Review: The Condition of Secrecy by Inger Christensen

What do fractals and poetry have in common? What can be gained by thinking about randomness as a universal force? Why does something happen, instead of nothing? The Condition of Secrecy by Inger Christensen offers a new vibrant spectrum of potential answers. Considered to be a master of the avant-garde in Denmark, this posthumous translation of a collection of essays allows readers to experience her work at its most constructionally simplified. The collection is a chorus of lyrical memoir and philosophical discourse about poetry making. The discourse is written in a way in which the reader is also positioned as a poet, often articulating ideas in relationship to the reader as a fellow excavator into the chasm. Christensen’s musings articulate her ars poetica contingent on the inseparability between varying discourses, —ranging from mathematical to metaphysical as she relates, “Poetry is just one of human beings’ many ways of recognizing things, and the same schism runs through each of the other ways, be it philosophy, mathematics, or the natural sciences.” This interplay between language as a part of nature is as a way of collapsing the taxonomy that places poetry as esoteric or high-culture. Rather, poetry exists within more reachable and perceivable elevations.

Christensen’s poetic hypothesis houses the intimacy between an arrangement of the poem and content to curate layered meaning. Employing mathematical strategies to her work, Christensen created works that  answered the unsaid aesthetic question, “Can poems enact what fractals do in nature?”  Placed into prose, Christensen still treats language as a type of material to be manipulated. In her treatment of language, “all nouns are very lonely” and “all adjectives are very helpless.”  Poetry is placed in the “ web of relationships” among all phenomena. Prepositions then become the bridge materials between forms of existence and the description of the way they exist. The text is so sensually articulated that the viscosity of its gossamer hangs on every branch of every word. Translated by Susanne Nied, the language evokes images that feel kinesthetic and new in their bareness, composing a musicality, “Swinging in the swing hung from the August apple tree” and questioning metaphysics: “the individual person left undisturbed, is a condition of the earth, and that humans as a group are a chemical poem.” The title arrives from Christensen’s wrestling with the dynamics between poetry as a facsimile reproduction and the intangibility of truth. Yet, she arrives at how perhaps poetry can’t tell any truths, “But it can be true because the reality that accompanies the words is true.” She calls this relationship between truth and poetry as the “secret-filled correlation,” again gesturing towards her interest in mathematics,  and relates this to a phrase by Novalis, a writer, and philosopher of Early German Romanticism: “The outer world is the inner world, raised to a condition of secrecy.” The amorous tension between secrecy and poetry is not a new concept. Donald Hall in his essay, “The Unsayable Said” uses the lexicon of architecture to frame how poetry elicits ineffable pleasure and response; poetry is “the secret room” in which  “the unsayable gathers.” In the essay “On Secrets,”  Mary Reufle postulates that “the origins of poetry are clearly rooted in obscurity, in secretiveness, in incantation, in spells that must at once invoke and protect, tell a secret and keep it.” In contrast,  Christensen’s “the condition of secrecy” meditates on being as a matrix of possibility that is connected to all things, and perceptible in knowledge,  thus “the poet stands at the center of the Universe that has no center.” Conjuring the famous two-line poem by Robert Frost, “We dance round in a ring and suppose/ But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” Poetry becomes a way in which to experience the phenomena that “everything is contained in everything.”

In some instances, the text falls flat by clinging onto cliches present in many loquacious works about the ontology of poetry—  such as a butterfly flapping its wings creates unbound consequences, etc. Yet, these small lapses are forgivable in the grandeur of being present in Christensen’s own poetry building process and attentiveness to writing as a modality of the essence of life itself. One of the most compelling arguments Christensen makes concerns poetry as a conduit to interrogate the culture vs. nature binary as false. Her argument dismantles the hierarchy that orders humans at the top, the foundation of anthropocentric thinking, and places our species as part of a larger continuum. Thus, poetry “ no matter how light and temporary, [it] gives us a glimpse of the unbroken wholeness of the universe.” Her playful poetic methods bring to mind “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish, “A poem should not mean/But be.” From within our nation’s cannon, Emily Dickinson,  a mythologized member of poetics as a secret order wrote, “The only secret people keep/ is Immortality.” As a posthumous release, the relatively unknown Christensen’s scientific and sensuous language resonates with a cosmic vibrancy.

About the author

Jai Hamid Bashir is a Pakistani-American writer from Salt Lake City, Utah. She is an MFA candidate in Poetry at Columbia University.

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