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Finding the Way Back to the Body

Written by: Anne-Marie Mai |

On 29 October 1980, a Danish author, Lola Baidel, spoke at the library in Galten near Aarhus. It was a new public library in a Danish residential suburb populated by working mothers and fathers, many in troubled relationships and some on the verge of divorce, which would send the majority of them from overly-mortgaged houses and homes directly into social housing schemes. The writer’s night was the first in a so-called Arte package for writers’ meetings entitled “Love Never Dies a Natural Death”. After Lola Baidel came events with Liselotte Taarup, Herdis Møllehave, Ellen Heiberg, and Iris Garnov. The Lola Baidel night was very popular: new rows of chairs were set up, and the author sat on the table with crossed legs and talked to the audience about life as a woman, relationships, and eroticism. Once in a while, poems were taken out and read aloud as an invitation to share experiences and validation of points of view and attitudes, and both writers and audiences had difficulty letting go of each other. That is how things went night after night at libraries and cultural centres throughout Denmark in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Dahlin, Dorte (born 1955): En, hvis hoved eksploderer, 1982. Private collection

While the new women’s movement in the course of the 1970s brought the reader out and made her a writer, confessor, or debater in a large-scale discourse on life as a woman and gender roles, the women and men of the 1980s literary community formulated the relationship between reader and writer in other terms. The scene changed quickly and dramatically: experience and conversation were no longer at the centre; exploration and aesthetics had supplanted them. A new professionalisation of literature took place, and the young, well-educated readers were not looking for answers or validation in literature but rather experiences, temptation, beauty, and insight. And they flocked around the young poets at the well-illuminated cafés that soon replaced the old pubs and watering holes with their worn-out Wild West interiors and cosy lighting.

In one of the hotbeds of this café culture, Café Victor in Copenhagen, the poet F.P. Jac held a salon according to a concept developed by the artist and café owner Kenn André Stilling, enthusiastically introducing poetry readings, personalities from the cultural debate, and the politicians of the day. Aspiring young poets like Merete Torp and experienced 70s realists like Dea Trier Mørch were nonchalantly and elegantly invited to speak by F.P. Jac:

[…] set free your tongue and say the world can seem lighter
if we speak somewhere in it and it listens,

just speak your mind, and do so to everyone.

On this scene, experiences and presence were on the agenda, and the new reading culture turned out to be particularly strong. In the 1990s, innumerable organisers, writers, and institutions took over the scene with poetry salons, mammoth readings, and poetry festivals that attracted more and more readers interested in listening to new authors; but for many, there were perhaps also more profane reasons: simply to see someone famous. In any case it is worth noting that the new literature that was so eagerly listened to by such large audiences, and that received so many reviews and so much publicity under giant portrait photos, achieved such low sales figures.

Poetry is Dealing with the Impossible

One of the writers who, since the 1980s, has been in highest demand in connection with speaking events and who has approached speaking as an art form is Pia Tafdrup (born 1952), who made her debut in 1981. Together with Michael Strunge, Bo Green Jensen, Søren Ulrik Thomsen, Juliane Preisler (born 1959), and Merete Torp (born 1956), she represented the so-called 80s generation. The “generation” comprised a colourful group of young writers who were about the same age and shared a passion for literary aesthetics and tradition from Romanticism to symbolism, rock poetry, and systematic literature. Pia Tafdrup quickly achieved great success and recognition throughout Scandinavia, and through the many international events she has participated in, she has helped establish and develop important informal contacts between young writers in many countries. In 1989 she became a member of Det Danske Akademi (The Danish Academy).

Larsson, Eva (born 1953): Æggebillede. Photo. Hvedekorn, no. 4, 1992

The writer and critic Poul Borum, who had mentored a couple of male debuts, spoke enthusiastically about a breakthrough for a new type of women’s writing in connection with some of the 80s generation’s women in his survey article, “PO-e-(RO)-TIK” (PO-e-(RO)-TIC), in the journal Kritik (1984; no. 66). In his opinion, their work marked a fundamental, liberated thematisation of the body that made the erotic appear as a “reciprocity and mutual connection” between the genders. Poul Borum dubbed this new trend PO-e-(RO)-TIC, which he viewed as fundamentally different from the women’s literature of the 1970s.

