The Sugar Book by Johannes Göransson
Tarpaulin Sky Press, May 2015
208 pages – Tarpaulin Sky
If humanists are to be believed, the Earth — with its vast wealth of ecosystems and life forms — had no value until humans came onto the scene.
–John Gray, Straw Dogs
I find it so liberating to be free of linear time, of linear literary genres, of forward thinking, of progress, founders, and heirs, and instead enter into a variegated zone of alteration, mutation, change, generation, replication, which draws little distinction among me, my body, my laptop, my output, my outfit, my input.
— Joyelle McSweeney, The Necropastoral
1. Poetry of the Planet
In his book on “cosmic pessimism” entitled In The Dust of This Planet, Eugene Thacker lays out what he sees as the three concepts that constitute our sense of reality.
There is the World, which is the zone where we act and interpret and perceive, “a human-centric mode of being.”
There is the Earth, which is “the world as an object” and encompasses “geology, archaeology, paleontology,” etc.
Lastly, there is the Planet, which is the “world-without-us.”
Planet is difficult to grasp, being non-human and against our humanist assumptions about history, meaning, consciousness (as Thacker points out, consciousness itself is simply a roll of the evolutionary dice). In fact, he argues, some of the best attempts to deal with the idea of Planet come not from philosophers themselves, but from what he calls “dark mysticism” and from the horror genre. Horror, in both literature and film, has often challenged the humanist World with various emanations of Planet, “expressing them not in abstract concepts but in a whole bestiary of impossible life forms — mists, ooze, blobs, slime, clouds, and muck.”
I bring this up because Johannes Göransson is one of the major poets of this concept of Planet, and also because he often uses genre (horror, but noir too) to help convey this sense of the non-human. Poetry, of course, has long dealt with the nonhuman, going all the way back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, and some of the best contemporary poetry addresses these non-humanist realms. Lara Glenum, Joyelle McSweeney, Arda Collins, Feng Sun Chen, Rauan Klassnik, Ariana Reines, and Lucas de Lima all write powerful poems relating to Planet. Göransson’s particular focus is the intersection of the nonhuman with masquerade, or how the undermining of human-centric assumptions leads to a sort of ontological/political masquerade.
In Göransson’s poetry, there is no self-congratulation about being on “the right side of history.” History, having no human face, no Mind, and no anthropomorphic Hegelian Spirit, has no sides. There are only events. There’s only Los Angeles.
2. Los Angeles
Sugar and Los Angeles have a lot in common. So it makes sense that The Sugar Book should be inspired by the city. Like sugar, Los Angeles is often seen as a pretty poison, a sweet sickness, a mess of empty calories: fun and pleasure on one side, rot and corruption on the other. Los Angeles is the pretty pink cake that will make our teeth fall out, cause our arteries to harden. The first lines in the book tell us exactly where we are:
Los Angeles tastes like iron in my mouth
and I blame my daughters,
for I’m feverish and they stand on the stairs and stare.
Here, Los Angeles almost is sugar. The speaker can taste it. But instead of tasting sweet, it tastes like iron. The element of masquerade is already starting. The daughters here seem like daughters in a Gothic narrative. They stare eerily from the stairs, like characters in a Shirley Jackson novel. A few lines later, we’re told, “A daughter brings the inside outside / and the outside inside.” Not “my” daughter: “a” daughter. In The Sugar Book, we don’t encounter people or individuals, but characters and roles. Everything is symbolic, and yet there is no way to strip off the symbols to get to the root, or the real.
The poet tells us, “Shells are an omen in Los Angeles. / Fog is an omen in Los Angeles.” In Göransson’s Los Angeles, there are clues and more clues, but there is no final narrative to make sense of them. In a way, what Göransson is writing is the opposite of a conspiracy theory. In a conspiracy theory, the secret, hard-to-come-by clues eventually lead to a singular truth. In this Los Angeles, every clue circulates out in the open around a non-existent center. As the poet says in “I’m Working”:
My wife on the other hand is writing a treatise on
photography parties from the 1980s, but she has white
stuff smeared on her fingers. I’m thinking, I hate
evidence but I love clues.
“Evidence” leads to solutions, to coherent narratives, while “clues” are ghostly, symbolic. A role is to a person what a clue is to evidence.
Like other writers of Los Angeles, from Nathanael West to Joan Didion to Steve Erickson, Göransson is fascinated by the multiplication of images, the way the POP factory undermines the search for personal and/or cultural authenticity. But unlike some other writers, Göransson has a Warholian attitude towards images. Here, image isn’t a one-dimensional screen separating us from the actual event being filmed or photographed. It isn’t a lack. Here, an image is something additional, a surplus. Not even Hollywood can control it. (“Los Angeles invented bodies that it could not control for they were driven by an occult force: Fame.”) This symbolic “Los Angeles” therefore becomes a generator of worlds, like the gods.
