South Bend, Indiana, is a magnet for floral-horror. Summer there is so bright and blue it feels like a threat: poison grass, lively weeds, green fingers stabbing up the cracks on the westside pavement. Men wander in public and shout and wave their arms. Foxes dart. Gusts of real life. In the post-industrial midwest, terroristic faces appear, rendered from nothing, peering through you, blooming, sharpening, enchanted. Lilacs.
Summer, Johannes Göransson’s latest book, might borrow something from South Bend, although that isn’t where the writing began. Göransson conceived of Summer in Sweden, at the home of biologist Fredrik Sjöberg, while observing a portrait by Anton Dich (“Lillian and Hanna”). The painting is eerie, as Dich’s two subjects punctuate the flora with cruel facial angularity. What resulted from his viewing is a bladed, sparkling, caustic book of poetry that shoots its hooks through your nose to pull you in by the brain.
One particularly addictive feature of the text is its iconography. Bewitching entities like lilacs, garbage, mother-of-pearl, “the rabble,” “the girls,” and summer itself swipe in and out of view. Complexity swirls. “… I have a sickness / about summer and döttrar / run around like summer / is a song … I can hear summer/you can hear the ocean / on the radio I read numbers / as deep as a summer’s breath.” Animated, rabid, the icon “summer” twists in and out of concentration, airborne and rich. Horrifying beams pour from a hole in the sky and drench these poems in ambiguity. This ambiguity is the illness we share. Tons of garbage seethe—volcanic warts on the ocean’s hands. Summer isn’t here to assuage us or pitch seamless resolutions for the agony of waking life. We must carry this terror that produces us; we must jam the lyric image with our own mayhem like a hex reversed.
The resistance of the lyric poem as a gratifying image is consistent. Göransson lineates with punchy, jagged enjambment, undermining clausal anatomy in favor of explosivity. His bilingual slide, between Swedish and English, complicates the speaker’s immediacy, as two languages overlap and transgress. “or the poison I’m marrying / to the summer / how it dreams about me / how the tree must sta / i Skåne och lay down …” Together, enjambment and bilinguality stitch corrosion inside Summer’s voice. Relentless sunlight glitters in garbage. Enjambed with trash, we glow lilac glow.
Lilacs, historically, represent mourning inside the arrival of a new season. Purple life floods alongside the misery of time. “… I’m sick/in light summer light musical/light from hell and you/dare call it heaven/my body you dare to call it heaven.” In Parables for the Virtual, Brian Massumi writes, regarding sense-as-philosophy: “The pain is the beauty (of the world emergent).” Rhythms insist upon themselves, against lack. The spatialization of time is interrupted by tangibility, wherein stinging light coaxes bitter poetry to flower. Where ache and music touch, time is regained- not redeemed. It is not redemption; it is production. It is the a-tonal blossom of trashed memory.
Enjambment—Summer’s intervention against time—leaves its mark on individuation as well. This collection is heavily apostrophic, as Göransson’s poems repeatedly confront one (or many) unnamed yous. Terrified, terrifying, Summer breaks the window of the lyric and lets the shards threaten: “gravity scares me you’re going / down I can blank you / out with one bullet you / have none.” We are never quite sure if the speaker aims ire at a photograph or a mirror. Summer is dew-pain, rising as fog to avert that moralist fallacy: innocence. This holds consonant with bewilderment poetics, which Fanny Howe defines as “[the] enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability.” Forms become movements; nouns become verbs. Revelation confronts the living: “There were lilacs my body / was juned I was reckless …”
Pluralism, here, is not mere stylization, but the gesture of upended perspective. The love of garbage demands transvaluation. It is a form of amor fati: to love one’s fate, to love one’s demolished value, to love the atrocity of poetry. Göransson’s speaker pushes poetic excess towards amorous devotion: “write my poem / write it about ruins / it’s where we live / in eternal love and / it’s break my face now / you are already here.” Heaven on earth; unmitigated acceptance of your most angelic (ugliest) discontents. Eternal love is here today (inside our broken faces). Summer affirms the ferocity which breaks syntax and liberates throbbing bewilderment. It does not merely reflect; it produces. Summer is a machine, a lilac-trash-enjamber, and it writes us where we are— shattered in unity.
