Monthly Archives: July 2022

The condition of secrecy

There’s no sure way to determine whether a poem will be beautiful or banal, good or bad. The best we can do in practice is […] to read them while we’re writing them, and continuously revise them, until at last they reflect some kind of light, some kind of insight, as if they had been written by others, by someone else.

It may not be so hard to recognize a good poem once it’s there. But how can we find our way to it before it’s there? […] How can we get form and content to live and grow with and within each other, as plants, for example, grow in the natural world? […] Writing poems is always about being at square one and starting from scratch; every time, about writing the individual poem as if it were the first poem in the world.


Writing poems is […] a neutral miracle, so to speak, granted in advance, because in the process of writing we need to use language in its whole, indissoluble connection with reality.


It’s difficult to find our way into this condition of secrecy. Of course we dream of being able to say that it happens as easily and lightly as a plant sprouts leaves and flowers. So that the poem in the seed’s internal sky is lifted into its whole outer unfolding as exactly that plant, exactly that poem. In this condition of secrecy, the poet stands at the center of a universe that has no center. In order to raise the inner world to the outer we have to start in the outer, start in all that’s visible, everything that throughout our whole lives, in corresponding forms of visibility, has been preserved yet forgotten in our inner world. It’s unclear which has to awaken which, the inner or the outer, but it’s certain that — because we know how things have been connected with each other ever since we were children — our first and best help will come from random chance: maybe in the form of a spring rain or an autumn storm, summer’s bright nights or winter’s rime frost, any phenomenon at all that can set our inner world in motion to such a degree that threads, pathways of thoughts, are created, branching out and trying to find ways to fuse words and phenomena.


Choosing with care also means more than choosing among all random words. We have to choose exactly the random word that can be made necessary. To make a word necessary means to interweave or fuse it with its phenomenon. Not that the randomness is done away with, because even after we choose it, the word is still as random as ever. But in its randomness the word, along with the phenomenon, will enter into that condition of secrecy where inner and outer worlds exist together, as if they had never been separated.


When the first stations have been set up in this condition of secrecy, the poem begins to take shape, the landscape broadens out, and images begin, on their own, to keep words and phenomena together. Where before there was nothing, now there is something; and along with it something else that continues the process, because all the widespread outposts in the landscape start to report in, all the little enclaves of coinciding language and meaning that now are functioning as realities, everything that has entered into the condition of secrecy, reports back now.


And at the happy moment when all decisions become part and parcel of the poem’s writing of itself, it may even be decided that what’s being written about is something we had never remotely considered writing about, something we’d completely forgotten, something we’d never spoken of, something that has kept itself hidden until now.


There is a schism between those who believe that we human beings, with our language, are set apart from the world, and those who experience human beings’ use of language as part of the world, so it becomes evident that whenever we express ourselves through language, the world too is expressing itself.


Especially since I’ve learned from meteorologists and other scientists I’ve met that they know about the condition of secrecy. They may not say that words suddenly take over, but they say that the problem suddenly solves itself; they don’t say that a poem writes itself, no, but they do say that things say themselves.


If we’re separate from the world, it’s because we have separated ourselves. We believe as much. But we mustn’t believe as much. We must know. That we already are in the condition of secrecy we seek.

— Inger Christensen, ‘The Condition of Secrecy’ (tr. Nied)

And what was I telling her?

And now, outside the station, I discovered that since my arrival in Jesenice I had been silently telling my girlfriend about my day. And what was I telling her? Neither incidents nor events, but mere impressions, a sight, a sound, a smell. The jet of the little fountain across the street, the red of the newspaper kiosk, the exhaust fumes of the heavy trucks – once I told her about them, they ceased to exist in themselves and merged with one another. And the teller was not I, it was the experience itself. This silent telling deep inside me was something greater than myself. And, without growing older, the girl to whom it was addressed was transformed into a young woman, just as the boy of twenty, in growing aware of the teller inside him, became an ageless adult. We stood facing each other, exactly at eye level. This eye level was the measure of the telling. I sensed the tenderest of strengths within me. And it said to me: “Jump!”

— Handke, Repetition (tr. Manheim)

I find myself in a hostel in Gothenburg. I took the train across the Sound almost randomly this afternoon with the only aim of heading north. I want to be up there alone again to let the head clear.

I’m not a planner. The idea of planning a holiday months in advance is boring beyond belief. Nevertheless, this is an odd feeling. I realise I’ve never really done this on my own: just packed and left for another country without a plan. The Faroe Islands was a trial run. And so is this. I’m not used to travelling alone in this way, leaving things more or less to chance. I feel like an amateur in life again. I bumble around, look at Apple Maps, google things, follow signs, ask for directions. I booked a room in the hostel on the train.

