Two Self-Portraits



Illustration by Na Kim


Self-Portrait 1

I cannot:
pull off a hat
wear jewelry
arrange flowers
remember appointments
send thank-you cards
leave the right tip
keep a man
feign interest
at parent-teacher conferences.

I cannot
eating chocolate
stealing umbrellas
forgetting to remember
and to clean my nails.
Telling people what they want to hear
spilling secrets
strange places
and psychopaths.

I can:
be alone
do the dishes
read books
form sentences
and be happy
without feeling guilty.


Self-Portrait 5

I once stood
and waited
by BT-Centralen
for someone who never came.
I loved him.
My youth
fell away
in flakes.
I pretended to be
eagerly reading
the news ticker and
personally affected
by the report of
Gustaf Munch-Petersen’s death
in the Spanish Civil War.

didn’t he come?
I shouldn’t have
denied him
my pesky virginity.
My friend told me
you can tell
by a girl’s eyes
whether she still has it
or not.

An old lady
stood next me
under an open umbrella.
The skin on her neck
looked like a turkey’s.
I wished I
were her
because she
was nearer death.

All my life I’ll remember
her face
all my life I’ll remember
Gustaf Munch-Petersen’s
and envy him his fate.

In the bookstore’s window stood
And Now We Await a Ship
by Marcus Lauesen.
I never got around to reading it
I think of it
each time I pass by
a girl in a miniskirt
is pretending to be
deeply engrossed
in the news ticker’s flickering
words about Vietnam
Biafra and the student protests.

For a moment she looks
at me
and envies me
because I am nearer death.
She will never forget
my face.


Translated from the Danish by Jennifer Russell and Sophia Hersi Smith.

Tove Ditlevsen (1917—1976) was a Danish poet, fiction writer, and essayist. Four more of her poems, about divorce, appear in the Winter issue of The Paris Review, no. 238.

Jennifer Russell and Sophia Hersi Smith live in Copenhagen. Their cotranslation of All the Birds in the Sky by Rakel Haslund-Gjerrild was awarded the American-Scandinavian Foundation’s 2020 Translation Prize. They are currently translating My Work by Olga Ravn.