The Sugar Book, cover

[Excerpt from the notebook I kept in the fall of 2014 when I returned home to my native country, Sweden, to rewrite The Sugar Book, which was published in the spring of 2015.]

***

Why do I always cry when I hear this Adele song on airplanes? Such an absurd song: the speaker returns to the lover of her youth and pleads with him to go with her. Go where? Back to "summer" of course, when they were young. Only now it's covered with ants. Why go back to summer? There's only one thing to do in summer when it's no longer summer. Kill yourself.

*

Flowers: I’m going home to write a book about corpses and children. I’m writing it in the rotten summer. An expired summer is the proper home for melancholics and emigrants. The expired summer looks like a crime scene: the ants are crawling in the folds of a dead swan’s plumage.

*

"An airplane is a paranoid symbol." These words pop into my head as I watch the rabble around me. They're all watching war movies. I'm watching a war movie. It looks like it's about conquest but I can't understand the words.

*

I'm going back home to write a book about sugar. I'm writing it with sugar on my fingers. The ants love this kind of poetry. "Summer poetry." Dead swan poetry. Ruin poetry.

*

In a cafe in Copenhagen I'm reading Saul Friedlander write about kitsch in Reflections on Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death. The Nazis built a whole empire based on aesthetic considerations for its inevitable collapse into ruins.

*

Friedlander calls kitsch a kind “debased romanticism.” But he also writes about kitsch: “…an overload of symbols; a baroque setting; an evocation of a mysterious atmosphere, of the myth and of religiosity enveloping a vision of death announced as a revelation opening out into nothing—nothing but frightfulness and the night. Unless… Unless the revelation is that of a mysterious force leading man toward irresistible destruction.” His invocation of this kitsch aesthetic is so beautiful, it feels like he's advocating it.

*

Martin asks me if I think Olga Ravn is gurlesque. I open her book I Eat Myself Like Heather. Girl Mind to a random page and read: “The gold hearts, purple party shrouds all through life, the boundary has been crossed, now we will have to learn to take pleasure in that too, an easy-to-read book with the title sex sucks cement in hell. // The gold hearts, the girl room, solved the mystery by saying hey we DIDN’T solve it.” I tell him that would be one way of reading it. When he asks me to define the gurlesque, I tell him it has to do with kitsch. Later I buy the book in a bookstore. But the bookstore doesn't have a copy of Lars Norén's diaries.

*

A song tells me, I must leave now, take what I think I need. The New Economy always tells us to leave the dead summer, the ruins. Tells us to solve the crimes. To move on. This song is a cover. My mom played the original for me when I was a child. I was named after the original, I was named Baby Blue. I am going home to eat the poisoned cake.

*

I'm fascinated by the discussions about "ruin porn." I'm fascinated by all the people condemning it, and, most of all, I'm fascinated by the xenophobia of so many of those condemnations. The photographers who take the photographs of the luxurious beauty of crumbling Detroit are accused of being foreigners. I'm reading a discussion right now, where one such photographer points out that he's from Detroit. The critics immediately reply: No, if you were really from Detroit you wouldn't aestheticize our economic collapse. Not only is it only foreigners who make "porn," making porn makes you a foreigner.

*

One problem is of course with photography: there is no interiority. In a photograph, we all become foreign. Isn't this why Susan Sontag disliked Dianne Arbus? The images lacked interiority.

*

What is lost in the foreign: the currency of interiority. Foreigners lead to inflation: too many people, too many versions, not enough soul.

*

I'm thinking about the time a writer attacked me for turning her book into pornography by reading it retinally and failing to see it as a very ethical "critique" of pornography. Later she forbid me from writing about her writing because I come from "some place different." I'm not from the Bay Area. I'm from some place else. I make pornography of even a very moral critique. I ruin the sense of agency, the interiority. I make kitsch.

*

Everyone here is talking about Lars Norén's diaries, which he's been writing for years. Most reviewers are negative. In Aftonbladet, Göran Greider manages to accuse Norén of all my favorite charges: Norén is like a spectator in a "spectator democracy"; he's like an Internet troll; if Norén was the head of a country, he'd be a merciless "despot," annihilating cities at random; he's like a mirror; he writes "a kind of pornography for the middle class"; he's "like an animal waiting to be dissected"; and, of course, dead, a corpse. But on the other hands, Greider acknowledges: "when he doesn't hate, his language is the most beautiful I know."

*

Thomas has bought the house his parents lived in when we were kids, but he's totally remodeled it. Very stylish. While he was mowing his lawn, I went for a walk across the fields. I just kept walking. After a while, I realized where I was walking. When I got to my childhood home, strangely my first reaction was: What a great house, why would anyone ever sell such a house?

*

How strange it is to be home. Seeing this place I'm from is oddly similar to the sensation of going to Korea. The feeling of returning home and the feeling of being some place utterly foreign: How could these feelings be so similar? Both feelings make me cry in joy, or something between joy and melancholia.

