“The Monstrous Maternal in Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s THIRD-MILLENNIUM HEART”: A Review by Jayme Russell

Third-Millennium Heart is awash with red blood, black blood, a flood of names and namelessness. The poems pulse with RED. A stream flows from the poems, filling the exo-heart as the word “mother,” “mother,” “mother” runs RED. With each line the map of the heart grid beats. This heart is growing through a demon incantation. From this black void the wax replica heart melts in reverse, reconfiguring its structure from the bloody RED drops.

In an interview about translating the book Jensen states:

To Ursula, pregnancy and giving birth made her hyper-aware of the brutality and complexity of the body as well as the civilization in which the new body arrives. The entire book is built around this notion of things being inside and outside one another.

This is the primal hellscape of the female body. There are trees, surreally superimposed. Contradictory statements create arteries that branch in different directions. There is a towering landscape, a city of pain and metal. This is a woman’s heart, her RED undetected in the black hole of a forest. Her garden, bush, egg, nest, heart undetected. She tries to suppress the heart into the body, trying to fill the space where the fetus is/has been: “The goal is to do the work of suppression while you’re caressing my body. / Is the goal to do the work of suppression even while you’re caressing my body?”

Grief lives in the body and affects how the brain processes. This voice tries to confront death, to push down every emotional response, and to gain control over all.  However, false dreams of hope have burrowed chambers into the heart. Culture and economy flow through the heart. Hollow the heart. Leave it empty and wanting. The heart hangs in the in-between. It is a miniature world, desperately holding on to everything in its spider-webbed veins. Numbness must surround the heart. The body with parts, the body with bones, the body with skin must be numbed. The body is weak and can be violated by outside forces, as well as from the inside: “Everything seems to have been snatched out of my body.”

The speaker’s chants of “I have,” “I want,” “I am” work to transcend the body and the hurt caused while living in this body. This is a justification that the speaker is alive. The body still moves, lives, and breathes after it experiences fullness/emptiness.

If your death is meaningless it must be because you
are meaning, and losing you would be the loss of meaning
inside my distant interior: where meaning runs out, where
rose and name
run out.

This is a dark love song to the maternal female body. The heart gushes in uncontrollable streams, trying to heal. Her body is the universe. Her heart is in all places. At once archaic and cosmic, this space is the primordial swamp, where the female body creates, and horrifically destroys, life.

In Quarterly West, Jace Brittain refers to this voice as the radical maternal:

The radical maternal conflates a fierce kind of protection and a loving quality of murder. Part of the magic of the book’s recursive tendencies is in the way a pregnant woman can be carrying an emptiness and that emptiness is associated with an infinite population of replicas all of whom are deserving of these effacing dichotomies.

The contradictory nature of the speaker, as described both by Brittain and Ida Bencke, in an excerpt in the translator’s note, exemplifies Kristeva’s abject woman, always hovering at borders. This voice certainly speaks from a place of abjection, using religious and cultural discourse, to focus on the corpse womb. Kristeva states, “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.” The speaker in Third Millennium Heart is at once an omnipresent force that seems to transcend the body, but also a force so close to this body that it is inseparable: “And so I get to sit here, my vital organs hovering around me like a solar system”.

According to Barbara Creed in “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: and Imaginary Abjection,” what is monstrous arises and disrupts at these unstable borders. In Third-Millennium Heart this monstrous mother is an abject figure, because she refuses to release the child. She horrifically threatens to absorb the infant’s body that her body has nurtured. Confronting this death leads to self-disintegration, and a rippling multitude of reactions to this process. The mother breaks apart by making statements and then directly countering those statements, like a machine trying to recalibrate and make the correct adjustments to understand or fix the situation. The monstrous voice is more than human. It transforms into a kind of artificial intelligence, tries to transcend the emotions of the body and process the stream of information and emotion that flows through the RED heart.

Like so many modern horror stories, Third-Millennium Heart is soaked in female blood. The womb is the wound. The wound is the heart. The spider-vesseled heart crawls out toward the future, which spreads over all. The mother’s monstrous emotions, and the fetus, cannot be expunged entirely but continues to be confronted in infinite pulses.

Third-Millennium Heart, by Ursula Andkjær Olsen (translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen). Notre Dame, Indiana: Action Books/Broken Dimanche Press, September 2017. 210 pages. $14.00, paper.

Jayme Russell is the author of two chapbooks: PINKification (dancing girl press, 2017) and PINKpoems (Adjunct Press, 2017). Her writing can also be found in Black Warrior ReviewDiagramFairy Tale Review, and elsewhere. She received her MA in Poetry from Ohio University and her MFA in Poetry from The University of Notre Dame.

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