TRANSLATION – 5 Poems from Everything Shimmers by Naja Marie Aidt

Translation from the Danish by Susanna Nied

you say the kitchen doesn’t fit me   it’s too little   so am I too big   too demanding   my soul hangs out the window, staring   my hand scrubs out a cup   my eye weeps   but isn’t that with joy   can you imagine   you say   licking the city   what if it were a sugar sculpture we could keep in our pockets   suck on when we were alone   I have such a crush on it   you say   I love it so much   well, take off your apron now, champagne girl, and become a peacock, a fountain!   we’re going to a hotel   the kitchen’s a disaster   where are the red shoes   a peach, split and fragrantly moist   don’t dawdle   you have to remember to smile a lot   you say   never go out with unwashed hair   don’t arrive at a simple dinner overdressed   it looks so cheap   my soul is nowhere to be seen   the window slams   a strange sinking feeling in my body   is anything missing   I remember a woman tall as a house her dark skin wrapped in swansdown   I remember a boy someone abandoned at the station   the legs she had   ebony rubbed shiny with oil   his gaze black with terror   someone ran up the stairs   someone left him   someone saw their chance   you always mix up nightmares with truth   you should read more metaphysical junk   you say   then you’d learn to tell the difference   there is only earth and sky   earth and sky   don’t hold me so tight   tread gently now   we’re walking   my legs are walking   my eye registers gray sky   my eye registers my soul   it turns the corner   it absolutely sparkles   heavy as a sack I hang from your pocket   I’ve turned into earth   I’ve turned into meat into heavy metals into stone   look, I say   look my soul has left me   it absolutely sparkles   no you say   that’s the city   kissably frosted   I’m having a great time   you say   I’m on top of the world   you say   I fall down   I lie in an alley I’ve lost a shoe do you remember a peach, a cup, a slamming window   do you remember   do you remember anything   is it a dream

one day it was Monday   you hid behind the door   then you jumped out like a devil   onto my back; you grabbed me by the throat   I’m going to choke you   but that’s past tense; I’m still alive   it would take more than that   a walk over broken glass   shimmering sunshine joy   a voyage on a red ship: there it is! Søndre Strømfjord!   here we watch muskoxen try to storm the hotel   here we get stranded, waiting for good weather   here we drink soda pop in the snow   we’re moving home   but home is here   or   no   you wouldn’t let go   I carried you all the way through downtown   are we hurting the children   will they survive   you said and your voice so gentle   so gentle   but then too it started to rain   we got a drink at Union Square   you even bought me lilies   now you wanted to walk on your own   but are you a child or an adult   are you horrible   we learned our way around   that Monday   museums closed, cheap purses for sale in the street   and before we can turn around the past becomes the present   another day it’s Thursday   teeming with bugs   now we’re drinking iced tea   and neither of us is gentle   we float off in thought   and leave behind the bitter bodies   they absolutely despise each other   today   Thursday   I think about who you are   but have no clue   I’m homesick for Rome   that I know   all of Europe has become my home   when someone speaks French on the street, I understand   it’s a joy that brings tears to my eyes   I cry over words   les enfant   die Kinder   Oh, children, you did a great job   now you’re pinching my hand   you’re kicking the table   we wonder if we should poison the ants   and in that way become murderers   and we use little birds for target practice; we’re little birds ourselves   now your hand has slid up around my neck   broken glass grows from the ground   I cut myself   I’m going to choke you   but as I said long ago: it will take more than that   much more   or a car hitting head-on and throwing me high into the air

a sudden fear of coming home   like meeting up with a sect one has left   and what if one can’t hold out against them   I cook a Danish dish   and my sorrow sinks into the cream   it’s so contradictory   there are so many layers   now the phone rings   now I say Sorry? in English   then What did you say? in Danish   but in dreams the new language sneaks around and pushes at meanings   tiny words   secrets that only the initiated understand   yet the freedom   fluttering like a blade of grass in a storm   I am carried along   over prairie and plain and highland and sea   deep into the earth where sprouting seeds and crawling creatures have their ways   look there   I say   look   I’ve never seen that before   I say: my fear surprises me   I say: now I understand

