Henrik Nordbrant’s When We Leave Each Other, translated by Patrick Phillips

When_We_Leave-front_largeBorn in a suburb of Copenhagen, Denmark in 1945, Henrik Nordbrant’s 45 years (and counting) literary career is relatively unknown in the United States. Now with When We Leave Each Other, translated from Danish to English by Patrick Phillips, that will hopefully all change. Although Nordbrant has spent most of his life living in Mediterranean countries, rather than his homeland, he is still recognized as one of Denmark’s best contemporary poets. He’s won every possible literary prize in his homeland including the coveted, Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 2000 for his collection “Dream Bridges”. Translator Patrick Phillips had the fortune of communicating with Nordbrant regarding this book, its translation and the order in which the poems appear. For Phillips, it was most important to “…achieve Nordbrant’s delicate, all-important tonal shifts” which mean that he sometimes “knowingly sacrificed conventional lexical faithfulness.”  This earned Nordbrant’s approval and, as a result, we have a haunting collection of poetry unadorned in elevated language or extravagant poetic devices. Instead, it’s a conversational collection full of subtleties and nuances on topics we are so familiar with: love, life, death, and seasons. When We Leave Each Other includes the original Danish text alongside the English. Allusions to a few European cities and biblical texts aside, the text is clear and straightforward.

On first reading, his poems seem simple, almost trite because, after all – what of his work haven’t we read before? Ordinary, boring language describing distant cities, a broken heart, and fear of dying; what would compel someone to invest more than a glance? It turns out that these fluctuations between long, run-on sentences and disjointed, incomplete and fragmented thoughts are actually where the speaker draws us in, begs us to read again.

The first half of the book begins with translation from Own Poems: Selected (1969-1995). The opening poem as the title of the book, suggests that leaving is mutual but we will come to see is that it’s generally not.  It’s an ideal poem to set up what the rest of the book will be about: sadness, travel, parting, love.

Poems like Near Lefkas and Baklava explore the hidden secrets of the places the speaker visits and pulls them out. The writing discovers and exposes but also, the writing becomes the voices of these cities. The cities are vessels for the memories and the souls of the departed, as seen in Women Someone Dies, which recounts all that’s left behind after death.

When someone dies everything

else is left behind:

the mountains and the houses

in some distant county,

and that road that passes

Landscapes evoke emotions and act as constant reminders of loved ones. Whether through death or abandonment, the speaker often reflects on how their presence has not only permanently altered their life but the environment in which they exist. Pragmatic is a more extensive list of “Things that were here before you died / and things that came after:”, detailing clothing, scents, and more.  Perhaps the same love the speaker dotes on in Sailing or Our Love Is Like Byzantium, two poems reminiscent of the passion and intensity in Pablo Neruda’s writing.   The first half jumps around in terms of form with Smil eutilizes couplets, To a Death Mask has no capitalization, written in three long sentences in a more prosaic style. Another theme that begins to emerge in the first half of the collection is reflective writing and the voice of the conscious speaker. In I Can Never Remember Things I Write Down, the speaker begins to explore and discuss the act of writing and, for example, in The Hand’s Tremble in November,

…The poems are the work

of a hand that moved a few days in November, trembling

with the mood of its owner – with coffee, cigarettes, wine,

clouds over the valley, friends dead, and reports of war.

Writing is not just a way of forgetting, but of playing with memory and remembering. In poetry, memories live side by side on the page. In poems they are re-membered, re-created. A poem is editing memories, re-writing them until language goes further than the memory, until that person is present again.

The second half of the book shifts gears into more recent writings, most never-before-translated. The first book of this half, Dreambridges (1998)¸ recounts a series of dreams which are mostly violent, gory, but also witty and entertaining. Take Dream of Execution:

He chopped my head off, at which point

I just stood there, watching

as those behind me in line

got their heads lopped off too

The poem utilizes humor and the dream state to, later, make a more important commentary on life. What is important in this section is that many of the poems move away from a woeful, self-pitying speaker and towards a voice that begins to explore reincarnation and the existence of the soul outside of the body. Rebirth, specifically, is featured in Dream of Streetcars:

And so, perhaps, I must once again accept

what I used to suspect about my birth:

that I had been here many times before and would come again

regardless of how unhappily, unwillingly,

and to exactly this same place.

 The next section are poems from Offshore Wind (2001)which investigates religion, war and, as usual: love, death, and the seasons. It’s perhaps the most varied in terms of content but dreams still play a prominent role in each poem. Similarly, the poems from Seadragon (2004) are diverse, but when rea as a collection, we grow accustomed to the topics the speaker harps on. In this section, Nordbrant places around with form, specifically haikus and even a sonnet. To the unassuming reader, Nordbrant’s poems seem sporadic and thoughtless but Midsummer Sonnet is a carefully crafted commentary on the triviality of poetic form:

If I call this a sonnet, it’s only because the elder’s in bloom

and if I call the elder bush blossoms elder bush blossoms,

it’s for the same reason there are fourteen lines in a sonnet.

Much of these two sections seem more defensive, vulnerable with many of the poems justifying themselves with the use of “and”, as if to explain why something is the way that it is. In perfect harmony, the last selection of poems from Visiting Hours (2007) brings together themes from many of the previous works.  In the same way Louise Glück’s Wild Iris, employs similar speakers, objects and places kept writing themselves into the poems but in different ways; Nordbrant does that here. It’s as if these poems are in conversation with themselves in a multilayered, multidimensional text that can gratifyingly be read separately but is only enhanced when read in conjunction with each other.

Yet, there is a sense of closure that is not so obvious as death. Anatomy and Jellyfish continue to look into what happens after we die, physically or metaphorically. Whether it is from unbearable heartbreak or bodily death, it seems that the nature in which the way the poems are ordered leads to an acceptance of the cyclical nature of life, the connection found in all of our relationships and the profound loneliness and sadness we experience when we leave. That, ultimately, “the sea’s waves, softly repeating themselves (Jellyfish) will continue to go on despite the somber state of the world and its grief-stricken inhabitants.

With seemingly no regard for the reader, When We Leave Each Other, reads like a very private selection of passages from one poet’s travel diary and a personal journal from the past forty years, while trying to come to terms with his life, while making us question our own mortality and relationships.  Helene Cixious, in regards to writing says that “We have loved in the same way ever since the world existed. And yet, of course, it’s completely different because everyone reinvents their own version.” Henrik Nordbrant reinvents his own version of loving and Patrick Phillips shared that with us in the memorable collection, When We Leave Each Other.

Buy it from Open Letter: $15

Inês Lopes (poetry) was born in Aveiro, Portugal and raised in Newark and Livingston, NJ. She is a former Newark high school English teacher and holds a B.A. from Montclair State University with a concentration in Creative Writing, as well as a Master of Arts in Secondary English Education also from MSU. Ines is a NJ Governor’s School of the Arts graduate. Her poetry has appeared in Eclectica and The Normal Review, Montclair State’s poetry magazine. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Rutgers University – Newark.


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