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SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

Inner Walking with a Danish Writer:
On Jens Olav Magnussen

by Lennox Raphael

To begin with, of course, we are the company we keep.

I was looking forward to this, and looking forward too to skiing & writing, perhaps even finishing this piece over the 10 days in Norwegian mountains, and then I started thinking of it too much, as I don’t like thinking of anything while skiing: only to keep the going light so one would move as a feather thru snow.

I had already been thinking of a girl who once melted in the sunshine and was so suddenly no longer mine, or herself; and when I got there, altho I had been going to the same mountains since the last century, everything as usual was new & different & I began to realize paranoia is the moustache of desire.

And that first day, eager for nothing, I got into ski clothes & onto the skis and went out alone, but had to turn back because the snow was coming up from the ground and being pushed down by snowflakes big as baby pancakes scrambling about like crazy ants.

I couldn’t see where I was going, or what was happening to the ground, so I turned back and the next day was deadbeat after 6 hours on skis & one tumble to avoid a collision and, before that, on the cheeks of the mountain, big news was the wind, epic epicene, rushing me uphill, and, in order not to be blown into white pits, I had to stick the poles in the snow & double over, head touching knees, whispering in my mind over & over, Ive arrived, Im glad to be home, Im here, Im now, Im solid, Im free—I had to hold on to nothing—and, coming down, the wind turned around now as a speeding troll enraged by fortune and following me so that I could only stop with the help of angel wings from magical times; and, back home, after battling that heavybreathing monster, and glad to be in one piece, I went straight to the kitchen, squeezed two lemons into a jug of cold mountain water, drank to my heart’s content, and was reminded to create quiet times at all times, especially when moments can be filled with Emptiness, as with the writing that follows to the end of a larger tragedy, and, later, so tired from that battle, I wanted to have an open window as I took a nap but the wind almost ripped the window out of my hands, and I had to force-close it hurriedly, and I said to myself this is like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD cult classic of horror, zombie creatures rising from a snowy grave & trying to force their way into the cottage but unable to do so; and, morning come, I still didn’t know where I was going with Jens Olav Magnussen, Danish artist-flutist, intellectual troubadour, and one of my favorite writers, or whether the gourmet dish of skiing & writing would be tasty and not outlast the wish to while away the time & emerge an unbroken reflection.


I am still thinking of the wind, sudden rage, emptiness of desire, having only a single desire not to be blown off the mountaintop.

I began to feel lost in unspoken language and couldn’t budge from the labyrinth becoming abyss beyond writing about Jens Magnussen & having to translate reality into nonfiction as fact of life.


Should I write about how he always walks with a thermos of mint tea.

Nothing like watching beautiful deer assemble for conversation and fending off damp and pugnacious cold creeping in between the lines of a forest sonnet.

I make a mental note to ask Jens when did he have his first mint tea, for, even as I struggle on the mountaintop, he is having a whale of a time, I’m sure, in one of Carnival’s greatest shows on earth in the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago.

Was it during his stay in Morocco?

That’s right. My mint tea habit started in Maroc in -72.


To begin to write about another writer is to stop writing.

We are pursued by the consciousness of reality, that same troll wind of creativity.

I am up in the mountains of Norway. Before setting out, Kasper said to me, “Where are you going?” I said not too far. He said, “Where? Just in case I have to send the Emergency to look for you.”

Not much beyond the bridge, I said.

I did plan to go beyond the bridge & uphill & then uphill & downhill & uphill & downhill into the forest & uphill & downhill & uphill & downhill & across the bridge & back to the ski cottage before beginning to write about Jens Olav Magnussen, Danish writer, poet, naturalist, flutist, artist, and friend, and one of my favorite classic, contemporary day2day writers in Copenhagen.

Writing about a writer who is a friend is a challenge as the writing is also in the living, the conduct of a life.

What I like about Jens Magnussen is he always walks with a poem, or other piece of writing, and is not pretentious. Poetry is second skin.

I have known him since 1995, or thereabouts, and his is a percolating mind, ever ready, ever present, infusive, defusive; uncluttered.

Always avoided writing about myself if possible, but I realize you need a bit of material, so here it is.

Born February 9th 1948. Grew up with mom, dad and two brothers (me in the middle) in the suburb Gentofte, north of Copenhagen.

