I owe all my interest in Inger Christensen to another truly dynamic, formally inventive women poet, Cathy Park Hong, in whose undergraduate class I first discovered Christensen’s Alphabet.
There have only been a handful of occasions when a single book has
seemed like an bullet to me: piercing my flesh, radically revising every
part of my body that it touches. Though perhaps in our political
climate that exact simile is inappropriate, it still seems true. The
work of Inger Christensen shot through me, critically breaking something
in me—some notion of what the poem can and should do—in such a way that
it was impossible to see poems, any poem, quite the same again. I could
hardly imagine, as I was reading Alphabet, that in fact I was
reading a book that wasn’t “my own,” wasn’t “American,” or that I was
even reading a book in translation. It was remarkable to be, at once,
and only through words (words translated from words) so close to someone
who, in some sense, was so distant from me—in the “so-called Old
World,” as Christensen would’ve put it. But that is the power of poetry:
to collide us.
In not just Alphabet, but in books like Light and Grass and It,
Christensen put forth a radical new way that the poem can work, move
and persuade us. Christensen is a testament to the very ability of
language to connect us—which, mind you, doesn’t mean we are now or
should be treated as, magically the same—even despite our various, beautifully different tongues.