Naja Marie Aidt’s poetry collection, Everything shimmers, is a prismatic and lyrical reflection on the relation between home and abroad, familiar and strange, including the strangeness of the familiar. The poems are about separation both as loss and liberation, exile both as grief and as blessing. They are about individual, family and colonial history, about colonizing or being rejected by foreign land.
Everything shimmers (2009), which was written after the author’s emigration from Denmark to New York, is about place: the old place and the new one, exile and colonization, to feel at home or estranged, separation as loss and as gain. As in her earlier collection, Poetry Book (2008), Aidt lets collective and individual history intertwine, as the poet’s family history and Danish nationality leads to poems about immigration policy and Denmark’s former colonies: Greenland and the West Indies.
Aidt is known and praised in Denmark for both her sensitive poetry and her prose; she was awarded the prestigious Nordic Council Literature Price for the short story collection Baboon, published in English translation last year. Aidt’s latest published book is her first novel, Rock, Paper, Scissors, which appears in English this August, and which transfers the poet’s sensitive language into stream-of-consciousness-prose in a thriller exploring the moods and lures of an erring individual mind as if they were meteorological phenomena.
The poems from Everything shimmers presented here, in Susanna Nied's translation, circle around the themes of place, home, exile. The book’s first part consists of 18 enumerated poems, each of them about half a page, telling the story of “the child” from its first to its eighteenth years. The story is not chronological, and the child is not the same child in every poem; sometimes it seems to be the poet as a child, sometimes it seems to be one of the poet’s own children, sometimes a more universal child, or the child as a state you can re-experience as an adult, for instance when trying to make yourself understood in a foreign language: “far from home/ with an amputated language:/ the child in her second year/ no one understands her peculiar gestures/ hoo hoo sounds at daycare/ (she's talking about an owl)”
The poems in the second part are longer and slimmer, having as a reoccurring theme the holidays and seasons of the year, so different from one country to another. The seasonal traditions of the new country seem strange—yet the meeting with the foreign does not lead to a fortification of the familiar, but rather to seeing the familiar as something just as strange.
The book closes with yet a third poetic schema: normally poems are slimmer than prose, but here the verses are larger than prose lines, with interspaces instead of line breaks. Even the geographical and historical space of the poems grows larger, from New York City to the former Danish colonies: Greenland (where Aidt was born to Danish parents) and the West Indies (where the poet travels as an adult). Foreign (Greenlandish) words appear in the text like unexpected phenomena, and there is a certain confusion or intertwining of time, space, and identity: "dead drunk man raping a sled dog in the twilight imerajuk once I found crowberries under the snow once I read about St. Croix I couldn't understand how any place could be so hot and palm trees? that was when I was a butterfly, mouse, girl, whore, shaman."
Aidt’s poetry is at once sensual and thoughtful, imaginative and factual, freely associating and firmly structured, childish-naïf and grownup-serious, humorous and melancholic, exotic and simple, erotic and harsh. And everywhere in her poems, a reader can find her deepest motifs, the child and the exile, combined by the reoccurring theme of separation: “it's true that one can be separated from one's children by oceans it's true: it hurts it's also true that it may be a relief that everyone slips out of their role and a castoff skin and a smell of earth and skim milk as we once slipped out of our mothers...”
—Lilian Munk Rösing
Once the park was a forest once the city was a colony once Wall Street was a wall once the Indians were on the other side of the wall once Brooklyn was farmland once all the black people were slaves once I was an egg inside my mother's ovary once Martin Luther King was shot in a shabby motel on this day forty-one years ago when I had just turned four once John Lennon was shot and Kennedy was shot once twenty million people were quarantined on Ellis Island once France traded the Statue of Liberty for the Eiffel Tower once there was a Civil War once a black man became President then people sang in the streets once the city was dangerous once it was afraid when the towers fell it was afraid once all the mentally ill people were put in jails once my mother met my father once I landed in Newark with a good hard thump once I bore love like a jewel at my breast once my great great grandmother was a girl writing a secret letter from the chair where I now sit writing and outside: the sun in a child's eyes
OOH to be a rotten little squirrel
with a twitching tail
to hop, hop, spin, leap
from trunk to pole
and gobble up everything edible
sit bobbing in the oak tree
that for a hundred twenty-two years
has stood right here
and now is mine
for as long as I'm here
staring out the window
far from home
with an amputated language:
the child in her second year
no one understands her peculiar gestures
hoo hoo sounds at daycare
(she's talking about an owl)
A letter is a kiss is a picture of a bride
in a dark green dress, that's how my friend's friend
dreamed of her, it made her happy
and I stretch out my legs on a rickety chair and
think about the word fickle which another friend who now
is dead loved, and suddenly I'm homesick,
but not homesick, but filled with longing for
intimacy, which is about something that most of all resembles
a child in her third year, in magical
connection with the ones she loves, one flesh,
one organism, see the child beaming there on
the lap, happy happy
WELL? So it's going to rain today; I slice Jewish bread
and make a salade noire while the child looks at me and shakes
his head in pity, because there's no such thing and WHOA!
isn't that a truck flipping over right in front of us, it looks like
the street is red with blood, maybe it's a bloodmobile I suggest,
and the child sheds a tear for my ignorance AND for the people who
may have been killed, the bloodman waves his arms, does he need
help? HECK NO, he just could smell the bread, the salad, and the child ("Does he want
to kill me?") he's wildly hungry after that accident --
"You smell like life and chamomile" says the bloodman stroking the child
in his ninth year, who can barely manage to say hello to anyone when reading
comic books, and who looks dejected and misunderstood
in all pictures from his childhood.
An eagle has circled overhead for almost an hour, springtime shimmers in puddles,
the cherry tree a pink cloud that we float on, the eagle dives
and catches a kicking rat, then we catch the train to Brighton Beach where everything is
in Russian where the restaurants sell vodka by the bottleful only
where the child stuffs herself with pickled cabbage and borscht where Chinese brides pose for
photos with the sunset at their backs; that's when you begin to cry
and whisper: Everything's a waste. It's either too early or too late.
But oh. You're too young for that darkness. Do you love someone? No
and yes. Does someone love you? Your face is pale as a moon. Your back in the car
going home. You get tucked into bed but are way too big for that. You survey love
and its absence behind trembling eyelids. Now I'm the one blubbering against your
closed door. Drinking myself sloppy. The child in her sixteenth year has had enough
and longs for more, the eagle in the park rests sated in the cherry tree,
the bride's blood on the sheet, the leftover soup fermenting in the pot
and the moon from your face has risen into the sky where it throws me off kilter,
leads me astray to traps, regrets and late night trips back to when
my own springtime (green, raging) was the very first thing that was my
Thanksgiving, we dig up a skull
from the earth and use it
as a gravy boat. What are we giving thanks for?
It's not that simple.
Look deep into the water:
A bear grips a salmon
in its great paw.
Soon it will be my turn.
Crush the bones between your teeth.
Swallow the milt.
Water cold as death itself.
Small towns, crabbed from inbreeding.
A door rattling on its hinges.
Then, astonished, I dig a gold nugget
out of the pumpkin pie.
Now we can buy some land,
plow and sow, then
we'll live happily ever after
make it all ours.
Then we'll throw off our borrowed finery,
settle in, buckle down, bear
our burdens with a smile.
I say: centrifugal force!
I say: stop!
But it's not that simple.
I want to buy a hyacinth because now it's Christmas.
But they're not in season. Not in season?
Not here. I come home with unfamiliar
flowers that look like genitals.
An elf eyes me from its
hiding place. We don't have Christmas stockings. You
don't have stockings? We don't want figgy pudding
and sugarplums we want to shoot a pig and eat it,
it has to have an apple in its mouth. We want to open our
door and sing loudly, SI-I-I-LENT NIGHT, make the whole
street -- oh! We have other customs that
suddenly are like a rare, precious gift
we must not lose. Not lose. But the snow
we like. We're happy to have it. We
want to stuff it into our ears and eyes we
wish to cool our boiling brains
and on New Year's Eve we jump off a chair
and yell (you yell?!)
Valentine's Day. A work of art, thin paper
that I saw and can't forget.
What was it about those scissors, so precise,
small tableaux hidden in old paper bags?
Yes, incomparable: a forest clearing. Butterflies in flight
over houses. Waterfalls with leaping fish.
Valentine's Day and Brooklyn stretching out
with its dusty streets, low buildings,
an industry one can't believe
still exists. And the man with the dog greets me
every evening as if we were old friends.
The fruits of the ginkgo are green and firm on the tree
but soon they'll be a stinking mess:
Have you ever smelled a corpse?
No, I whisper,
He shoved a card at me, it was made of
I turned on the charm.
He bit my arm. I had to stand on tiptoe
to keep my balance.
The leaves of the ginkgo are hearts on strings.
I can see the harbor from here. Sunset.