Pia Tafdrup quietly but distinctly distanced herself from the 1970s “use” literature and the concept of women’s literature. In an article in the literary journal Fire&Firs (1984; no. 1), she explains just why concepts such as women’s literature and women’s writing have become problematic: “The term has simply become so all-encompassing that it has been rendered meaningless.” A similar but much more polemical argument was presented almost ten years later by the Danish writer Pia Juul (born 1962) in a quick-witted protest against being called a “woman writer”: she insisted on just being called a writer without any explanatory additions! “I feel insulted because it implies that what I do is subordinate in relation to my gender […] that I need affirmative action because I’m a woman. And that ticks me off,” she said in 1993 in an interview entitled “I Will Not Be Shut In”. The concept of women’s literature as a socio-literary, aesthetic, and gender politics categorisation had lost its meaning in relation to the new literature. But that did not mean that gender was not thematised; on the contrary, gender found a new thematic and rhetoric in the literature of the 80s in which the body became the most important topos (place) of poetry, and thereby also quickly became the point of departure for other themes that were more than erotic. “finding the way back to the body” wrote Pia Tafdrup in a poem from Intetfang (1982; Nothing-catch), which made the body a poetic point of intersection between the unknown, the dark, and the light, the other, and the same.

Vestergaard, Vibeke: Cartoon. Illustration from Litteratur 85/86. En almanak. Dansklærerforeningen/Tiderne Skifter, 1985

Instead of polemic positioning, Pia Tafdrup has concentrated on her writing and a constant reflection on its aesthetic problematic. Since her debut work Når der går hul på en engel (1981; When an Angel is Punctured), her writing has in different ways been about the meeting with the other at the point where language and the world meet. At this crossroads, the body is the poem’s anchor in the concrete and physical, while at the same time being the gateway to nature and an experience of the cosmos. “[…] touch the stars / before they go out” read a couple of beautiful lines from her debut collection in which the female body is used metaphorically in a new and unexpected way, such as when a rainy sky is compared to the first day of menstruation.

Time in Pia Tafdrup’s debut collection Når der går hul på en engel (1981; When an Angel is Punctured) is a line from one of the poems that thematises, in a broken and perforated metaphor, the poetic speaker’s farewell to the kitchen fittings and the housewife angel:

Knock the dead birds
down from the kitchen shelf
and wash hands

free of damp concern
that leaves traces all over the place
on doors and casings

and hit knee and hands and nose
against the floor in the empty house

recognise the smell
when an angel is punctured.

The poem begins in the body as a restlessness and a tension, and the poem ends in the body as a perfect aesthetic expression of rhythm, pulse, and melody. Because the body is the rhetorical point of departure, public readings become for Pia Tafdrup an art form that is a natural aspect of her poetry. However, the body is also an important theme in Pia Tafdrup’s writing. While the symbolism upon which her poetry is based often makes the female body feel the limits of the depth and meaning of a spiritualised nature, Pia Tafdrup’s poems seek out a sense of the concrete physical nature in the person, placing the person in a cycle of passion and lust where everything begins and ends.

The body’s condition is closeness and immediacy, which inevitably reminds the consciousness of death, termination, and absence. By taking physical, sensual experiences as their points of departure, the poems seek to demonstrate how existence stretches out between closeness and absence. The female cycle, which provides imagery and structure to a number of Pia Tafdrup’s poems, becomes a possible symbol of the experience of closeness/absence, but not in an identification of woman with cosmos. The female cycle and orgasm is simply the physical prerequisite and point of departure for a woman poet. The female figure is neither more nor less spiritualised that the male ‘you’: in her work, both reach out for lust and desire, the ultimate transcendence of closeness, as in the ambitious collection of poems, Springflod (1985; Spring Tide), which is composed around the sacred number seven and the cyclical number twenty-eight. One of the beautiful poems from the second section of the collection reads:

[…] the desire to sail
into the colours of heaven
drift right into a sky shimmering glowing

drank and waited
for hours
for these minutes I
and you
capture and capture
and you have waited
for hours
for these minutes
and your mouth
now sees
the sun
rise between my legs
floating seconds in the body.

