We are not even 2 percent of the way through the 1,000 years that will comprise the third millennium of the common era, yet if forced to make a guess of what may characterize this new age, one might cautiously utter the word "flow." The things we consume drift in ever greater numbers across the ocean waters and our thoughts fly out on the aether in a torrent unimaginable even two decades ago, be they over cellular networks, WhatsApp, Twitter, Skype, Snapchat, Facebook, what have you. It is a time of global migrations, an era of newfound interest in transiting back and forth across the once firm boundaries of gender, an expansion of linguistic translation and transformation, and even (in some corners) dreams of exiting the material body altogether and discovering a kind of transhumanity as a pure flow of information.
The ecstatic, euphoric, helter-skelter, and self-contradictory movement that currently animates technological humanity at its most optimistic much resembles the churn found in Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen's multi-award-winning book-length poem Third-Millennium Heart. It is a deceptively calm-looking work of brief poems whose lines feel more like energetic prose sentences than the recondite lyricism generally associated with "experimental poetry." Yet Olsen makes from these modest implements a work of great compression, precision, ingenuity, force, and provocation—most of all, a work where definitions, bodies, meanings, images, and personalities are ever flowing into each other, striving toward a state of complete universality.
Third-Millennium Heart's conversational tone ranges from irony and occasional glibness to incantation, prophesy, and fiery anger. Its favored techniques are leaping logic and shocking, sharpening statements, recurring motifs and coinages that build up a thick residue over the course of these 200 pages. There is a fidgety energy here that often feels like someone in the throes of obsessive-compulsive disorder manically flipping a light switch or feverishly checking the lock on the front door, and it really works, giving these lines a sense of urgency and propulsive forward momentum. Amid all of this motion, there are little eddies where the poem stops to take its breath, as in this sentiment, which one finds repeatedly in various forms throughout the book:
The goal is for an utterance to not demand an answer: a utopia
inserted between the divided parts of the existing void.
Once there, all vessels will be connected.
One implicitly feels that the Third-Millennium Heart strains toward this wholeness, but Olsen's titular heart is a construct that resolutely "expand[s] on closer inspection," an infinite regression and never stops yielding new worlds in its finer details: "Each chamber consists of four chambers / that each consist of four chambers / that each consist of four chambers / that each consist."
As with the task of defining any given word, Olsen's process of drilling down to the bottom of any one question always leads to (at least) four more questions. Thus a sentiment of motherhood (if a somewhat cracked one) made to an unborn child: "Before, I would have dreamt of a weapon / to kill the enemy; now I need a gun to shoot / you, before anyone harms a hair on your head" becomes a statement of full-throttle, mischievously punning sexuality: "You all dream of freedom / it's simple / liberate your cocks in me // You search my name and get 20,000 tits" which then becomes a socio-economic, feminist remark: "If I am for a multicultural society, then I will be raped by / strange men; and if I am for a monocultural society, then I will be / raped by familiar men. I must choose the names / of those I want to be penetrated by against my will."
The idea (at least in my interpretation of this sphinx-like work) is that sexuality is such a massive category that it engulfs even hugely distant emotions like a mother's love, wanton lust, and misogyny; there is no one meaning, only the flux of different meanings depending on variables like time, age, gender, nation, and circumstance—in fact, even within a given situation multiple meanings will be discovered if only we linger long and closely enough. In the ecstasy of Olsen's idealized, poetic world she can dash and flit freely between them.
There is something absolutely Whitmanian about Third-Millennium Heart, as if Whitman had lived long enough to read French theory. The phrasing here is redolent of the Freudian strains of poststructuralism, with dictums like "in this society everyone is a woman with a dick" being plausible riffs on the likes of Lacan or Deleuze and Guattari. The book is no less aware of the abstract socio-political forces that shape our minds than it is of the esoteric incantations borne of celebrity, art, and culture that reproduce virus-like throughout our societies. All are open to play and pastiche in Olsen's poem. This ecstatic, liberated space is a domain where she can follow Jean Baudrillard's command that theoretical writing should "be an event in the universe it describes.... It must tear itself from all referents and only take pride in the future.... [It can] defy the world to be more: more objective, more ironic, more seductive, more real or more unreal, what else?"
In this book that convincingly dances and brawls with the systems that give shape and meaning to our world, it is Olsen's fascination with the very possibilities of language—that grandest, most powerful and controlling system of all—that make this book such a wide-ranging, wide-raging read.
Your name is possible, even though you've never existed:
you are namedrunk/nameless
"Namedrunk" is, for my money, the most interesting neologism in a book with quite a few (and let us doff our caps to translator Katrine Øgaard Jensen, whose linguistic inventiveness succeeds marvelously here and elsewhere throughout this book). The word perhaps refers to the state of a world far too drunk on nomenclature, a world where names so proliferate that everything imaginable has at least two, if not three, and so the freedom Olsen careens toward is too often stifled. Because as we all know, to name is to create, it is to own, and a world that lacks the capacity to name is a world filled with the dispossessed. It seems that as Olsen sets her sights on sobering up a namedrunk world—"the goal is to exist without form"—she is aiming for the greatest drunkenness of all, a pure liberation, a state of flow where all vessels are connected, all things one.
The poem forges contradictions into its own hide, it deconstructs binaries and builds them back up again, and from these confrontations it creates meaning: not the semantic meaning that travels across utterances but the meaning that sits atop gestures, the sparks that come as contradictions crash against one another. Like a supercollider smashing together exotic subatomic particles just to see what happens, Olsen accelerates language to the very limits, detonating it to watch what knowledge comes forth from ecstasy.
Scott Esposito is the author of four books, most recently The Doubles from Civil Coping Mechanisms. He is a frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, Tin House, The White Review, The Lifted Brow, The Washington Post, and others. He Senior Editor and Publicity Director with Two Lines Press.
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