Growing up, I was mostly influenced by my grandfather (morfar), who was a village school teacher and much respected lecturer on just about any topic people wanted to hear about, and my older brother, Lars, who turned me on to hippiedom, LSD, etc., and later became a fine poet himself in spite of devastating medication for a schizophrenia diagnosis. During puberty, horse riding every second day in Dyrehaven was my freedom away from family conflicts and the demands of school and pretty girls.

As cold water swims have raised my energy level generally, it has certainly had a positive effect on my writing & drawing too. I don’t try to describe my work; hope it speaks for itself. One way could be simply to say: I write and draw pictures on the walls of my prison cell.

My outlook on life right now: Go for it!

And off he went to the Carnival in Trinidad.

Hope there is something you can use.

A child of the forest.

Dyrehaven, dyr meaning animal, and haven, the garden, or park, lots of deer etc. Beauty.


I was with Magnussen recently when he tried counting the amount of time we had been out walking in the forest over the last 10 years of our lives. Certainly over 600 times, he said, because, to begin with, we had been doing it once a week. We have walked in Norway (Bergen), in Germany (Berlin), in Denmark (Copenhagen)...we’ve walked so many times that I have lost count; and the structure would be something like this: we would meet early afternoon at Østerport, several slingshots from KongensHave, the King’s Garden, in the middle of Copenhagen. We would take the regional train 10 minutes to Dyrehaven (Animalpark) and begin walking thru the forest, always different paths, and there is no better walking companion than Jens Olav Magnussen...because he grew up around these parts; and a few times we have walked thru the city of Copenhagen to Christiania, Denmark’s most boldly designed (socially) alternative city within the city and would visit the great Norwegian poet & painter, Laurie Grundt, resident there 40 years, and spend quality time at his home-atelier watching him paint murals of Scandinavian history & talk about language, art, politics & history; and then we would walk thru Copenhagen talking about literature & the making of literature, of words & books & writers, and how words do influence our lives and stimulate choices for the positive good.

The walk at times would be very cold. There would be ice & snow beneath our feet, and forest-tempered slush to hold us back; snow like wet kisses and on night-walks the moon streaming thru skeletal trees & we would hasten thru the walk and couldn’t sit on a forest bench or log for too long to enjoy a cup of mint tea, because Magnussen always brews a thermos of mint tea before leaving his home, and we would share this, since he always walks with an extra cup, and we would talk about everything under the sun in our hearts, especially literature & mythology & how to write without intending to write, particularly pure writing & dreaming and being witness, subject, object and complexity of other complexities of modern life haunted by the shadow of history.

So, for the longest while, this has been the routine: we walk, we talk, we sit (only once, if at all, during the walk) & talk & share mint tea (only once did he walk with coffee) & we walk again, and, at Klampenborg we part, he to his train & evening exercises at home and dinner & me down to Bellevue, the sea, for a swim, spring, summer, autumn, winter, without variation; and a little over a year ago (month) Can’t remember exactly, but I started in the autumn (September?) of 2010 (when the water was 4 or 5 above zero) he said I think I will join you for a swim today, and so he started swimming in the sea in Denmark which, the sea, for most people, is always cold; always beautiful.

Should I write about how he smokes a pipe?

He tells me how in Tobago a pipesmoking native put Jens’ tobacco to his nose and said, it smells like food. Which I found very amusing.

Anyhow, time for a walk tomorrow? Last chance to enjoy the flowers on the forest floor before the trees get leaves.

What is the significance of yr middle name?

Don’t think it has any.

Forgot: Mom’s name is BODIL LIVENTHAL (after the estonian, she married before Johan). Maiden name B. SKOVRUP. Morfars name HANS OLAV SKOVRUP, so that’s where my OLAV comes from.

MAGNUSSEN (I call him Jens to his face, I’ve never heard anyone call him Olav), Magnussen to some, Jens Magnussen to others, and Jens when others are in context).

I go for long walks in the forest, in the snow, and swim in the sea every day, and, where possible, under the ice; and lots of skiing, in Norway. I can’t believe I grew up with immortelle flowers, hibiscus, & poui in bloom, much like Magnussen’s,

Past confused
by tomorrow’s veil,
Now reduced
to fairytale
leaving me with yielding glee
trying to see what cannot be.


What I like particularly about Jens Magnussen is, he’s a reading poet, and altho he would publish here & there, scatteringly, when the occasion arises, his forte & style is writing the poem, at times one written that very day & reading it aloud to an audience, often a discerning one at that, and taking comments as they come without being upset or overcome by negatives or praise, and I like that very, very much about this poet who writes to live & lives to write and is not afraid to go in search of new ways of describing quite ordinary feelings and observations.

