter, sister and mother. Nonetheless, the poetry resounds with bold statements, sharp contrasts—love/hate, pleasure/pain, blame/guilt/innocence, supply/demand—and harsh indictments, but the tone is somehow wiser; the debt ratios and mechanisms of balance are changing. What has been borrowed must be repaid. And the payment will be realized in a new understanding of the relationship between the body and the material world. It will be emotionally and physically painful.
to keep the spirit inside
force it to stay inside the body
despite physical discomfort
despite almost endless physical discomfort
i place the body inside the world
and breathe in
i place the world inside the body
and breathe out
that is what i do
i identify with everything, with
(fire, water, earth, air) (131)
The preparation occurs at all levels of the body, from the cellular to the surface and beyond—fleshy and metallic imagery are interwoven leading, ultimately, to what is the beating heart of this poetic epic, the longest sequence, named, like the book, “My Jewel Box.” Here we move into a quieter, more organic, melancholy space, one that increasingly embraces a connection to the natural world, as the speaker enters a new phase of life—the post-fertile. This menopausal suite is, in its early movements, charged with loneliness and loss. Rivers of sweat run, the uterus is reimagined as a container for what? Air? Water? The blood now bled out is invisible.
i am a mother
who does not turn anyone into siblings
who will not be turning anyone into siblings (183)
Yet, as before, Olsen’s poetic vision is fundamentally life-affirming and, as her speaker begins to come to a fresh appreciation of her newly defined integration with the material world, her language explodes with the most vivid array of colours painted onto a tapestry of stars, gardens and forests. In contrast with the limited palettes of Third-Millennium Heart and Outgoing Vessel, it is blinding and exhilarating. The sadness lingers, the transition is pained, but possibilities are awoken, to be reclaimed as the work draws to a close at the end of the final sequence.
The power of Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s trilogy lies, for me, in her ability to move from the restrictive to the expansive, the biological to the cosmic, and back again. Her enigmatic speaker seems to be seeking a grounding in a vast universe, either pulling it all inside herself or holding herself close against its emptiness. At last, with My Jewel Box, there is a sense that she has reached a more solid footing, at once tentative and secure, a place where she belongs, somewhere between eternity and eternity.
Or, perhaps, that might just be my own translation of my experience of reading this trilogy.
My Jewel Box by Ursula Andkjær Olsen is translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen and published by Action Books.
Note: I will be in conversation with the poet and her translator on Sunday, May 15, 2022 at 1:00 pm CST. If interested, you can register to attend this virtual event at Brazos Bookstore.