The lilac-trash-enjamber is permanently at odds with the concept of “perfect” or innocent reflection. “Flowers for the Riot,” Göransson’s second sequence, interfaces with an icon of disembodied political ferocity: the rabble. This “rabble” is animated by myriad desires (broadly anti-hierarchical, often contradictory), including the desire to deface the very voice of these poems. “The rabble wants to tear apart / my shitty orpheus mask / because I hate more purely / than they do when I write Poetry / for the Masses I make a million / dollars I pay it to know/what is happening to my mouth …” Our omnipresent restlessness is a force which sabotages authenticity and artifice alike. Orpheus succumbs to this restlessness at his journey’s apex. Both Göransson’s speaker and “the rabble,” saturated in mourning, suspended between purity and impurity, are unable to flatten their aching into a sealed, safe face—no one can. No one raises clean hands against the tragedy that circles our frenetic lives.
Tragedy terrifies. The life to follow this terror is haunted unfamiliar. “All the Garbage of the Sun,” Göransson’s third sequence, writes this defamiliarization through both technique and content. “the girls tell me / it’s horrifying/to speak sommar / ängelska it’s horrifying / to speak.” Note here the neologism that Göransson introduces. Engleska, the Swedish word for the English language, is interrupted by angels. Angels are garbage, so far as both embody relentless monstrosities infringing upon the cohesion of reality. Surrealism is angelic life on Earth . The surreal conjoins material and eternal fields, and we are right to be petrified by its strength. Sommar ängelska is the language we speak while lilacs enjamb us beyond recognition, beyond the image, beyond the communication of images: “I don’t understand the messages / I’m being sent … I want to burn / every flower but instead/embroider the cyclamen/on the diorama you say / it looks like bitemarks.”
In Summer’s first three sequences, the form is consistent: brief, untitled sprints oscillate bilingual, taunting us with their swiftness and with their monstrous iconography. “The World” (the closing piece) departs from and continues this convention. Mother-of-pearl, angels, James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room,” and many more of the entities established throughout this text return, occasionally in litany: “with lilac / with gasoline / with baby’s breath / with summer.” Summer’s symbolic mayhem persists, as the textures clatter off each other, but in “The World,” they are blended with exclamative, bald thrusts. “I’m crying;” “I want to hate;” “you’re erased in this poem / you’re erased in this poem / you’re erased in this poem / you’re erased in this poem.”
Splayed out in a single, twenty-seven page panoramic, apostrophe unites with repetition, further solidifying this hypnotic choreography. In “The World,” Göransson’s thematics of absence reach a fever pitch (“This time I’m sick / I’ve been poisoned”). However, the zenith of that apostrophe is not singular. Reminiscent of his earlier book, Dear Ra, Göransson uses an anti-epistolary technique, wherein speakers address themselves, various collectives, ghosts, animals, characters from film, etc. without direct explication. Midstream, a voice is caught mutating. Apostrophic creation is one way to lose yourself, to lose all the resentments that hound us through the lilac fields. You are erased in every poem.
An eschatological fever quilts Summer’s final gusts. Bewilderment is left midair, and while the world demands its resolution or resignation, the speaker, the poet, rejects that demand. “the world wants me to think / I can’t / but I can’t think / I’m typing / I make matter.” The poet makes. Poetry makes an intervention against social demands in favor of symbolistic and synesthetic combustion. As a validation of pain’s complexity, all poetry is the victory of feeling. A poem is an emergence. “I win I win I win …” Summer is the pain of this emergency.
I burned through my first read of this book in an afternoon. It is a mesmerizing artwork, a nerve loaded with punishing sensitivity. As I flagged earlier, the addictive aspect of Summer comes, in part, through Göransson’s adroit technical ear. More importantly, I found myself enchanted by this book’s tenacity. Göransson dwells in the ruinous charm that stretches through every blooming thing with vicious candor. Evan Isoline writes, in his Philosophy of the Sky, that “green is the most violent color.” So every flower is a horror, and all horror is floral. Inside the lilac-trash-enjamber, we bleat our lavender poems to the cracking of a lens.
Summer, by Johannes Göransson. Grafton, Vermont: Tarpaulin Sky Press, August 2022. 120 pages. $15.00, paper.
PJ Lombardo is a poet from northern New Jersey. He holds an MFA from the University of Notre Dame, where he worked as a publishing assistant for Action Books. His poetry can be read in Dream Pop Journal, DREGINALD, The Brooklyn Rail, Lana Turner Journal, and elsewhere.
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