With Deer by Aase Berg, Translated by Johannes Göransson
(Black Ocean, 2009)
With Deer begins with the statement:
FOR WE ALL STAND AT THE EDGE OF THE GROANING CHASM OF VALPURGIS.
I looked into Valpurgis. I read articles that described it as a celebration that Swedes participate in on April 30th, Valpurgis Night. There is a bonfire. There is wild animal dancing and pagan feasts and festivities that tie into pre-Christian spring fertility rites. Swedes come out in droves to celebrate spring, to say goodbye to the cold winter and welcome the return of the sun and with that hope. What I found in Göransson’s luminous translation of With Deer is a much deeper sense of endings and beginning. These poems feel like an entire burgeoning, surrealistic, post-apocalyptic creation of a planet and that planet’s inhabitants, that starts at the bottom of a tarn or tjärnes, a small lake thick with vegetation. The first section of With Deer is titled IN THE GUINEA PIG CAVE.
His fingers search the bottom of the tarn for the water lily’s black vein. Still the love beast breathes. Still he suckles the fox sore on my weak wrist. In the distance the wind is slowly dying; the night of nights is coming. But still the fetus lily rests untouched. And still his fingers search the bottom of the tarn for the water lily’s black vein.
Who is he?
It is glowing green here – the light, drops, flutters, reflections, slits of light and lightness in the trembling foliage.
It seems he is living in the water. Water is the beginning of everything and the beginning of this place of carnage and weird growth. There is glowing, there are snakes. It’s dangerous, but full of light, light as seen from under water. Berg’s language is gentle and cruel. She doesn’t pull her punches. The snake has human eyes, ah, are we in a kind of Eden then? He follows the deer’s movement with a calm gaze. There is no earthly form here, but there is a kind of cannibalism, the love beast suckles the fox sore.
Soon the ray will burst out of the branch. Soon the membrane the poison will erupt. Soon the eye juices will run across the wooden face, while the grass is ground into seed flour in the deer jaws. 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.
The next poem, IN THE GUINEA PIG CAVE, is a painting, a grotesquery, an assemblage of meat and viscous fluids. These are the ingredients of a primordial soup. There is a pregnant sister and there are guinea pigs and they waited with blood around their mouths like my sister. The guinea pigs wait with her, are perhaps bizarre midwives. The last three lines of this poem could be describing gestation, the body growing, though with what monstrous child?
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.
In the poem, IN THE HORRIFYING LAND OF CLAY, humanity seems to make its first obvious appearance with the muscles of my taut inner thighs, and, the flaccid landscape. Later in the poem, a dark horse makes an appearance, as well as manhood and musculature, and I was thrilled to have him as my enemy. I have no doubt that Berg has a terrific sense of humor and pulls our collective leg in this book as well as pulling it completely off and gnawing on it for breakfast. The language of the poem changes here, becomes almost that of a good old fashioned bodice ripper what with the multiple mention of muscles and the horse (however evil) galloping and dynamic and furrows of plowed soil (yikes) and barren plots (double-yikes), and yet the sister swells in spite of the barren plots. Hmm. The poem ends with I was thrilled to have him as my enemy. It’s hard not to read this thrill as sexual. It seems out of place right after the weirdness of The Guinea Pig Cave, but then again, I read this entire book as a genesis, and the title of this poem lends depth to the bits of purple prose. Horrifying being the key word. Almost a polite way to describe a violent sexual act.
The second section of With Deer is titled FLESH-SHEDDING TIME. Wow! No beating around the bush there. We are going in and we’re going in alone and we’re going in naked and more than a bit afraid and without a flashlight. There is a woman-beast in the first poem of this section, FOX, that made me want to stay up after I’d read it and watch a light hearted romantic comedy like Sleepless in Seattle or Videodrome, so I could sleep.
We sat at opposite ends of the table. Riffraff was all around us. The whites of his eyes glittered. A sexwoman caught, with a desperate hunger, his surgeon’s gaze. That night he would tear his hands through her fleshy matter, her teats and sloppy skinfolds.
This reads like a pre-formed sexwoman to me. The flesh is there, the blueprint is there, the tools to bind and bend and accelerate human growth are there, but we are still in the mess of creation. The sexwoman is coming to terms with an actual body.
I had an ache in my vulva. The monstrosity wound itself around the intestines, gnawed lightly on the frail surface of the belly bladder with its small nip-teeth, and wanted out.
These sound like parts waiting or wanting to be whole. The thought of whole is there but it has yet to reveal itself in completion.
I downed another glass – there lay the monstrosity finally anesthetized on the bottom of the creek. Then we waited for weeks that never came, while the ages rolled their cogwheels over our heads.
I could feel my brain scream out for mental activity, but the intestines were up to my throat and it was impossible to concentrate in the heat.
He smelled of snail acid, the white of his eyes glittered. He took out the nice, long staff; the nice, long staff of glass. It had a little prong at the tip, a little fiber beak. Then I relaxed. The booze abated; the monstrosity grew still. I smiled into the pillow, and maybe waited for the final drubbing.
It’s interesting to me how, in the last part of this poem, Berg’s language becomes almost contemporary. A door opens, so there is home, a house. There is sky and a doll and nose bleeds and booze and relaxing. But not too much relaxing. We’re not all the way human. Not yet.
In the poem THE GRISTLE DAY, there is a lot of blood. Thick blood. Berg writes, We are born out of sewers, out of horrifying dough beyond good and evil. There’s that Eden again. Lots of blood in this poem. Placenta, holes, screaming, embryo and eggshell. Your basic birthing. If you are birthing a planet or a new kind of human. The placenta shows up in the next poem, FOX HEART, and this poem brings even more of the earth-heave.
The belly bottom beats offended; the coral bulges. Slowly puked-up, the sludge of the afterbirth waits; I have to tear this sinewy sinew from its hold. Now the mouth once again seeks your blue and bitter mouth. The last fox is corroded to foam and rot.
I love foam and rot and was thrilled to read them. I love Berg’s insistence on pushing us further and further into her imagined and wild and deadly new world. The next poem, THE RED KISS, brings us back to the primordial soup of the tjärnes with Corals hide fat and skin. Her lips seek the surface to be saved by oxygen. We are saved. The idea of a new planet is reinforced with the poem, MASTIFF, in which we walk blinded toward the still-smoking planet that lies torn and crushed near the ruined wall on the outskirts of the city. In death there is birth, the cycles, but unpredictable here and terrifying and wobbly.
After this, the poems take on a more human, but still extraordinary feel. There is a push toward human, toward kisses and moans and brown skies. Perverse nature continues to take place. There is new life and the industrial era is ushered in with diesel fumes. People and animals morph to create new species as the old withers and sinks.
The last section of the book is titled, ORGAN. The tjärnes becomes, finally, a sea with strong black waves.
The chafe sorrow carves; hard black waves are heard. The people erect the heavy wall out of broken hungerstones. That is how the hoard builds a wall against the approaching darkness while the wait rolls its mills against the wall. Angrily the wait scrapes against the wall: strong black waves are coming and breaking.
After CROWD, the poems take on a more pedestrian tone. The form changes from all prose poems to some poems with stanzas. This change feels a bit awkward so far into the book. There are horses, and licking and stones and lungs. There are some exquisite passages indeed, Out there in the heart of darkness genes are bursting, and, Harpy in the mouth of wood screams hard against the bulging veins, but traveling to the end of this lush and extraordinary tale brings less than I had hoped for.
The last section, INSIDE THE DEER, begins with a haiku, SHARD, which feels like it was written for a different book, then Berg includes a poem about doll parts as body parts, puppy snow, sly girl arms. Maybe it’s because doll poems are so pervasive with 30 and under artists trying to make shocking statements. Perhaps when Berg originally wrote the poem, this symbol was not as ubiquitous as it is now. The poem DOLL DOLL ends with the line, And I stand with my clotted heart and suck on the pearl necklace, almost a disappointment when compared to a line from an earlier poem, We are born out of sewers, out of horrifying dough. Berg redeems herself with a return to the original mystifying and terrifying language of the largest sections of the book with the end poem LOGGING TIME.
One can hear whimpers and hunting games in the hunger moss. The wax girl rubs her sensor prong against the tight skin of the large scar. Moles loosen, the fox tree glows red. Now it is time for the cutting to slowly start to heal.
With Deer is a ride through a rare forest, indeed, and Göransson’s sensitive and thoughtful translation is a delight. Would I buy this book for a friend? Oh yes, absolutely, and I will, and for my enemies as well.
(Note: The italicized statements above are all drawn from With Deer.)
Rebecca Loudon is the author of Tarantella and Radish King (from Ravenna Press), and Navigate, Amelia Earhart’s Letters Home and Cadaver Dogs, both from No Tell Books.