Turns of Verse: On Translating Per Aage Brandt
Thom Satterlee is the recipient of a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for his translation of New and Selected Poetry of Per Aage Brandt. Read an excerpt of the translation here.
After seven years of reading and translating the poetry of Per Aage Brandt, my conviction that he is unique—or at the very least, highly unusual—has only grown stronger. Start with the surface elements: how many poets end their poems with titles, as Per Aage often does? Or what about his close attention to the right-hand margin of his poems? In most of his poems, each line ends within a space or two of the others, giving his work a machine-like appearance. The same effect occurs when he stretches or shrinks the line by uniform increments. Then there is his use of the Danish word Poesi instead of the more common Digte in the titles of his many collections of, well . . . not poems, but poetry; or maybe better yet, verse, since that word originally meant “turn,” as a plow turns at the end of a furrow and as Per Aage does with great precision at the ends of his lines.
You might expect such a rigid artistic program to become increasingly restrictive, and for the poet either to move on to different forms or to run out of things to say with the old. But that just isn’t the case with Per Aage. After more than forty years and thirty volumes, his work maintains its original principles and continues to show inventiveness. I think this freshness comes from his being as unbounded with the content of his work as he is bounded by its forms. A note on the back cover of one of his most recent collections lists the subjects covered as “anxiety, consciousness, death, dreams, ecology, economics, existence, aberration, the everyday, identity, irony, intimacy, cats, catastrophes, communication, war, the body, art, love, desire, power, nature, poetry, politics, religion, the soul, writing, disturbance, surrender, spirit, and certain other matters.” There’s hardly anything in the world that fails to interest this poet, and nothing that he fails to make more interesting once he’s written about it.
While it wouldn’t be wrong to call Per Aage a philosophical poet, it would probably send the wrong message, as the list above suggests, or not enough messages . . . not enough slightly contradicting messages. Professionally, he is a cognitive scientist with many books and scholarly articles to his name, and his work engages several branches of philosophy. But he is also a jazz musician. He is also a concerned and at times bewildered cat owner. He has lived in Denmark, but also for long stretches in the United States, Argentina, and France. He writes poems about ideas, but also about the baby rabbit his cat brings into the house; poems about musical composition, but also about the composer relaxing in front of his fireplace. As one critic put it, “Per Aage Brandt’s poetry is paradoxical: it is intellectual and stringent, but also playful and nutty. . . . It is disarmingly human.”
It’s those last two words that I find especially true of Per Aage’s poetry, and what I hope to convey through my translations.
This piece is part of PEN’s 2014 translation series, which features excerpts and essays from the recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.