This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview with Johannes Göransson is his translation of Aase Berg’s Remainland (Action Books, 2005).
H.L. Hix: Would it be in the spirit of your concluding observation in the “Translator’s Note” (that Berg “shows how every language may be foreign, even to its native speakers” [ix]) to take as one example of such a made-foreign language the ending of “In Dovre Slate Mill” when the speaker’s “stiff hands cupped around the surface of your black cranium” (21), a kind of translation of a gesture of love into a foreign language?
Johannes Göransson: What I mean in a very general sense is the way Berg amplifies certain features of the Swedish language—the brutal consonants, the awkward sentence structures, the neologisms, the violent and physical phrases—to a degree that makes me feel the way a foreigner might feel trying to learn Swedish. As I point out in the intro, there are so many weird neologisms that I begin to read regular compound words (such as spackhuggare, killer whale) as strange neologisms (spack = blubber, huggare = biter, thus “blubber biter” in my translation). Or the way her odd phrases makes me see how strange regular idioms are. For example, in Uppland she uses the phrase halla sig i skinnet, which means “calm down” (what you say to an unruly kid), but with strange variations of it calls attention to the literal meaning, “hold on to you skin” (she uses variations of this throughout).
HH: Things seem overwhelmingly slimy and mushy and wet and warm until “Glass Deer” (31), in which suddenly all is brittle and crystalline and cold. How do you (how might I) take that sudden change?
JG: Remainland is a selection of poetry spanning four books. (Berg has since then published yet another.) “Glass Deer” is in addition part of Dark Matter, a long book-length gothic/sci-fi work that cannibalizes a variety of source texts, ranging from Harry Martinsson’s 1950s national sci-fi epic Aniara to the 1970s slasher movie Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Both the “overwhelmingly slimy and mushy” aspect and this cannibalism I think pertains to your question.
To begin with, I think of Berg’s early work as having a kind of poetics of exhaustion. A lot of the source texts as well as the “action” (I wouldn’t call it plot because though things happen there is not a strong sense of causality) have to do with images of the denaturalized body which are driven over the top into a state of exhaustion (or to use Bataille’s word, expenditure). If there’s an arc, then that’s the arc: from excess to exhaustion. When the “dark matter” is exhausted what is left is a perhaps more bony, clearer, line-based poem. In the Swedish these are also very sing-songy or lullabye-esque.
I should mention too that I think one text Dark Matter cannibalizes is Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.” Berg picks up on the way Plath uses excessive cinematic montage to bring about a state of exhaustion (when you can just imagine eating men like air). In “Dark Matter” there is an extensive imagining of getting the snail out of the shell (I rocked shut as a seashell) in order to “pull the plug” on the whole machinery. So, Death is certainly one answer to that question.
Another answer can be seen in Remainland in the move toward this kind of sing-songy lullabye-esque lyric in the next two books, Forsla Fett and Uppland. The “mushy” (or as Berg calls it in a few interviews, “fat”) poetry is replaced by a more aural, less imagistically based writing.
In the overall arc of her career, this change can be said to signify a number of changes. She got pregnant (thus had to change her lifestyle), she severed herself from the politically radical Stockholm Surrealist Group, and a bunch of other stuff.
As in Dark Matter, this book uses various source texts—notably Solaris instead of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, string theory instead of biological and anatomical science. In addition, Berg purposely (mis-) translated the string theory articles from English into Swedish, creating many of the very ambiguous, multi-vectored repetends (strings/cords, vibrations, etc.). It’s in many ways the fusion of abstract science and grotesque maternal body (the meaning of “strings” for example is very ambiguous in this regard).
On the whole then this to me seems like a very deathy, exhausted book. That’s in large part what makes it so beautiful. But it’s also a poem about the maternal body and—unexpectedly perhaps—“love.”
Uppland takes this lullabye mode in a different direction with its often infantilistic language (mixed with “cockviolence”).
HH: The “whisper” on p. 71, “Mustn’t think we are something / Either heavier or lighter // We hang in the air / hover between life and death,” recalls (for me) W. S. Merwin’s “Men think they are better than grass” and the transition from a world view in which the earth is held up by Atlas to one in which it is held in orbit by the force of gravity. Does it also exemplify the linguistic transition you describe in your translator’s note, that Berg’s “dynamic referentiality is more important than her actual reference” (ix)?
JG: There is a pun in this excerpt. “Mustn’t think we are something” refers to a common put-down in Swedish society—to think one is something (or to think one is special). This insult doesn’t exactly make sense in the US, where the insult we use is “loser,” i.e., the very opposite! But the Merwin line does give it an interesting spin. I like your idea of “gravity”—because the entire book takes place in up-land, the in-between space: not flying and not landing, not floating away and not firmly planted on the ground (which I guess would be the Atlas-based worldview).
As for the “referentiality” quote, yes, I think this is an example of her vibrant, vibrating use of language; it doesn’t sever all ties with reference but it doesn’t believe in some kind of natural language either. I think it’s also a change from the “exhaustion” of the earlier pieces, into a world view that doesn’t exhaust, it just hovers.
Johannes Göransson’s Haute Surveillance is forthcoming from Tarpaulin Sky Press. He is the author of four books—Dear Ra, A New Quarantine Will Take My Place, Pilot (“Johann the Carousel Horse”), and Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate—and the translator of several more, most recently Johan Jönson’s Collobert Orbital and Aase Berg’s With Deer. Black Ocean soon will publish another of his Berg translations, entitled Dark Matter. He teaches at the University of Notre Dame and edits Action Books and the online journal Action, Yes, and he blogs at montevidayo.com.