These floating seconds in the body return in ever-new poetic formations, often in connection with a finely sensed natural universe. However, it is important to note that Pia Tafdrup is not content with using nature as a metaphorical mirror for the body or soul. Nature in this context is simply a representative of otherness, just like the male ‘you’, the dream, the subconscious, the foreign country, and untested words and images. Suddenly, the poet’s path is crossed by the foreign nature in a look from an animal, which is impossible to interpret or read but that remains in the poem as a mysterious figuration. Nature often symbolises poetry rather than the poetic speaker, and nature, like the poetry itself, is always foreign and essential. One of the poems in the rather sharp and chilling collection Hvid feber (1986; White Fever) reads:

I have been seen in the chill of the morning
by a hare
before it fled across the ice
of a frozen woodland lake
disappearing among the dry, swaying reeds
to touch me with a silence
– your eyes locked with mine –
inconceivable as the earth in its orbit
the seasons’ appeal for continuation.

Later in the collection, the hare returns as bagged quarry, skinned with the furry sound of a hollow darkness that produces surprising and dangerous associations, and thus the hare incarnates poetry’s fluctuation between an unknown quietness and forgotten, now almost foreign, sounds of birth and death. Pia Tafdrup always works creatively and consistently with the chains of associations and rhythms in her poem. A climax in this regard is her seventh poetry collection, Krystalskoven (1992; The Crystal Wood), which features a unique mastering of imagery and rhythm, as in the little poem “Stille” (Quiet):

The salt and the bread
the light that creates
its own quiet
The earth that mixes
with every cell in the blood
The day extinguishes itself
your face, goodbye
and distant cities
in misty rain
is all your own
And only a star away.

This finely-honed poem spans from body to cosmos, from life to death, from welcoming salt and bread to the face of farewell, from the smallest to the largest, wielding its pattern of vowels and consonants in confident harmony.

After the aesthetic pleasure the reader gets from the perfectly ringing crystal of this collection, Pia Tafdrup’s Territorialsang (1994; Territorial Song) is an energetic change and a new high point in her career. The collection is about the author’s meeting with the city of Jerusalem, whose present and past is inextricably linked to three cultures’ interpretations of themselves: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Where you see a cloud of dust
whirl momentarily up in the borderland
you see tanks, not a pot
that is crushed at the source
without centre the dust falls
returns back to earth
between seeds and weeds
Birds sing welcoming the spring
high above the red clay
Bounding silence
before words are issued and take root.

Pia Tafdrup: Territorialsang (1994; Territorial Song)

However, the poems begin with the experience of a Scandinavian spring night. The well-known and familiar loses its contours in an ash-white moonlight; a different nature comes out, but this romantic scene cannot be put on hold by beautiful synaesthesia (sensory analogies) and penetrating gazes into the obscure darkness. The cry of the lapwings requires more than a romantic gesture and a symbolist listening to an inner poetic landscape. The migrating birds lead the poem out beyond the self, nature, and an innermost meaning. The lapwings resemble in their sleeplessness souls in exile, and the image of the migrating birds creates the freedom and space to let the romantic moonlight scene go and follow the imagination’s escape to the city of Jerusalem, the hallmark of the longing and hopes of nations, the city in the sky.

The poems are formed like a breakthrough to a personal family history. During the war, Pia Tafdrup’s father and mother were forced to flee to Sweden, and her mother’s Jewish heritage has increasingly influenced Pia Tafdrup’s view of her writing and her own identity. The life’s thread of her family is spun from flight, fear, and pain, and the poet’s own life as an adult, creative woman who looks life squarely in the eyes requires that she deal with the fear of the past and her mother’s Jewish lineage. The reader is brought into realisations and recollections in the poems that create a liberating openness to the world and a sense of mankind’s responsibility for both history and the present. What comes to life in the poems is the centuries-old Jerusalem of myth and faith, and the present day’s Jerusalem of war and confrontation. The poems swing between the experience of the moment and the meeting with the ancient, the burning sun, and the cool nights, the desert, the oases, and the flowers, the shrines of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic cultures. Strong, closed poetic forms, such as the classic sonnet, the free-association prose poem, and the tightly controlled cycle of metaphors and poetic rhythms based in personal experience are put into play in this collection with the appropriate subtitle: “En Jerusalemkomposition” (A Jerusalem Composition).

In Pia Tafdrup’s poetics, Over vandet går jeg (1991; On Water I Walk), her consciousness of her Jewish background already played a role: “Poetry involves identity. The deeper I go, book after book, the clearer it becomes that I am many and yet one: I was born in Copenhagen on 29 May 1952 with everything that that entails. I am poet, woman, Jewish, Danish – in no particular order. I am everything at once, but language is only able to indicate order, not simultaneity.”

