I tend to prefer poetry when it holds its head up, taking in the world and responding, alert to beauty and change and able to talk about it in a more or less recognizably adult way. Since almost everything in the universe conspires against these qualities, and since it is impossible to live without poetry, I read a lot of poetry written with its head down, eyes closed, internal logic proudly untainted by common sense. Some of it is, within these limits, desperately good. With Deer, the first collection by the young Swedish poet, Aase Berg, as translated by the young Swedish-American poet, Johannes Gorannson, is one such book.
There lay the guinea pigs. There lay the guinea pigs and they waited with blood around their mouths like my sister. There lay the guinea pigs and they smelled bad in the cave. There lay my sister and she swelled and ached and throbbed. There lay the guinea pigs and they ached all over and their legs stuck straight up like beetles and they looked depraved and were blue under their eyes as from months of debauchery.
Before you ask what in God’s name is happening, note the anaphora and the beautifully managed variation in the length of the sentences. And again, before putting together the complete picture of the scene, take in the physical details (“legs stuck straight up like beetles,” “blue under their eyes,” “blood around their mouths,” “they smelled bad,” “swelled and ached and throbbed”) and pause to admire the cinematic widening of the lens. Each sentence is a shot, connected closely enough to the one before to ground the reader in the scene, while just incrementally different enough to boil the reader alive without causing alarm. Like Bjork, or Werner Herzog, Berg is infatuated with the intense perversity of the world, will and representation, and like them, Berg knows to make her case as beautiful and wild as possible. Berg is especially good at giving her bizarre fantasies a polish more often associated with ordinary sadistic blandness.
There lay the guinea pigs and ached and were made of dough. There lay the guinea pigs beside the knives that would slice them up like loaves. And my sister with lips of blueberries, soil and mush. In the distance, the siren bleated inhumanly. That is where the guinea pigs lay and waited with blood around their mouths and contorted bodies. They waited. And I was tired in my whole stomach from meat dough and guinea pig loaf and I knew that they would take revenge on me.
I’m taken in here by the lullaby repetitions, the drowsy (wounded) repose that if I’ve seen before it was through a peephole in a museum in Philadelphia, Duchamp’s Étant Donnés. This restrained presentation of provocative material feels completely convincing to me, as does the strange plasticity of the guinea pigs, and the mounting creeping creepy feeling. (If you’ve ever stood near an overpopulated guinea pig hutch, the sound is the one thing missing from Berg’s description—an almost electronic oodling, like water rushing back through loosely stacked stones—otherwise she nails it.)
Not every piece here requires of the reader a headlong acceptance of the grotesque, though there is a baseline post-psychological sense that anyone’s and everything’s existence is always on the threshold of some crazed appetite disorder. I don’t subscribe to that particular anxiety, though I do admire how Berg makes art out of it. A snake stalking a deer, the pain of the grass the deer chews, a terrible and evil horse one poem’s speaker is delighted to have as an enemy—this profound identification with power and will and their obverse helplessness is thrilling to behold, even at its silliest:
The substances are fermenting, throats are corroding and bubbling, things are rumbling and crumbling behind us. Adrian carries the copper snake patiently cautiously in the muddy palms of his hands. Out of a slit in the wool glows pink flesh. But we walk blinded toward the still-smoking planet that lies torn and crushed near the ruined wall on the outskirts of the city.
With all those snakes and slits, no wonder the planet is smoking.
Restraint is one of those code words in American criticism that needs to be reclaimed from the debris of past poetry wars; where restraint is lacking, no amount of gorgeous weirdness saves these poems. Unfortunately, there’s no way to quantify or codify what exactly constitutes restraint, and it may prove to be a fatally subjective quality. Nevertheless, I see restraint in Berg’s poems that allude to wasp-parasite infestations as “liplarvae,” in scenes of morbidity where lyricism and the clinical meet in blue flesh, where if there is puking going on, it happens calmly and indifferently. I see less restraint, or none, in her scenes of gathering severed limbs (even those of dolls), in screams and descriptions of explosions, in lines that in their plainness and anger come too close to ordinary raving: “We are born out of sewers, out of horrifying dough beyond good and evil. It smells like ghosts, it smells of slop flesh, it smells of placenta and uranium.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but speak for yourself.
For many readers, this will be a distinction too far. The goth glory will either be the rallying cry or the cue to avoid. This is a shame, because in much of her early work Berg is capable of intense compressions of feeling not seen in nature writing since D.H. Lawrence. These feelings are generally of the head-down dark warmth variety, as of guinea pig caves and terrifying horses, but occasionally they come out into the light, as in this rare completely successful short poem:
Where one by one you turned my faces up
toward the sun’s surface
and drank them like deer water.
While I know almost no Swedish, the en face presentation here encourages me to believe that Gorannson is a competent translator; his edition of the poems of Henry Parland has a similar clarity and brio. With Deer is Gorannson’s second take on the Berg opus; Remainland, a selection from four books, appeared in 2005 from Action Books, a press run he runs with his wife, former Constant Critic Joyelle McSweeney. Judging from the contents of Remainland, someone ought to commission Gorannson to translate the rest of Berg’s second collection, Dark Matter, in which the prose poems shift from nature goth to sci-fi goth, while someone else ought to visit Berg and encourage her to leave off the unsatisfying lyrics of her two more recent collections (“Aerodrome,” copied here in its entirety, is typical: “High traffic / Plane on plane / forced flight / cockviolent”) and try prose again.