The gift of rashness is
a blown kiss; a little ship
on a Danish river.
you say that Bedford still holds as a concept that the big apple too has a core I don't know I go in and lie down one can stand in a gallery with a sour drink in one's hand have a crush on a handsome man one can one can never get tired of the Brooklyn Bridge I'm lying down I've lain down it's true that the magnolia was in bloom and now it's not that there's a bar around the corner that I like the sunset from the west-facing window that things penetrate deeper deeper and stay there or no are laid down helter skelter over old experiences memories suddenly something that happened last summer has become memories it's true that I never get tired of coming up into the glare of the street, up from the subway's humid darkness never get tired of glare or humid darkness never get tired of the red plush bar where the women are so svelte where the waiter has a grand piano tattooed on his hand I've lain down and gotten up and now I'm lying down you say that I should drink more milk look at more eighteenth-century art that the core is firmly anchored in the apple that the core is the heart of the apple that the heart beats so fast because it's excited I sigh I turn on a light I fix a meal of beans and leafy greens it's true that one can be separated from one's children by oceans it's true: it hurts it's also true that it may be a relief that everyone slips out of their role and a castoff skin and a smell of earth and skim milk as we once slipped out of our mothers it's true that it's not death but life that's incomprehensible it's a shock how are children and parents connected and do they have to be why is the pain of separation so great for the child and so liberating for the child who has grown up don't ask stupid questions you say take a bite of the apple while you can for that's the core of life you do so much when you don't have to do it and when you do have to do it, you don't you say how can anyone understand you how can anyone understand you it's true that I often sit on a loveseat and drink it's true that intoxication makes me beautiful; it's a clouded mirror that I never get tired of the magnolia in bloom that I had only powdered milk as a child that we poured it down the sink that my sister looks like a rose when she wakes up that my cousin gave my grandpa a pastry to take along to the grave (a custard tart) that sometimes I feel liberated as if a mountainside had been lifted from my back that other times I feel I've lost my life that I'm just now understanding how long it's been since everything and never again never again sex in a back courtyard against a wall never again that exact fuck, that exact taste: metal, mint, booze but now now all of Williamsburg still holds as a concept you say "diversity/grouping" the sun is gone I lie down I'm washing my hands now I lay down I'm reading a poem now I've lain down images stream through this space
as a boy I was always cheerful and carefree but I wasn't a boy a butterfly is what I was a mouse in a hole a sled dog, howling at the moon and the nights were-- they were--black, deep a cluster of houses there in the middle of nothing and the mountainsides were everywhere like towers and spires in a kingdom there's a page torn out of the book there's something gone, vanished as every day vanishes and leaves maybe a scratch, a shiver, something happy and yellow a smell (vanilla, wet fur) hands that lift you up and shake you until you shriek one can travel to the old colonies and see remnants ruins one can imagine the exploitation the desperate attempt to hold onto something Danish a tea service a little flag a mill on a hilltop the Danish West Indies are called the Virgin Islands now the street is called Hope Street no one here knows the Danish word for hope I'm sitting in the shade looking a gecko in the eye watching a lizard battle a scorpion the lizard wins if one goes for a walk in the jungle on St. John one might get hit in the head by a coconut maybe one deserves it a sugar cane plantation rises up out of the green landscape one can see the slaves' quarters and close one's eyes so that everything comes to life one can see the whip swung at a child's back the master dead drunk, raping someone but suddenly the path comes to the beach where sea turtles graze peacefully in the depths pelicans fly low over schools of fish and it's like paradise, like the dream of untouched land, like a virgin's sweet-smelling womb make no mistake this place is ravaged by tornadoes by rains that make everything slide away there is no right to vote there are drunks begging tourists for a dollar an enervating boredom found only on islands: we could sail there and there and back again back again we-could-have-a-beer once there were three queens in this kingdom (Mary, Mathilda, Agnes) they incited the masses to riot one raging night; blazing torches We must have light! Mary's voice hoarsely thundering it was eighteen seventy-eight the town vanished in flames people turned into charred corpses I'm sitting in the shade looking at a parrot (red) at the ocean (turquoise) at a man rinsing an octopus in a bucket (green) hands lift you up and shake you quaking islands they were sent to Copenhagen they were sent to jail picture this: three black queens before the Danish High Court, early morning/drizzle a strange laughter (hoarse, melodic): now, fuck you, Danes! but the king of the kingdom honored them they went to tea at the castle they got a shiny medal slavery had long since been abolished but it hadn't I'm sitting in the shade listening to the children sing they sing about Mary but I think about a poem she wrote: Fan me, white missus! until the day breaks the white woman moves the fan over the black woman's body coolness comes, balance picture it think about the word nigger-Dutch vile word for Creole parts of West Africa were matriarchal that was where the slaves came from all the plantations chose a leader she had to be fearless firewater came to Greenland too a person could earn a quarter delivering beer to the old folks' home a person could die in a snowdrift in clear weather dead drunk toothless or: dead drunk beautiful woman giving someone a blow job in the harbor shanty for a bottle of booze qanga kingu? a smell of sealskin, urine it was a comforting smell, a good smell when I was a boy it was beautiful hymns, oddly shifting tones the voices fell and rose odd laughter dead drunk man raping a sled dog in the twilight imerajuk once I found crowberries under the snow once I read about St. Croix I couldn't understand how any place could be so hot and palm trees? that was when I was a butterfly, mouse, girl, whore, shaman hoarsely thundering everything rises and falls rain, wind love rivers and glaciers overflow their banks
