No. 6


Frederick Smock  

                 Only now is the city we walk into
                 A clenched fist transformed
                 Only now is the street changed into a harbour
                 A windy song, the coughing of a demi-god

                                                                  Lene Henningsen

As a rule, I spent the evenings before work sitting at a café on Øster Voldgade, near the Botanical Gardens. I had a corner table by the French doors, with a view of the street and the shops across the way. At that hour — roughly six — the sidewalks were busy with young mothers on bicycles towing their babies behind them in little contraptions; businessmen returning from the day’s calculations; drug-addicts emerging from the shadows for their first (and perhaps only) meal of the day. One could tell them by their dress, their haunted mein. I sipped my dark coffee. The sun’s rays struck the buildings at tree-level. Leaves flickered in the breeze. The café was a cavernous place, dimly lit, with low Turkish-style sofas in the center. A large television screen dropped from the ceiling to show World Cup matches. Usually the place was rather quiet, with a few regular customers clustered around the bar. My waitress (Sigrid, always Sigrid) brought me a press-pot of coffee, a small pitcher of crème frâiche, and a brick of bitter chocolate, then she kindly disappeared for an hour or two. Not sure why I chose this particular café, except perhaps for the French doors, and the snug feel of my table.

     I worked nights in the new library, downtown, that sleek black-glass building jutting out like a prow over one of the inland waterways. Part of my time there, I was doing research for an article on the Young Mermaid, that fetching little statue of H. C. Anderson’s character sitting just a few feet off-shore; specifically, I was researching the vandalism she has endured over the years. Variously, she has been beheaded (twice), splashed with paint (repeatedly), carved upon, and, once, knocked off her pedestal with explosives, among other indignities. Quite a litany of horrors to be visited upon a fictional character. I wanted to understand why such abuses occur. I thought of the slashed van Goghs, Mussolini’s decapitated Dionysus, Hustveld’s “Roméo.” The Venus de Milo. What is it, in the human mind, that can cause us to respond to art, to creation, with thoughts — with acts — of destruction? What makes us opportunists for violence? Is there a daemon in the human psyche that is opposed to the divine? 

     I was living, for that summer, at the Niels Steensens Gymnasium, a Jesuit school on Sankt Kjelds Gade. I had an upstairs room with a balcony view of the courtyard garden. The exchange officer at my university arranged it for me, and the prefect, Father Richard, was kind enough to give me the run of his attic floor. His students were mostly gone for the season, working or doing their national service. A few graduate students lived downstairs; they conducted themselves with the obsequiousness of librarians. They seemed to pass their days in deep scholarship of mystical origins. That is to say, I never saw them, though I was aware of their existence. Presumably, they worked in the spirit of the namesake of the institution. Niels Steensen, a 17th-century Dane, worked as a scientist in Florence at the court of the Medicis; he established the sciences of geology and crystallogy, but, more significantly, perhaps, he made the discovery that the human heart is a muscle — thus uniting, in a single stroke, the dualistic thinking of Descartes, among others, about the world of matter versus the world of the spirit.

     My days I spend traversing the city on foot. I logged many hours in a stationer’s shop and a bookstore in Old Town, near the statue of Kierkegaard. I walked the streets of other nearby cities. One day I took the train into Odense, H. C. Anderson’s natal village. The station sits just across the thoroughfare from the palace grounds, where, on that day, a giant television screen had been erected for the match between Denmark and England. Already, at roughly nine in the morning, a thousand or more Danes had gathered, wearing flags and pelts and horns and face-paint, and solemnly drinking beer. The day’s fortunes would not improve. England won 5-2 in a physical game. Denmark was eliminated. Slowly the crowd dispersed — the very strange spectre of Vikings wandering through a modern European city. I walked down along the river, a slow-rolling stream in the shadow of the cathedral, where the bones of former kings are interred in the floor, or, as in the case of — was it? — Hrothgar II, gathered in a small wooden boxwith a glass cover. I gazed directly into the poor fellow’s afterlife, the long journey back to dust. One day I rented a bicycle and rode down to Viejlby, on the coast, for a diversion. I rode past the summer cottages in their bright colors looking happily out to sea. A gentle rain began, rain pinging on the roof of the konditieri, and on the ashes of last night’s bonfires. I called goddag to a fisherman in yellow waders who looked dead-like the art critic John Berger, hauling in his nets, hauling in his nets.

     Evenings brought me back to the café on Øster Voldgade. Sometimes these were the hours least bearable. A writer has a brief span of good work each day, if that, then there is the problem of what to do with the remaining twenty-or-so hours. There is eating, and drinking, and making love. There is the inevitable melancholy of sunset. Occasionally I would go walking in the Botanical Gardens. Girls sunbathed half-naked. Families cooked sausages and potatoes on their disposable grilles. Young men played soccer on the broad green fields. Old people played a horseshoes-like game with small blocks of blonde wood.




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