Third Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen (tr. Katrine Øgaard Jensen). Action Books / Broken Dimanche Press. 210pp, $20.00.
Award-winning poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Third Millennium Heart, translated into English by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, is narrated from the point of view of a monstrous, cyborg organ, a heart which is a sprawling, rumbling mega-structure; a cornubation made up of anti-heroic, Archigram-like constructions—fantastical towers and castles. From the heart’s radical connectivity emerges a puissant female voice, who unleashes a torrent of invectives, affirmations and auguries against capitalist market forces, patriarchy, toxic manhood, rape trauma, and the perversion of Western culture. A kind of germinal energy emanates from the fractal asymmetry of the 200-odd poems in this collection, like the vitality of patterns in river systems, tree branches and lightening bolts. In a state of interminable flux, the poems push back against facile interpretation even as they pull the reader closer towards self-knowledge.
The heart’s interior is a desolate tundra, a place where:
Time does not heal all:
when I was a wounded animal
I’d run into my distant interior and
Perform the necessary mercy-killings myself.
Then I’d gather the bones on skin and
Resurrect by sunrise in RED radiance.
In this way, no one/ nothing has ever hurt me;
I remain unwritten.
This sense of remaining unwritten, unpinned and unlabeled—a fierce resistance to meaning-making—appears to be the engine that drives the machine of this colossal heart, with the poems forming its contiguous, vast, howling chambers. There is a sense that the pathways connecting these poems are mutable and ever changing, and that readers are free to choose a personally meaningful order in which to visit them.
In “Female Tradition as Feminist Innovation”, American poet Annie Finch wrote:
Women poets who are drawn to palpable structures and who identify with female traditions must look away from the handful of canonically accepted female poets in the search for our foremothers. Writing in for is for us not a matter of going back to the past, reasserting an archaic power structure, meekly treading on territory already claimed by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth.” And “Our formalist practice is not based in the imitation of the fathers but in the reclamation of the unfinished work of silent, or silenced, foremothers. Formalism presents us not with big stale husks but small growing seedlings, not the discouragement of huge closed books but the challenge of open, relatively empty pages.
The strange and ferocious narrative voice of The Third Millennium Heart, of both victim and abuser; the poet’s rejection of a normative structure; her antipathy towards the ubiquitous pressure of being a likeable female; her disruptive vision of human beings as human-animal-machine hybrids—qualifies Olsen as a foremother, in my view.
And helping Olsen to become canon is the English translation by Katrine Ogaard Jensen, who makes sure that the language remains as undomesticated as the poetry itself. Friedrich Schleiermacher, in a seminal lecture to the Berlin Academy of Sciences, titled “On The Different Methods of Translation”, said: “Either the translator leaves the writer in peace as much as possible and moves the reader toward him, or he leaves the reader in peace as much as possible and moves the writer toward him.” In her translator’s note, Jensen mentions that she breaks lines when she susses the opportunity for wordplay, and to accommodate the victim/abuser ambiguity of the third millennium heart character. Inventing words with meticulous boldness, Jensen never wastes an opportunity to jar the reader out of complacent comprehension. The resulting lexicon is bizarre and beautiful: namedrunk, exobrain, exoheart, sweat-embroidery, society-suckling, heavenmechanic, soulfisherman, paranoia-carcass, etc.—and makes it quite clear to the reader that leaving them in peace was never on the table.
“A Manifesto for Discomfortable Writing” written by Antena, a language justice and language experimentation collaborative, states that:
- “Discomfortable writing unsettles the complacent eye and opens it to the unexpected, the real and the hyper-real and the sub-real: the conditions of the world as it is and the potentials of the world as it might be.
- We reject the automatic. Automaticity is unquestioning acceptance of the conditions and brutalities of the world-as-it-is. To automatically act is to automatically collude.
- We embrace the everyday. Repetition, routine, and ritual also contain sparks of discomfortableness. The foundations of daily life are a springboard into the stratospheres of the discomfortable. The discomforts of daily life are the texture of our resistance.
- We are not averse to good rhythm, but we distrust language that is too fluid, too easeful, too smooth. Without the snags, the surface becomes slick and we slide into so-called comprehension without pausing to question or remember how much we do not know.”
Olsen’s writing has a way of dislodging one’s sense of self-possession; we look up from her book at a world that seems stranger, more beautiful and far more alarming—than before we started reading it. The malignant loneliness of the third millennium heart; its angry dependence on the outside world to manufacture selfhood; its, at times, dire lack of self-reflexivity—urges us to cast a doubtful eye on our private echo-chambers, and makes us uncomfortable enough to want to engage with the Other.
Those who transgress culture are essentially
founding it. I am. This place is too
high-ceilinged, big cathedral
Idyllic and solemn.
Lonely and intimate.
Culture’s footing continues, continues
to run away from culture.
They rub against each other:
thus fire was created.
Separation is required before we can meet, and we
have to meet. Mammals are based on this
transcendence-producing double movement.
Building and building
idyllic and solemn.
Building and building
lonely. And intimate.
Two towers, babel and ivory
are overflowing with groundwater/groundwine through culture.
We rub against each other: thus fire is created every day.
The overflow is running down the cradle of culture, through
The sheets: that’s groundwater/groundwine, babel
I am not telling anyone how to feel.
The “transcendence-producing double movement” could refer to the actions of the current collective dystopic moment, where culture self-mutilates into mutually repugnant systems: progressive vs. conservative, globalism vs. nationalism, collectivism vs. ultra-individualism, socialism vs. capitalism, post-truth vs. fact-based reality—while forcing these antipodal creeds to “rub against each other: thus fire is created every day”. Culture runs away from culture; through our online personas, our smartphone-cyborg bodies, we grow lonelier and more intimate in our tailor-made utopias. We are our own origin myths, living inside towers, babel and ivory, building and building, destined for failure.
Naheed Patel is a graduate of the MFA program at Columbia University. She is currently a teaching assistant at Barnard College, and tweets @naheedphiroze.
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