In Conversation: Ursula Andkjær Olsen and Katrine Øgaard Jensen on Third-Millennium Heart

International literature famously offers a window on the world—a much-needed window, these years.

‘I want to buy my way to everything’: halfway through Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Third-Millennium Heart (excerpted in the Asymptote Fall 2015 issue), the shape-shifting, double-tongued voice declares yet another sweeping and futile desire. Translated from the Danish by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, this collection is a text much like the many-chambered place that is third-millennium heart, with intersecting meditations on the human body and its connection to the natural world, which evolve into a solid critique of late capitalism, especially in relation to reproduction. Throughout, there is a disconnect between necessity and excess, the architecture of human consumption, a tussle between the body’s need and desire for more. During this email interview, Olsen makes me a list of Danish words for the parts of the body, and the etymology is fascinating. Moderkage, Danish for ‘placenta’, would literally translate into ‘mother cake’; livmoder, the word for ‘uterus’, into ‘life mother’. Following is the interview between Ursula Andkjær Olsen and her English translator, Katrine Øgaard Jensen.

Sohini Basak: I want to begin with names and naming and the body, because that’s where the book (and our language, for that matter) begins. When you were young, Ursula, what language did you learn about the body? Science, especially medical science, uses the English language (and Latin, for nomenclature), so I’m curious to know . . . what were the first names you learnt for the heart, its ventricles, chromosomes, all of which form the structure of this collection?

Ursula Andkjær Olsen: My mom was a doctor, so I think the naming of the body for me was a mix of Danish and Latin. I was always very fascinated with the scientific approach to the body (in fact I studied medicine for almost two years before changing to musicology and philosophy), and I remember, as a little girl, poring over a book of photographs of the body’s insides, beautiful pictures by Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson. And doing it again and again. All these cavities, canals, soft corners, bridges, chambers! It was a kind of architecture, in fact.

But the first word for heart that I learnt was the Danish hjerte, and for the ventricle, hjertekammer, a very beautiful word, directly translating to ‘heart-chamber’. Not that I have thought about this before you asked me this question, but I think these Nordic (Germanic) words, which, for those who speak them, have a very obvious bodily origin AND this kind of ‘architectural’ sense—a heart as something with chambers in it—mixed with the more clinical feeling of the Latin words, show the origin of my ‘body language’ rather well. As for chromosome (kromosom in Danish) I remember being told about DNA both in connection with the aforementioned book and in connection with other books of Mother’s. I remember the DNA spiral from one of her medical books too, I’ve got it on my shelf now, Molecules to Man it is called.

SB: I am obsessed with names and how their etymology differs (or doesn’t sometimes) from language to language, and Third-Millennium Heart actually gives me a name for this obsession, which is this beautiful word ‘namedrunk’. Going by your translator’s note at the end of the collection, Katrine, I believe ‘namedrunk’ is a neologism in the Danish too.

Could you elaborate on the degree of inventiveness you practised for this collection? Were you guided by the sound of the original words and their roots? Or were you looking for something more integrating, a domestication for English readers?

Katrine Øgaard Jensen: Like I wrote in the note you’re referring to, I had to come up with solutions on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes, I was able to translate the neologisms directly. The word sweat-embroidery is, for instance, pretty much a direct translation of the original word svedbroderi, save for the hyphen. However, with words such as væksthund (growth-dog), I had to get creative in order to make the reference to capitalism slightly more apparent in translation. In this particular case, I ended up with ‘charging bulldog’: a reference to the Charging Bull on Wall Street, an American symbol of aggressive financial optimism and prosperity.

‘Namedrunk’ is an example of one of the many near-words that Ursula likes to invent. The original neologism, navndrukken, implies a few things that I wanted to capture in translation. Navn implies either having a name or naming something, while drukken implies being overwhelmed or intoxicated by something, or to be dead-drunk, with a slight suggestion of drowning (in Danish: drukne). I could have chosen to translate the word as ‘namedrunken’ instead, but I thought namedrunk sounded more ambiguous, potentially powerful. I also considered the fact that namedrunk appears in Third-Millennium Heart next to the word ‘nameless,’ as its opposite. So I figured ‘namedrunk’ should sound potent in contrast to the anonymity of ‘nameless’.

SB: That’s brilliant! Also from your note, English-language readers gather that Ursula’s work uses ‘a wet monsoon of commas’. This is something that I’m very curious about. Could you also elaborate on the translation of punctuation?

KØJ: Absolutely. I wrote in my translator’s note that Danish grammar allows for multiple ideas—separated by a series of commas—to (e)merge within a single sentence. Basically, Danish grammar gives Ursula a mandate to use more commas in her poetry than an English reader would be able to make sense of. To add insult to injury, Ursula’s sentences often test the limits of her Danish readers as well. And so, in the interest of clarity, I replaced some commas with line breaks, to entertain the possibility of connections between certain words or lines. In other cases, when a line break would cause more confusion than clarification, I inserted a colon or a period instead. I also chose to break lines differently when the English poems invited new possibilities for wordplay, or when I deemed an English line too clunky.