Strictly 21st-century tourism. I think of how and why people travelled in the past. This is hardly a search for new hunting grounds or settlements, a Viking togt, a naturalist expedition, an exploration of unconquered lands, a diplomatic mission, a flaneur’s amble… It’s more like a gap-year trip.

The next day I follow a crowd of tourists on a tram and take a ferry out to the archipelago. Ferries crisscross the waters between the islands like buses. I walk some paths through pretty nature reserves.


Time thickens when you travel. It seems to go fast while you’re in it but, looking back, two days of travelling can seem like a week because of all the new impressions you had to be alert to.


In the morning, after the usual confusion about directions and times, I take a train past huge cornfields, red farms and quiet suburbs to Mariestad. I’ve already covered enough distance to span the breadth and width of Denmark yet I’m still in southern Sweden. As always when I leave the city for the country, my mind begins to open with the horizon and I’m surprised by how blinkered I’ve been.


I feel guilty travelling aimlessly, spending money without working. I sense the voices of my parents in the back of my head, even now as a middle-aged man, in fact as strong as ever – as undercurrents that always go against what I decide. I do it anyway: if I’d done all they said, I would have been dead in the water years ago. It must be because I’ve been living with my mother. There was a reason why I fled as soon as I could when I was younger. Back then I made it look like a calm choice to go to Britain to study, but by then it was too late. They’d long since got their voices in me.

I’ve always protected myself against chance in cryptic ways. I’ve often thought that there are people who shouldn’t leave themselves too open to random events, for whom it’s dangerous. It’s chance you need to watch out for, chance is when you come up against the rocks of reality that can break you apart. Of course that’s why I chose Sweden, I now see: I secretly knew it would be safe, smooth and boring.


I seem to be spending half this trip on my phone, arranging the next leg. Most of the others are looking at their phones too. On Saturday I take a flight up north from Stockholm to a sleepy town called Luleå. At three in the afternoon all shops are closed, including the state-run off-licences. The streets are quiet. I check into the hostel, shower and find a British-style pub where I spend a tremendous amount of money on beer and gin while I look for trips to the archipelago and busses to hiking trails in the vast forests we flew over.

Much of what I’ve learned about how to think comes from S., simply from being around her. People tend to get their ideas through a kind of osmosis, years of passive learning from their surroundings. But she could step back and think for herself, with a mind that could turn itself to any subject. It was a joy to watch her think and start to say something.

In a bar in the Faroe Islands, I got talking to an American couple. The woman pulled out a deck of Tarot cards and asked if I wanted to be ‘read’. She told me to cut the deck and choose a card. I made a big deal out of saying I was scared of the dark arts, crossed myself affectedly and picked one. It was the Queen of Swords. Shit, I thought. The American tried her best to put a positive spin on it. Luckily her boyfriend got the hiccups and the subject was changed. We tried everything, from drinking upside down to my flawed theory of taking sharp breaths just before the next spasm.

A little later we got talking to a Czech woman, also on holiday. I invited her to sit next to me. We all drank Danish beer and shots of Faroese akvavit. Petra – was her name – reached her hands across the table, palms up, asked the American to hold them, stared into his eyes for a minute, and the hiccups were gone. We cheered and went on chatting.

As the bar got louder she and I started talking. We talked about the place and the landscape. I said: God lives here. She said, God is everywhere, not just here, gesturing at the window. I asked her what happened with the hiccups, and she said it was a kind of gift; that God helped her heal people. I said half-seriously, Can you heal me? She took my hands and we looked deep into each other’s eyes for a while. For once I wasn’t distracted by the commotion around me. Her eyes turned dark. She let go, made a face I couldn’t interpret and said, You don’t have God, you just have the idea of God. I looked out the window. Fair play to you, I said, you’re not wrong. We stared at each other again. She said her black eyes usually scare people. I said instinctively, It’ll take a lot more than that to scare me.

S. was far away from the lives of others when she was in school, she once told me; some people are. She did her homework by the bins at recess to be alone. She just liked to learn. Of course the other kids came over and mocked her. They called her things I don’t want to say here. It broke my heart when she told me that. I loved her with a deep, protective love, though I myself was far from the lives of others – and from hers, it turned out. If I were to tell her something now that I’ve learned it would be that real life happens slowly, mostly undercover, mostly in secret. When you’re in trouble, do what you have to do, and wait. Hibernate like an animal. You’ll come into your own in time, if you can find your own time. You’ll know, looking back, if you did.

I’d also tell her what I’m sure she knows, that this slowness of life is like something from a lost time. It’s more like an ordeal now, a danger in the background of our quick lives. We’re ill-equipped to understand it let alone live it; the roots that held us to it have been hacked out of us.