Butterfly Valley

Inger Christensen (1935-2009)

By Dorthe Sondrup Andersen, master's degree in literature and culture writer, 2006

All right?! 

There are two ways to approach a collection of poems such as Inger Christensen’s Butterfly Valley.You can either arm yourself to the teeth and attack it with a dictionary of foreign words and an atlas, a couple of textbooks on physics and chemistry and some reference books on flora and fauna, Greco-Roman mythology and literary genres. Or you can choose to lay down your arms and defencelessly enter the poet’s universe. If you do, strange things will happen. 

With bridal veil and silver-washed fritillary 

It would have been a good deal easier if Inger Christensen had written poems about flowers that we all know such as roses, tulips and violets. Instead she uses plant names such as wallflower, stock and bridal veil.

The advantage of not really knowing what these plants look like is that the words seem to separate themselves from the plants they refer to. For example, a bridal veil is also the veil worn by the bride on her wedding day, and this makes it easier to connect the word with butterfly names such as Camberwell beauty and silver-washed fritillary. Exactly the same thing happens with the names of colours and minerals when instead of bright red and rust brown Inger Christensen uses words like vermilion and ochre. 

Death has you in its sights 

There are no definitive guides to understanding poetry, but if you lower your guard then the magpie moth will truly delude your senses with death’s head hawk-moths and emperor moths floating in the air. It will also be easier to understand that a bay of tears is not necessarily a geographical location. Maybe we are not supposed to know where the Brajcino Valley is, as long as we know that it is the place where even the heaviest objects rise into the air as weightlessly as stray thoughts on a hot summer’s day.
But it will take several readings of the poems to make the little hairs at the nape of your neck to stand up. Isn’t it true that two very important things change places as you read? At first, the poet looked death straight in the eye, but in the end it sounds like Death itself suddenly has her in its sights.

The butterfly's metamorphosis is the inspiration for Inger Christensen's Butterfly Valley. Photo Gert S Laursen/Scanpix.
Sommerfugle, ( Lepidoptera ), Butterfly, Kokon, Puppe.
Inger Christensen. Photo: Tage Christensen/Scanpix
Inger Christensen; Christensen, Inger forfatter

Did you know?

Now it becomes a bit technical: A sonet is one of the strictest literary forms whatsoever and consists of fifteen sonets (a poem with two quadruple and two three-line verses), the last sonet of which must contain the first fourteen lines of the previous four. You probably write the last one - you also call it the master person - and build the other sonets up from there.
Few in the history of literature have dared to embark on the many demands - we have not even mentioned them all here - as a successful sonet presupposes. William Shakespeare was one of those few. And Inger Christensen with the Butterfly Valley.

The committee's justification

By the Committee for Literature, 2006

“Who is it that enchants this meeting with peace of mind and fragments of sweet lies, summer spectacles of the missing dead?”

Inger Christensen’s Butterfly Valley, comprised of 15 sonnets, is an indivisible work, as it is composed according to the extremely elaborate rules of the sonnet cycle. A sonnet is a strictly defined poem composed of 14 lines; however, in a cycle of sonnets, the last line in one sonnet and the first line of the next one must be identical. The 15th sonnet, more correctly termed the master sonnet, must then be comprised of the first lines from the 14 previous sonnets.

The fact that this extremely challenging cyclic pattern does not in itself consume all the artistic energy is one of the remarkable things about Inger Christensen’ work. It has an unmistakable tone, which the author herself lays down in her description of a requiem, i.e. a poem on death. The experiences of death in the poem are irrefutable as its melancholy. However, there is a consistent contrasting theme of rebellion against death throughout the sonnet cycle, represented in the imagery of the life-cycle of a butterfly. The metamorphosis of the butterfly from egg to caterpillar to cocoon and finally to a brightly coloured winged insect gives the poem a bright, ethereal lucidity. For some, death and the transience of life brings everything down into darkness and indifference; but what kind of power brings from this decay time and time again bright butterflies into the world? And in what way does this sequence of change reflect the process of human consciousness, in which the forgotten past rises bright and poignant in our memories?


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