Friday, December 23, 2005


A Danish Shiny Bit: Henrik Nordbrandt

Henrik Nordbrandt is a contemporary Danish poet I recently ran across for the first time in The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, edited by J. D. McClatchy (Vintage Books, 1996); the five poems there and the couple of others I found on the Poetry International website interested me enough that I've ordered a collection of his work available in English, The Hangman's Lament: Selected Poems (Green Integer, 2003).

Born in 1945, Nordbrandt has lived most of his adult life away from Denmark, primarily in Italy, Greece, and Turkey; this self-imposed exile is at least part of what contributes to what is perhaps his major theme, that of loneliness and isolation. Interestingly, this theme apparently reveals itself especially in his love poetry (which I gather forms a substantial portion of his body of work). Of the half dozen of his poems I've located so far, half deal with this awareness of the loneliness within love. "Sailing" is a remarkable poem which develops this idea through a two-part extended metaphor:

Henrik Nordbrandt

After having loved we lie close together
and at the same time with distance between us
like two sailing ships that enjoy so intensely
their own lines in the dark water they divide
that their hulls
are almost splitting from sheer delight
while racing, out in the blue
under sails which the night wind fills
with flowerscented air and moonlight
-- without one of them ever trying
to outsail the other
and without the distance between them
lessening or growing at all

But there are other nights, where we drift
like two brightly illuminated luxury liners
lying side by side
with the engines shut off, under a strange constellation
and without a single passenger on board:
On each deck a violin orchestra is playing
in honor of the luminous waves.
And the sea is full of old tired ships
which we have sunk in our attempt to reach each other.

(translated by the author and Alexander Taylor)

The first strophe develops the metaphor of the two lovers, lying beside each other in post-coital repletion, as two sailing ships traveling side by side but with each ship (personified) focusing entirely on its own motion and movement through the water; each ship is absorbed entirely in its own pleasure in the physical sensations it experiences and it neither approaches nor draws away from the other. Each lover, in short, is alone, revelling in the afterglow of his/her own sexual gratification without any real concern or interest in the partner. Although each is near the other, the presence of the other doesn't impinge upon the awareness of the individuals; their physical union has led to an emotional and psychological disconnection between them.

The second strophe likewise develops a similar metaphor, that of the two lovers again lying side by side but this time like two ocean liners, empty of passengers, and having drawn close to each other fully lighted and with their respective orchestras playing on deck, clearly in an attempt to communicate somehow with each other, particularly given that they are alone "under a strange constellation." But, again, there is no indication that either ship -- or lover -- is able to directly or meaningfully communicate with the other, that anyone on one ship perceives and understands what is being communicated by the other. Instead, there is only an awareness of an attempt to communicate and of what has been lost in the past in the lovers' "attempt to reach each other." It is almost as if the music each ship's orchestra is playing is an elegy for the failures that make up the past.

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