“I am what is around me” Henrik Nordbrandt Interview: A Poet's Odyssey
Mescalina.it & Louisiana Channel 10. jan. 2022
"Our love is like Byzantium."
ReadingOmar Khayyam“you get the impression that God is an excuse for drinking wine.”
“Being in a landscape you like and actually love is fantastic.When I am somewhere I’m not me, but I am what is around me. And I like that feeling,”
Henrik Nordbrandt(March 21, 1945 – January 31, 2023)is widely regarded as one of the most important and celebrated poets in Scandinavia.
His life with poetry was shaped by the many years he lived in Mediterranean countries, where “departures and arrivals are very existential,” as he says.
Danish poet and essayist, Nordbrandt was born in Frederiksberg on March 21, 1945; he is generally recognized as one of the greatest Danish poets of the 20th century. His first collection - simply entitled Digte (Poems) - dates back to 1966 and was followed by a long series of publications, up to the last one, 3 ½ D which appeared in 2013. He was also the author of thrillers, fiction, of various children's books; a curious peculiarity, which testifies to his versatility and his originality, is constituted by his publication of recipes of German cuisine containing only dishes based on sauerkraut and vegetables. He was also a translator, especially of French poets. In 2000 he was awarded the Nordic Council's prestigious literature prize for the poetry collection ‘Drømmebroer’ (Dream Bridges).
An unusual character - like many Danish writers due to their hybrid location between the "continental" Europe and the deeper Scandinavian world - Norbrandt escapes precise pigeonholing (incasellamento), as indeed happens to other contemporary poets. However, since his appearance with "Digte" (Poems), he has been renamed as "the classic Nordbrandt" for his classical gait, both in themes and in style, musical and polychrome, with a romantic stamp. Precisely in the best romantic tradition, the prevalent objects of his versification are love, death, nature, moreover with an attention to the amorous theme (usually anomalous for the Scandinavian poetic canons and certainly tributary to his long stay and Mediterranean frequentation ) addressed with melancholy and sensual accents, which however is combined - as a demonstration of his unusual and original nature - with an ironic tone, naturally extraneous to the traditional classical register. Nonetheless, his poetry remains a classical poetry in its form - in spite of the brevity that characterizes most of his compositions - since it is marked by a linguistic richness and refinement, of a typically classical matrix.
Nordbrandt, totally refractory to fashions, has based his entire production and poetic research on a coherent physiognomy, so much so that the evolution that can be observed in his writing over time simply reflects his existential trajectory and personal experience in a physiological manner: also in this sense Nordbrandt abstracts himself from the dominant panorama in the Scandinavian poetry of his time, leaning instead towards a work and an approach of experimental and realistic revision. The continuity of his stylistic choices is highlighted by the fact that in his collection published in 1999 and translated into Italian by Donzelli in 2000 - entitled "Our love is like Byzantium" - the poems present do not follow the chronology of their publication, but are placed with a sort of zigzag trend between the various periods.
His wanderings between Greece, Turkey and to a lesser extent Spain, move from a distancing that he always felt, already in his youth, towards Denmark and its cultural and literary environment, as well as towards the framework of Danish political events, attitude that led him towards what has been a real anthropological journey, essentially aiming - as always in anthropological journeys - at a more in-depth knowledge of oneself and of one's own universe, to subsequently arrive - as always in anthropological journeys - at a rediscovery and a reappropriation of its starting cosmos, but with a broadening of perspective.
It is no coincidence that his most famous poem - homonymous with the title of the aforementioned collection published by Donzelli - is also one of the poems that most emblematically reveal the foundation of his love for the Mediterranean and his wandering nature: in it, Nordrandt compares the love for ancient oriental icons to a distant fire, with unpredictable combinations and a particular musical intonation.
Nordbrandt's poetry is accompanied (something not taken for granted for Scandinavian poetry) by rhyming texts, metric modules which give a singing tone and a pathos functional to its construction of meaning and which gives life to new images, once again influenced by his love for Mediterranean cultures: an influence that is also directly literary and poetic, tributary to the feverish readings of Cavafis, Seferis and so much Ottoman and Persian tradition and which manifests itself in a certain tendency towards the arabesque.
