My Little Brother, the second collection of Danish poet Christel Wiinblad (but the first translated into English, by Marlene Engelund), is a moving account of Wiinblad’s brother’s life, his battle with schizophrenia, and his suicide attempt.
It is also the story of her, the big sister – what she witnessed, the clues she missed, those she saw but chose to un-see. It is a slim collection – only ten poems long – which begins with her brother Jannick’s birth. But this is no ordinary familial account of a life hard-lived. From the first line of the first poem, we are met with a speaker both obsessed with time and seemingly in control of it: ‘07.52.27 am: They left an hour ago and in nine hours, five minutes and thirty seconds he’ll let off his first scream’ (‘17 Louisenland, 2nd March 1984’). It’s as if, by stirring up the score in this way, by making her reader almost giddy with the orchestration, Wiinblad is herself still trying to work out where her brother’s suffering began. There are many examples of this, but I was particularly struck by the delicate handling of tenses as she slides from unsure past to certain future in ‘Copenhagen Central Station’:
and only a moment ago
and right now
it’s exactly 6 months before
he’ll be placed
in a bed with the white room’s
soft imprints surrounding him
like a temporary container …
Tragically in 2009, a year after My Little Brother was published in Denmark, Wiinblad’s brother took his own life. With this sadness in mind, it’s astonishing the poems never tip over into an inaccessible sentimentality. Instead, Wiinblad keeps the poems open, stark and honest – and, by honest, I don’t mean straight-forward or predictable; I mean the ability to make legible something of our lived experience.
One of the ways she does this is by hovering above and beyond time (or at least the time of the story told in the collection). As witness, sister, and narrator, Wiinblad positions herself hors texte, looking at moments lived, imagined, and those she is living in the now of writing. At the same time, her obsessive diligence to time-keeping and place names (each poem, save for the last, is titled with a specific place and date) embeds in the poems a ticking bomb of dread; after all, why monitor and document the passing of time if not to make sense of it, slow it down, control it? But, of course, this notation of time, in all its cold digital accuracy, changes nothing; Wiinblad cannot hold time to account any more than she can prevent her brother’s suicide attempt.
To constantly name, date, and provide the time of events is also, in a way, to fragment. Wiinblad wants us to pay attention: to feel time passing and to notice the days unaccounted for – for what is fragmentary can never be whole, simplified, or reduced. And so these poems cannot tell her brother’s entire story, just as the book cannot stand for all of him. The months that fall silent between one poem and the next are not ours to read, perhaps not even the poet’s, and, by marking their absence, Wiinblad accepts the insufficiency of her storytelling. What we have in the end is a tight unit of fragments; the collection holds together not only because of its compact size, but also because of its recurring images: the wrists cut ‘again and again’ in ‘Langelinie …’ leaving ‘long incisions’ through ‘Gammel Strand …’, ‘six on his left wrist / and nine on his right’ (Islands Brygge …). These cut through the rippling sense of being rudderless; ‘The bridge lets go, / my boots lose their grip’, ‘a little brother and his big sister lost at sea’, ‘loose metaphors’ ‘anchorless imaginings / like water lilies’ (Christiansminde, Svendborg, 13th April, 2006).
Wiinblad’s bird’s-eye view not only sidesteps sentimentality, it also allows her to leap from memory to description to psychological analysis, to action then back to memory, without having to promote one over the other. This gives the pages dynamism, speed, and infuses them with hope, because it does away with the idea of a life having a single beginning and end. Instead, Wiinblad depicts her brother’s life – and by extension her own life – as a series of moments, an incomplete litany of small openings and closings. Here, I must commend the translator, Malene Engelund. To be able to transcribe the flow of these registers and tenses without it ever stalling or sounding overtly difficult or ‘clever’ is a significant achievement. At no point does the text feel translated – no visible seams, no edges that disturb the permeability of the stanzas or their delicately wrought sorrow.
Consider this extract where Wiinblad recalls a fond memory with her brother. The first stanza runs how you might expect it to, but notice how delicately she transitions into another tense and register as it develops:
seventeen years ago(‘Gammel Strand, 13th February 2006’)
when my little brother and I
cycled with each other’s foot soles as pedals on the sofa,
listening to Sgt. Pepper, Treasure Island
and Jacques Brel,
and I’m cold
because I’ve lost my gloves,
and already now I’m upset
that in five months and a week I’ll forget
to buy the tennis wristbands
that we carefully,
were meant to pull onto his wrists
what he’d almost done
Gently, bravely, Wiinblad hands us three ‘I’s’ in an entirely unpunctuated passage. We have the ‘I’ who pretend-cycles with her brother on the sofa, the ‘I’ of the ‘now’ who is cold without gloves and upset, and the third ‘I’, who will forget to buy the tennis wristbands to hide the ‘long incisions’ on her brother’s wrists. Wiinblad wants the memories, as well as the people inhabiting them, to leach into each other, to create a kind of swirling cacophony of self. Why? Is it so that she might see the past differently? Find new clues? Or perhaps it’s simply because writing this way comes the closest to how she remembers. Thoughts come to her ‘without a centre’ she writes in ‘Christiansminde …’, ‘without // entrances, without / announcing themselves / at all’.
When My Little Brother was first published in 2008 and her brother, Jannick, was still alive, Wiinblad asked that the collection be read alongside her brother’s album (he was in the band Mother Sparrow) because ‘[t]he book and the music have always been intertwined – they belong to each other, they are different words for the same thing’. The UK launch did not include a download, nor did I know if Wiinblad still wished the two to be taken together, but I did manage to locate one track. In truth I found it both unutterably sad and a bit distracting to read and listen simultaneously. Also, I’m not sure it’s needed because there is already music in My Little Brother; it’s there in the liquid time signature, and it’s there as a symbol of the fluid nature of life and hope. In one of the most moving passages of the collection, in the poem ‘Kongens Have’, Wiinblad buys her little brother a baby canary ‘because who can leave / a small singing bird’. In the end, Jannick’s illness overwhelmed the music, and defeated it, but this is a poignant tribute to sibling love – a love that is secure and tender yet somehow also frustrated by its inability to fully read the inner life of the other. My hope is that Wiinblad and Engelund work together again soon, to carry across more of these finely-wrought poems to an English-speaking audience.
Genevieve Stevens’ poetry and reviews have appeared in journals in the US, Ireland, and UK, most recently in PN Review, The Moth, Agenda, Review 31, and Wild Court. She is a creative writing Ph.D candidate at Royal Holloway, London.
Image: My Little Brother: a morning in heaven, at least in green by Christel Wiinblad (Valley Press)