I look out the window of this ski cottage in Norway & all I see are white mountains.

I see one bird, standing out because of its patch of black feathers outlined against the white of its tail, the persistent snow reaching out beyond the mountain & downhill to even more sparkling staggering white against the sun blinding the eyes of poetry.

I am working on this one, he would say, and read it out to me, in Danish, or he would read me verses, or, seated on newspapers on a bench in the forest in the snow we would speak of language as living testimony to hardened invulnerability of the human spirit over the ages and drink that mint tea cooling itself immediately after meeting the breath of cold air climbing down from skeletal trees & shortening whatever verse that would have been longer in summer.

I started thinking of Magnussen again the day we put aside skis for snowboarding; and the following day almost seven hours on skis; such a lovely time; sparkling exhaustion over 25 kilometers; and, the following morning another view from the window, white snow, melting snow, that bird, skade it is called, more snow, patches of snow-burnt grass, grass-covered huts, snowroofs, skades in black & white.

1. What I admire most about Jens Magnussen is his openness to the classics, his understanding of the creative process, his rising beyond confused identity.

2. Jens is one of the most active reading poets in all of Scandinavia—perhaps anywhere in the world for that matter; and, a few years ago, took to reading & playing the flute, and now pursues professional study in the flute.

3. His work is open, fresh & inventive, trying/attempting to break out of the stranglehold of language, relying solely on what one wants to say, desiring nothing but the grace of simplicity. I am reminded of Samuel Beckett writing in French & having that translated into English. The struggle to make sense decomplicates utterance, the K.I.S.S. principle also applies (relights), keeping it simple & stupid with elegance, good writing thinking being, & on these walks we would talk about writing and how language in the forest is, how from season to season words & sentences change & punctuate into nature & leaves as words parachuting from a height of simplicity.

4. I recognized/realized one day Jens Magnussen was one of my favorite writers.

5. I realized too he was one of my favorite persons, favorite because of his danishness, his undanishness, his contemporaneity, his interest in the meaning of language, looking things up, constantly excavating feelings from unreality, edginess, quirkiness, and the love & attentive consideration for his mother who lives alone, and independently so, and he stays in touch, and makes it his business on certain days to be of use; now he is writing a book on the Carnival, on the inside-outside masquerade, in English/Danish, mixing the language according to his thoughts, bringing language closer to life, because this is how people live in Copenhagen where English-speaking movies & other programs are always subtitled, about 40 percent of the language is English derivative, where language penetrates the fog of modernity.

6. (to travel is to live, at rejse er at leve)

7. One counts oneself lucky when one has a favorite writer in a favorite person, favorite differing from person2person, a friend says all his favorite writers are dead; well, some of mine too; although several are quite robustly alive & kicking the jams.


These past days I’ve been writing & skiing, both inner & outer skiing, never look back, stay in the moment, stop glancing at the mountaintop & flashbacklistening to Jens Olav Magnussen as we tramp thru the forest & snow clad traces lit by the moon.

These oval eyes
behind square glasses
mock the geometry of expectation
Promises of cheeks
contradicted by sharp edges
under a sceptical brow
And he turns to her,
who just smiles
in gushes


Writing is magic. All magic tricks are difficult at the beginning.

1. Give me yr mom and dad’s full name, and some of their work history: Dad’s full name was Max Bernhard Georg Magnussen. Started his own wholesale business, Nordisk Tæppeimport, when I was small, and was soon very successful. Worth several million, when he died at the age of 58. I was 16. Mom is an educated nurse, but stayed at home after getting us. After dad died and we had left home she got into politics for Centrums Demokraterne and was MP for 3 years, 77-78-79.

2. What year were u married, and for how long? I was never married, but lived together with Adelheid Knaup (schoolteacher) for five years (70-75).

3. When did you begin the writing adventure, what triggered it, how early, etc. Began writing more focused about 84 inspired partly by Lars and my visits to Lyrikcafeen, partly as a reaction to a boring minimalism, where it was more important “not to use too many words” than to simply experiment freely with language & ideas.

4. I think you told me once u did some skiing. Only in Dyrehaven. Played a lot of badminton though.

5. How has yr trip to Trinidad affected yr outlook/inlook re the making of literature/art? Too early to tell, but it certainly has. A new feeling of self and endless possibilities. New sense of colours.

6. Is writing important to the making of the world? Well, yes. Of course if you are an important person and write important stuff. But the process of writing changes the individual and thus the world around him/her.

