R E D
reviewed by Brian Clifton
Chase Berggrun wastes no time in their debut collection, R E D; in the second line of the first poem, the book’s persona states, “I was a country of queer force.” In this sentence we get a hint of the themes that will be present throughout the book: queerness, power/force, and the interplay of self and other (as implied in equating the “I” with a “country”). R E D is made entirely of erasures—poetic text made from the removal of words and phrases of a source text. By erasing parts of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Berggrun finds a way to communicate the effects of assault (from both an external other and an internalization of gender normativity). On the page, the poems narrate the trauma of an abusive relationship. And in the process of erasing Stoker’s epistolary novel to make this narrative, Berggrun creates letters exchanged between the speaker’s authentic self and the self who performs a cis-gendered identity.
Before there are clear instances of an external agent acting on the speaker, the opening chapters show a speaker trying to communicate across the gap between the way she defines herself and how she might be defined by others. In “Chapter 1,” the speaker of R E D catalogues the things she is, feels, and does. At the end of her list, she asks what it means and intuits only the flame of a struck match:
somewhere far off in the distance plunged Suddenly a faint and endless absence began beetling around the howl that swept the ruined sky
In these lines, the self as performed becomes aware of the hollowness that comes with being unable to be authentically oneself even in one’s own thoughts. This current runs throughout the manuscript both as the speaker attempts to grapple with her “husband’s” assaults as well as with her burgeoning awareness of the nature of her true self. In the revelation of her self to herself, Berggrun relies heavily on their source text and process to evoke this experience. Just as erasure creates a text that is in conversation with its source, the persona that develops in R E D constantly interrogates herself in a way that is surprising and nuanced. And just as erasure carves away common narratives to subvert and queer them, the book resists, as the note on process states, the “disdain of femininity and misogyny of [Dracula’s] time.”
Throughout R E D, borders shift, distinctions blur, speaker and spoken-of become inextricably entwined. Berggrun often uses these occurrences to make their statements polyvalent—often speaking to many of the manuscripts concerns simultaneously. For instance, in “Chapter IV,” the speaker states, “He consumed every scrap and trace of me/…I was a woman against a monster/…Inside [my body] I made a discovery.” The progression of these lines indicates both the internal struggle of self but also the abusive relationship that will occupy the book’s external narrative. Berggrun’s attention to the multiplicity allowed in poetry elevates their book from a mere cutting away of a novel to a creative endeavor of its own. R E D cracks open Dracula’s prose to give a voice to the voiceless—a voice that is nuanced, complicated, and utterly enthralling.
When reading erasures, it is inevitable to consider the politics of erasing—Mary Ruefle in her essay, “On Erasure,” makes the connection between this kind of poetics and governmental censorship. What seems to be the difference between the poet and the censor is not an aesthetic choice (as Ruefle argues) but who is allowed to speak, whose narrative becomes the focal point of the erasure. Unlike the censor, who might redact a text to protect those in power, Berggrun redacts to give the power of language to those who are silenced and marginalized—the queer, the non-binary, the survivors of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence. R E D’s goals are both aesthetic and political: to disrupt the standard power dynamic of patriarchy while creating art.
While lines like ‘This whole story is put together/in such a way that you know more than I do,” from “Chapter XIX,” might only nod to the layering of source text and erased text to create an aesthetic that is self-aware, Berggrun often uses the book’s commentary on process to point to the political end of their poetry. In “Chapter XVII,”
I was trying to invent an excuse in a different voice I gave myself away to my typewriter I have typed every thought of my heart My power to tell the other side I have been touched by a wonderful anguish I have tried to be useful I have copied out the words of this terrible story I contain no secrets
These lines directly evoke the process of creating R E D, but they move beyond a mere self-awareness and glimpse the political ramifications of this erasure—“to tell the other side,” “to be useful,” to “contain no secrets.” This focus on giving expression to “a different voice” subverts both the book’s source text and very real and constant silencing of non-cis-gendered and non-masculine voices.
Acting as a catalyst to all these conceptual concerns (the authentic expression of the self, the political nature of erasure) is the narratives of abuse, rape, and sexual assault. Throughout the book, the speaker describes a nameless he that threatens and assaults her often. These descriptions hang between the familiar and unfamiliar spaces at play in R E D. With the supernatural elements completely removed from the text, the terrifying dangers of the masculine become completely real. Berggrun handles these dangers with deft understatement. “Chapter XIII” begins, “I was undressing in my room when he entered/and began/to autopsy operate cut unscrew/mutilate my tenderness.” Eschewing the grotesque for the subdued, Berggrun argues that it is not monsters who rape but human beings, that there is nothing fantastical about violence. They also show how dangerous the pervasiveness and normalization assault of can be. At the end of “Chapter XIII,” the speaker, after being attacked, describes her attacker thus, “he had evidently forgotten this dark episode.” In doing so, it becomes evident that the trauma of violence and assault is two-fold: the initial instance of it and the slow realization that such an experience is able to be quickly easily forgotten by the abuser.
R E D weaves together many conceptual layers to comment on the complicated nature of the self and the traumatized self. Midway through the book, Berggrun’s speaker states, “My thesis is this/I want to believe to believe/to believe in/a universe willing/to understand.” With this idea pulsing beneath each word and each line, the book occupies the uncanny space between persona and self, between reader and that which is read in order to foster an experience of understanding—using each layer to illuminate and deepen the book’s concerns.