alphabet by Inger Christensen
Translated from the Danish by Susanna Nied
New York: New Directions Books, 2000
Reviewed by Deniz Perin


Inger Christensen's alphabet is a poetic masterpiece—as is Susanna Nied's wonderful translation. Each of the collection's 14 sections begins with the corresponding first letter of the alphabet, up to n. The number of verses in each section is determined by Fibonacci's mathematical sequence, in which each number is the sum of the two previous numbers (0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13 etc.). Thus, "a" has one line, "b" has 2, "c" has 3, "d" has 5, and so on. As the length of the sections increases, so does the intensity.

Intensity, though, is there from the start. The first line of this book-length poem reads, "apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist" (11). This sets the tone immediately. The theme of the work is one of teeming life versus utter destruction. Throughout the book, the poet leads the reader back and forth between the two, often in the same section. The resulting contrast makes the reader feel both all the more deeply. Thus, in section 7 we read,

branches exist, wind lifting them exists,
and the lone drawing made by the branches

of the tree called an oak tree exists,
of the tree called an ash tree, a birch tree

and a few lines down,

guns exist; in the midst of the lit-up
chemical ghetto guns exist
with their old-fashioned, peaceable precision

guns and wailing women, full as
greedy owls exist; the scene of the crime exists


There are no periods in the entire poem. Instead, we are given commas and semi-colons. Thus, all elements of the poem blend into each other. Everything is connected in the poem, as it is in the universe.

The choice of the Fibonacci Series is no coincidence. Based on the number Phi (1.618…), the Fibonacci Series, also known as the Golden Mean, the Magic Ratio, and the Divine Proportion, "can be found throughout the universe, from the spirals of galaxies to the spiral of a Nautilus seashell […] the Divine Proportion presents itself in the very physical nature of Creation. It is seen as the beauty and organization within the cosmos. It is the harmony and glue that holds the unity of the universe" (

This poem reflects the Divine Proportion: the spiral of galaxies and sea shells. And so, the poem moves like a spiral. Words or images recur… one gets a sense of traveling with the poet through the Milky Way, perhaps, or perhaps something smaller, but just as magical in nature. Let us use the example of apricot trees, which opened the poem. We return to them several times—in section 6:

and fruit trees exist, fruit there in the orchard where
apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist
in countries whose warmth will call forth the exact
colour of apricots in the flesh

in section 11:

…somewhere a wild
apricot tree stands still for a moment

and blooms, but just with a very
thin veil on the outspread branches
before going on regardless

and in section 12:

I met only the blank scrutiny
of an apricot tree in bloom, turning
around as it left suddenly

to name but a few. Other images also come up repeatedly: ice, snow, blackberries, and various birds. The reader gets the sense that these repetitions are taking place at parallel points on a spiral.

A poem so passionate about life could have risked slipping into sentimentality. But it never does. One reason for this is the stark contrast between these vibrant elements of nature, and the totality of destruction. The third page of section 10 begins, "atom bombs exist" (24), and goes on to describe, in alternating statistical and poetic fashion, the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In section 11, a mere two pages after the blooming apricot tree, we read: hydrogen bombs exist
a plea to die

as people used to die
one day in ordinary

weather, whether you
know you are dying
or know nothing…

and in section 12, just after seeing "the Madonna/in a matted thicket/of green blackberries" (39), we are suddenly pounded with cobalt bombs:

cobalt bombs exist
wrapped in their cloaks
of cobalt-60 isotopes

whose half-life
ensures the most
harmful effects

This back and forth between life and death is one of the aspects that lend the poem its power.

Another aspect is the music of the piece: not only the images, but also the language itself moves like a spiral. Just as the shape of the poem as a whole is cosmic, so too, the rhythm reflects the music of the spheres: "bracken exists; and blackberries, blackberries;/bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen" (12). Christensen is not afraid of repetition. The confidence and authority in the speaker's voice do not leave the reader room for doubt. Though most of the poem does follow this type of rhythmical pattern, she avoids redundancy; she occasionally breaks the pattern with pages that have an altogether different shape and rhythm:

so here I stand by the          Barents Sea
out there is the                      Barents Sea
and it looks like the               Barents Sea
is always alone with the       Barents Sea
but around behind the         Barents Sea
the water stops at                 Spitzbergen
and just behind                     Spitzbergen
ice drifts in the                      Arctic Ocean

and so on, around the world. Nature's design is never abandoned. The poem moves as the cosmos does: cyclically, but with breaks in its otherwise spiral-shaped motion.

Christensen expresses the need for the poet to imitate nature in all she does: "a dreamer/must dream like the trees, be a dreamer/of fruit to the last" (34). She must also think like nature:

… said
to myself: think like
a bird building nests,
think like a cloud, like
the roots of the dwarf birch

think; like a leaf on a tree
thinks; like shadow and light,
like shining bark thinks

Toward the end of the book, the work takes on a meta-poetic bent. The writer must not only live like nature, but also write like it:

I write like wind
that writes with clouds'
tranquil script

or quickly across the sky
in vanishing strokes
as if with swallows

Yes, Inger Christensen does. And Susanna Nied translates like it. This book is not for the weak of heart; but for those courageous enough to take on the universe, and particularly this little planet within it, it is a marvelous feat, "a design as simple as laughter" (33). As for myself, I can only hope that the poet will one day write a sequel to this alphabet, beginning with o and taking us to z.