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Carsten René Nielsen

Carsten René Nielsen is the author of nine books of poetry, including The World Cut Out with Crooked Scissors. His poems appear in The Paris Review, Agni, Circumference, Mid-American Review, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Aarhus, Denmark.


“These poems do much more than blur the line between illusion and reality: they evoke that vibrant contradiction of dreaming in which the real and unreal exist in perfect simultaneity.”

– Georgia Review

“These poems… range in subject from fanciful to frightening; and, although seen in a fun house mirror, they make our world strangely more clearly understood.”

– Grace Cavalieri, author of Why I Cannot Take A Lover

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House Inspections

Fear: Uniting the Surreal and the Real


Danish poet Carsten René Nielsen’s first book of translated poems, The World Cut Out With Crooked Scissors, prepared me for his style of writing -- the surreal prose poem focused on minute things or instances -- but the subjects were much broader in the 2007 collection than in 2011’s House Inspections, assumedly because it was an amassing of selected poems from, at the time, nearly two decades of work. House Inspections is a continuation of his style, but with a much more focused subject, and it’s in this honing that the fear is clarified.

Translated by David Keplinger (just as with Crooked Scissors), House Inspections defies the question, “What’s it about?” just as much surrealist poetry does -- however, here, I noticed a trend when I tried answering this question, asked by a friend as I read while he played a Final Fantasy. It’s about a town -- no, it’s more about a specific block -- well, I guess it’s just one house. No, it’s about a room. No, a table. No, a plate. No, the absence of anything in a room, and the absence of a room, and a house, and other houses, and a city. The impact of these poems relies not only on the appearance of unique imagery, but the disappearance of it as well. Take for example the poem “Mail”:

"After an acquaintance remarked that a certain, newly erected building looks like a piece of set design, the mailman, more and more, has entertained the possibility that there’s nothing on the other side of the house fronts, no floors either, but that the letters, as soon as they have disappeared through the letter flaps, continue their fall downwards, whirling through an all-engulfing darkness."

The fact that the building’s falsity infects even the ground it stands on, turning it into a void, shows how these poems subtly move beyond pointless absurdity. The absence provides depth.

Not all things missing are literal. In the titular poem, policemen pore over the minutiae of various houses, asking, “And what’s the trouble here?” The repetition implies that there istrouble to be found, and their inability to find it puzzles them, so they ask one another, “What is the trouble here?” The answer never appears, just as their purpose never appears -- something one could ask of authority figures in many instances where they attend to trivial or harmless situations. After reading this poem, my mind leapt to the time when I was 13 and was yelled at for riding my bicycle on an empty sidewalk. Such personal reminders, connected to our emotional reactions of the poems (and in the case of House Inspections, the common, nearly constant reaction was fear), are what give surreal poetry its power and prevent it from simply being silly nonsense.

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