Saturday, February 15, 2014

alphabet | Review

I don't always fall for poetry collections. Despite loving poetry, despite having a long and personal relationship with the field, I often find myself dissatisfied with various poetry collections. Some poets, it's true, hit me particularly hard (Sylvia Plath and Czeslaw Milosz, for example), but I'm usually left very cold.

Not so with Inger Christensen's utterly breathtaking alphabet, one of the most innovative, beautiful, intelligent and finely crafted poetry books I've ever read in my life.

When I use the word "breathtaking" to describe alphabet, it is not merely a hyperbole. alphabet literally left me breathless as I found myself reading along aloud and getting utterly swept up in the words. It's not just the rhythm of the poems, which are all built with the same calm structure, all swept around existence, all flowing almost flawlessly into each other. There's also something about the way the poems lead into the next, the way they form a whole. The way I found myself mouthing the words, reading them aloud and incapable of letting them glide by me passively. This is nearly impossible for any poetry book. For one in translation? I was in awe.

I keep using the term "poetry book" for a very specific reason - alphabet is explicitly not a collection. Many poetry collections have similar themes and ideas running through them, but alphabet can and should be viewed as a single unit. Each poem is essentially a chapter in a growing story, a growing understanding of the world and of humanity. These chapters are framed by the alphabet (hence the title), going from A to N. Here we find the only possible flaw in the book, where occasionally the words that appear in the new chapter don't actually start with the official letter in English. I felt like this would have been purely entrancing in the native Danish, but truthfully it flowed so perfectly in English that except for the letter J or so, I felt no awkwardness in translation.

alphabet really is a masterpiece. It's a masterpiece of the type that I think any curious reader should seek out, a book that's both beautiful, interesting, and perfectly translated. It's truly something special, even if you don't usually read poetry. It's just brilliant, period. And you should all read it.

1 comment:

  1. I bought a copy after our Twitter discussion earlier this month - reading it aloud feels amazing (and, like you say, slightly tough on the lungs). Of course, I can't help but be amazed at the translator's role in it, because that can't have been an easy task. Now waiting for Tomas Tranströmer's poetry collection to come in the mail. Translated poetry is fascinating!

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