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1541 words
SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

Two Danish Words in Memory of Thelonious Monk

by Thomas E. Kennedy

Ever since my divorce fifteen years ago, Christmas has seemed a terribly complicated event, ringing with conflicting factors and actors and family arrangements split and welded awkwardly, and the question has been growing in the Bell Jar of my skull about why it should be so inviolably necessary to celebrate Christmas at all.Then, yesterday, I learned a new Danish word which seemed to promise deliverance.

I was in my favorite Copenhagen bookstore, the Booktrader, celebrating the owner’s fifty-fifth birthday, listening to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on the CD player, sipping wine and massaging the back of a woman named Sanne whom I had just met—she had remarked that her back muscles were sore from chopping tree branches for her wood stove, and I recognized this as an opportunity to engage my fingers with the back of a handsome person of the female persuasion who, moreover, like the Wife of Bath, had a gap-tooth—when a Danish friend named Knud Holten taught me this new word. We were chatting in Danish—Knud, Sanne and myself—while I massaged with my thumb and two fingers Sanne’s right major rhomboid muscle—and I don’t recall whether Knud or Sanne said the word first or what the sentence was that bore it, but suddenly the three of us were admiring this word I had never heard before.

Knud—a lean, trim, meticulously neat man with an impeccable haircut who smokes non-filter cigarettes through an amber holder—was startled, even appalled that I was ignorant of this word and that I could not immediately provide its English equivalent—which reminded him that, a few months before, he had discovered another Danish word to which I was a stranger.

He laughed with delight at my expense. “This is the second excellent word you don’t know!” he exclaimed.

“I know,” I said, hoping that he would not discover that I had already forgotten the first word until this very moment and still could not quite recall what it was—something about hair, some knot of hair on the face or body of man or beast. To conceal the fact that I had already forgotten that earlier word, I stopped massaging Sanne’s trim back, interrupted my consideration of whether it would be permissible for me to murmur to her, “What a delightful back you have,” whether that would be taken in the spirit of innocent merry ribaldry it was meant or whether it would put her off—and removed pen and paper from my pocket to write down the new word—new to me at least—we had happened upon together: overspringshandling.

“What is that in English?” Knud asked me and all the others in the store celebrating Lars’s birthday with plastic stem glasses of wine, emblazoned on their sides with snowflakes made of various letters of the alphabet, including the three that are in the Danish alphabet but not the English: æ, ø, and å which inspired the Danish poet Henrik Nordbrandt to enquire in a recent sonnet whether the Danish language really requires forty-nine vowels. But Knud’s question was directed primarily at me.

The word, overspringshandling, could be literally translated as “an action that springs over something—ostensibly something one wishes to avoid.”

“It’s probably a psychological term,” I suggested, then had an idea: “Avoidance perhaps.”

Knud tilted his slender head and lifted his eyebrows, preliminarily evaluating whether this translation might fit.

Sanne, flexing her shoulders to find relief for her sore right major rhomboid said, “But avoidance leaves off the second part of the word in Danish, which indicates an action.”

“Avoidance action?” I suggested, but Knud had himself sprung into action—after all, this was a bookstore—searching among the shelves of dictionaries which in the Booktrader are beneath the front window and perpendicular to the shelves of erotic literature.

This would be perhaps an appropriate juncture to mention that we were standing beneath a molded plaster erotic wreath on the ceiling which depicts in three dimensions a spiraling line of figures, each performing an erotic act upon the next in line, curving out of a book and ending in a heart. This wreath—which oddly enough very few people ever seem to notice—was sculpted by Knud’s son, Kasper, who is a professional artist. In addition to Lars’s fifty-fifth birthday, we were also celebrating that day the twenty-third publication of the Booktrader’s annual Christmas Album in which Lars publishes the art, prose and poetry of his customers, many of whom are professional writers and artists. The cover this year depicts a passe-partout-framed nude woman (the passe-partout is part of the picture, painted in three-dimensional perspective) wrapped in a billowing diaphanous rosy red body-length veil that covers her face up to her forward-gazing eyes but does not conceal her naked breasts or her curly black-haired, delightfully realistic Venus mount which is the painting’s central focus and which, being realistic as it is, I suppose, would most appropriately be called a cunt (the word in Danish is softer and more alluring, kusse)—and which reminded me longingly of the curly black-haired kusse of my new girlfriend who lives, alas, far away. This picture was, in fact, painted by Knud’s wife, Rigge, also a professional artist, while Knud himself is a celebrated poet and novelist, represented in this year’s Christmas Album with a poem about an “exquisite corpse that drinks the new wine.”

Knud also has the unique talent of being so thoroughly ambidextrous that he can write with both hands at once with two pens, each hand working from the center of a page in an opposite direction, with the left hand writing the words of the right hand but in a mirror image. Which he demonstrated by writing with both hands simultaneously on a piece of paper for me:


Sanne incidentally is also represented in the Christmas Album by photographs of six of her collection of found stones which she calls Kussesten or “Cuntstones”—stones she has collected here and there which bear a natural and often striking resemblance to cunts. I was acutely aware of having the privilege of being allowed to massage the right major rhomboid muscle of a woman who collects Kussesten—and perhaps inspired by Knud’s ambidextrous performance, I had also taken equal liberties with her left major rhomboid with my own left hand—and wanted to get back to work on both major rhomboids, but Knud stood before me holding open a large thick dictionary, saying with a smile of pleased triumph, “Here it is! Overspringshandling. ‘Displacement activity.’”

I could not help but feel that I had been let down by my mother tongue. “The Danish is much more poetic and...lively,” I admitted.

“Isn’t it?” Knud asked, politely not making a declaration but posing his agreement in a question. Then his eyes lit up—clearly he had had an idea. “Here’s a suggestion,” he said. “This weekend, Thomas, you could write a piece which includes the two Danish words that you learned from me here in the Booktrader over the past few months!”

“I will!” I exclaimed happily, noting over Knud’s shoulder that Lars was locking the cash register which could only mean that it was closing time, six p.m., time for the celebration to end and just in time for me to avoid admitting that I had forgotten the Danish word that I had learned a few months earlier—it was something like knorhår, but there is no word like that in my dictionary and it is certainly not kussehår, but I could think of no way to exonerate myself for having forgotten the word.

As the pack of us climbed the three steps of the semi-basement bookstore, wishing Lars a continued good birthday with his family before we disbursed into the dark of Copenhagen December afternoon, Knud’s eyes lit once again. “One more thing,” he said enthusiastically. “The piece you write about those two words should be dedicated to the memory of Thelonious Monk!”

“What does he have to do with it?” I asked.

“Because,” Knud said, “I once saw a film of a jam session led by Monk, and before he began to play or anyone began to play, he said, ‘Let’s keep it simple so we can enjoy it.’ And can you think of anything more beautiful than that?”

I couldn’t.

So this morning I awoke inspired to write a piece about an overspringshandling—a displacement activity—that would free me of the requirement of celebrating Christmas this year. It seemed the perfect deployment of this excellent, new-found Danish word. I made a pot of coffee and sat down on my red sofa with a copy of the Booktrader’s Christmas Album, gazing at the beautiful black curly-haired kusse on the front cover; reluctantly, I turned back that beautiful cover and saw on the inside of it the Danish words: FORDI JULEN IKKE ER SÅ OND ENDDA — BECAUSE CHRISTMAS IS NOT SO BAD AFTER ALL.

I turned back to the cover and gazed into the eyes of the nude painting and thought, Of course, that’s true.

And with Thelonius Monk’s words ringing in the bell of my skull, I began to write.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury