by Joyelle McSweeney on Oct.11, 2010
Johannes used the term ‘ambient violence’ to discuss Ronaldo Wilson’s book a few posts back, but actually I applied that phrase in a breakfast-table discussion of his book A New Quarantine Will Take My Place and I’d like to discuss what I meant by that.
We live in an environment of total violence, it seems to me. Guns, trucks, carcinogens, sweatshop clothing, “The tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of tyrants,” predator drones, gay suicides, fraking, PTSD, gun violence in Chicago, corporations are persons, guns want to be free, and etc. As in the villified[i] Bolaño story, William Burns, violence runs all around the house and then it enters the house. But at the precise point in which that story is saturated with violence, and the windows in the house start breaking apart with it as in some horror flick, the supersaturation causes the material of violence to attach at random to various surfaces. Specifically, the apparent agent of violence becomes its victim. The victim-characters become murderous and throw the violence back. They who had been the target-receptacles of violence become mediums of violence (the media of violence). The body, the house, the girlfriend, the other girlfriend, the dogs, the narrator, the bodypolitic keeps twitching and switching sides within violence’s tidal, vital erratic currents.
Sarah Palin: Beauty must be convulsive or it shall not be.
Sarah Palin (to Karl Rove): Buck up or stay in the truck.
[It’s relatively easy to process violent poetry when it presents a critique of violence. But what about when ambient violence makes a medium of a body and makes it a perpetrator of violence against itself and others?]
Violence runs all over the house of A New Quarantine Will Take My Place. It animates a cavalcade of victims and victors, including the victim/victor I (the conqueror worm!). The violence also extends to the reader, as a recent review in Coldfront noted:
“Two criticisms are that the use and reuse of images can lead to sometimes tiresome redundancies and repetitions, and that the whole book as a continuous poem can lead to a page-turner effect a la The DaVinci Code where the reader is coerced, rather than compelled, to keep reading. Importantly, Johannes Göransson keeps you reading.”[ii]
This quote (correctly, it seems to me, if knicker-twistedly and with a reflex/reflux dig at supposedly degrading mass culture)diagnoses the violence that runs from the book to the reader as redundancy, repetition, and coercion. It courses out of the medium of the book.
On Christine O’Donnell: I feel like I know her, but sometimes my arms bend back.
The violence of New Quarantine starts from the title on. A weird noun—quarantine—shoves itself into the place syntax would cause you to expect a concrete noun. Your brain has to stretch weird to bracket this—a beurocratic noun invoking incarceration, surveillance, illness, and yes coercion shoved into the place of ‘me’. That language is a carrier for violence is further evidenced by the list of ‘vocab words’ that starts the book. This harmless pedagogical tool reveals the sinister push of language, pedagogy, and translation, providing Swedish/English translation for such terms as “infant mortality”, “a woman in confinement”, “infanticide,” “child labour”, all building off the root “barn” or child. Indeed, that the Swedish has two words for infanticide (barnamord, barnamördare) repeats the kind of coercion-through-repetition society works on the individual, the kind of coercion the Coldfront reviewer ascribes to the book itself.
As the first poem, “The Seminal Union of Carvers,” opens up, we can see a kind of convulsion in which violence saturates and moves towards and away from the speaker’s body. He begins, “I’ve saved the best conspiracy theories for my own private genocide,” attests, “I was born to break and break again,” but when violence’s mark becomes legible, “I’ve examined the bruise on your thigh and it looks nothing like your pet.” This instability keeps the poem out of the safe gesture of critique. The speaker is saturated with violence and becomes a medium for violence. He makes media, stories, sounds of violence. “In my great debacle, all stories are starting to sound like Vietnam.” “logging accidents pale in comparison to/the things that take place in my capital when everybody’s looking. “In my capital”, in my basement, in my torso, in my ribcage, in my girlfriend’s cunt, in the Hispanic children, the sites of violence are interchangeable like the quarantine that will take my place. “[The military] think the truth is buried somewhere in the backyard of my body. They think one shovel will do.”
That’s just the first poem. To continue through Johannes’s book is to see this convulsive reflectivity repeated to the point of utter-, over-, and supersaturation, as violence is ‘mediated’, that is, reaches the speaker through media, including the media of his own and others’ bodies, as he discharges violence through the person of his own body (and directed against his own body) at objects, persons, places, infants, girlfriends, forms, his thigh and torso, as he thus becomes a medium for violence working in every direction. The provocative potential of this book is the idea that a book is itself a medium for violence and coercion, the Coldfront complaint. This is not a diagnosis I think Johannes would reject, given the totalness with which he commits himself to this total economy of violence, assuming no pose of ‘ethics’ or sham ‘critique’ which would suggest one could remove oneself from this supply-chain, from this fray, by any instrument but death. And even then. Death. The Conqueror Worm. The Emptor (Buyer). (Caveat emptorem, emptor!) The pre-emptor. The bitch to watch, to watch out for (see you in my dreams. Not if I see you first.) The new quarantine that will take your place.
[i] See the recent Bookforum review