And yet, or rather therefore, simultaneity, tension, and paradox are crucial to her work. Pia Tafdrup touches on this in her impressive poetics, which sets out the key parameters of her poetics and her views on poetry. With this work, she became the first woman in Scandinavia to publish a poetics.

Pia Tafdrup’s poetics, Over vandet går jeg (1991; On Water I Walk), was given a kind and attentive reception by several critics, while others were more mixed and reserved: “Her fragments […] have a kind of speakability, that which can, reasonably and without going to extremes but with well-read and cultivated insight, be said about poems and poetry,” wrote Jette Lundbo Levy in her review in the journal Spring (1991-1992, no. 1).

The poetics is given an open, critical reading by the young graduate student Mads Julius Elf in the journal Kritik (1995; no. 116), in which he also considers the work’s reception. Mads Julius Elf emphasises that Pia Tafdrup’s poetics restores the genre with late-symbolism and modernist elements in the tradition of Paul la Cour, but that first and foremost it produces an exciting serial rhetoric which, in contrast to a modernist poetics, reintroduces symbolisation and is open to transcendence.

Scissors in the Air

Whereas Pia Tafdrup embraced poetics as well as the genre of drama in Døden i bjergene (1988; Death in the Mountains) and Jorden er blå (1991; The Earth is Blue), Juliane Preisler’s work quickly seized on both poetry and prose. The beginning was lyrical, with the poetry collections Uden (1983; Without) and Ind (1984; Into) featuring poems with sharp, exciting edges and a style and voice entirely different from Pia Tafdrup. Juliane Preisler pursued emphasis and the unexpected metaphor, in particular, as the culmination of the poem, often achieving in her poetry a humour at once subtle and rough. Childhood and youth are important sources of language and experiences throughout her entire body of work, with clear parallels in her first pieces to some of Dorrit Willumsen’s early texts, with their rapid ‘word clips’ formed around a core of language, emotions, and sensations. A remarkable dialogue between distance, anonymity, and intimacy is a distinguishing characteristic of Juliane Preisler; however, she always gives her texts a dreamy, searching dimension with references to the late symbolism of Tove Meyer. There is audaciousness in Juliane Preisler’s early poems, which encompass anger and aggression as well, for instance towards a weak lover who is unable to keep up with the desire and lust of the poetic speaker. One teasing and vengeful erotic poem from Ind concludes:

See, smiles in spatters. And familiar hands stroke
a gasp. Now he is loose in limb – his head
bowed. Petal-soft and hollow. Earth-seeped –
wasted. She took him – upright. And played so bravely.
Played his clouds up to the sun.
And watched him slowly drown himself in shallow waters.

All afternoon expectant.
The face too loose. Spilling sentences rather than speaking
Brief, gruesome meeting in the evening.
Neither begun nor ended.
We did not reach each other and strained
Ourselves, conversely, in order not to come out
the other side.
We are determined.
We don’t like the sound when
we cross. Firm as steel and disconnected.
We are scissors in the air when we meet.
Or the same closedness
we are close to each other.
Like scissors.

Juliane Preisler: Ind (1984; Into)

Standset aften (1985; Arrested Evening) is Juliane Preisler’s first work of prose, in which she draws upon the genres of novel, short story, and flash fiction, yet without limiting herself to any specific genre. The stories depict a young woman’s experiences in cafés, childhood memories, conversations with a girlfriend, dreams and yearnings for a husband, and various love affairs. The author successfully creates a textual style that is as shiny and smooth as the mirrors on the café walls or the fleeting acquaintances in the night.

Some critics felt there was no epic sequence of events in the stories, but overlooked the delicate movements that take place on the micro-level of the texts where they – to use an expression by the literary scholar Marianne Ping Huang – ‘cross genres’ in love’s metaphors and fragments of myths and fairytales, in the silent, awkward movements between lovers. “They followed each other’s movements like bird feathers and cat claws. On tender paws with heavy heads and the dusk in their wounded eyes. They held hands until their shoulders ached. And the river flowed and was dark under the vibrating nakedness of the sky. The sky was never-ending until the evening arrived and made it deep and empty. And they walked under it as though with a common goal – as though they were parting” – experienced the young lovers in the short story “Frieren” (The Suitor).