SB: Going back to learning language as a child, Ursula, some of the poems in the first half of the book, because of their fable-like repetition, and certain images (the woods, the kingdom, the prettiest egg, the tree), made me think of the little verses we are taught when we are young and the way we often disassociate the inherent violence and morbidity from children’s rhymes and lullabies as we grow up. The figure of the child haunts us in the second half of the book too. Were you thinking of lullabies and nursery rhymes while writing Third-Millennium Heart?

UAO: I wrote the book while I was pregnant with my son and in the first years after he was born. So the short answer is yes! I was indeed thinking of lullabies and nursery rhymes. And this second meeting with the child’s world—the one you have when you become a parent—really made me feel, or rather, re-feel all the violence and fairy-tale-like harshness and brutality of the child’s view on things. And the simplicity that goes with it too, simplicity and brutality, which had become remote for the grown-up me. Growing up is maybe all about getting away from simplicity and brutality, and becoming worked into the softer (as in brutality-concealing) complexity of the grown-up world. Maybe civilization as such is all about that.

SB: Yes, perhaps so. And what are some of the textual influences?

UAO: Apart from the Danish lullabies, the Bible is also present in the text. For instance, the idea of breasts as towers, that is from the Song of Songs where Shulamite’s breasts are like the towers of Jerusalem. Then there are other Danish songs – folk songs as well as songs by Danish poets and composers – braided into the text. For example, the oldest known written folksong in Danish (with musical notes to it), ‘Drømte mig en drøm i nat’ (‘I Dreamt a Dream Last Night’) or ‘Der er ingenting i verden så stille som sne’ (‘There is Nothing in the World as Quiet as Snow’).

SB: Ah, yes! In fact, the book begins with an invocation to ‘babel and ivory’, and then the architecture of ‘castle/spire/tower’ looms over the narrative. Unreachable, unattainable places, at times archaic, or Biblical, as you just pointed out, or the stuff of fairy tales . . . and then there are other spaces: waiting room, courthouse, country, cradle, womb. Some limiting, some liberating . . . how does enclosure and insulation evolve in Third-Millennium Heart?

UAO: Wow, that’s a hard one! I think the whole book is about things being inside and outside each other, being enveloped around each other—and the fact that this builds a whole cosmology from the most intimate (the fetus in the womb) to the most remote, the most alienated—for instance, the market.

But it is also about trying to grasp that the most intimate, or what you would think to be the most intimate—that is, the child growing inside you—that too is a very alienated position. Alienated as in: this child is inside me, but I have never met it! I don’t know it! And in the moment that I meet it, the procedure of its separation from me has been initiated. These are extremely violent facts, to me. And they are all about, as you say, the fact that the liberation and the insulation go hand in hand.

SB: Which brings me to this stanza, which for me is a pivotal stanza in the book:

Rationality will not save us; chlorine
will. A big batch of chlorine spilled over
complex being with bridges and passages.

And it reminds me of the long narrative poem by Juliana Spahr, written after 9/11, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs. The Spahr poem also marked a new phase in Anglophone eco-poetry, or as she put it, the importance of poetry that looks not just at a beautiful bird, but the bulldozer that is hacking away at the tree the bird is sitting on too . . . Would you say you have always written as a response to what endangers us, what we are endangering?

UAO: I think your expression, ‘what endangers us, and what we are endangering’, is very precise, because it assumes a network or a circuit in which these things are connected. As I see it, the things endangering us, our endangering ourselves and others (other beings/things) at the same time—all of this is connected, perhaps now more than ever.

I remember thinking a lot about nuclear war as a child. I was very afraid of that, as many in my generation were. Now my immediate fears are maybe more about climate change, the economy and economic inequality. For instance, the global market—that freaks me out; it is a spider’s web that we seem unable to escape.

SB: Has there been a moment in Danish literature too, a body of work that marks our arrival at the Anthropocene and looks at the politics of climate change, Katrine?

KØJ: For the past decade or so, there’s been a noticeable rise in literature addressing climate change, the Anthropocene, the notion that nature and humanity have become inseparable. Anne-Marie Mai, an esteemed scholar of Nordic Literature, wrote a wonderful article for Post45 titled Eco-Crime: Scandinavian Literature Takes on the Environmental Crisis, in which she describes this literary tendency much better than I could here. Among others, Mai mentions the Danish poet Lars Skinnebach who, at the launch of his book Øvelser og rituelle digte (Exercises and Ritual Texts) in 2010, made readers sign a declaration that they would eat nothing but vegetables for an agreed number of days, as a prerequisite to receiving a copy of his book.

