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Changing Landscape

Written by: Katja Pedersen |

A feeling that time is just passing by, and a longing for freedom, love, and a language that can contain life’s and the ego’s many sparkling facets makes itself felt in many texts by debut authors of the 90s, such as in the poetry of Katrine Marie Guldager (born 1966). “Mosaik” (Mosaic) from her debut collection, Dagene skifter hænder (1994; The Days Change Hands), expresses the desire to find a voice, a poem:

I am tired
and of the day’s final hour
I desire a poem
spun from a thousand threads,
habitable and porous.
I wish for poems
like an incomplete glass mosaic
that shines in blue nuances across the Russian steppes; the refinement
of detail like an answer and not.

I wish for a voice
which in the final light of day
weaves together:
Around my ice-cold hand
and the familiar smell of sweat and perfume.

The poem should be able to reflect the self, be habitable yet incomplete, imperfect. The poem should capture and show the shifts in sense and mood that the ego constantly experiences. The realisation that life and humanity are in movement in time and are changing states is central to Dagene skifter hænder and neither the poem nor the poetic speaker strives to discover a permanent meaning, much less coherence. The poetry of the 1990s does not lament the loss of meaning or identity, or make the body an ultimate point of reference, but seeks glimpses and identity in movements and by changing direction: “[…] Under your star I am always on the way / towards something else: / Behind me I drag a trail of derailed carriages / and days tear themselves free”.

The linguistic tone and themes of her debut collection are rediscovered in Katrine Marie Guldager’s prose poems in Styrt (1995; Eng. tr. Crash), such as in the poem “Vindue” (Window):

“I only recognise half of what should be my life: The weeks cut into my skin like a net I only briefly can see through. I get up, and stumble out in the streets in raving intoxication, fall over a gull cry and call it mine. I throw out my arms and stop caring: my memory is like windows in the spring, which flake off and off, that I remember, like the rotting wood that slowly falls apart.”

Within poetry it is possible to point out various literary paths and positions. For instance, a suggestive, carved symbolism appears in the work of Lene Henningsen and Annemette Kure Andersen, while Kirsten Hammann, Lone Munksgaard Nielsen, and Camilla Deleuran embody a humorous, absurd modernism. To this can be added the lyrical descriptions of daily life in the works of Naja Marie Aidt and Katrine Marie Guldager. Reminiscence, childhood, love, gender, and the body are central motifs in both poetry and prose.

The literature of the 1990s primarily perceives life and the formation of meaning as transformation or movement. And it is in a movement around a female character that the ego is staged, with its entire baggage of pain, loneliness, longing, self-destruction, irony, and humour. The ego is invented, explored, thinks, or is present as a textual energy in the narrative or poem.

One sign of the striking placement of women in young literature was the Danish daily Politiken’s comprehensive article series “Litteraturen ind i 1990’erne” (Literature into the 1990s) from 1994, in which all the new authors profiled were women: Solvej Balle, Kirsten Hammann, and Merete Pryds Helle.

The many young writers who made their debuts in the 1990s have become the object of much attention, as is for instance the case with Merete Pryds Helle’s dual-tracked philosophical novel Vandpest, Solvej Balle’s clear-cut stories in Ifølge loven (1993; Eng. tr. According to the Law), and Katrine Marie Guldager’s everyday poems in Styrt (1995; Eng. tr. Crash). In the new prose, women writers appear to be in the majority, and many of the works have quickly found their way to larger audiences, such as the debut novels by Christina Hesselholdt and Kirsten Hammann, which are available in paperback, as are poetry collections by Naja Marie Aidt and Karen Marie Edelfeldt.

The Danish Academy’s award for debut authors, the biennial Klaus Rifbjerg Debut Prize, has been awarded to women writers since 1990: Karen Marie Edelfeldt (1990), Lene Henningsen (1992), and Kirsten Hammann (1994).

