[Tarpaulin Sky Press; 2020]
There is a history of works produced within the shadow of other works. In films, one might think of Francis Ford Coppola writing and directing The Conversation while in the middle of producing The Godfather I and II. The Conversation is, by all accounts, the personal work, the object closer to Coppola’s heart, while he worked to create the more studio-driven, bigger budget films. If one is to consider the early 1970s a set of miracle years for Coppola, one ought to consider that The Conversation lost the Academy Awards Best Picture to The Godfather II. This level of production is rare, however, considering that producing even one film is a grand project, three of them within a few years even more challenging. But there are parallel tracks, objects that serve as the repository for what does not enter the main project. Diaries catalog, record, serve as witnessing documents, as is the situation with Werner Herzog’s Conquest of the Useless. This is a parallel track not necessarily produced for public consumption, but as a way for the creator of the primary project (here: Fitzcarraldo) to take stock of moments surrounding the creation of that project, as well as to reflect on the goings on and struggles involved in creating the primary object. There is a lot that goes into making a film, obviously — lots of people, places, things, but we are always left wondering, when it comes to a work meant for the page, what that catalog looks like, what passes before our author during the process of creating a flat text compared to the dense mise en scène of a film.
Johannes Göransson’s Poetry Against All, like Herzog’s diaries, moves beyond the realm of cataloging personal experience, becoming its own work, even if created in the shadow of another. In Göransson’s case, the primary object is The Sugar Book, published in 2015 by Tarpaulin Sky (which also published the new book), a book of poetry that reads as noir film. Both diaries and poems have a similar objective in mind: to record not merely the events of our lives, but also the experiences of them. Events are not easy to write, and they are not objective by any measure as perspectives shift, memories are written and rewritten. What is of tangible value to the reader, to the fellow human, is experience. I think here in terms of calculus, that thing you were supposed to pay attention to in high school or college. We have the primary function or line — the speed of an object or a trajectory, but by taking the derivative, we find out more useful data: not merely how fast an object is going, but the rate of change of that speed (what we call acceleration).
In Poetry Against All, we have a second derivative, the primary curve erased somewhere between the creative space and The Sugar Book as original project, as book, as the object which is the artist’s foot forward. Diaries don’t exist for us, they don’t exist for a public, but rather for the creator, some record of the goings on, some way of understanding a space and capturing a time period. Diaries and their way of narrativizing events, actions, and even dreams, feel like something one might see in a film — a genre Göransson enjoys himself and relies on as a writer. What is filmic in Poetry Against All is its way of moving from scene to scene in the disconnected fashion of dreams that fits so well — he often begins in a dream, before moving into the events of a day. In the following passage, Göransson ties together nostalgias into the space of a dream:
Dreamt of our old home last night. Dreamt there were stiches in my limbs and I didn’t want them to come apart. I didn’t want to come apart. The damage was from some animal with a difficult neurological illness. My daughters were on the floor sewing something. Somehow I knew that something had to do with death.
He moves from the dream into the feelings of the day: his sleepiness, his emails from home, questions about the writing he is doing, and we see how the dream permeates the day, sets the tone for the events and feelings that follow. There is a way in which we as readers are brought into the inner life of a writer who has proven, in some ways, to be as enigmatic in text as he is in his personality, at least what we see of it between published texts and the always obscured lens of social media. His dreams are as mysterious as ours, and where he follows them, we may be unable to follow. There is a cave of well-wrought dreams in Göransson’s text, the familiarity of existence, but for most of us, it would prove an interesting read, especially as we would not have produced a text like The Sugar Book out of the wanderings and interactions and texts put on display within its shadow. Immediately after the above passage, Göransson describes dolls and then the voice in his own poems for The Sugar Book. The movement from dream state to recreating them, if not directly, lies within his ability to bring us in The Sugar Book the distorted sensation of a dream:
Sometimes I have a bleeding heart but sometimes I don’t
because I listen to the music of Los Angeles
the sound of pigs being concussed on slaughterhouse floors
I read Poetry Against All in a day, eager to find the moments in which one can see Göransson’s own deeper cuts, more than what he writes for us in public spaces (social media, Montevidayo, the Action Books blog, his various books) about what art should do, but what he tells himself art should do. We are frequently interested, as readers, in a simple ideological belief that our artists are better connected to the world than we are, that they see something we do not. In this sense, we get both halves of the privacy divide but also both halves of those debates. We are left to ask what we want of ourselves, of our work, of the things we put into the world. In Göransson’s case, he does not see the world better or more deeply than any of the rest of us, and what makes both Poetry Against All and The Sugar Book so curious is that we can see here he sees the same world we do, but there is a divide between how we might respond and how we see Göransson has responded by creating a Los Angeles world in a noir dreamscape — half poem, half terrorfield. The L.A. noir we know is exploded in The Sugar Book but looking into Poetry Against All, we see the roots — the way in which his desire to go home, his wanderings around Copenhagen, the dreams he describes while being out of his familiar spaces, become a way of destroying the romantic L.A., or even the noir L.A. of our imagining. From the unfamiliarity of this period, Göransson merges these roots into a new narrative in a new place, into a noir genre which relies on its own mystery, its own violence. We know the dead starlet of noirs past, but Göransson destructs the image further:
I walked into the Heart of Glamour with a dazzling
thought in my head: I was going to find the killer who
killed the Starlet. But instead I am watching piles and
piles of pig get ground up for raping women.
I am loath to dismiss what’s wonderful in this destruction as mere talent or artistry, as that mirrors the worst traits of pre-Enlightenment thought — that there is some kind of untouchable, mystical power. Further, I do not believe Göransson believes there is anything extraordinary in his observations, in his experiences, in his sight, that the rest of us cannot capture. These are the myths we build up in our minds about our artists because it is how we justify them being artists and our own mediocrity. This belief would simply not jive with the mountain of work by Göransson we have access to already, from books to blogposts to tweets, where we are witness to his critical thinking, his theorizing of the fields of translation and writing, as opposed to his own creative process. Göransson as artist perhaps seems as though he is unable to be truly articulated, but as critic, his work has done much to demystify, to remove the barriers between us and the world of literary production. However, what goes on in that brain of his will remain a mystery to all of us, even after this brief step into the middle of it. But perhaps that’s a good thing.
We have the curve that is The Sugar Book and derivative line that is Poetry Against All. Math makes the world appear simple: move this, divide that, carry this over there, and there is an understanding of how one thing becomes another. Poetry Against All is not that key to Göransson’s work, or indeed Göransson himself. There are no answers here, but the question we must ask ourselves when we’re given an opportunity to dive into the artist — when they themselves invite us in — is how we can go forward on our own, in our own work, whatever that work might be.
Amish Trivedi is the author of two books, some number of chapbooks, has an MFA and PhD, and lives in Maryland.