7. How many times do u think uve read in public in the past 15 years? More than 500 readings, I guess.

And so he went to bed now watching a tv documentary on Dickens’ secret love.


And that earlier-mentioned tragedy, I am up thinking of desire caught by the tail of the wind and made to pay the penalty for innocence: like these five skiers, four Swiss, one French, caught in the furious cat-spring of an avalanche; rescuers had detected signals from the skiers’ avalanche transceivers buried in the snow. The very day my wife Helga & I & our party are comfortably back in Copenhagen singing the song of survival & renewal, the very hour that Jens Olav Magnussen is diving into the silver foam of Pigeon Point Bay, Tobago. C’est la vie.

Then, surprise! after running into him on the train platform, I followed him to his house, spent an hour drinking mint tea & chatting & marveling about how different he seemed after the carnival & hot sea, well,

after you left I called Mom & apart from being happy to hear my voice & know all was well & I had such a fabulous time in Trinidad & Tobago, and your friends—Chris & Ronnie & Susanne & John Paul & Anthony & Raoul & all the rest of the social newness—had been so kind to me, she needed to talk about a good friend of hers, I know him well, who attempted suicide with a gun between his lips & managed to damage his jaw & wreck his teeth, but, thank God, is still alive.

One has to employ human touches.

I want to include that conversation on yr return with yr mom re the friend who tried to commit suicide. How old was he more or less, and can u retell the story.

It’s a terrible story. He is about your age, maybe a little older. As a child he was the one who found his father, who’d hung himself. His mother was an emotional vampire, manic-depressive and in and out of psychiatric wards. Totally dominated his life. But he was successful career wise. Made millions as an engineer. He tried to shoot himself with a shotgun through the mouth, crushing his jaw and gullet. Two bullets still in his brain. I never had any close relationship with him though, so I’m a little unsure of how relevant it is in an article about me. Will check the facts with Mom tonight, when I go to see her.

Jens, everything is everything, there being something in all things, and all the links related. Life is material. Be sure to let me know more after uve checked the facts with mom.

I feel greatly relieved at the moment, after waking up and seeing how well advanced I was in doing what I set out to do.

Just checked: I was wrong about the father. He found his mother trying to hang herself and had to cut her down. Mom is not sure about the engineer bit, but he was in a managing position in ØK (big Danish company operating mostly in the far east). She thinks that’s where he got his taste for strong alcohol and is (as is his sister) convinced he was totally drunk when he tried to blow his brains out. Also mentioned that he tried suicide by pills once before. Just to get attention, she says. I’m sure she would disapprove of this being used in an article about me, though, partly because that man meant nothing to me and only a little to Mom. But I’m sure you know what you’re doing, and maybe you can fit it in so it makes sense.

Yes, spring is here, I wonder why, birds everywhere, forest trees hauling on their underclothes, flowers licking their lips, human nature in bud, opening, smiling, reaching for the sun, and morning dew relieved to be no longer plundered by frost: a riot of joy: and ending is beginning.

And, by the way, you may mention that with Adelheid as illustrator I was the first to translate Tolkien’s short story, SMITH OF WOOTON MAJOR, into danish, later to be published in the weekly magazine CORSAREN. Sent a copy to Queen Margrethe, who sent me a letter of thanks. Back in 1977.

And today is today. Far from the maddening slope the wind rests, and so too the night worker.

—Translations from the Danish by Lennox Raphael and Jens Olav Magnussen

—Essay previously published in Asymptote (April 2012)

SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

Lennox Raphael

is at work on Naipaul’s Country, a novel of human transformation. His first play, Che!, ran in New York for thirteen months, followed by Blue Soap, a musical. A former staff writer for Manhattan’s East Village Other (EVO), he has been published in Evergreen Review and Harper’s Magazine (a cover-story interview with Ralph Ellison). His essay on the Haitian earthquake [“Sex, Haiti & Pure Writing,” SHJ Issue 1] was nominated as one of the best online essays in the U.S. (2010-2011).

Raphael is the author of five books of poetry and co-author of Garden of Hope, a memoir. In Copenhagen, he is associated with Des Arts, 2020 Visions DK, Artmoney, and Copenhagen Art Club, where he is art critic. With New York composer Carman Moore, he is in the early stages of developing Waiting for Obama, a musical; and one of his essays appears in Winter Tales: Men Write About Aging (Serving House Books, 2011), with works by Robert Gover, Norman Mailer, Mario Vargas Llosa, and others.

“...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