Thursday, July 30, 2009

Inger Christensen, It

Do you have a pile of books that defeated you on first read? I do: they include One Hundred Years of Solitude, Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, and Inger Christensen's It are the top of the pile, the books that spring to mind when thinking about coming back from defeat to a second attempt (I've never managed a second attempt on Orhan Pamuk, though, having read the first 100 pages of three of his books). And in the second attempt, the re-visitation of what at first seemed so alien and alienating, a special pleasure emerges -- maybe like the pleasure of very early reading, when each new word or syntax offered the same sense of encounter, confusion and illumination. What all three books share is there utterly immersive worlds, their uncompromising immediacy and idiosyncracy, so that to read each book is to invent a world.

It's pleasure accrues even more so as the book-length poem is, as Anne Carson points out in her introduction, a cosmogony and a cosmology, a brief history of time described as the power of language and the imagination. It, for Christensen, is both fear and love, and the language that they make people spill as they imagine worlds into being. Unlike Hesiod's cosmology, which wants to assert that we have fallen from a golden age, Christensen's cosmology is of its moment in 1969, a radical call that - in language, and in language's ability to set free the imagination and the body - another world is possible.

I began my re-reading with the introduction, and approached the book anew with an amazing fact in mind, communicated to Carson by translator Susanna Nied: the book was
a huge popular favourite, It was quoted by political protestors and politicians alike; lines from it appeared as graffiti around Copenhagen; some parts were set to rock music and became esoteric hits.
Which is in danger of making the book sound a bit like Julie Taymor's Across the Universe: a whimsical tour of the most crushingly obvious bits of 60's protest culture. There are definitely invocations of sexual and social abandon as the poem unfolds, but they are embedded in the most blistering, subtle, surreal, beautiful, maddening, evocative accounts of the ills of consumer capitalism and the military-industrial complex.

Probably my favourite representation of this imbrication of Christensen's surreal poetic/prophetic imagination and her social conscience comes TEXT, the third section of middle chapter LOGOS {the book is mathematically structured]. Reminiscent at once of Ursula K. Le Guin and Janet Frame, this section re-creates the world in eight stages: sand, light, water, grass, summer heat, paper, snow, beds, first as a series of decontextualised fables, then as the account of a patient in a mental hospital struggling to prove her sanity, then as instructions for protestors, and finally as a limpid and haunting image of a protest in museum, live bodies and dead cultures curling around one another. Criss-crossed by the repetition of phrases, and painstakingly creating and changing voices and contexts, this section left me at once in awe of the structural and lyrical brain behind it and exhilarated by the immediacy of political poetry without dogmatism.

I could imagine G20 protestors shouting out lines from these poems in London earlier this year -- not least because the Danish title, det, is deeply suggestive. There are several poems where Christensen deals with the spiralling asymmetries created by ideas of ownership (of bodies, of objects, of language), writing that her poetry is "all something I've borrowed from the world" (STAGE/variabilities/4), thinking about writing and readership as debt -- or gift -- relationships. This is no easy happy-clappy one-for-all culture being proposed, but a thoughtful and precise devolution of the concept of ownership that still preserves some kind of selfhood: again, echoes of Le Guin, here The Dispossessed.

Like Le Guin, Christensen is gently insistent on sexuality and human touch as the indefatigable source of resistance to power, a tenderness that admits the humour of human sexuality and finds further resistance and invention in it:
Things comply with the lovers/be-
cause the lovers comply with things

if making love is prohibited/the lovers
comply with the prohibition and call it

something else/when those in power arrive
at the scene of the crime/they see only

the dust and the toppled statues/the helpless
hands and the skulls' broken edges/the whole

illiterate passion/and smile
everything is stifled/the very process

as such is shattered/everything is ridiculous
old ruins and muteness/they do not see

all the naked demonstrators/who tenderly
press themselves against the broken marble figures (TEXTS/extensions/4)
Undoubtedly, it's my extensive geekiness that causes me to imagine this scene taking place in the wrecked museum on Caprica where Starbuck goes to retrieve the arrow in Galactica Season 2. But there is something science-fictiony about Christensen's writing...

It's not just her dealings in an ambiguous utopia, a projected world, or in the fabular. It's not just that she speculates, nor that she populates her poems with oddities and juxtapositions, although they accomplish astonishing shifts of perspective and mood that a novelist would require a full book to assert. I have to quote her Lysistrata in this context:
There are lesbian feminists
hefty flesh-worshiping matrons

Bernini figures set free
baying swans

land in a plaza during siesta
line up for a protest march

naked procession through the streets
Clytemnestra in the lead

pure provocation
So what is it that sets this apart from Adrienne Rich's testament to a similar era? That surreal shift to seeing the protestors as "Bernini figures set free" and the storied reference to "Clytemnestra in the lead"? I think it's an attitude, one that Christensen sums up in STAGE/connectivities/5:
I've tried to tell about a world that doesn't exist
in order to make it exist...

I've tried to keep the world at a distance. It's been easy.
I'm used to keeping the world at a distance. I'm alien.
But this is more than Martian poetry because its riddles are political, an attempt to use poetic (il)logic to unravel the detrimental illogics of a capitalist society.

Call it what you will: speculative fiction, utopian fiction, imaginative literature. Guardian blogs and a Nobel prize for Doris Lessing notwithstanding, it's a pretty maligned genre in the serious literary world, where realism is still the (yawn) gold standard. And, let's face it, because most SF is socially and politically conservative, repetitive nonsense (but then so is most realist literary fiction). Christensen doesn't set out to show a world we know accoutred with a few snazzy toys or filtered through a kooky outsider: she wants to re-make the world, or rather she wants us to re-make it for ourselves, to recognise the world, and the language that invents and defines it, as partial, temporary, changeable, beautiful, and funny. Because we can love it and laugh at it, the world is subject to our agency -- as we are to its, as the writer is to the reader's. That causality and interconnection is why she chooses to structure LOGOS using eight terms coined by linguist Viggo Brøndal to analyze and categorize prepositional relationships: symmetry, transitivity, continuity, connectivity, variability, extension, integrity and universality. Christensen's poetry not only encompasses, but activates them, all. And while I love her fables and braided narratives, it's her reinvention of the lyric image (decentring the individual, deprettyfying nature, being funny) that lifts me into a new relationship with language and the world.
My world is discontinuous
in relation to the world as a whole
and in relation to you
it has wings

My world is a language through water
with the shining nerves distributed
as when the sun in water randomly generously
anyway it has wings

Wings of water

And I want you to know that it has a certain effect
it has a certain tingly effect
a rejoicing in the absence of cause
Leap says the world and I fly

That's how I drown my world in the world (STAGE/variabilities/5)


Tom said...

What a fantastic introduction to a poet. Will seek further wisdom!

Shelagh said...

I discovered Riddley Walker when writing a paper on ruins in science fiction. It was indeed a tough read, but worth it.

Delirium's Librarian said...

It took me nearly a year to read Riddley Walker, but it's really stayed with me. More the Punch and Judy stuff than anything, which weirdly also turns up in An Entertainment by Susan Hiller, another artist who brings SF into her work.