The metaphorical fantasy and responsiveness and the voyeuristic, tough, and biting humour remain a defining feature of a number of novels published by Juliane Preisler from the mid-1980s into the 1990s. The gender consciousness of childhood and early adolescence is often a central theme, and the insight into a girl and her personal experience is surprising, revealing, dreamy, and frightened, as in the suspense novels Silke (1991; Silk) and Dyr (1992; (Animal), as well as in the historical Kysse-Marie. En historie om Marie Grubbe (1994; Kissing-Marie. A Story of Marie Grubbe). In Juliane Preisler’s version of the historical novel, we are far from the popular woman with superhuman strength who otherwise populated the genre in the 1980s and 1990s, and close to an exploration of the longing and terrors of sexual instinct. As a very little girl, Marie sees and hears a sexual encounter between her father and his lover:

“It was beastly, terrible, the worst thing she had ever seen, and yet … yet, there was also something else, a strange sweetness inside the bitterness, a slight stab of warmth that she could not stand and time and again tried to make disappear along with the vision.”

The form of her later prose is more open and narrative is brought to the foreground, but it is still the metaphorical twists and turns that give Juliane Preisler’s texts their distinctiveness and strength.

Astrid Saalbach (born 1955) is also interested in the small but catastrophic shifts in meaning and relationships between people. She made her debut in the same year as Pia Tafdrup, within a genre whose intensity is related to lyricism, namely radio drama, with the play Spor i sandet (Tracks in the Sand). The theme of her plays is the emergence of death in the midst of speech, conversation, and the body’s movement. In Dansetimen (1986; The Dance Lesson), the “Dying Swan” scene from the ballet Swan Lake makes up the physical framework of the play as well as its central metaphor of existence. The play Den usynlige by (1985; Eng. tr. The Hidden City) depicts life at a retirement home, and centres on a cynical nurse who is growing old herself and is subjected to life in the presence of death.

In 1988, Astrid Saalbach made her prose debut with the collection of short stories Månens ansigt (The Face of the Moon). Like Juliane Preisler’s debut short stories, the setting and theme is daily life, and even though Astrid Saalbach’s stories have a clearer sequence of events, the small, sharp movements in dialogue and self-reflection are still worth noting. This is where the shift in the characters’ interpretations of themselves and the world around them or their conflicts are expressed, such as in the short story “Hos fru X” (At Madam X’s) in which a young girl has the hair on her upper lip removed at Madam X’s dubious beauty salon. The situation is depicted in a matter-of-fact piercing tone, and the brief sentence – “She could think of nothing but the pain” – makes it clear that it is the pain, all the suppressed pain from childhood, the girl recalls at Madam X’s.

Motherhood becomes an important theme in the novels Den glemte skov (1988; The Forgotten Forest) and Fjendens land (1994; Enemy Territory). In a way, the novels make experience a cardinal point: experience of lovesickness, parental roles, infidelity, conflicts between work and family, the love of the child, and the physical closeness between mother and child. And yet neither experience nor the social or psychological analysis of motherhood are the most important aspects of these novels. What matters most is the diffusing moods around the mother and the child in Fjendens land and around the young woman, her own missing, murdered mother, and her newborn boy in Den glemte skov.

In Astrid Saalbach’s prose, the relationships between men, women, and children are depicted in figurations that are beyond common models of explanation, often close to death, and always disturbingly recognisable, as in a scene from Den glemte skov in which the main character Milena talks to her newborn child and is startled when she discovers that her husband may have overheard everything, heard her call her child Milena’s child and heard her ask the child whether she has really given birth to it.

“‘Milena has had a baby. Given birth to a baby. A little boy. Has she? Has she really? Jens, or Johan, he shall be called. They have not decided. Jens … come to mother. Come. Johan … come to mother … come to mama …’ I was startled when Bjørn pulled aside the sheet he had been hiding behind and stepped forward.

‘I’m sorry! I thought you’d heard me arrive.’
My knees trembled beneath me.
‘It was supposed to be funny. You were standing there staring. I could tell you were far away.’
I put my finger up to my mouth as a sign that he should whisper.”