His interest in the Mediterranean countries is evidently purified of any link with the traditional journey of the man of the North in search of exotic and idealized worlds, the only real vehicle being his feeling of extraneousness and restlessness. His attraction to the Mediterranean is basically more the celebration of an absence, a term that not surprisingly often returns in his poems (so much so that his Italian translator Bruno Berni even called him "poet of absence") . ; he is fascinated by the Mediterranean, but he is aware of how this remains an "other" world for him, knowing full well that he remains profoundly Danish in soul, at the same time, as we have seen, never having fully identified with this extraction of his. His work is constantly crossed by the widespread feeling of always being in the wrong place and time. In such a state of bewilderment the poet is alone: alone in front of the world that he observes and describes in his metaphors, alone in front of love, alone in the restless passage from one to another of the innumerable places that populate the writings of him.
A characteristic of his writing is the epilogue of the poems with a sort of closure towards what has been seen or shown: therefore a "poet of absence" who uses a "writing of leave", to paraphrase another definition of his Italian curator Bruno Berni. This final track acts as a glue for very different texts and at the same time his self-irony, the scathing sarcasm, the elementary sensuality of his language prevent Nordbrandt's poetry from closing itself in self-pity and the world, rather opening it to a positive dialogue with reality, which makes the Danish poet's voice atypical in the panorama of contemporary and fellow opera.
His poetry becomes a poetry of memory, in which the attention for the places, the amorous theme, the reflections on death and nature stand out, with a description that unites the various topics treated through a tone that highlights the melancholy for the fleeting moment and the hope of tomorrow, in search of the transcendent moment of fusion between past and future. Travel is essential to the poet's soul, as it allows him to cultivate his need to maintain a polycentric perspective on the world.
Ultimately the journey, as a search for an absence, for Nordbrandt rises to an allegory of existence, since what the Danish poet seems to want to support is the idea that only poetry can eternalize the moment, the instant, soothing melancholy, because paradoxically the instant itself seems to be able to be fully understood only as it dissolves.
From an expressive point of view, the gap between word and thing, between world and language, which allows us to define his poetic vision, is fundamental in Nordbrandt, since in seeking that missing link, the meaning becomes myth, by making the opportunity for creation arise poetic.
This dynamic stands out most immediately and effectively in his love poetry: as in the case of the absence of meaning in the world, it is the absence of the beloved that stimulates him to talk about her, and the images that are part of those verbal acts they serve as a consolation for the speaker. In both cases - the journey and the relationship with nature on the one hand and the love theme on the other - the poet seems driven by a restlessness that is splendor and restlessness at the same time and both dimensions reveal themselves as instruments of investigation of the cosmos, to the point that in many passages by Nordbrandt, amorous sentiment and geographical description intersect, as we can appreciate in Towards Africa: "And your body, which is tired of traveling / like a nomadic tribe in extinction / transforms my soul into my sex / while my thoughts become feminine”.
The commonality of the two shelves is particularly evident in his collection "Glemmesteder" (Places of forgetfulness) of 1991, in which he mourns the loss of his partner Ingrid. While facing what is one of the toughest tests that life can inflict, Nordbrandt proves that he finds solace in poetry, giving life to some of his best compositions.
The most significant variation introduced by the Danish poet in the linguistic and expressive register of his production appears to us with "Guds Hus" (The House of God) of 1977, with the appearance of what has been defined as "linguistic asceticism". In this collection for the first time, the volume of arabesque metaphors and oriental pathos seems to fade, to leave room for what may appear as shreds of poems or fleeting writings, which seem to settle on the page with great levity, using a carefully limited vocabulary. In reality it is a minimalist choice, capable of landing in a more direct, almost pre-analytical way, to fix the complexity of human experience on the poet's dial, through the adoption of a flatter language and in some cases of the fragment technique, far from unusual in the Scandinavian tradition.
