The Goldsmith and the Dragonfly
Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Susanna Nied’s translations of Inger Christensen’s “The Dream of a City” and “Silk, the Universe, Language, the Heart” appear in the September 2018 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.
Danish is a quirky language, and one of my favorite quirks is that the same word—guldsmed—can mean either “goldsmith” or “dragonfly.” The connection involves light: a dragonfly in flight, like a goldsmith at work, gives off flashes of gold.
Both senses of the word apply to Inger Christensen. It’s not hard to see the goldsmith in her craft. Who but Christensen could pull off a double structure based on the alphabet combined with the Fibonacci sequence (alphabet)? Who but Christensen could flash such seemingly effortless mastery of traditional forms, from skaldic poetry through a heroic sonnet crown?
Then there’s the dragonfly. If you’ve ever watched one in flight, you know they don’t proceed directly from point A to point B. They maneuver like helicopters: hover, shift, zoom backward, forward, straight up, straight down, zigzagging an apparently erratic course but ultimately zeroing in on whichever astonished bug they were intending all along to eat. That’s how Christensen’s thought processes work. She starts with one topic, zooms to another and another, hovers, backs up, shoots forward, ultimately reaching a goal that leaves me astonished and delighted, every time.
An aside: several years ago, as we went over my translations of her poetry, she told me that on each of the weekly essays assigned in high school she had earned an A+—but the A+ was always in parentheses. Her teacher said he’d take away the parentheses when she learned to stay on topic. We laughed. Luckily for us all, she never learned.
So how do you translate a goldsmith who is also a dragonfly? Slowly, for one. Translating 17 of Christensen’s collected essays took me 10 years. This was not just because I’m a slow translator (although I am). It was also because her thoughts cover as much ground as a dragonfly patrolling an entire river. And, like the dragonfly in sunlight or Cellini working gold, Christensen was brilliant. She mined her reading for essay topics, and she was an exuberant, wide-ranging reader of everything from hard and soft sciences (think astrophysics, philosophy, biology, linguistics) through natural history and the arts—and, of course, world literature. She read at least five languages besides Danish. That breadth of language ability gave her access to lesser-known authors translated into any of those five languages. As I worked with her essays, I couldn’t simply parrot the whole world of ideas and authors that she quoted or alluded to. I had to learn at least enough about them to be sure I wasn’t converting her goldsmith-meticulous thinking to high-sounding nonsense. Searching and learning took time. Understanding how and why she put her thoughts together took more time. But without that understanding, a translator will never be able to create appropriate transitions or even choose the right prepositions—and, as Christensen points out, prepositions “bear language up in the same way that outer space bears planets up” and “keep our consciousness in the same kind of motion that the world is in.”
To translate a dragonfly you also need to see from a dragonfly’s perspective—a practice Christensen once suggested that we all embrace, if we want the world to last much longer. For me this means feeling my way into an extended past and an extended future. The dragonflies’ past and future stretch a lot further back and further forward than our own. At over 400 million years old, they’re among the most ancient animal species. They predate dinosaurs by almost 175 million years, and they’re still going strong. With a survival record like that, dragonflies will very likely still be around if/when we humans vanish. So whether she’s considering the depths of the human heart, or evaluating sociopolitical priorities, or examining the practice of writing and the confluences of language and reality, Christensen takes the same long view that a dragonfly might take. Why believe that expressing our personal individuality is as important as learning to relate with humanity as a whole? Why think that preserving human life is any more pressing than preserving a dragonfly’s life? Why not consider that plants, like humans, have a form of language and even read sign systems, just infinitely more slowly than we can perceive? (In one essay she points out that seeds found in Egyptian pyramids, from plants that died millennia ago, are still viable today, whereas humans so far have not figured out a way to rise from the dead ... ) Why couldn’t it be possible that the universe wants to see itself and say itself, and that human beings are merely one among its many, many attempts to do so? Can we grasp that our uniqueness as a species lies not in language, but in the truths, spoken and unspoken, that flow from our capacities for love and wonder?
Christensen’s first book, a volume of poems, is titled Lys in Danish. Light, in English. Light. The connection. I didn’t yet know that connection, or know Christensen, when I happened across Lys years ago. “How,” I asked myself, “does she do it??” I began translating it as a way to find out. Ha! As if! But I was hooked. I stepped into her spirals around light and shadow and gradually made myself at home. The stark whites, grays, and darknesses in Grass; the touchstones of nightfall and sunrise in It; the spectrum of butterfly wings in Butterfly Valley, overlying the specter of death. It’s no accident, then, that her essays explore qualities of light in works of art, dreams, and memories, simultaneously exploring the shadows of reality, of our hearts and minds, of time, and of night. “The Dream of a City,” revealing light and darkness in mass society, is among her earliest published works; “Silk, the Universe, Language, the Heart” is among her last. Its conclusion: “Things vanish into the shadows of each other and of themselves; but with the reflections of those shadows, poems return to light.”