“Who did this to you,” asks my wife when she’s removed
“God,” says my daughter and laughs.
“Los Angeles,” says my wife and laughs.
Göransson is not a moralist when it comes to Art; he’s a paradoxicalist. Los Angeles is the site of counterfeit realities, but all realities are already counterfeit. Hollywood by its very unreality is more “real” than most places, in that sense. Göransson writes:
It’s hard to hear what people are saying when their
mouths are full of sugar. Or when they’re laying face
down in the street. Communication is all about failure,
but I’m all about secret messages. Made for tape. It’s how
I’m not learning to get out of Los Angeles.
There’s no escape from Los Angeles, just as there is no escape into a full-bodied, cohesive, pre-counterfeit state.
And yet The Sugar Book is hardly a celebration of “Los Angeles” and masquerade. Göransson has sometimes been accused of endorsing a 60s-style belief that an unhindered, orgiastic Eros will save the world. It’s a wildly inaccurate reading partly because 1) Göransson’s poetry in no way seems out to save the world, based as it is on recurring loops of imagery and sound that never hint at a utopian “out there,” and 2) because Göransson’s masquerades relate as much to Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death: A Fantasy” and the high artifice of Elizabethan theater as it does to Studio 54. The book references both Poe and The Duchess of Malfi, as if to highlight this other notion of theatricality. Los Angeles is not a mellow aesthetic playground. As the speaker tells us:
he told me that he had come to Los Angeles because he
thought all his dreams would come true here. A prospect
horrifying and reminiscent of colonialism.
I’m drawing a picture of my son but the mosquitoes get
in the way and outside Los Angeles seems to be burning
again. The teen angels are messing with lanterns. I’m
scared that my son will become famous. I fear he will
return in stained furs and thousands of bodies will belong
in his fame.
Some readers at this point might ask: So what is it? Is Los Angeles an engine creating false dreams and cultural colonialism? Or is it a site of fame and intensity and feverish intermingling? In The Sugar Book it is both. Right now. At exactly the same moment.
Göransson is a controversial poet. He’s been labeled a fascist, a misogynist, and many other things as well by some critics. I suspect it’s this tendency on his part to not draw clear dividing lines between such tensions (liberation/exploitation, love/hate, anarchism/capitalism, real life/Art, dominance/submission) that drives some readers up the wall. Göransson is certainly of the Left, but his work is as savagely anti-idealist as Burroughs or Guyotat or Ballard. Like those writers, he has no interest in assuring the reader that she or he lives, along with the poet, on the right side of history. Many poets deal with moral ambiguity, but often with the implied promise that the ambiguity might one day, under better circumstances or in a better world, be resolved. In The Sugar Book, the ambiguity is persistent, part of the very air of Los Angeles.
3. Sugar Sickness (or, Poetry Plays Itself)
A real movie shoot can create a better public spectacle than the fake movie studio tours.
— Thom Andersen, Los Angeles Plays Itself
Sometimes you hear the term “nourishing” applied to a poem or books of poems. “Nourishing” is clearly well meaning and innocuous enough, but I’ve always thought it was an odd word choice. Why should poetry “nourish” us? The metaphor implies wholesomeness, goodness, health. There’s an “eat-your-spinach” aspect about it. “You should eat some of this because it’s nourishing” is a very different sentence from “You should eat some of this because it tastes fucking great” or “You should try this because you’ve probably never had anything quite like it before.”
It also implies that the “nourishing” poetry offers authenticity in an inauthentic world. Bread and soup and water and vegetables are nourishing. They’re real. They’re not filled with corn syrup or all those Latinate chemical names on the back of certain boxes. Campari and ice cream and red velvet cake and Twinkies are not nourishing. They are less real, less natural.
The Sugar Book: the title alone warns readers we will not be “nourished” by these pages. (It’s all-too-easy to imagine the response to this in some quarters: The Sugar Book is an example of the empty calories of capitalism, etc., etc.)
But this is only one of the ways the book is a mediation on the nature (and/or anti-nature) of poetry. While reading The Sugar Book, I kept thinking about Leos Carax’s 2012 film Holy Motors: just as that film is also a meditation on the medium of film-making (and Art in general), so is The Sugar Book a mediation on poetry-making. For example, at one point the poet says:
I’m not naked by the door but I have had it with
all this “cutting to the bone” rhetoric in poetry.
Insects are alive and history is never over.