His poetic experience is enriched by further defining himself, and from this moment these expressive modalities often appear in Nordbrandt's 'usus scribendi (“way of writing”), alongside other writings which instead still reverberate his more classical tendencies. The entire volume is made up of pieces that seem to branch out in various possible directions, to finally let themselves be channeled into a suite whose leitmotiv and unifying motif is the background represented by the image of welcome, of the warmth that the Father's house returns after the labors of eternal wandering.
In "Guds hus", Nordbrandt's nomadic tension seems to subside for a moment, in the temporary illusion of the warmth of the place and of the house, which however in the end turns out to be just another temporary stay, between the various departures and arrivals, since if the The landing place is full of promises, the place itself ends up being experienced by the poet as a capture, under the weight of memories that turn words into stones and therefore lead us to start again, in the illusion of yet another new route.
One of the most beautiful and effective summaries to describe Nordbrandt's work is undoubtedly the one identified by Saverio Simonelli in the introduction to the Danish poet's work contained in the blog Oltre (The Faces and the Waiting of Henrik Nordbrandt), in which he highlights: «The infinite, interminable conflict between the expectation of humanity and the apparent indifference of times and things that cross it. That he lives in a quiet tension, as if waiting for a spark to animate it and to throw what's inside somewhere. Here: this is Nordbrandt's poetry: light, such as that which can shine through in a woman's face and which gives color to an apparently icy poem». (Vincenzo Petronelli)
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One of Henrik Nordbrandt’s earliest memories goes back to when he was only three months old and his grandmother washed him with cold water in the sink after having shit in the bed. He was born on the day when the allies bombed the Shell House in Copenhagen and – according to the poet himself – part of his nervousness comes from the fact that he “was born with shell shock.” He was “bullied and beaten and teased” in school, which influenced his childhood very much.
When he was 14, he saw a documentary about concentration camps leaving him with the feeling that “you can’t bear to live with that. You can’t be a human being when human beings have done this. You can only die. You can’t be a human.”Nordbrandt became anorexic and his psychiatrist told him that he was committing suicide – “It’s fine if you want to, but in your present condition I have to interfere,” said the psychiatrist. “It was the first time someone spoke to me like an adult,” Nordbrandt concludes.
He became interested in Oriental languages through a girlfriend and they visited Greece during the military coup in 1967, forcing them to travel on to Istanbul where Nordbrandt had a nervous breakdown. These experiences made him want to study Turkish “and get away from Denmark.” In Greece he was struck with the fantastic light but in Turkey he sensed “a darkness under the surface.” Later, he discovered “that it has to do with their religion.” Moreover, Nordbrandt was fascinated by the melancholy of the Turkish music. Scandinavia, which is known for its melancholy, “can’t hold a candle to the Turkish,” Nordbrandt says.
Living in Turkey and reading their poets has shaped Nordbrandt’s poems, he says. He was interested in Nazim Hikmet, Orhan Veli, and Yunus Emre due to his “mystical approach to God.” But reading Omar Khayyam“you get the impression that God is an excuse for drinking wine.”
For Nordbrandt “writing poetry is a mixture of working on a very conscious and very unconscious level. Poetry is alive and each poem requires its own form. They make their own rules and forms.” “Being in a landscape you like and actually love is fantastic.When I am somewhere I’m not me, but I am what is around me. And I like that feeling,”Henrik Nordbrandt concludes.
Henrik Nordbrandt was born in 1945. He made his literary debut in 1966 with ‘Digte’ (Poems) and has published more than 30 collections of poetry, translated to many languages. In 1990 Nordbrandt was awarded the Swedish Academy Nordic Prize, also labelled ‘the little Nobel’. In 2000 he was awarded the Nordic Council’s literature prize for the poetry collection ‘Drømmebroer’ (Dream Bridges).
Henrik Nordbrandt’s poems read aloud in this video are all translated by Jordy Findanis.
Henrik Nordbrandt was interviewed by Christian Lund in September 2020 at Henrik Nordbrandt’s house at the island of Møn, Denmark. (Louisiana Channel)
Camera: Klaus Elmer & David Schweiger
Edit: Kasper Bech Dyg
Produced by Christian Lund
Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2020