the images stay in the brain why those images and not others the exact sight of your face turned away in a foreign city long ago in a taxi good-byes, only to be left in tied-up traffic, lost or the feel of my foot in a kamik a kamik and at a mik, reindeer fat beading the surface of the coffee this was the city you left me in now it's not foreign anymore it's just me that's foreign as a child I learned to tell the difference between snow and snow between night and day in the dark between night and day in the light everything looked the same but wasn't one can travel and like an image of freedom stay in one place for a few days and then escape nobody misses one when one leaves the sun goes down while one is on the train the sun makes spires and towers glow like the wind, one can sweep over the world but if one stays put (kamik stuck in the door) it's different each place requires participation and suddenly one is noticed as something anchored to the earth as something with habits she always leaves the house early they like music at night then come advances, like having a crush we want to get to know each other what is that how does one what? we get to know each other as we are in the moment as we introduce ourselves: we play ourselves: miracle! it's possible secrets in the twilight stay hidden as they're supposed to that's what crushes are about we imagine the rest we imagine imagination is worth its weight in gold a stranger is moving in the neighbor brings us a cake it's a gesture we never forget the image of the neighbor, light coming from the left, an airplane crossing the sky over his head the neighbor says welcome I hope you'll be happy here and we say thank you and mean much more than that much more a cake has saved us sheltered us invited us in
you say: an African boy was bitten by a python in a coconut palm he lay in the mission hospital, ill, and read a book about Greenland he got well and was now an African boy with a vision he wanted to go to Thule he didn't get that far, but almost a whole settlement ran away in fear the first time they saw him this was in nineteen sixty-four and then: boiled dog, quivering mattak, a seal heart dug out of the warm body for lunch what do you say to that you say does that say anything to you suddenly I remember a lot that I'd forgotten I say a kiffaq a boy named Pavia a Danish tradesman's scornful words about a people who migrated across the ice from Canada long ago how can anyone put down people who have made that journey how can anyone put down his hosts now I understand that the four-part hymn-singing was introduced by the Moravians that the drum dance was forbidden that promiscuity was necessary to avoid inbreeding that those who live in a harsh climate need to scream with laughter that those who live in a harsh climate need to be harsh themselves that the craziness appears in the fall that it was labeled hysteria but it's a function of vanishing light, boredom, isolation I remember that there weren't any dry cleaners that my father had to send his suit to Copenhagen that my mother got cucumbers in airmail tubes that she raised marigolds in a coldframe that Pavia was handsome and always had a cold that the kiffaq had children with Danish men who promptly left her that we melted snow for water that we used a bucket as a toilet that that that you say: the African boy taught himself the language he was mauled by a dog it had rabies he immersed himself in the culture he fit in there the women sewed him bearskin pants we are all guests you say at night uncontrollable commotion from dog fights, snarls, howls the snow a greasy puddle of blood the open steaming body of the narwhal a certain way of walking in order not to slip, fall I never fell we are all guests you say everything else is illusion no one owns the earth belonging is not ownership you say and it's true as it's true that Pavia hanged himself that my mother's marigolds were a sea of nodding suns that I loved the old women's burning eyes that I loved the young girls' round arms dimples that we were Danish fuckers that like the African I spoke a difficult language that I lost it a world vanishes when one leaves it it's shameful it's a sorrow just the trail of images remaining here we drink soda pop in the snow here we find crowberries under the snow here I learn the word for melting snow: aput aalersoq here we fly in a helicopter over the inland ice here I stand on the pier and wave goodbye (never to return) here snow and snow snow
Susanna Nied, a former instructor of English and comparative literature at San Diego State University in California, is an American writer and translator. Her translations have appeared in publications such as APR, Poetry, Granta, Tin House, and Two Lines, and in several anthologies. Among other honors, she has received the Landon Translation Prize of the Academy of American Poets, the American-Scandinavian Association/PEN Translation Prize, the John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize of Poetry Magazine, and been selected as a finalist for the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation.
Lilian Munk Rösing is Associate Professor in the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and a literary critic. Rösing has published (in Danish) Reading the Child, The Catechism of Gender and The Return of Authority.