“Spun from a thousand threads …”

The title of Lene Henningsen’s (born 1967) Jeg siger dig (1991; I Say You) can be interpreted as an address, a confidence, partly as the evocation of a meeting in which I say: you. However, the substance is not only the meeting between the poetic speaker and a male ‘you’. The desire to explore and listen to other layers of the self (“to say you of the self”), and the longing to identify something unspeakable in the meeting between body and soul also gets the speaker started “searching in words for space”. It is the musicality of the voice and the indefinite, expressive images that are important in this search. The collection’s division into three parts – “Towards space”, “Late escape”, and “In your night now” – hints at the poems’ outward and forward movement towards something: towards the meeting, abandonment, and transformation. Lene Henningsen is interested in differences and distance in and between people. And when the speaker asks “And how far can we get?”, only provisional answers and places are given in the whirling dream language of the poems.

After the poetry collections Jeg siger dig, (1991; I Say You), Sabbat, (1992; Sabbath), and Solsmykket, (1993; The Sun Jewel), Lene Henningsen continues her efforts to unite dream, poetry, and life in the poetic fragment En drøm mærket dag (1994; A Dream Labelled Day), with the subtitle “Telegrammer om digt/liv” (Telegrams on Poetry/Life). In telegram style, the author consistently cuts her way to the essential aesthetic and existential question:

Dream, go along with language
The damned important I-land
disappears. Only a thin
thread connects to
what was.

Sent out between familiar
and foreign,
supporting and non-supporting,
and lie in language/life.
Out on the line, foreign. Can
expect it, but meet: what
can be
given, a ritual. Cleansing.

Annemette Kure Andersen (born 1962) made her debut in the same year as Lene Henningsen, with the collection of finely honed verse Dicentra spectabilis. The title is the Latin name for the Old-fashioned Bleeding-heart flower, and the author references the nature’s flora and colours both here and in the subsequent collection Espalier (1993; Trellis). “Ravenna” is the name of a poem in Dicentra spectabilis: “Burnt colours / of fragments / gathered into / a picture”. In addition to referring to the famous mosaics of the Italian city, the poem also hints at Annemette Kure Andersen’s attempt to reduce the linguistic material as much as possible and arrange it in new patterns and images in short, suggestive stanzas, for instance here in the poem “I brand” (On Fire) (Dicentra Spectabilis):

The hawthorn

The longest day of the year

The transformation
As she grasps at him. She grasps.
Before she is able to turn him around. Turn him.
He turns around. He turns.
He turns around and receives the grasp.

I held my own hand as I ran up
the hill. I stretched my face forward and
met a stranger’s lips about to kiss my kiss

Iben Claces: Tilbage bliver (1994; What Remains).

Impressions of nature, landscapes, and nuances of colour are incorporated into these minimalist poetry mobiles. Annemette Kure Andersen especially seeks out the almost invisible processes under which atmospheres and material alter their state and perhaps disappear entirely in the end. Landscapes, people, and emotions crack, are crushed, or overwinter. Time plays its part in the transformations, and its presence becomes very strong in the poems whose inner circle of silence leaves trails of a once-existing longing or fertile state.

Camilla Deleuran (born 1971) and Iben Claces (born 1974) made their debuts, like Katrine Marie Guldager, in 1994 with the poetry collections Glashud (Glass Skin) and Tilbage bliver (What Remains) respectively. In Camilla Deleuran’s Glashud, love’s many faces and conflicts are exposed in an insistent tone that stands as a contrast to the vulnerability and frailty depicted in the poems. The book’s cover, featuring the exposed muscles and tendons of a cranium, illustrates the process of laying bare love’s “invisible” emotional threads. The “glass skin” metaphor used in several of the poems refers to the poetic speaker’s experience of the frailty of the body and of love – the idea of being transparent and open to another’s penetration: “At that moment […] the fear hits you like broken eggs, you think: ‘I am as easy to poke a hand through as glass’”. But the glass can be shattered into sharp shards, and love contains the pain: “He bends over and gathers […] shards of glass up, collects them, making little cuts in the paleness of his palms”. In the short and often mournful poems in Tilbage bliver, Iben Claces stresses the impossibility of reaching the other in love. The collection comprises four poetic cycles entitled “trappen: fald” (the stair: fall), “parken: sammenfald” (the park: coincidence), “natten: forskydning” (the night: displacement), and “mødet: sammenfald” (the meeting: coincidence), which show the elements and development of the poetic speaker’s experience of self and of the surrounding world. The stair is the connecting link to the world outside the childhood home, to the playmates, and to the exertions in the park. However, “the stair collapses” – the fall and the loss of innocence is unavoidable – and “What remains / a set of hands / a mouth and a cry”.