Astrid Saalbach: Den glemte skov (1988; The Forgotten Forest)

A Cult Book and a Handful of Debut Authors

Vestergaard, Vibeke: Cartoon (2). Illustration from Litteratur 85/86. En almanak. Dansklærerforeningen/Tiderne Skifter, 1985

Among the works of the young poets, two books achieved cult-like status and importance: Henrik S. Holck’s Vi må være som alt (1978; We Must Be Like Everything) and Merete Torp’s Digte (1982; Poems). Merete Torp wrote her first collection of poems at the young age of fifteen and did not publish her next work until Digte II (Poems II) came out in 1996. However, she has published a large number of poems in journals and annuals, all of a striking poetic power and consequence. Her poetry is both suggestively whispering and expressively declarative. Hers is a voice that moves in language and psyche in such a way that the listener and reader is led into a wild, piercing pain and a disquieting observation of darkness, death, and submission. The obvious poetic parallel and scope of her poetry is the work of Edith Södergran, although the beat is that of rock or meditation. Merete Torp tightens her poems to the breaking point, where the text begins to speak with two voices or meditatively completes itself, although in surprising, quivering points.

I hear the music
do not hear it,
see my surroundings
do not see them,
can smell a lit cigarette,
don’t smell it after all,
I hear the silence,
hear it,
see the darkness,
see it,
can smell that which is not,
smell it,
hear the silence, see the darkness,
hear the darkness, see the silence,
see it,
hear it.

with a bouquet of withered
roses on my chest
I cheated myself to a week into

Merete Torp: Digte (1982; Poems)

The poetic concentration that Pia Tafdrup, Juliane Preisler, and Merete Torp master is practised in various forms by a number of debut authors in the 1980s. Some strive to create an abstract and vague composition in the linguistic material, and in so doing often reach a place in language where vagueness is driven, by virtue of the semantic connections that arise in the language, into a new and unexpected sensuality. The poems of Maj-Britt Willumsen (born 1949), who made her debut in 1981 with the poetry collection Strandvask (Washed Ashore), are often characterised by such movements between abstraction and a close and impenetrable sensuality. The poems become hermetic and irrefutable. They are not about anything, and the theme is kept indefinite, while words and collocations join together in new patterns of meaning. It is important to note that in the work of these writers a fear, an anger, and a powerful and wild abandonment often develop through their work with language.

Leave my hands
on your back go silently
into your eyes throw myself
at the mirror like a bird
don’t know which of them
I’m seeing tear at the darkness again
and again grazing the throat

– reads one of Camilla Christensen’s (born 1957) poems from her second collection mellem mørket (1987; between the darkness). Ingrid Mejer Jensen (born 1952), Mette Kappel (born 1953), Ulrikka S. Gernes (born 1965), Connie Bork (born 1958), and the somewhat older Inge Pedersen (born 1936) and Helle Nyberg (born 1942) are other noteworthy debut authors from the 80s whose work continually explores the layers of meaning in language, either in the form of lyrical concentrations on personal experience, abstract compositions, or long associative movements through language.

And good

He kisses her. That is good.
Her skin is clear and simple.

His skin is black and goes into itself, but she is welcome to come along. That is good.
She brings her hair. It is dark. Yes.
And good.

Connie Bork: Sur Sød (1987; Sweet and Sour)

“Special word is heard / not black symbol” writes Maj-Britt Willumsen in one of her poems from Trang (1985; Craving), and the poem can be interpreted as programmatic for the listening and creation that takes place in various ways in the works of the many debut authors. As a result, Danish literature of the 1980s contains hitherto unseen intense and sweeping formulations of gender, desire, and existence. The many young women’s creative formulations of existence were indebted to the liberation paradigm of the women’s movement of the 1970s; however, they also distanced themselves significantly from the phrases, aesthetics, and view of art of the 1970s movement. It is perhaps characteristic that new gender politics discussions of womanhood in the 1990s are launched in extension of the aesthetics and modes of expression created by the literature and art of the 1980s. However, it is historically interesting that some of the new 1980s artists were strongly influenced by the practical thinking of 1960s aesthetics, which was one of the sources of the new women’s movement in the 1970s. Movements and aesthetics have thus influenced each other in complex and unexpected ways over the past forty years.

the grief has left
a rose
a strange courage
on my mouth
for wrong opinions
and furious
declarations of love
all the desire
in Bengali elucidation
a moment
nothing to hide
when my leaf mouth
opens up
in tattered phrases
the painful courage
burns on the lips.

