by Aase Berg (translation by Johannes Göransson)
Black Ocean 2009
Reviewed by Rick Marlatt
Gnawing Intellectual Animals
Swedish poet, author and literary critic Aase Berg has risen to the upper tiers of her native country’s contemporary poetry and surrealist art worlds. She has published five full-length collections and throngs of innovative fiction, as well as writings on surrealism, popular culture and artistic theory. Her first book, Hos rådjur (With Deer), was initially published in Sweden by Bonnier in 1996; a new translation by Johannes Göransson, Berg’s first into English, was released last month by Black Ocean.
With a few exceptions, Berg’s poetry is composed in prose-block formatting with which she attempts holistic movements and interpretations through repeated words, forms and sounds. The result is a book-long, desentisizing plunge into the “water bottoms” of the underworld, a place she knows all too well. With Deer allows English readers to witness firsthand the impetus of a brilliant career while validating the tremendous praise Berg has garnered and so clearly deserves. Operating thematically social taboos such as witchcraft, cannibalism, and necrophilia, Berg’s poems comprise six sections of nightmarish fugues narrated by characters with distorted consciousnesses and reflected in settings that celebrate the brutality of nature.
In the first section, “In the Guinea Pig Cave,” Berg snatches at the “black vein” of consciousness; the opener, “Still,” pulls us into her cavernous world. We are forced to be still and to focus on the repetition of lines in pieces like “Water Bottoms,” where Berg works cyclically with birth, life and decay, portraying these processes through the lens of a forest marsh scene. After setting up the environment with roots, trunks, snakes, water, and insects, Berg employs language that is haunting and fresh:
The sweet stalk will bend backwards toward the pain.
And here a feather moves toward the river surface, as she who
loves water sinks back through the bottoms of light.
Though her fluency in biologic vernacular is impressive, Berg’s narration is not the voice of a scientist, nor is it merely an objective portrayal of nature’s dark side. The final two poems describe a visceral attraction not only to human corpses, but to animal remains. Berg expounds on a peculiar spiritual fulfillment in a wicked form of transubstantiation, yet she is never quite disgusting, never shocks for the sake of shock; she is instead surreal, mystical and otherwordly, channeling a voice that is not quite human, each description perfectly articulated, each image stamped with the clear and memorable print of a true poet.
“Fox” initiates the second section (brutally titled “Flesh-Shedding Time”) and is one of the first narrative poems in the collection. In a beautiful conglomeration of emotion, animal paramour Berg presents the violent imagery of animal mutilation as the initial stimuli, and she responds with a calculated and detailed human fluid secretion. The repetition of particular words and phrases such as “monstrosity” is particularly powerful, especially when we consider that it is the male human being referred to amidst this plethora of external grotesqueness. With Berg, all emotions, expressions, and memories are expressed not through conventional explanation and nuance, but through poetically-direct descriptions of anatomical functions and processes.
As our poet moves more overtly into the realm of sexuality in pieces such as “Gristle Day,” she provides a chilling account of a squirrel’s demise; an unspeakable ecstasy in the animal’s death culminates when “the squirrel screams.” This practically orgasmic catharsis—extreme, unspeakable—isn’t unlike the conclusions of many of her sensually explicit pieces such as “The Red Kiss,” “Mass” and “Mastiff.” “Fox Heart” is a playful allegory in which she redefines the processes of stimulation, erection, fellatio, ejaculation, and as always with Berg, the aftermath. These poems reiterate her fascination with the unsightly, unsanctioned desires of humanity. She not only reveals them for our inspection, she screams them out, obliterating the masks they hide behind, peeling up rocks, shoveling aside brush, digging deeper, showing us what we are, at our core, intellectual animals.
Section III, “Seal Bound,” evolves into dream sequences in which the poet is inspired by palpable tragedy to express orchestrations of hallucinatory removal. Berg utilizes recurring phrases and images with great effectiveness, expounding on various interpretations of the ideas of flesh, dough, heat, and blood. Indeed, these are not only the primary components in the world Berg creates, they are the tools Berg uses to whittle away at our perceptions of reality.