“When you describe peculiar characters – they are the ultimate consequences of certain things that we all carry around within us, they are just extremes – then you may, through them and their sick universe, grasp that it is important that you also go wild in your life, that you also make room for yourself in your existence instead of throwing yourself into the giant security […].”

Interview with Naja Marie Aidt in the Danish literary journal Ildfisken (7/1993; edited by Carsten René Nielsen).

“Each her own pain …”

Orloff, Linda (born 1962): Gnadenbilder, 1992. Nikolaj Church, 1992. Exhibition catalogue

Lone Munksgaard Nielsen (born 1968) experiments with various genres in her books Afvikling. Opstart – Afstemning – Forløb (1993; Phasing out. Start-up – Reconciliation – Process) and Frasagn – Rygvis & Den længste sommer (1994; Legend – Back to Back & The Longest Summer). Poetry, prose, and drama are mixed in a hybrid that stages several characters or links several voices into one and the same character. The vulnerable relationship between body and psyche, between self and world, between the present and childhood memories, and between lovers is thematised in brutal, morbid, and expressive imagery in which dreams, traumatic experiences, and the frailty of the psyche are illustrated. In Frasagn’s poetic suites, “Rygvis I & II”, the fulcrum of the poems is the distance and deprivation in the relationship between him and her. In the surreal sequences “Hun drømmer, at hun langsomt klipper vingerne” (She dreams that she slowly clips her wings) and “Han drømmer, at han river sin rygsøjle ud” (He dreams that he rips out his spinal cord), love is visualised as amputation and destruction, and the question is asked: “Do you believe you can be infected by love?”

In the insistent tone of the poems in Mellem tænderne (1992; Between the Teeth), Kirsten Hammann (born 1965) establishes dramatic and expressive images of being foreign to oneself, to one’s body, and to the surrounding world. In several pieces, the poet gives the body a life of its own while at the same time considering it part of the self. Mellem tænderne is characterised by its angry, desperate, vulnerable, and sneering humorous rhetoric: “I am so tired of my body / I must teach it / and command it / and speak in harsh words […] If we have been on a walk in the park / it remains sitting on the bench / so I have to go back and fetch it / It is in every way childish and unreasonable / Soon I can no longer have anything to do with it”.

In Naja Marie Aidt’s (born 1963) poetic trilogy comprising Så længe jeg er ung (1991; As Long as I’m Young), Et vanskeligt møde (1992; A Difficult Meeting), and Det tredje landskab (1994; The Third Landscape) the focus is openly and directly, but more quietly, aimed at the immediate surroundings – the close relationships in life. The poems are about family life and love, depression and irresolution, the fear of being alone, of a life of conformity, and of growing old. However, they also depict moments of closeness and happiness: “Still / summer came. / You remember me based on / how many summers have passed. / We each sit in separate chairs / but form a bridge / with our hands. // […] / Each chair contains / its own pain / you say it is a good thing / we don’t have a bench. / We form a bridge / from our separate nights / with hands that glow / of old / and new / kisses”, from “Endnu en sommer” (Yet Another Summer) in Et vanskeligt møde. Love disappears, but can suddenly show up again as new caresses, and in this way Naja Marie Aidt’s poetry shows several levels of movement between standing in the midst of the pain of disillusionment and the noble re-enchantment and return of life.

“Luckily the crib faced the window, and in the four years Jasmin spent growing out of it, her eyes became the colour of fog and overcast days, sunshine and drifting clouds. When it rained, she knew the relief of the drops, a chorus of voices flowed through the window, became missed hands and a quiet whisper”.

Merete Pryds Helle: “Skabet” (The Cabinet), Imod en anden ro (1990; Towards a Different Calm).

