Prose from Poetry Magazine

Inger Christensen: The Last Words Are Hers

Inger Christensen is dead. A great writer has died. I know that great is a word we often use to decorate a venerable cultural figure and then put him or her on a high shelf with the other moldering greats, but this is not my intention. Great books are the ones that are urgent, life-changing, the ones that crack open the reader’s skull and heart. I was in my early twenties when I first read Det, and I felt I had been sent a revelation. This work was like no other I had ever read—its rhythms and repetitions were of my own body, my heartbeat, my breath, the motion of my legs and the swing of my arms as I walked. As I read it, I moved with its music. But inseparable from that corporeal music, embedded in the cadences themselves, was a mind as rigorous, as tough, as steely as any philosopher’s. Christensen did not compromise. Paradox upon paradox accumulated in a game of embodied thought. Logic, systems, numbers came alive and danced for me, but they did so hand in hand with ordinary things, which her voice enchanted and made strange. She made me see differently. She made me feel anew the power of incantation.

I met her twice, first at a festival in New York City. I rushed up to her, shook her hand and babbled out some words in an effort to articulate my intense admiration. She was kind. The second occasion was in Copenhagen at a dinner where I sat beside my idol, who was charming, funny, and told me she wouldn’t return to New York because nobody lets you smoke there. The merry, unpretentious woman at the table and the great poet were one, and yet there is always some split at such moments between the person in the room and the person on the page. I didn’t know the woman, but the poet altered my inner world. She whispers to me in my own writing, a brilliant, fierce literary mother whose work I will read again and again. The last words belong to Christensen: the music of life and death. They are the last three lines of the “Prologos” in Det:

Someone is dead and is carried out of his house as darkness falls.
Someone is dead and is looked at by someone who is blind at last.
Someone stands still and is alone at last with the other dead person.


Originally Published: May 7th, 2009

Siri Hustvedt is the author of four novels, The Blindfold, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, What I Loved, and The Sorrows of an American, as well as two books of essays, A Plea for Eros, and Mysteries of the Rectangle. She has just finished a nonfiction book, The Shaking Woman...

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  1. May 3, 2009

    Long has lived the thoughts and creative
    pulse of man, scribed on paper, mind
    and soul,but never does it resonate,touch
    and sear til tempered by a poets hand.

  2. May 4, 2009
     Susan Fleming Holm

    I receive the monthly hard copy of Poetry, and enjoyed very much Siri Hustvedt's heartfelt and moving tribute to the Danish poet Inger Christensen, which you have reproduced here. But I appreciated especially the clarity and delight conveyed in the insightful comments of Susanna Nied, the translator of Christensen's poems. It was Ms. Nied who described the patterns of certain of Christensen's poems, the relationship of those patterns to music by Messiaen and to birdsong, and the act of translating such patterns as "liniguistic birdwatching" -- a description which you have here attributed to Ms. Hustvedt. I hope you will correct the attribution on line, and please also post Ms. Nied's perceptive and revealing "Translator's Note." Thank you for publishing Christensen's work in Poetry, and I hope to see more of it!