that was it
was that it
Maybe it’s my age that made me start singing Nirvana’s Heart-Shaped Box. Or maybe I just can’t stop thinking about vaginas. Regardless, it was the first thought I had when looking down at the black and pink cover of Ursula Andkjaer Olsen’s My Jewel Box, translated by Katrine Ogaard Jensen. The title, the colors, the image of something like a large urn or oven opening to the viewer in front of a framed image of what looks like an eclipse, holes upon holes—it read to me as vagina, as female, as the core of feminine power.
Indeed, to me, as a woman, this book turned out to be largely about women and the unique existential horrors we endure for being the conduit to all life. It embodies the inherent pressures and confusion that come along with the responsibility of being something that was birthed and can birth. At its heart, this is a book about intergenerational relationships and the tension inherent in love between creator and created.
i have the mother
in my gut
as i was in hers
she will embrace me from inside
This work squarely highlights how we are tied to both the present and the past through our relationships. I couldn’t stop thinking about being taught that women are born with all the eggs they will ever produce and how that means a woman pregnant with a girl is carrying both her daughter and part of her grandchildren. So, as women, we are connected across generations. And we carry generations.
This book starts with the death of a mother, being swaddled in a blue blanket like an infant in the basement of a house. The first section is titled the Safe Deposit Box, a place where you keep all of your treasures, and it introduces two continued metaphors: one of the mother as well as one of the house. The mother image, along with the child image that soon accompanies it, allows the author to explore the complexity of love.
my big, impure heart
there is so much about it
that isn’t me
the borrowed materials
the precision of debt
Olsen says that birth, the gift of life, is the start of debt. These relationships that we take to be so organic are turned into something mechanical and transactional. The writing itself mirrors this and is, at first glance, cold and systematic. Initially, it reminded me of writing code, where you account for every possible variable.
Wants permission to transfer their violence
Wants permission to transfer their care
Wants permission to transfer their hate
Wants permission to transfer their love
The repetition doesn’t seem to act as a way towards musicality. It reinforces her take on this ‘economic’, transactional nature of connection. There is a sterility to it but, paradoxically, the echo also acts as mantra or incantation, as magic alive even within these systems. While many people conceptualize ‘love’ as some mystic bond that exists outside everything, Olsen reminds us that, in every relationship, there is an uneven distribution of power, the giver and the receiver. The distribution of love exists on some abstract matrix or supply chain where the role of producer and consumer can invert over time or even overlap.
Olsen further distances these bonds from traditional understanding as an innate, organic, biological response. She places humans at odds with nature.
the human replaces nature’s laws with
its own laws
paths of remuneration
paths of reward
Olsen asserts that we make relationships into some unnatural, a construct that exists independent of nature because nature is “something you don’t owe anything.” We give our love and hate certain values and we introduce the idea of power. However, Olsen doesn’t make this a ‘one versus the other’ scenario; rather, it is more of a pairing. All dualities in this book exist less as a ‘versus’ and more in partnership with its opposite. I was struck by this reframing of the idea of good and evil. She makes it a balance rather than a competition (a thing to win). Is it decidedly American to want to pit two things against each other? To want to crush everything that is not you? Olsen removes that dynamic and adds a scale, asking us to balance ourselves with everything opposite: love/hate, debt/surplus, pleasure/pain. They are both needed. So, while transactions are made throughout these pages, the author reminds us that “these feelings are not mine / they belong to the universe” and that real ownership is intangible.
Pain – jewel
Debt – jewel
Guilt – jewel
The narrator puts all of these emotions into her jewel box because they are all valuable. In the “Without the Gold that it Takes” section, she explores hate specifically and the need to make room for hate as “vaccine, not inviolability, not untouchability / training, not inviolability, not untouchability.” This is another area where people tend to take an unnatural route with their closest relationships. With family, parents and children, we try to forego these negative emotions, pretend like they’re not happening. We’re taught that love and hate cannot coexist. In a particularly powerful moment, Olsen writes—
a person who doesn’t want to do anything bad
and also doesn’t do it
is the best person
the most moral
they don’t vote for the person who wants to do something bad
but resists and refrains from it
they are not interested in that sacrifice
As Olsen measures emotions economically, she simultaneously measures how she processes elements physically. She zooms in to a cellular level to see how she takes in water, air, fire, and earth; in the next moment, zooms out to see herself in relationship to the rest of existence (all four elements). No matter the scope, the narrator always seems rooted in a metaphorical house with a well in its basement that stretches upward to the tip of its high ceilings. Inside the house is where we encounter the mother and the child characters as well. While the narrator exists as a liquid, a “river that runs”, the house seems to be the most solid and constant component in her life. The ‘house’ could be the genetic foundation that binds the family together or a symbol in line with traditional concepts of familial obligations and attachments. To me, it seemed to be the place of the narrator’s life, with upper floors as childhood, lower floors as middle age, and the basement well as the point of death and release back into the wild. It is a place where the narrator traverses up and down the stairwell, moving back and forth through her life. The female body becomes enmeshed in this house as we see different points of existence solidified into the structure itself.
the uterus does not disappear after giving birth
it shrinks, woven into the
rest of the carpet like a doormat in front of the
in front of something else
in order to hide a conspiracy
a dead end
from eternity to eternity
At one point, the narrator states “my body is a moebius strip.” The house then becomes a space where her body moves through time; where she houses and is housed with every iteration of her existence and all existence that is tied to her existence.
This is a special collection; it feels completely unique and new. My Jewel Box subtly builds and spins into something wholly enigmatic. To many readers, it will open up a different way of understanding poetry. When I think of my favorite poets, like Baudelaire and Dickinson to contemporary poets doing amazing work like C.T. Salazar and Diane Seuss, they are all very different but they share a certain musicality and a way with language that makes it flower and bloom. Olsen’s work (through Jensen’s deft hands) can feel colder at first. The words feel more… naked. Not stark, just not adorned. There isn’t any capitalization throughout the collection. It makes everything equal, even the I. In a book that explores personhood, these decisions are important. Olsen’s distinctive voice stands apart from everything I’ve grown used to in poetry. Epiphanies grow out from simple sentences. It repeats and relies on subtly. The magic here comes from a slow burn but that doesn’t diminish its beauty. This collection feels like an esoteric secret or humanist prayer that illuminates a beatific definition for what life is. It seems to be where holes act not only as emptiness, but also as opening.
anything that can keep something together i call energy
anything that can change something i call energy
My Jewel Box
by Ursula Andkjaer Olsen, translated by Katrine Ogaard Jensen
Action Books, 251 p.