Inge Pedersen: Simultan (1988; Simultaneous)

A Pretty Story

Pia Juul, who as we know emphatically rejected the label ‘woman poet’, is one of the writers who most audaciously, and with a scorching parodical voice, works with gender and existence in her poems and in the allegorical novel Skaden (1990; The Injury), about a young, wounded soldier’s adventurous wanderings among men and women who are both helpers and adversaries on his life’s journey out of childhood.

Pia Juul’s poems understand the delicate recollection of childhood’s lost peasant world, of sisterhood and first love, as well as the angry, parodical, and cruel display of the genders’ lack of responsiveness to desire and passion, their clumsy confusion of sexual drive with eroticism. The voice changes, finding surprising, clashing colours and an exciting register as early as in her debut work levende og lukket (1985; alive and closed), which in fine staccato and imagery mosaics and fragments from fairy-tales depicts a young woman who experiences how age alters and strengthens her desire for the foreign male sex, and who subjects herself to female figures such as “the naive wife, the widow, the great-grandmother, the witch, the princess, the fiery woman, the wanderer, and the she-animal”. However, it is not possible to hold on to the girl or shut her away like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or Snow White, for she herself is also the witch, the wicked fairy, and the stepsister. She is alive and closed and has the power to freely step out and into the fairytales of womanhood. I brand måske (1987; On Fire Perhaps) depicts a decaying agrarian world that belongs to the past and to childhood. However, time and time again the first-person narrator and female character enters an area where life and fairy tale become painful, rigid, or cramped up.

spread legs
and wait for the moon
style hair
and attend balls

consume serenades from the window sill
open the door to the stairs
and let in the contempt.

Pia Juul: levende og lukket (1985; alive and closed)

There is a high degree of anxiety and allurement associated with the ever-changing figurations of womanhood in Pia Juul’s poetry. The poetic speaker considers the characters from all angles, and the poem provides a chance to establish a degree of observant distance to the many possible enchantments. The collection Forgjort (1989; Harm Done) alternates subtly between ‘I’ and ‘she’, and contains poems that refer to ‘her’ as ‘you’.

… they call it intercourse
but that’s because
they are tone deaf …

Pia Juul: Forgjort (1989; Harm Done)

The collection En død mands nys (1993; A Dead Man’s Sneeze) is gruesome and straightforward in its declaration of the many different entanglements and life-and-death masquerades between ‘I’ and ‘you’. A pretty story, it is called in one poem, which can be interpreted as a depiction of the first bloody intercourse: “Do you remember / we woke up in a bloody pool / and we called it / something pretty […] The words cried on / my tongue and / my tongue filled my mouth / We began in blood / it was a pretty story.” A parodical voice is given free rein in poems treating of expectations and ties between ‘I’ and ‘you’.

I would so love to have wings
and be an angel afterwards
I would so love to be someone’s
guardian, floating
listen when they spoke
watch as they slept
The thought is nice
But it would be you
I would have to protect
– I just know it […]

Thus begins a poem that cruelly and complexly unmasks the ancient female angel image and the ‘I’ and the ‘you’.

With Pia Juul’s work, the poetry of the 1980s found an important new aesthetic point of departure for the thematisation of gender and existence, not visionary and cosmic like Pia Tafdrup’s poetry, but parodical, revealing, and wonderfully dreamy all in the same movement.

The visionary line in the poetry found a continuation and transformation in the final debut author of the 1980s, seventeen-year-old Karen Marie Edelfeldt whose debut, tysh (1989), took in Michael Strunge’s dream-intensive, nocturnal world as its point of departure, but quickly unfolded in a composite exploration of childhood, girlhood, and dreams of love. Her poems are characterised by a sense of oneness with every living thing – plants, animals, people – and with a cosmos that reaches into the world of myth and the kingdom of the dead. Her third poetry collection, Til Babylon (1995; To Babylon), follows a female trail of myth to the world of the Whore of Babylon. However, upon closer inspection, the poems are also entitled “to baby lon” and depict the grief for a dead, unborn child. It is this motherly grief that leads the poetic speaker to Babylon’s old goddess and her hopeful visions.

regularly the night washes through the city
bluely juicy heavy with dreams
that dare to steal out
a kind of light that whispers in
creeping darkness
but is frightened home again to
the confined expanses
by the morning treaders, mercilessly.

Karen Marie Edelfeldt: tysh (1989).

Translated by Jenifer Lloyd