Prose Pieces – With the Voice as a Weapon

A brutal and at times frightening tone characterises Marina Cecilie Roné’s (born 1967) monologue Skrifte til min elskede (1993; Confessions to My Beloved), in which the female first-person narrator, like a modern day Scheherazade from The Arabian Nights, in a sharp and sarcastic tone tells her life’s confessions to the silent ones closest to her – that is, men, lovers, and children. Conscious of the fact that her words will get her burnt at the stake as a mad witch, the elderly woman sets her voice free and strips bare the fundamental, interhuman relationships: “my voice is my only weapon. Are goodness, love, and motherly affection just a show disguising a fundamental egoism? – The infection is in my soul. Everything I have done was to relieve its constantly throbbing pulse. If I gave a kiss, it was to get one back or to hear you ask for more.” The devouring and biting insistence on penetrating deep beneath all lies and escaping the illusions takes on an immediate and malevolent nature, but is also a self-defence mechanism and a longing for continued dialogue: “It is not until I have been stripped naked and forced through every single one of my humiliations, vices, and lies that I am ready to love.”

Naja Marie Aidt, with the collections of short stories Vandmærket (1993; Watermark) and Tilgang (1995; Approach), and Merete Pryds Helle (born 1965), with Imod en anden ro (1990; Towards a Different Calm), each present in their own way a biting portrait of loneliness, isolation, and death. In the fairy tale-like and poetic short stories, grotesque scenes are played out, such as a scene from Merete Pryds Helle’s story “Skabet” (The Cabinet) in which a mother keeps her child locked away for years, or the story of a socially withdrawn and sociophobic woman who caresses herself and poses in front of the mirror, in Naja Marie Aidt’s “En kærlighedshistorie” (A Love Story). In poetry as well as in prose, the woman is the incarnation of the lonely and vulnerable person, and this demonic power cannot be lifted through an outer liberation. Beneath the psychological concentration and the sharp language lies a need for continued dialogue about and with the conflict areas of the body and the psyche.

The Endless Wanderings

Otzen, Per Marquard (born 1944): Drawing in Information May 2, 1996

Telling stories while at the same time making room for artistic experimentation is one of the aims of Merete Pryds Helle’s work, and especially of her novel Vandpest (1993; Water Thyme). In the collection of short stories Imod en anden ro, various types of narratives are tested, and in the novel Bogen (1990; The Book) a complex crime plot plays out in which the author, the text, the characters, and the reader are all involved and made accomplices in a mysterious death.

Solvej Balle’s condensed prose style and poetic, philosophical reflections in Ifølge loven (1993; Eng. tr. According to the Law) were anticipated in her debut novel Lyrefugl (1986; Lyre Bird) and in her short prose work & (1990). Lyrefugl is a Robinsonade about the woman Freia who, after ending up on a deserted island following a plane crash, attempts to build up a civilisation. But over time, Freia begins to doubt whether the knowledge and the sense of order that she and the entire Western world possesses actually makes sense:

“If there is a truth, then why hasn’t anyone come up with it ages ago […].”

“First you write a novel. Then some short texts and now four stories which are, however, connected in several ways. There appears to be an unwillingness in your generation to write great novels”

[…] “I found it necessary myself to search deep down in the skeleton of the narrative, to put the narrative itself under a microscope. […] If you feel – and maybe that is what I do and other [authors] do – that a specific form cannot contain what it is important to write, then there is no reason to use that form [i.e. the classic story].”

Interview of Solvej Balle by Marianne Juhl in the Danish weekly Weekendavisen (1-7 October 1993).

 Vandpest’s plot, composition, and psychological effect are nothing less than frightening. The story about the aggressive plant, water thyme, forms a psychological and plot-related backdrop to the main character Beatrice’s journey into a nature that has run amok.

As a parallel to Dante’s Inferno in The Divine Comedy from the 1300s, Beatrice’s and Malcolm’s balloon adventure ends in a frightening landscape where they meet the married couple Agnes and Mikael with their twelve-year-old daughter Kate. After having attempted to smuggle heroin in the body of Kate’s twin sister, the family has ended in an ecological nightmare, a landscape whose perpetual pendulations between destruction and genesis becomes symbolic of the couple’s murderous deed.

However, it is impossible for Beatrice, her surroundings, or the text to be fixed in an ultimate ending. Vandpest is written on two levels – a narrative text and a text comprising older scientific descriptions from encyclopaedias and the like – which serves to emphasise the multiple meanings and unstable nature of the prose.

