The Nice Green Book

A new quarantine will take my place, Johannes Goransson
[126 pp, $14.00, Apostrophe Books]

This is a nice green book. And there are lots of animals in it. They can be pretty nightmarish. Watch this:

     My girlfriend is gasping for air; she's going catatonic
     in this bargain bin of a winter, she's scared of pigeons.
     I own a shoddy collection of pigeon skeletons...

     ... I picked cockroaches out of a famous haircut
     while a fat lady screamed in my ears.
            [from ''Sellout Jacket' (Royal Albert Hall)']

I really admire Goransson's poetry: it's daring; it has cartoonish pizzazz; and it glitters with imagination. But it's not just surface bling, though almost every image is arresting (or would be if it didn't pile into the next with little regard for how good it was). The book opens with 'The Seminal Union of Carvers':

     I've saved the best conspiracy theories for my own
          private genocide.
     I've saved my own sweat for the trial, and the
          lingering doubts
     for the lingering nights I spend in furious luxury.
          I've saved my best thought for the last laugh of the
     and my worst thought for seconds after.
          I've examined the bruise on your thigh and it looks
          nothing like your pet.

     Beauty has become a riddle and the answer is grass.
     Beauty was always a riddle, but now it's doused in

There's structure too: 'Pigs' is one trope, and in particular a circus of them, as in 'Revulsion as an Antidote to Experimental Poetry' (great title):

     Green. That was the colour of my eyes when I wrote
     a poem called 'The diary of a Pig Circus' about the
     assassination of my silhouette. 

I guess 'Green' is a trope too then, if you can count the cover as a trope (I read somewhere that the cover is blue, but my copy's definitely green - the jury's out on this trope). There are pigs in 'We will use Clothes-Hangers next time' and in other poems too, but in case you feel this is in danger of tipping over into 'Pig-watch' I'll just quote one more:

     I'm revising the pig circus to include both the
     Coca-Cola Cowboys with their religious machines
     and the Queen Girl with her hundreds of strays
     running through the streets at night. I'm erasing the
     incriminating parts in which I plan to kill Elsie's new
     boyfriend. How I plan to beat his face in, how I plan
     to feed him ten pounds of his own flesh. Instead the
     pig circus will be full of political satire. We'll have a
     white house and amnesia.
            [from 'The New Exhaustion']

But Pigs and Green are not the
only structural devices employed here. The poems segue into one another syntactically; themes and words overlap; images reappear and beat you into submission. As a result things that initially shock become commonplace, whether kooky thought-sketches or violent ideas. I guess this is where political overtones might come in, but I think this book's more subtle than that. If you see something often enough, or are told it's inevitable, however wrong or crazy it may seem to start with eventually you accept it as a part of everyday life. Given the often violent content this makes the book an unsettling read.

     I was born in an evacuation drill, but that's no excuse.
     I want my own mauled place in the sun, but my eyes
     feel feathery and the claptraps I arrive in are always
     raw. The girls fall off their bicycles. The minstrel
     show doesn't sound enough like a lynching and the
     subway car squeals and bangs with pigs.
            [from 'I Will Carve like You're on Fire'] 

Over the length of the book the repetition of the horrific, interspersed with faux-comforting passages more superficially whimsical, results in the reader feeling that he or she becomes tacitly complicit in the inventive nastiness of the narration simply by fulfilling their part of the reader-writer bargain, i.e. imaginatively meeting the author on common territory (I'm sure the author's a perfectly decent man, before anyone gets the hump).

And what's interesting about
A new quarantine will take my place is that this subliminal agreement is displaced from its traditional centrality in lyrical communication, that of 'I feel the writer is suggesting this persuasively so I empathise: Job done. End of story: yes I do sympathise with this universal message personally delivered'. Instead, here the reader is forced to treat both the writer and his/her own thoughts with suspicion: subliminal communication, a sensed of shared consciousness of some poetically offered 'experience' is not an unequivocally good or honest thing or a goal in itself.  Indeed, there is a suggestion that it is potentially dangerous, which of course it is. Political slogans and advertising campaigns aren't necessarily good and they play to prejudices and instincts. Why should poetry be any different when it is operating with the same tool-kit?

The unreliable narrator is of course a common enough device. But I think this book deals with something else: the unreliable narratee. It plays with the reader's expectations, not just of the writer but of themselves:

     The witch-hunt metaphor doesn't work unless the reader
     has experienced transcendence. The fish bait is rotting
     in the swimming pool. The starvation exercises don't
     work without bourbon. The charlatan class cannot
     be burned without a more stupored mythology than
     my barn.
            [from 'Obscenity can be a form of Asceticism']

As a reader you want, because of the power relationship inherent in being 'the reader' not 'the writer', to live up to the ostensibly more powerful party's expectations, however apparently terrible the things the writer is saying, condoning, and describing himself as doing and enjoying. It's this 'desire-to-please/ respond appropriately' relationship between reader and writer that is highlighted by Goransson as a responsibility not to be taken lightly by either party (unless of course it is done, as here, for effect). 

In other words, when reading this book in public, I often found myself laughing, or enjoying the dexterity with which an outrageous image or a transition is handled, then catching my breath and thinking something along the lines of 'Fuck: Shouldn't have thought that. I hope no-one in this quirky but essentially middle-class cafˇ is scrutinizing me too closely or I'll wind up on Crime-watch.'
So if you're at all interested in what's going on in poetry now, what it can do and what it might do, this book really is pretty much necessary (especially if you're British and always saying 'I don't know much about contemporary American poetry, except Sylvia Plath and one poem by Frank O'Hara - now was he a beat or New York(?) - and they're dead; I wish I'd read more but where to start... etc.').

And on the subject of being British, is it just me or are there too few writers of Goransson's age (he's 34) and under working this side of the pond, with such imagination and range, who are not afraid to experiment, or who would find it acceptable to appear in public or print without a monogrammed lyric 'I' tied round their neck? Off the top of my head I can think of Chris McCabe and Luke Kennard; I think we need a few more. So come on: join Johannes Goransson. Maybe he'll be watching. Or is that just exactly what he wants me to say (exit stroking white cat, chuckling)...  

            © Nathan Thompson 2008