alphabet (Inger Christensen)
Here are the first five sections of the Danish poet Inger Christensen’s book alphabet, translated by Susanna Nied:
apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist
bracken exists; and blackberries, blackberries;
bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen
cicadas exist; chicory, chromium,
citrus trees; cicadas exist;
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum
doves exist, dreamers, and dolls;
killers exist, and doves, and doves;
haze, dioxin, and days; days
exist, days and death; and poems
exist; poems, days, death
early fall exists; aftertaste, afterthought
seclusion and angels exist;
widows and elk exist; every
detail exists; memory, memory’s light;
afterglow exists; oaks, elms,
junipers, sameness, loneliness exist;
eider ducks, spiders, and vinegar
exist, and the future, the future
I hesitate even to write anything about this poem because I find it so sublime. Its form does merit a bit of explanation. In the book, each section begins on a different page, which means that the book begins with a lot of white space. Per the title, it is an alphabet poem, so each section begins with and rotates around words beginning with a particular letter of the alphabet, proceeding through the letter n. Each section also gets increasingly long, as Christensen uses the Fibonacci sequence to determine the number of lines. (In the Fibonacci sequence, each number is the sum of the previous two numbers, or, F1 = Fn-1 + Fn-2. So 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 for the first five sections of the poem.) I find quite a bit of pleasure just watching the poem conform to this conceptual process as it progresses. The alphabetic conceit ensures that the poem will be lyrical, since it requires alliteration and assonance, and the Fibonacci conceit creates a sense of anticipation, as I wait to see how the poem will live up to its mathematical promise.
But the real key to this poem is the incessant repetition of the verb “exist.” It’s incredible that the poem feels so abundant, so vital, so overflowing with life, when nothing happens in it. It simply catalogues things that exist, though playing at the same time on what it means to exist. Here angels exist alongside elk, loneliness, and the future. We might say that these concepts all “exist” in very different ways, but at least one masterful stroke of the poem is that it calls all of these things into the same plane of existence purely through the act of invoking their names.
What the poem enacts, in other words, is a version of the creation narrative, whereby God says “let there be light,” and light comes into existence through the very saying of it. I’ve been thinking about creation narratives quite a bit lately. I know for a lot of religious people the Creation (capital c) is a sticking point, since it appears to tell a story about the origin of life that contradicts scientific findings in physics, astronomy, geology, and biology. For whatever reason, this has never felt like a conflict to me, maybe because I’ve always understood the creation narrative in Genesis to be poetry, not science.
Which doesn’t mean it’s not true, only that the truth of it lies along a different axis than empirical verification. What Genesis conveys to me is not a historical or scientific account of how matter and life came to exist, but rather a religious account about the mystery and beauty of existence itself. And this is what I find so powerful about alphabet as well, the way it asks us to contemplate the sublime, incomprehensible mystery of existence.
I love section 2, which proceeds from bracken to blackberries to bromine to hydrogen. This is a short catalogue of things, but capacious nonetheless. It suggests to me that difficult, thorny and ugly things (bracken) exist alongside sweet and beautiful things (blackberries). And that relatively complex things (bromine, atomic number 35) exist alongside fundamentally simple things (hydrogen, atomic number 1). And to top it all off, not only do all of these things exist out in the world, but the poem can take them all in and make them exist in our minds.
Of course, the poem only gets as far as the letter n, which section is 377 lines long. And you can see why. Were the poem to continue, it would soon arrive at s, which would need to be 1597 lines long, and then t, 2584 lines long–a rather unwieldy book. (N is also a fitting place to stop since it is the letter used in mathematical notation as an index or counter, as in the equation for the Fibonacci sequence above.) So even as the poem gives us a glimpse of the incredible variety of things that exist, and that we can hold in our minds, it also suggests that there is infinitely more out there than we can possibly imagine. “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing,” as Moses says after viewing the universe of God’s creations, “which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:10), or as Hamlet puts it, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” He’s speaking to Horatio, but he could be speaking to any of us.