Solvej Balle (born 1962) also works with quotations and commentary in Ifølge loven. These “four accounts of mankind” each have a section of an Act as motto and framework. Stylistically, Ifølge loven is almost clinical prose, which in its lack of pathos and emotional outbursts appears closely related to the investigative projects carried out by the characters in the narratives. The four main characters in the stories are searching for truths or laws that can alleviate their experience of having lost meaning and orientation. The scientist Nicholas S. is searching for the molecule in the brain that makes it possible for humans to keep themselves upright and in movement. Tanja L. is preoccupied with finding and getting to know pain, and travels across half of Europe in her search. The mathematician René G. attempts to escape society’s network of meaning out of a desire to become nobody. And finally, the artist Alette V. commits suicide to become “equal” to the harmonious objects she views as ideal.

The characters’ explorations end in a kind of existential dead end. The impulse for self-realisation sends these modern urban nomads on journeys to achieve insight into people and themselves, but the path takes on the form of a labyrinth of isolation and insecurity. Even death no longer represents the finality that can put life into perspective or be a “way out”. Ifølge loven’s sharp language retains the characters’ odd sense of happiness about their own imprisonment, pain, and disintegration.

“Two streets further away, a man has finally hung the picture on the wall. […] The man straightens the picture and gets his rifle. A hole is put in the wall. It is otherwise made of a hard material. In the neighbouring flat, a young man stands with a pistol aimed at his temple. He does not believe he actually fired it.”

(Helle Helle: Eksempel på liv (1993; Example of Life).

Fragments of Text and Life

A linguistic, almost lyrical denseness and a striving for minimalism with regard to the narrative are characteristic of a number of female prose writers. The young authors take a critical, paradoxical, and revisionist approach to the genre of the traditional novel. Self-reflection, genre experimentation, and conciseness are important elements in the works of Merete Pryds Helle, Solvej Balle, Christina Hesselholdt (born 1962), Helle Helle (born 1965), and Kirsten Hammann (born 1965).

In Christina Hesselholdt’s Køkkenet, gravkammeret & landskabet (1991; The Kitchen, the Burial Chamber & the Landscape), the plot, characters, settings, and props are demonstratively limited. The novel forms points and textual weaves of metaphors and scenic descriptions whose repetitions and dislocations are the basis for the exploration of meaning that is one of the aims of the novel. The tenuous plot tells the story of the boy Marlon whose mother dies and whose father commits suicide a couple of days later.

In the novel Det skjulte (1993; All That is Hidden), ten years have passed, and Marlon has grown up and become a young eccentric who spends his days searching for “the exceptional”. One day Marlon meets the young woman Greta who falls in love with him, and Det skjulte becomes primarily a kind of monstrous love story. With both photographic precision and lyrical observational skills, the novel demonstrates how great the distance is between what a person imagines and what one actually does in the name of love. It also calls attention to hidden emotional landscapes in the other or in one’s self, which seem almost impossible to pinpoint, let alone formulate.

Christina Hesselholdt’s third book Eks (1995; Ex) is formed as a dialogue between Daniel and Judith, and is about the process of opening up and growing close to the other. Despite fear, reluctance, and misunderstandings, the characters in this mini-drama are driven to each other by the other’s questions and by the longing to be seen by the other. Eks depicts two people who, through both the said and the unsaid, are in the process of communicating and growing closer to each other, and thereby are actually already placed in the space created by love – at once so alluring, mysterious, unknown, threatening, and claustrophobic.

Helle Helle’s debut book Eksempel på liv (1993; Example of Life) also comprises texts in a concise form – the simple passages take up between one-half and two pages. The book consists of little fragments of life stories that clearly differentiates it from a traditional chronological narrative form, and each one is an exemplary portrayal of the distance between people. The repetition of the textual fragments and the dislocating beginnings in “To gader længere væk” (Two Streets Further Away) and “I lejligheden ved siden af” (In the Neighbouring Flat) emphasise people’s psychological and physical anonymity and isolation. Human contact and understanding are literally in short supply in this absurd circulation in which, among other things, sugar, milk, coffee, and chocolate become a kind of ultimate point of reference, in which the characters attempt to express themselves, establish contact, or seal their love.

Brikker – umalede billeder (1994; Pieces – Unpainted Pictures) is the poetry debut of the artist Lene Louise Nielsen (born 1951). As in the work of other Danish women poets, the title suggests a mosaic-like nature – they are unpainted pictures, describing fleeting frames of mind and intense moments of waiting and impatient expectation:

“I bathe in the secret sounds of silence – waiting and living – listening with the skin against the ground, on the endless stretch between here and now.”