In “Seal Mutilation” (more ironic than brutal), the naturally occurring processes of birth, feeding, living, and dying are severely distorted, while the sentences themselves are distorted. There is feeding through vomiting, living through decaying, drought through rain, and birth through death, as exemplified in pictures like: “miscarriage river.”
“Breast Horses” anchors the fourth section of With Deer and includes great emphasis on lungs, breasts, and eyes, particularly, the eyes of the other character in the poem, an image which is repeated to conclude each line. Berg employs electrifying grammar in which adjectives interchange with nouns and replace one another throughout. Her composition maneuvers itself in a highly tense, tightly-spun structure.
“Harpy” and “Wroth Snakewrought” round out this section and serve as great examples of why its far more constructive to talk about the sounds and feelings created in Berg’s syntax and diction than it is to dwell on the multiplicity of metaphorical implications in her poetry. Berg is unique and exploratory. In these poems, particularly in the final stanzas, we get an amazing musicality which taps outward from the darkness, a dream-like echoing that is distant and beautiful (a musicality maintained with apparent ease by translator Göransson). Berg (and Göransson) spin sounds fiddlers, creating a riddle-like, nursery rhyme effect which culminates with multiplication and constant perversion of patterns in the natural world.
Section V, “Inside the Deer,” includes ghostly renditions such as “Shard,” “Deep Inside the Rock” and “Doll Doll” in which our poet portrays a post-apocalyptic environment perfect for the passionate contemplation of her simultaneous, combative roles of passive observer and active healer. In “Jam,” she returns to her fascination with the paradoxes of feeding through killing, discharge through intake, and living through dying. In a meaningful conclusion, the animals get revenge on their human tormentors as the asp bites the speaker, and she overboils a dragon fly. Yes? Yes.
“Song Lake” contains beautiful language while conveying stark scenes of decay. The poetry is so majestically musical, the reader has no choice but to give in to Berg’s eloquence and become completely entranced:
She lies leaned back across the stone at a strange angle, as if her
backbone was broken. The white bones glimmer through the
veil of water, and at times there is glittering from glass shrimp
and mantle animals, from the scales of mother-of-pearl fish.
By this point in the text, we have been sufficiently exposed to the shock of Berg’s subject matter (the broken backbone is a clean, almost pedestrian description, not shocking or frightening), and the revolving images of life and decay that she portrays are no longer alarming, but are indescribably moving and memorable. Appropriately, Berg concludes the poem with the lasting image of an “almost inhuman smile.”
“Iron-healed” begins the final section, “September of Glass.” This poem represents the closest Berg comes to a shift in tone, expressing a kind of a prayer that acknowledges the brevity and shortsightedness of physical reality and asks for a release of pain brought on by difficult choices in human integration. “I Walked Out in the North” continues this progression towards self-examination. It concludes, “I walked out in the North / toward the torment, followed by the heavy fragrance through / midnight. And there even I at last, dark with sap, allowed / myself to be touched.”
While the book’s last installment is comfortably occupied by the delightfully horrific perversity that oozes from the lines in the previous poems with pieces such as “The Hypotenuse” and “We Thread up Lizards,” a genuine attempt at forgiveness for humanity on the part of the poet cannot be overlooked. In the final work of the collection, “Logging Time,” Berg juxtaposes the need to survive and the need to destroy before concluding her meditation with hopefulness:
Now it is time for the cutting
to slowly start to heal.
Alone, the words are plain. In context, they are a gut-punch. If one attempts to find meaning by reducing the world and its things to their impenetrable cores, one finds patterns, even beauty; there is, then, an indelible contrast between dissection and mutilation, between curiosity and fury, between fusion and separation.
Berg’s poems are equivocal in meaning and evasive in interpretation. They generate tremendous discussion and stirring within the reader: something ancient about the human intellect, something integral to our desire and need for poetry, or the process of describing and detailing surreal emotions and strains of the human existence that result from angst and brutality. This is what Berg does best, and she accomplishes this by detaching herself from predictable human intellect. Her voice is a hybrid of biologist, tribal woman and philosopher-poet, while her poems are dreamy, hallucinatory and ever-moving. Berg’s work gnaws slowly at the surface of the psyche, opening it up to a sublime rarely experienced in post-post-modern literature. Goransson’s translation is both clever and transparent, Berg’s images are rapturous and With Deer is a harrowing symphony.