one of my great-great-grandfather’s uncles was hurt in a combine   (Avernak Island)   he jumped into his boat   rowed all the way to the mainland   the doctor’s house (patrician villa)   here uncle knocks   here the doctor answers the door (solid oak)   the doctor says: I never seen a man with his ass in his pocket before   then he sewed it back on   that’s how the story goes   a woman sat in a settlement (Igdlorssuit, Arctic winter)   she lost a tooth   no dentist’s door to knock on   but Crazy Glue (the kind you can lift a car with)   so she glued it back in   that’s how the story goes   and there are rules for how not to disturb the dead person’s spirit as it treks over the mountains to its appointed place   the women’s punishment was especially heavy if they (taboo:) emptied the urine bucket outside the house before the spirit arrived at its destination   combed their hair at a window   looked at the ocean, the sky   talked, smiled, laughed   Peter von Scholten’s mistress, Anna H., mulatto, held salons in her white husband’s house   in her snow white dress   in the warm evenings   here voices were raised in song   here mangos were served, and sweet wines   the women in Togo too   were punished most heavily for infractions related to wandering spirits   and listen (in the heat, in the cold night): someone raises the alarm   someone shouts: mitaartoq!   someone shouts: zángbeto! but it’s people dressed as ghosts creeping up to scare the life out of little children   in Greenland   in Africa   my mother’s sister died at four years old   in nineteen forty-four, June, these bills were paid:   1 Funeral Bouquet, 75¢   One Coffin, Delivered   $14.00   One Set of Burial Clothing, $1.60   For the Funeral of the Deceased Child   Delivery of a Child’s Headstone with Inscription/ and a Dove   $9.60   L. Brentegani, Søllerød Stonecutters   maybe my grandfather on his bicycle before blackout curfew, making the rounds to the creditors (coins and bills in his worn wallet)   maybe my grandmother bent over my mother   maybe her spirit apart from her body holding this child’s body, sorrowing, seeking another child’s spirit   Anna H., mulatto, Peter S., white, here they campaign for abolition; here slavery is abolished, here he goes home to his Danish wife  fifty-six kilometers south of Upernavik in nineteen fifty-five a boy was buried   but no tools could   dig through the permafrost   the cairn built of flat stones   driftwood   reindeer antlers   look: a monument on the mountainside   taboo: never go back to that place, or you’ll be haunted forever   but the dogs   find a rich repast since a corpse since meat stays fresh for quite a while in the cold   Clothing the deceased $1.40   1 Coffin Cushion $4.40   and before that: Children’s Ward (TB), Visiting Hours: Sundays and Holidays 11-12   and before that: a blond child with a ribbon   and before that: Uncle in a rowboat with a bloody pocket   Peter von Scholten’s Anna astride his blissful private parts (very hot night)   a tooth hitting a plank floor   a midwife making her entrance in sealskin clothes with a raised whip: HAVE the BABY, woman!   then it was my turn to be born   with approximately two and a half million eggs in the bargain   and so on   and on   to now where sun and wind sweep over a garden (O apple groves, O meadows green, we love thy verdant vales)   where the light is a rain of silver ducats   in the tulip tree   and my children play with a stick   they dig a grave for their little brother   because they’d dearly love to be rid of him

you should do more yoga   you say don’t tense up your jaw   don’t grind your teeth   don’t have more children than you can provide for   I turn my face upward   a crack in the ceiling stretches   all the way from Denmark to New York   butterflies, rapeseed fields, chicory, violets   I wake up but think I’m asleep   each place is a bounded space   you say   colors are just a product of our biology   the sun consists of air   I bend forward   I walk out into the hallway   two buttons missing from a green coat   in the street: a tableau of silence   but is it morning   loss is the beginning of something new   you say   I press my fingers against my eyes   I sit down on a stool   an alley is a space between rows of houses   a house is space bounded by walls   a house is a home   you read aloud from a book   I go to sleep but think I’m awake   cold air from the crack under the door   a damp bed   tenements stank of sewage during the Depression   no child was safe in the streets; nothing was safe   the pendulum swings and stops, points due west now people are flocking again to the soup kitchen on Fourth Street   with daughters whose hair comes down to their knees   whose eyes gleam like black pearls   whose smiles are hot embraces   a lot of immigrants live on fish from the river   you say   a lot of immigrants gather mushrooms in the park   go on, make a living   what are you waiting for?   I dreamed of my great-grandmother   I say   she was standing by her easel   she wore her wooden leg with grace   today, a man in the park with a turban so bright  Jewish boys play baseball in suits and high hats   I say   was it today?   the earth’s core is the epitome of hell   you say   hell do you understand?   oh, yes   I say   believe me, I understand   think of the stars’ time scale   think of the Ice Ages   of bracken   of the stiffened bodies’ imprints in the ashes in Pompeii   I say   you read aloud from a book   you’ve reached the last letter of the alphabet   I lie in a fetal position on a mat   I walk to the grocery store in snakeskin shoes   I sit down on a stool   I plunge my head into a bucket of water   get up   breathe on the windowpane   think of my sex   I say: now we’re playing statues   aha, you say   the last letter of the Danish alphabet — å — wasn’t official until nineteen forty-two   a man named Rasmus Rask proposed it when the first Danish Language Council met in eighteen twenty   it wasn’t approved   the sun consists of very hot air   you say   twenty million degrees centigrade at the core   Rasmus Rask   I say   sounds like a cartoon character   you roll your eyes, exasperated   you snap the book shut   I lift up my dress to show you my bellybutton   a socket with no connections   a vestige of the past in the center of my body   I flip through a notebook   I write: hole in belly  I write: is it morning now?   I write bracken, buttons, hunger

Notes on the Texts:

Mitaartoq (Greenlandic)  — Costumed man who appears unexpectedly in the dark, often around New Year, to frighten people; Greenland.

Zangbéto (Mina) — Costumed man, self-appointed night watchman with magical powers; Togo, West Africa.

Peter von Scholten — 1784-1854) Governor-General of the Danish West Indies, 1827-1848. He championed the rights of West Indian slaves and other people of color and ultimately ranted universal emancipation. He was recalled to Denmark to stand trial.

Anna H. — Anna Heegaard (1790-1859), a mixed-race native of the Danish West Indies who attained social prominence and became Peter von Scholten’s mistress. She advised him on discrimination issues and played a key role in the emancipation campaign.

Originally from Greenland, Naja Marie Aidt is a Danish poet and author with nearly 20 works in various genres to her name. She has received numerous honors, including the Nordic nations’ most prestigious literary prize, the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize, in 2008 for Baboon, and her work has been translated into several languages. Her work has also been anthologized in the Best European Fiction series and has appeared in leading American journals of translation. Baboon was published in the states by Two Lines Press in 2014.

Susanna Nied is an American writer and translator who thinks Danish is the most beautiful language on earth. Twice named as a finalist for the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, she has received the Landon Translation Prize of the Academy of American Poets, the PEN/American-Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prize, and the Nims Memorial Translation Prize of Poetry magazine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *