Review of With Deer by Aase Berg (Translated by Johannes Göransson)

With Deer
Aase Berg (Translated from Swedish by Johannes Göransson)
Black Ocean, 2008

Aase Berg’s poetry collection With Deer begins with the epigraph “For we all stand alone at the edge of the groaning chasm of Valpurgis.” Valpurgis is when Swedes celebrate the arrival of Spring on the night of April 30. It also includes older traditions of using fires for protection from animal predators and devil-worshipping witches. These elements are subtly suggested in Berg’s poems, and the core arc consists of predation, dismemberment, and strange metamorphoses of human with animal.

Berg has created a disturbing dystopia where nature and humans are mutilated. Also searingly present is the physical and psychic effect on nature and speaker. This is a world of shared pain and violence. The book opens with the short poem “Still,” here in its entirety, which gently anticipates the ensuing violence:

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.

Berg’s book chronicles this “night of nights” although there is no logical chronology. Her use of repetition in these mostly prose poems increases the despair inherent in such violent acts as guinea pigs swarming and finally “swallowing us with their pink flesh organs.” Berg does manage to sneak humor into this bleakness, as in the poem “In the Heart of the Guinea Pig Darkness” and its obvious play on Heart of Darkness.

Berg, a member of the Surrealist Group of Stockholm, creates a convincing nightmarish world. The sections that divide the book penetrate further and further into a world of animal and human violence, with such titles as “Flesh-Shedding Time,” “Seal-Bound,” which includes the poem “Seal Mutilation,” and another section entitled “Organ.” But nature in this book is not only acted upon—nature is not innocent.

For example, “In the Horrifying Land of Clay” begins with the line “There was an evil horse that galloped along the evil river in the horrifying land of clay.” The unidentified speaker of these poems does not simply separate herself from the action and judge this world. She rides this evil horse—“I was on top”—and the poem ends “There was an evil horse that galloped through the horrifying land, an evil dark horse with manhood and musculature, and I was thrilled to have him as my enemy.” Violence and sex are closely connected in this world. Berg’s repetition of the evil horse galloping throughout the poem creates a sense of impending fear, yet the thrill of the speaker realistically suggests astonishing emotional range: fear, exhilaration, despair, and hope can coexist successfully in one poem.

The most difficult section for me was “Organ.” The intensity of the mutilation of nature and its pain made for uncomfortable reading. In “Wroth Snakewrought” for example, one of the few stanzaic poems in the book, “snakes lay hacked-apart / hacked snakes twitch // severed snakes cramping crooked” certainly describes the agony of dismemberment. Yet this poem turns at the end, as “Far away in the road the snake seed are fermenting.” Out of dismemberment comes reproduction. Berg does, however, allow shards of beauty to invite us further along into this troubled world. In “Mass,” another stanzaic poem, the speaker enters into a river, and has an intimate encounter with nature:

Now I move into the river
now the river moves through me

Now I move into the kiss
the thick dark muscle
now the muscle touches the mass
now a star of coal
sinks through me

The last section, “September of Glass,” finds this peculiar landscape at its most vulnerable. Now the speaker “allowed myself to be touched” (“I Walked Out in the North”) and carries the responsibility of nature literally in her hands. In “Deer Quake,” the speaker has “fastened my fibers to the dancing, severe deer.” Nature is still threatened, though, as it is a “treacherous time.” Finally, the last poem, “Logging Time,” suggests a mending of sorts as the last line tells us “Now it is time for the cutting to slowly start to heal.”

Berg’s poems reminded me of Oni Buchanan’s What Animal, whose poem “The Guinea Pig and the Green Balloon” could almost be the day’s prequel to Berg’s night of nights. For readers interested in exploring Swedish poetry, Berg’s strange and powerful poetry will surely ensnare and captivate.

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