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Inger Christensen (1935-2009) was one of Denmark's most distinguished writers, and 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 labelled as naturalist, experimental, formalist and structuralist, but 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 Poesie, 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 in Literature. Born in the small Danish town of Vejle, she lived mostly in Copenhagen for most of her adult life, 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 had 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. Susannah Nied has translated four of Inger Christensen's books, alphabet (Bloodaxe Books, UK, 2000; New Directions, USA, 2001), Butterfly Valley (Dedalus Press, Ireland, 2000; New Directions, USA, 2004), it (Carcanet Press, UK; New Directions, USA, 2007), and Light, Grass, and Letter in April (New Directions, 2011). Her translation of alphabet won the ASF/PEN Translation Prize for poetry (given by the American-Scandinavian Foundation and Scandinavian Review).


One of Scandinavia's most honored poets, veteran Danish writer Christensen originally published her book-length Alphabet 20 years ago to great acclaim; this translation by former San Diego State Univ. English instructor Susanna Nied is the first in English and was awarded the American-Scandinavian PEN translation prize. The lengths in lines of each of this slim volume's 14 poems from "[a]" to "[n]" are based on the Fibonacci sequence. Beginning with zero and one, the sequence runs 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 600; "[a]" begins where (0 + 1 = 1). One assumes the 977 lines "[o]" would have required finally overwhelmed the poet and forced her to stop at ["n"]; Ron Silliman's similar alphabetic project makes no such allowances. As used here with controlled repetitions, the sequence gives the whole an almost medieval sense of restriction, as in the last four lines of "[e]": "afterglow exists; oaks, elms,/ junipers, sameness, loneliness exist;/ eider ducks, spiders, and vinegar/ exist, and the future, the future." Abstracted cold war fears and post-'70s ecological concern and alienation give way to litanies of real world outrages "chemical ghetto guns exist/ with their old-fashioned, peaceable precision// guns and wailing women, full as/ greedy owls exist; the scene of the crime exists" which culminate in a post-nuclear holocaust nightmare, with birds and children somehow having survived in caves. The scenario may seem dated, but the threats remain very real, and Christensen's poetic appeal for sanity and humanity remains an abstracted call to action. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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