With Deer by Aase Berg, translated by Johannes Göransson
(Black Ocean Press, Boston, New York, Chicago, 2008)
OUT THERE IN THE HEART OF DARKNESS GENES ARE BURSTING: AASE BERG’S WITH DEER
For those familiar with Aase Berg's work, the fact that the cover of the English translation of her first book, With Deer (Hos rådjur, published in Sweden in 1996), centers the title and a pair of black antlers against a saturated hunter orange should resonate as an apt emblem of the zone through which Berg's poetry proliferates. Here is a warning from the very outset: Berg’s territory is a dangerous one, a morphologically unsound terrain in which roles and actions contradict, conflate, gestate, and transform. Wear a safety jacket.
Divided into six sections, the book begins with the descent of “In The Guinea Pig Cave,” and continues to move through a series of confrontations—ontological, biological, temporal—in “Flesh-Shedding Time,” “Seal-Bound,” “Organ,” “Inside the Deer” and “September Glass.” As translated by Johannes Göransson, the language spreads like an unquantifiable contagion, continually readapting to defy the hostile environs of a literal mind that would demand word and image work to merely work towards clarification and reification. “The perverse nature continued to take place,” begins “The Snail Ancestry.” There is a merciless conditional logic ruling With Deer: inclusion means submission to violent transformations. The processes that effect those changes include everything from mastication to putrefaction and it seems as if one of the governing precepts of With Deer is the constant reversion of the substantial and solid to the spectral and liquid.
To quote out of context of the whole seems a sort dismemberment of the entire bodies of the poems. Many of these pieces are prose poems, a formal choice that contributes to an overriding sense of claustrophobia and circular inevitability. Visually this is communicated by labyrinthine lines without breaks, as well as the interdependent logic of a prosaic sentence which, in Berg and Göransson’s hands, accretes into a litany of body parts and burned out habitats. What I am interested in here, however, is the way in which her Berg’s poems steadily trade the body as a whole for the body in pieces and back again. This segmentation emerges through the recurrent violence engaged by both syntax and subject. Berg consistently employs prepositions, pronouns, transitive verbs and stock characters to create lyrical or conceptual liaisons between lines that resolve themselves through the logic of grammar and the ideas each part signifies. Despite the gorgeously sustained devastation, With Deer still retains shadows of structural tissue that points to some sort of retention of humanity, if only the ability articulate that devastation, a linguistic heap containing
“contorted bodies” “sludge of afterbirth” “fermented thigh”
“fishes floated up” “harrowed leather body” “slop flesh”
To survey the processes through which this happens is to be caught in a swirl of
“rotting acids” “tar” “marsh gas and diarrheas”
“soul fluid” “magma” “hideous lymph”
“corpse juices” “oil” “syphilis plasma”
For Berg, change is often catalogued as the liquefaction of the rigid architecture of skeletal structures. The relative dissolution of the concrete and easily apprehended is a part of the brutality in Berg’s work, a particularly physicalized trauma that finds its poetic representatives in bodies dismembered, bodies disfigured, bodies consumed, bodies disintegrating, and bodies that have entirely disappeared. The poetry is less about the unadulterated image of what has been lost―memory is not reverie here―than about the interminable pain that attends rot and renewal. This is poetry comprised of gangrenous and phantom limbs, containing the sense that all growth involves contamination or that there was something attached once, below the site of amputation.
Berg’s precise use of poetic tropes—similes, metaphors, metonymy—does not indicate comparative relationships as much as they function as junctions that merge remarkably disjunctive images, establishing interconnections that abolish the comparative and figurative and replace it with a membranous net:
from “In The Guinea Pig Cave”
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.
from “Deer Fabric”
The deer fabric is thin. I carry it cautiously as if it were a cloud in my hands. But the heart moans from inside, so loudly, and my lungs squeak.
In Berg’s poetry, there are no fixed images or agents to calm the tumult. The figurative does not work to establish an easily discernible system of aesthetic correlations, but, instead, functions as a machine of mutation, almost always indicating a radical shift in the entire reality of the poem. It is an extraordinarily subtle way of unsettling and effacing the concept of subjectivity by vacillating between a. /the formal categories of the figurative and literal and b. / the ideological concepts of subject and object.
The formal challenge of subject and object are less dialectically opposed than they are ambiguous and continually changing points on a continuum. Along those lines, Berg dissolves the lines that delineate human from animal, victim from perpetrator, and the concrete from the imaginary in an atmosphere of unremitting violence.
from “Song Lake”
She lies with her legs bent across the rock at an awkward angle, and something moves, pokes out of her half-opened mouth like a stump of fat, or a tongue or an intestine. It grows longer and slimier and thick as a sturgeon - it is the venomous moray that is pressing out; the venomous moray with its sharp, horrible eyes. It has made a nest in there behind the crown of teeth on the bottom of the skull in the white cave of the cranium.
Berg's work serves as a reminder that all mutations are not the same, that each change demands a corresponding force that often turns the body, mind, or landscape into site of pain or atrocity: “in itches, in nightmares, in agony, in constant aches, in flesh that rubbed against flesh and rotted.” The effect is the creation of an entire network of vital linkages just recognizable enough to evoke panic at the inability to exactly discern the every urgent signal. I have the sense of these being warning signs from the real world—the one that lies beneath the husks of order and efficiency in the workaday world—fecund and writhing.
Gabriel Lovatt writes, researches, and teaches at the University of Georgia, where she is working on her Ph.D.