SB: The narrative voice in the book is an extraordinary one: shape-shifting, engorging, like a chimera, or a cyborg perhaps (borrowing from Ida Bencke) . . . and when I came to the middle section ‘The Idea of Red’, I felt that there was there a tectonic shift marked by the refrain ‘That is my new body language’ and the way gender is performed from then on.

In a way, this section reminds me of a Clarice Lispector story, ‘Where Were You at Night’, which is a fever dream of a prose piece featuring this mysterious androgynous figure, He-she, which is also referred to as She-he . . . I’ve read the story in English, as I have your poems, Ursula, and I keep thinking how gender works in the respective original languages . . . so how does gender work in the Danish?

UAO: Well, another big one. Danish is somewhat similar to English in that you only say “him” or “her” about humans and animals, not about objects or notions – as you do in both French and German, for instance. (Apart from that, Danish nouns are classified into neuter and common gender.) I haven’t read that Lispector story, but I did read her novel Agua Viva last year, it has this very abstract-concrete voice that maybe has a lot in common with the She-he/He-she you’re describing . . . I have always been very interested in the notion-pairs (can you say that?) that our language is made of—like good-bad, dark-bright, hard-soft and female-male—and the things you can do with them. These pairs can work like opposed thumbs, they can help you grab things (thoughts), but they can also lock things into positions where they can’t move; there is a very long tradition for that in Western philosophy called dualism, and a very long tradition of practising it in society, to put it mildly—and that’s not so good.

For me the solution is not to get rid of the notion-pairs but to use them to destabilize the system. You can take a thing with your opposed-thumbs-notion-pair and then you can shake it until it falls apart and maybe finds a new place in the whole, altering the whole system. So I am interested in gender both as a tool to grab things and as a tool to be altered—to be transformed into something new—and sometimes even destroyed. So that we can encounter the world anew.

SB: The opposed-thumbs metaphor is the perfect cue for us to dwell on the evolving/devolving female body:

The selfishness of motherhood is
an ornament or a necessity, doesn’t matter.
[. . .]
the idea of being a society-suckling, political mammal.


Mother Market’s lover-me-lover-me-not dances with the food
chains of the world in its hair.

These are perhaps my favourite lines from the book . . . Why is it important for you to dwell on the selfishness of motherhood, as well as the concept of Mother Market in Third-Millennium Heart, which I’d say is a book for our times, where we, like the voice, ‘want more than just love’?

UAO: The Mother Market figure is very important to me, because she is the link between the intimate bodily feelings/thoughts and the larger (and larger) circles that the book evolves in. When I was pregnant (or just after giving birth maybe) I got this flyer on breastfeeding that talked about ‘increasing the production’, of milk that is. This market vocabulary seemed so odd to me that the figure of Mother Market immediately occurred to me. As I began to think about it, she evolved into the true successor to Mother Nature. Where do we get our food, where do we get all of our life necessities? From Mother Market. And also, she works in much more mysterious and different ways than Mother Nature, because the whole process of producing is invisible to a degree never before seen. Or at least we are not supposed to see that our shoes are made by slaves in sweatshops. We encounter the product on the shelf in the store, as if it came out of nothing, a miracle.

The selfishness of motherhood, well, I think it goes hand in hand with all the usual ‘nice’ ideas we have about mothers, the caring, the tenderness, all that, feelings that are a fact, BUT along with them—and along with the Mother Market—is a wide range of very bad feelings, ranging from the immediate need to kill everyone who does anything to harm your offspring to the thought of having to kill your own child before anyone else can harm it. Very bad things! I have been interested in working in this field of motherhood, expanding it, making it less nice—less tame, less lame . . .

SB: Yes, absolutely, the nature/nurture debate has indeed moved out of simple dualities in the age of late capitalism. Another twist in the old ‘notion-pairs’ (to borrow your term), would be this equation-like stanza from the book:

Culture is necessary = nature is a luxury
humans cannot afford.
Culture, nature: the two continue rubbing.

What place does poetry occupy for you? Do you think of poetry as a luxury?

UAO: In line with the quote above, ‘poetry is necessary’ . . . Well, as I have tried to explain, I am always very focused on turning upside down the notional systems and their ‘normal’ way of functioning, so, for me, saying that culture is a necessity and nature a luxury is a way of destabilizing these systems. Basically, it is all about uprooting my own ideas of what is necessary and what is not.

SB: And what about literary translation?

KØJ: I’d say that literary translation is a luxurious necessity. In short, acquiring any kind of book is essentially luxurious because it doesn’t cover basic needs such as food, warmth, or shelter. And books, especially works in translation, are expensive to produce. However, I would still argue that literary translation is a necessity, because international literature famously offers a window on the world—a much-needed window, these years.


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