Selsing, Jo: Den lille havfrue, 1992. Synnøve Søe.

Sticky sweets and kilos of sugar are metaphors of life to the “invented” woman vera in Kirsten Hammann’s novel vera winkelvir (1993), which continues the themes, linguistic rhythms, and inflection of her debut poems Mellem tænderne. The novel is a breathless and grinding text on the difficulty of coming into being, of “coming into the world”: vera is invented, she is a textual subject with neither past nor present, “but she must invent the rest” – a difficult task. In the angry insistence, sarcastic, and cliché-littered passages of her diary entries (from June to December 1991), we meet vera whose name means truth. But in order to invent the rest, vera is ironically forced to lie. The classic modernist project about breaking free from a modern self-departure and achieving realisation is too much for the fly woman, the comic book character, and the sugar baby vera winkelvir: “vera winkelvir. Someone has invented her. They have let her out and given her friends and other social contexts […]. But vera must have sugar. She must have her name in peppermint icing. With chocolate writing and marzipan roses. It makes her hair shinier, almost electric and sparkling. And longer. It is time for an appointment with the hairdresser. To sit and chat in front of the mirrors.”

With the repeated comic book-like sequences, vera begins a new life, in a way, every day. The language – these “half-dissolved words on the lips” and “sticky sweets” – cannot penetrate vera’s or the world’s grotesque artificiality. The sense of isolation and simulation is vera’s beginning and her ending. In her role as a character in a novel, she maintains that she will start from a neutral point, but equipped with a destructive and self-neutralising vera-language, this alphabet fly has no chance of a coherent life story.

The Possibilities of Transformation

In the writing of the 1990s, the female identities appear in glimpses; they are searched for or dissolved in the writing process and in the ironic gesture. The younger prose writers appear to have the avant-garde linguistic experiences and role playing of the 1960s in mind, and they orchestrate fragments, attitudes, a variety of points of view, and stories within which the meaning and identity games can be put into play. However, the lyrical female narrator in Vandpest, the sharp-tongued speaker in Skrifte til min elskede, the cool Alette V. in Ifølge loven, the dead Elisabeth in Køkkenet, gravkammeret & landskabet, the vomiting Marianne in Helle Helle’s Eksempel på liv, and the morbid and disassembled vera in vera winkelvir are, as characters, all the source of a strong textual and linguistic energy. The young writers of the 1990s wrote literature that both confirms and tames the conditions of pain by revealing the possibilities for transformation and movement in the textual universe itself, even though it takes place without reconciliation and redemption and without exhausting the experience of pain and fear, as in Naja Marie Aidt’s Det tredje landskab:

A landscape
reveals itself
far and wide and silent.
Without capsizing
I feel now
the days’ and the nights’ delineation
the angel’s song,
the empty holes
and those that
are as deep as death.

my fear has left me,
released its urgent grip.
I can enter
a glimpsed land
and understand: it is mine

Christina Englund’s (born 1974) forty-four short stories in Uden egentlig at sove (1992; Without Really Sleeping) and the novel Itu (1994; Shattered) are about, among other things, people’s fragile natures and destructive need to exert violence on themselves and other people, and the emotional threads that exist between people:

“One day I killed my beloved. The first thing I did was to rip out his eyes, the blood on my hands and down his face made me laugh. He screamed and fumbled in front of him while I dug my nails deep into his flesh and tore. I ripped his skin off in shreds and told him about what I saw.”

In Mette Thomsen’s (born 1970) novel Af en superhelts bekendelser (1994; From the Confessions of a Super Hero), the comic book crime story plot and the commenting narrator are components that work together to tell the story of the super hero Emma Smith who, like “the avenging angel”, moves about London’s nightlife taking up the fight against increasing crime and violence. The novel is also a reflection of the female main character’s fear and reserve towards the opposite sex and towards human intimacy. The line from childhood “Open your hand, Emma!” becomes in adulthood, if possible, even more insistent for this woman who has hidden her longings and clenched her hand in pain.


Årets længste dag

Translated by Jenifer Lloyd