The contemporary rhetoric of the chiseled line, of every word being essential, is here juxtaposed on one side with the “not naked” poet, and on the other with two visions of overflow: bugs living outside our humanist mindset, and history itself as an always evolving phenomena. The rhetoric of “cutting to the bone” is embedded in these images of organic and historical dynamism. Partly due to this overflowing, Göransson emphasizes the transformative powers of poetry, its ability to shape-shift, its contours always evasive:
If there’s such a thing as Poetry it should taste like that
flower. It should feel like water on one’s naked skin.
But it feels like a curtain instead.
Sweaty and someone has drawn lewd images on the velvet.
Someone has cut a strip out to stuff in my mouth. It tastes
like Victory. Poetry has to destroy Los Angeles.
Poetry has to be Los Angeles.
Here, we start with two familiar images for poetry: flowers and freshness/renewal. But instead of these, poetry turns out to feel like a curtain. This is the contrary notion of poetry — poetry as that which separates us from the world with beauty, metaphor, artifice, and hyperbole (what “poetic” implies when used in a derogatory manner). Then Göransson gives this simile a corporeal dimension. Someone draws lewd images on the velvet curtain and stuffs part of it in his mouth. In this seemingly submissive state, the poet tastes “Victory.”
The stuffed mouth seems crucial, too. Instead of poetry letting the writer find his own voice, it stuffs his mouth with its velvety, lewd material.
And lastly, we return to the theme of Los Angeles. In a Nietzschean move, the poet gives with one hand and takes away with the other. “Poetry has to destroy Los Angeles”: poetry has to rebel against the dominating, capitalist Hollywood machine. “Poetry has to be Los Angeles”: poetry has a lot to learn from film: masks, persona, the replication of images, the blurring of fiction and life, mediumicity. Again, we have both, at the same time. Destroy, and be.
Near the end of the book, Göransson makes it clear that this entire collection is a mapping of Los Angeles, but a Los Angeles that is perpetually on fire, burning down:
Every time the thrashing bodies ruin the map, I mean the
poem that is Los Angeles burning down, but Los Angeles
burns down, it’s what it does. I’m just trying to get it to
burn me down with it. I attended the riots but nothing
happened. I wanted to steal a television for the camera
but I looked too rich in my velvet coat, even though my
sweater was yellow from puke and I smelled sour. Art
is a luxury in America and Los Angeles is a symbol.
Burning down Los Angeles is a luxurious act.
This is the book at its most provocative. We often think of riots as a pure expression of rage and despair, and there’s a certain truth to that idea. But isn’t there a little condescension in that idea also? Are oppressed groups really society’s Id? Famous French rebellions (such as May ’68, the Commune of Paris), with their soaring speeches and costumes and imaginative graffiti, are probably most well-known for this aesthetic side to revolt (they’re French, after all), but it’s likely a lot of revolts/rebellions have this self-reflexive, theatrical element. The leather jackets and berets of the Black Panthers didn’t make the group any less committed. Theatricality doesn’t mean insincerity.
In this passage, the poet wants to steal a TV “for the camera,” emphasizing this performative element of revolt. He wants to be part of it but his “velvet coat” – and earlier, we saw how “velvet” is the material of poetry – won’t let him blend in. Then he goes on to talk about “luxury,” but in a curious way. “Art is a luxury in America”: this seems non-controversial enough, suggesting that Art here is elitist, and not something many can afford today. But then he writes, “Burning down Los Angeles is a luxurious act.” How can that be if riots are usually, on one level, a demand for something (justice, income equality, etc.) that is missing? I think Göransson is using “luxury” here in the sense that Bataille uses it in his theories about “general economy.” The theory is an incredibly complex one, and I don’t claim to understand large portions of it, but the basic premise is that economies (like the earth itself) produce an excess of energy, a surplus, and instead of restricting this surplus (as we do with our austerity policies), the surplus should be squandered (the potlatch being his most famous example). Modern capitalism tries to obscure this movement through hoarding and accumulation, but it’s there nevertheless. “Luxury” is a form of this waste, this expenditure. To say a riot is a “luxurious act” in this context is to say it’s a surplus to the neo-liberal status quo. It switches the motivating force of a riot from emptiness and lack to energy and shattering generosity. And this notion of luxury leads us to reread the earlier line of Art being a luxury. It becomes much less conventional now. Art is a “luxury” in the sense that, like a riot, it’s a form of expenditure.
This takes us back to sugar, so often a sign of “luxury,” but also waste (that Campari and red velvet cake, for example). We think of dessert as coming after the meal, and as something extra, and only if we have room for it. At a time when the language of austerity has become so prevalent, so enmeshed in our culture and media, and when even certain sectors of the left sometimes seem caught up in the logic of austerity and lack and no, the genius and challenge of Göransson’s book is that it says no and yes at the same time. Destroy Los Angeles. Become Los Angeles. Have your cake and eat it too.