Dane Christensen Fuses Poetry, Prose in Dream-Like ‘Azorno’

"Azorno" by Inger Christensen (New Directions Press)

Whether “Azorno” is a novelesque prose poem, or a poetic novel written in prose is up for debate—as is much of the nature of its contents. A hall of mirrors, the book was written by acclaimed Danish poet Inger Christensen, who died in early January of this year at 73. Denise Newman’s translation of “Azorno,” released in January, marked the first time since its publication in the late 1960s that the novel has been available in English, and while the book’s experimental nature makes its absence rather unsurprising, the arrival of its 105 pages is long overdue.

To crystallize the plot of “Azorno” is to reduce the atmosphere that makes it beautiful and in which its quavering logic (and, in turns, illogic) dwells. Who does what is beside the point. The book’s central drama is also its opening one. It is the question of which woman meets Azorno on page eight, page eight being that of the mysterious novel within the novel ostensibly. The eponymous Azorno is cited as the protagonist of Sampel’s book, yet Sampel is also called Azorno, both by himself and by the women who may or may not surround him in reality—whatever reality may be. Incidentally, no such encounter can be found on page eight of this book, though it does play out on many others, recurring in different guises and gardens as one of the novel’s central tropes. And it is this drama’s—the question’s—unresolved nature that is most easily illustrative of its beauty.

The novel’s kaleidoscope of females—Xenia, Louise, Randi, Katarina, Bathsheba—all write novels or letters, but beyond existing on the page to the reader at hand (which is to say Christensen’s) they are themselves written by one another in turn, defined as characters within each others’ dramas. And throughout the text—or perhaps texts—author and creation become blurred beyond distinction.

Christensen’s book collapses the so-called fact and fiction that separate the characters’ interior and exterior spaces. Like Sampel and Azorno, the five women—four of them claiming to be lovers of the author/protagonist and one of them his wife—are not quite interchangeable. Each possesses her own subtleties of speech, and yet they are constantly interchanged. They call for one another, assume each others’ names, and send each other off on rescue missions that feel more like sabotage. All the while the book’s metafictional mystery of the woman on page eight plays out amidst murders and pregnancies that, truth be told, do not actually exist. As Randi narrates in an aside midway through the novel, “By the way, I don’t think Katarina was even trying to get close to the truth, if once again, just for a moment, I consider the truth to be the actual circumstances.” The “truth” and “actual circumstances” only coincide for mere moments: it is the rest of the time that we are concerned with. When Randi relays Katarina’s story a few lines later “etc., etc., etc.” replaces the version of events. What is relayed are Katarina’s emotional and physical demands—and the accusation that Louise is caught in a daydream.

It is the reader most of all who feels caught in a daydream, shuffled between the novel’s ever-changing “I”s and shifting versions of events. Goethe is a smiling dog who eats sandwiches. Goethe is porcelain statue. A suitcase is packed by Randi. A suitcase, topped with the woman on page eight’s ubiquitous white hat is packed by Bet. And by Sampel.

These recursive moments extend throughout the book, resonating with the more formal structure of poetry or music, which so often relies on reiteration and redoubling. The lyricism of the text is ever present, and Christensen’s prowess as an experimental poet, known for her groundbreaking works in verse—in particular “It,” “Alphabet,” and “Butterfly Valley: A Requiem,” all of which have been translated into English in recent years—cannot be forgotten when reading her prose.

The emphasis on cadence and the special weight of each word that appears in novels written by poets such as this pose quite a challenge to any translator, particularly one attempting to shift the paradoxically melodious and halting prosody of Danish into English. In many ways, its no wonder “Azorno” has gone untranslated for so many decades—I only wish I knew what transformations the Danish words underwent in the original, and how Newman’s version compares. Christensen is constantly playing with language puzzles, and it is Newman’s task to maintain this play with an entirely different set of pieces. A paragraph might break down into a single sentence, which is then distilled to a word; “explain” is deconstructed to “plain” then to “in,” which in turn begins a new phrase.

However, it must be said that Newman’s version does contain the odd off word, small moments here and there that stick out of sentences. These words are most often slightly more colloquial than seems appropriate, alerting the reader to the text’s transmutation. However, far more tangible are the marvelous moments in which Newman’s work succeeds, conveying in prose both vivid and dreamy the physiognomy of botanicals, the silence beneath seas, and the sounds of fountains whose tones vary slightly from that of rain.

It is rare for a text to be lovely, lilting, and dealing in love, without ever lapsing into the saccharine. “Azorno” is hard to pick up and put down—not simply because the maze is hard to enter again until it has already been read through once and returned to, but because you simply may not want to leave its swirling eddies of worlds. The novel could be accused of slightness, and in many ways it does feel like a beautiful exercise more than it does a finished masterwork. But despite its small spine and recursive nature, “Azorno” contains multitudes, and it is to the novel’s credit that it asks more questions than it ever answers. Just whose daydream this is we never know for sure, but at Christensen and Newman’s combined best it feels like our own.

—Staff writer Anna K. Barnet can be reached at abarnet@fas.harvard.edu.