Word For/Word [ Issue 17: Summer, 2010 ] [ Previous ] [ Next ] [ Notes ]

Nicole Zdeb

Review of Aase Berg's With Deer (translated by Johannes Göransson, Black Ocean, 20099)

Bonnier Books published With Deer in 1996 in Sweden, where it met with critical success.  In 2009, Black Ocean published Johannes Göransson’s English translation. Göransson is a fellow Swede which may help account for his intuitive grasp of the language’s texture and his nuanced translation.

With Deer has mostly prose poems, many of them less than a page. It divides into six sections. The book itself has an eye-catching design--a hunter’s orange cover with pointy and delicate antlers below the title. Antlers suspended in space suggesting a stag.

The tight poems move; they volte; there are many small shocks before the end arrives. Short, but not terse. The texture created by the movement line to line creates spaciousness for the reader. Section 1, “In the Guinea Pig Cave,” begins with ‘Still.” In six sentences, a world is created:


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.


Male and female, animalic nature (‘the love beast breathes’), generation and birth (‘fetus lily’), sickness (‘fox sore’)—these are threads in almost every poem. This thematic continuity creates a sense of completeness rather than boredom, which would likely be the result if the poems went about weaving the same pattern each time, saying the same things in the same way. They don’t. They have different temperatures; they employ different modes of address; and the narrator speaks in cadences.

In “Still,” the narrator is in absentia, resolved perhaps into the tarn, present by the associative property of telling. The narrator of “In the Guinea Pig Cave” speaks directly and calmly, with what feels a bit like Dickenson’s ‘formal feeling:’ "My sister puked calmly and indifferently: it ran slowly out of her slack mouth without her moving a single nerve." The agony of the passive spectator comes through in the incredible restraint; the pseudo-clinical eye that records sickness as the abject; a person becomes the slave of their diseased body.


Stories, or something akin to them, emerge: someone bearing witness to a cancer-like sickness, perhaps a sister, perhaps the narrator’s own, and partnering with a man and having a child. There’s sex, decay, fear of impending doom—“the night of nights is coming,” the indignity and violence of sickness. These arcs emerge, but, as befits an arc, they emerge slantingly.


There’s never authorial exposure. The veil remains; the author peeks, when she wants to. The poems are controlled fields, some thanatological, some mythical, most undefined and eccentric.


The strongest mythic element in these poems is transformation: out of something beast comes something human, or vice versa:


She lies with her legs bent across the rock at an awkward angle, and something moves, pokes out of her 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 a venomous moray with its sharp horrible eyes. 


Berg doesn’t want to spare the reader any discomfort. This isn’t a poetry of the intermediary, the mystic, or suburbia. It has teeth. The teeth have been filed sharp. In some poems, each line is a sweep of a blade. The line has movement and bright music, but it isn’t singing to you. It is eviscerating.