David Shields, in his seminal text, Reality Hunger, argues that contemporary literature has not kept up with contemporary art in terms of depth. Despite art’s ability to transcend image and space, to work duality of images and meaning, we, the literati, are still policed by comfortable tendencies toward text production and authorship. At least that’s what I remember about it. After I finished reading the book, I took on wild projects like collaging the DSM-IV, with little success, and later, coming to the realization that it’s just really, really hard to construct projects involving meta-text—which is likely why it hasn’t been fully embraced by the literary community. In her debut full-length book of poetry, Chase Berggrun has proved me wrong—her recent book, R E D, is a book-long erasure poem of the Bram Stoker’s Dracula (bold that r in Bram, the e in Stoker, and the D in Dracula).
This book-length poem, an erasure of Stoker’s classic, begins, “I was thirsty.” Hunger and thirst are revealed through Berggrun’s speaker, “a woman against a monster,” a woman attempting to regain agency under the psychological abuse of a man, who “consumes every scrap.” We meet this narrator in the midst of a clearly abusive relationship, both psychologically:
He was charming full of manhood
His mouth was cruel
the lips conceal a sea of wonders
I did not ask permission
My own body
a song sung by wheels and whips
Thirst, then, is for any drop of agency, no matter how small. The reader, from the start, is on this narrator’s side, her side. This reversal of protagonism turns on its head Berggrun’s seed text: Stoker’s violent novel, a book laden with toxic messages of misogyny and patriarchy. From the first chapter of Stoker’s novel, his protagonist claims:
The women looked pretty, except when you got near them, but they were very clumsy about the waist. They had all full white sleeves of some kind or other, and most of them had big belts with a lot of strips of something fluttering from them like the dresses in a ballet, but of course there were petticoats under them.
Think, dear, that there have been times when brave men have killed their wives and their womenkind, to keep them from falling into the hands of the enemy. Their hands did not falter any the more because those that they loved implored them to slay them. It is men’s duty towards those whom they love, in such times of sore trial!
The book continues to misrepresent a female character as nearly a slave to her male protagonist, as Lucy becomes more “attractive” in her transformation into vampire. Consequently, the conflict, now, is no longer with a physical monster, but rather with this symbolic monster of misogyny:
I start out lurid before outrage
I unhinged explanation from its frame
I violate limitation
and I condemn
the desecration of my body
I shall not give my consent
The reader, here, is in constant hope for some sort of success for this abused woman. Will she break free from this abuser? Can her spirit overcome this violence? And: How much can she take before she snaps? The narrative then, feels familiar: from Wide Sargasso Sea to any Lifetime movie. The difference is that of the meta-narrative, one of transformation and reclaiming for the purpose of agency. Nietzsche says, “No artist tolerates reality,” a phrase which is weaved through this book, within these concepts of erasure and identity of author, impressively, and jaw-droppingly, seamlessly.
Where many erasures will often feel confusing, offering up a few surprising golden lines or phrases, Berggrun succeeds in both keeping the reader engrossed in this narrative poem all the while maintaining the surprises inherent in this form. In Chapter IX, the speaker asserts:
One outburst was unusual and so violent
his screams were appalling
I found my hands full of sound
When he apologized
I found it well to humor him
He is reaping a harvest of lies
In terms of narrative, the victim here, after a violent outburst from her abuser, choses to humor the abuser in order to escape further emotional distress, a defense mechanism inherent in trauma. While these details work to strengthen the narrative without confusing the reader, the surprises—I found my hands full of sound—are maintained, clueing the reader to this central narrative conflict of abuse. As Berggrun’s speaker notes (or is it Berggrun? Both?), “This whole story is put together / in such a way that you know more than I do / but in a dreamy kind of way.”
The book itself reads like a novel in verse, segmented into chapters, and more accessible than even Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. I recently learned that Carl Phillips had chosen this text for a graduate-level class on prosody. Prosody? Yes, prosody. From an erasure poem. And Berggrun succeeds so beautifully in this arena for a number of reasons, but certainly because of her line breaks, offering her readers a hyper-awareness of the breath, and rarely deviating into radical enjambment. Her form, too, with the appearance of double-spaced verse, not only clues the reader into the erasure but also slows this narrative, giving the reader longer to process each line, and only breaking from this form at certain climactic and psychologically decisive moments in the protagonist’s trajectory:
Time did not seem long but very awful somewhere near the dogs all round the neighborhood were singing I was stupid with pain the sound seemed like the voice of my dead mother come back to me I screamed out
Just like iambic pentameter was designed to mimic the speech patterns of its time, rhythm, here, is handled syntactically, alternating between subject-verb and passive sentences which will often make you feel as though this speaker is in your living room talking to you over coffee and a pack of Virginia Slims (kind of like a Marie Howe poem).
The result, then, is a reclaiming of violence and femininity by this transgender poet. As the speaker recounts of her abuser, “He knew that if I was to flirt with power // I might want it,” the author–not only within traditional narrative themes of climax and transformation, but also through reclaiming this text–empowers the historically abused, marginalized and voiceless. Here, unlike Stoker’s protagonist, get ready to care about this one: “I am young and desperate // If I have to I will burn the world.”
John Bonanni lives on Cape Cod, where he serves as founding editor for the Cape Cod Poetry Review. He is the recipient of a scholarship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and a residency from AS220 in Providence, RI. His poems have appeared in CutBank, Assaracus, Verse Daily, Hobart, Washington Square Review, Seattle Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Prairie Schooner. His critical essays have appeared online for MA Poetry Festival and for the Kenyon Review.