By Ryan Bollenbach
In an introduction to Michel Leiris’ memoir Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility, Leiris describes how authors create urgency in autobiographical writing using the metaphor of a bull fight. Leiris says “to expose certain obsessions” or “admit publicly to certain deficiencies” is the author “hoping to see it improved” and their means “of introducing even the shadow of the bull’s horn into a literary work.” Leiris’ analogy has proven enduring as much contemporary discussion of autobiographical writing analyzes the writing for its place on a spectrum between those disparate elements: obsession, admission, improvement, and urgency. I am most interested in the last part of Leiris’ analogy, particularly the phrase “even the shadow.” “Even” modifying “the shadow” connotes that urgency doesn’t require the complete truth (the full horn). This grants urgency to “the shadow of the bull’s horn” as simulacra (in the Baudrillardian sense), opening the notion of exposure and urgency to slippages in truth.
Johannes Göransson originally wrote the entries in Poetry Against All: A Diary as part of his most recent poetry volume, The Sugar Book, then cut them for being “too personal” (115). The diary reads as connected mini-aesthetic manifestos—sometimes regarding The Sugar Book or what he’s reading, sometimes not—blended with more narrative-driven entries detailing his day-to-day life while visiting Sweden, his thoughts on art he was absorbing at the time, and reflections on migrancy and the idea of home. It’s how these elements are sutured together that creates such a tantalizing effect.
Always looking for a different perspective on my own predilection toward maximalist art, I was drawn by the breadth of Goransson’s discussions of film, music, and writing, and the aesthetics of pornography, debasement, kitsch, moralism, and nostalgia. He emphasizes an organic and visceral reading and writing practice in line with Steven Shaviro’s film criticism in The Cinematic Body—a text Göransson mentions multiple times in Poetry Against All—of embracing a masochistic relationship to art by allowing oneself to be ravished by it. Göransson discusses a wide range of art as an aesthetic experience across the book that looks beyond the “gold standard” of interiority illuminating the soul (67) to how art catalyzes a reaction in the viewer, and what that more primal appeal can do to a reader. In a way that feels egalitarian in its intuitiveness, he challenges the terms and assumptions of a host of provocative aesthetic discussions from Susan Sontag on Diane Arbus to Swedish writer Lars Norén’s creative musings in his diary to Saul Friedländer on Nazism and kitsch.
One of the most compelling examples of these aesthetic discussions examines “ruin porn” critiques common at the time the diary was written (2014), where photographers taking aestheticized pictures of demolished buildings were criticized for making art out of socio-economic collapse in vulnerable areas:
With a stunning frequency, ruin porn is condemned in xenophobic terms. The photographers are accused of being foreigners or worse, foreign tourists. I’m reading a discussion right now where one accused photographer points out that he’s from Detroit.
A critic immediately replies: “‘No, if you were really from Detroit you wouldn’t aestheticize our economic collapse.’” Göransson rebuts this logic: “not only is it only foreigners who make ‘porn,’” but “making porn seems to make you into a foreigner…What is lost in the foreign? The currency of interiority….The foreigner makes the natural strange. The foreigner has secrets, but no humanity. The foreigner makes an image out of you.” (16-7).
Göransson’s feeling of foreignness in Sweden and the U. S. broached throughout Poetry Against All means, for him, these criticisms are concrete, not conceptual. The perspective of the foreigner and immigrant is a major source of exploration. Later, he inverts this problematic when he describes the power Francesca Woodman’s photography has over him: “Francesca Woodman makes a mask of me. Francesca Woodman makes my body feel foreign to me” (17), though in Göransson’s view, this foreignization is something to seek out, something to be ravished by.
Like the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet’s manifestos that articulate their aesthetic positions by exemplifying them (Gertrude Stein’s “Poetry and Grammar” comes to mind), Göransson’s day-to-day recollections in Poetry Against All are enveloped in the aesthetic of ravishment. The reader is made tourist, foreigner, detective, compelled to assemble the pieces, to think between the objects on the page, just like one views a Woodman photograph.
One of my favorite narrative scenes in Poetry Against All is the moment where Göransson mistakes a man in a window for a man he thought was following him earlier:
Today I saw behind a window, partially hidden by the sun’s reflection, a man with close-cropped blonde hair and beard. It wasn’t me because he had tattoos on his upper arm. I couldn’t read what they said. I couldn’t see what he was doing there but he appeared to have his head in his hands. He looked like me but he was not the one who has been following me. In fact, I’m the one who’s following him. He’s in there, in a private space, where I can never be again.
Let me in (79).
The collision of ideas in this scene is fascinating, particularly considering the (tentative) assumption of truth and urgency. Göransson confusing the man’s identity diminishes his reliability, and thus the ideal of urgency via truth. But there is urgent discomfort in Göransson’s realization that he has been the one doing the following, especially after fearing he was being followed in a previous entry (did he misremember? was it all figurative? was he in a fugue state?). That Göransson even points out “it wasn’t me because he had tattoos” dips into dream logic. This ambiguity evokes an eerie feeling of accuracy without truth, the ravishment of the picture without the truth of the ruins. Excerpts like this make me feel like I’m a voyeur watching from a shadow in a crevasse between autobiography and autofiction, a location akin to robotics’ “uncanny valley”: increased viewer discomfort as the appearance of robots approaches the middle between humanlike and machinelike.
That Göransson pushes forward rather than answering any of the questions above exemplifies a writing maxim he gives earlier in the book: “never balance the accounts” (11). Then, envious of the man’s privacy—although, paradoxically, Göransson is betraying that privacy—he ends the scene with a plea, its own three-word paragraph: “Let me in” (79). This imperative is a melancholic end that an MFA workshop might say feels unearned. Göransson has staked his position on that criticism pages earlier: “I was always most of all interested in the unearned line” (77).
Similar pithy statements abound Poetry Against All. They add a lot of excitement, intrigue, and the occasional laugh—the laugh itself, a guttural, base reaction outside of the gold standard literary intention—as evocative polemics and idiosyncratic one-liners that manage to further complicate the book’s logic. Aside from the titular refrain, used brilliantly toward the end of the book, one standout line comes early on where Göransson, as if whispering to himself while writing the The Sugar Book, professes his love of secrets by way of Twin Peaks, Tarkovsky, and Woodman:
The poems will take place in mansions, in red rooms, in afterlives, in movie theaters. Prom queens surrounded by snakes will whisper their pornography. I will scream and scream. I already have a secret object. I keep it close at all times. My passport, dummy (25).
Göransson’s playful concluding retort harkens back to his discussion about foreignness and tourism—Göransson the always-tourist, Göransson the always-foreigner—but he doesn’t explain what the reader should do with the information. Again with the unearned lines; again leaving puzzles on the table with no directions.
The mysteries of this uncanny diary brings me back to Leiris and Baudrillard and the bull’s horn: Poetry Against All is the shadow of the horn. The shadow is the simulacra. Like any compelling simulacra, the shadow Poetry Against All becomes more real than the horn itself. With its slippages and manifestos, Poetry Against All is realer than real, the shadow more urgent than the horn. There is no horn. No hay cuerno. No hay banda.
That might be just what Göransson means when he caps his final entry:
“This is written without hope.
Poetry against all” (114).
Or maybe not.
Poetry against all.
Ryan Bollenbach is a writer and musician living in Houston, Texas. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Tarpaulin Sky, Sink Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Snail Trail Press, and elsewhere. Former poetry editor at Black Warrior Review, he reads for Gulf Coast and Heavy Feather Review.