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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry


Inger Christensen

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Title: alphabet
Author: Inger Christensen
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1981 (Eng. 2000)
Length: 77 pages
Original in: Danish
Availability: alphabet - US
alphabet - UK
alphabet - Canada
alphabet - India
alphabet - France
alphabet - Deutschland
  • Danish title: alfabet
  • Translated by Susanna Nied
  • Susanna Nied's translation was awarded the 1982 American-Scandinavian Foundation PEN Translation Prize

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Our Assessment:

B+ : powerful, effective poem

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Inger Christensen's alphabet is built up under two formal constraints. It is an alphabetical sequence: each of the fourteen sections essentially begins with a successive letter of the alphabet, from A through N, with that letter then often dominating the section. (Note that the eighth section, in fact, does not literally begin with H in the English translation, and the eleventh doesn't begin with K.) So, for example, the third section (in its entirety) reads:

cicadas exist; chicory, chromium,
citrus trees; cicadas exist;
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum
       The poem is also built up based on Fibonacci's sequence (where every number is the sum of the two previous numbers), which goes: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987, etc. Forgetting about the first two numbers, Christensen's first section has one line, the second two, the third three, the fourth five, the fifth eight, etc. (Note however that it doesn't quite seem to add up at the end.) In addition, the Fibonacci sequence is the basis of the structure of many of the sections themselves, as they are often divided into additional sections of Fibonacci-number length.
       The measured but ultimately explosive growth of the Fibonacci sequence, feeding on itself, is appropriate for the poem.
       alphabet is a poem that both basks in the wonder of the world and nature, and is keenly aware of the man-made threats to it. It begins: "apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist". Even here the seeds of danger are present, unmentioned but inescapable. The apricot is an attractive, tasty fruit, but, as Christensen surely expects here readers to know, its pit contains poison.
       The second section reads:
bracken exists; and blackberries, blackberries;
bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen
       The useless abundance of bracken, succulent berries -- and corrosive bromide: the unbalanced mix all around us. Hydrogen seems, here, almost safe, but the "bomb" suffix is not long in coming.
       Chromium, dioxin and doves, "harvest, history, and Halley's / comet": Christensen builds the poem up slowly. Existence dominates. She lists. She contrasts. Threats become more real: guns, poison, "half-lives, / famine, and honey" Even in mentions of oxygen and milk there is an undertone of present threat.
       She finally acknowledges: "atom bombs exist", and succinctly describes the events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
       The eleventh section begins: "love exists, love exists", and it almost sounds plaintive by now. The hold weakens: "people, livestock, dogs exist, are vanishing". Then:
hydrogen bombs exist
a plea to die
       It is this ultimate threat, and living with it, that is the focus of the poem. Christensen offers numerous approaches to it. There is the descriptive, the analytical, the emotional. The formal constraints allow her to try to express the unspeakable. "alphabets exist", and at least these building blocks allow for some sense of order in an overwhelming world.
       Nuclear devastation is not the only fear. Man's assault on nature, in whatever form, is a concern:
defoliants exist
dioxin for instance
denuding trees and
shrubs and destroying
people and animals
       Poetry holds some hope for her. She forces herself to write, to tackle the issues head-on. She repeats: "there's no more to say" -- and still finds more to say:
there's no more
to say; we kill
more than we think
more than we know
more than we feel;
there's no more
to say; we hate;
there is no more;
       Repetition is used throughout, to good effect. There is a constant echoing -- but it is neither clumsy nor annoying, resounding convincingly even in the translation.
       The formal constraints are not a burden on the reader, and, in fact, powerfully support the poem. Christensen's poetry is also quite impressive throughout, from simple images ("as tree after tree foams up in / early summer") to some of the starker scenes of life and death.
       An interesting, worthwhile piece.

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alphabet: Reviews: Inger Christensen: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Scandinavian literature at the complete review
  • See Index of Poetry under review
  • See Index of Oulipo books under review

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About the Author:

       Danish author Inger Christensen lived 1935 to 2009. She has written fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, and been awarded numerous literary prizes.

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