*

Publishers Weekly has reviewed Haute Surveillance, calling it "pornography" and akin to "channel surfing." The anonymous critic writes: "Göransson’s celebratory and orgiastic barrage of smut reiterates an already exhausted critique of political theater, nihilistic spectatorship, and American popular culture. The shock of this screed is undermined by sheer unrelenting volume making for a cringe-inducing text that feels paradoxically abrasive and cliché. What Görannson has created is a vacuous form of post-modernism that feels more like an exercise in masochism than boundary-pushing experimentation." So what I write is pornography, but I have also managed to turn it into "critique." It is a perceptive review, capturing the "cringe-inducing" and "unrelenting" quality of the book, but for some reason the critic can't understand that I don't hate "nihilistic spectatorship." The critic is perceptive but can't follow the book where it takes them: they seem to be overwhelmed by the need to condemn the book.  They even have to spell my name incorrectly.

*

Why masochism and not sadism?

*

Behind the PW's critic's objection is a somewhat strange assumption: My book is bad because it's pornographic, but also because in its "unrelenting volume," it fails to be good pornography. I'm sorry you couldn't get off on my book, Publishers Weekly. The foreigner makes porn, but the foreigner also fails. For one, fails to master nation status. The result: kitsch, pornography, inflation.

*

I think about Daniel Tiffany's work on kitsch, his quote of Herman Broch: "Kitsch is a foreign body lodged in the overall system of art." Publishers Weekly is the "industry standard," and means to protect the American "system" from foreign bodies—tasteless and tastelessly embodied. "Gatekeepers" like PW are so set on defending their supposedly democratic ideal of moderation, which is really a very elitist notion of taste. Kristeva might have said: the foreign bodies are pollutants.

*

I think about Ranciere, The Emancipation of the Spectator: He finds the roots of the attacks on the excess and—pornographic?—thrills of mass culture in the old elite's fear of mass culture. Those same people are still running Publishers Weekly: trying to maintain a sense of restraint and moderation.

*

I think PW's critic is right about the "masochistic" aspect of my book. I think about Steve Shaviro's The Cinematic Body, where he argues against film theorists' iconophobia, writing of his own engagement with films: "“My own masochistic theoretical inclination is to revel in my bondage to images, to celebrate the spectatorial condition of metaphysical alienation and ideological delusion, rather than strive to rectify it.”

*

My apartment in Malmö has a beautiful terrace but it smells like sperm.

*

I should buy more vegetables. Should eat more vegetables. Get healthy. Run probably. Take the fish hook out of my eye.

*

To go home and to go some place utterly different: Why do these sensations feel so similar? I write 13 poems imitating Yi-Sang.

*

“The cadaver is its own image. It no longer entertains any relation with this world where it still appears except that of an image, an obscure possibility, a shadow ever present behind the living form, which now far from separating itself from this form transforms it entirely into shadow the corpse is a reflection becoming master of the life it reflects—absorbing it identifying substantively with it by moving it from its use value and from its truth value to something incredible—something neutral  which there is no getting used to and if the cadaver is so similar it is because it is at a certain moment similarity par excellence altogether similarity and also nothing more it is the likeness like to an absolute degree overwhelming and marvelous but what is it like nothing.” —Maurice Blanchot

*

I write: "I turn on suveillance, turn on heat. / The effect is ominous: the reverse wound./I look horrified in the image and also ‘satanic’ due to the milk./You spumey fuck."

*

When I went to Detroit I slept in a motel with blood on the pillow. Outside my window: a crumbling facade. I read poetry for the ruins because they reminded me of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, where the guide brings customers into the Zone, which may be the area infected by a toxic disaster or may be the zone of art, where every desire can come true. The guide’s hair is gray in tufts and his child was born misshapen because he has spent too much time in Art’s evil zone; it has made him an outsider  in his town, a foreigner in his own family. Art affects the body like cancer. Home is where your heart is, homesick is what your heart is. What evil it is to be so saturated by art’s foreignness.

*

I write: "I look like a virgin because I'm scared and I'm drinking black milk from my wife's hands. From her Hiroshima glass."

*

The experience of being a foreigner in one's own home: I keep walking around Malmö expecting to see people I know. I'm going to go see my aunt tomorrow. She lives over in Ribbersberg. "Oh, Ribban. That's where the real Malmö-ites from way back live," says Sara. We're eating falafels.

*

I went to Leif's apartment and talked for two hours. He lives surrounded by art and books and b-movies. It's like a cave of art.

*

It seems Friedlander opposes any art that is not personal testimonies of survivors; and that any art that deals with the Holocaust thus becomes Nazi-esque. He connects the baroque over-aesthetic of Nazism to these later artworks: It's as if all art becomes kitsch when dealing with history.

*

Sara lends me her copy of Norén's diary. I'm surprised to discover how much of it consists of shopping lists. Like a caricature of the bourgeoisie, he keeps buying fancy clothing, it seems so that he will be forced to remain incredibly productive, writing as many as three plays at the same time. It's as if he's using debt as a kind of currency, a kind of meaning, a reason to keep writing plays.

*

Norén: "Soon I will begin to write harder, more nakedly, briefer. Beyond the mist. Scenes from over-exposed photographs. Dialogues that could have been captured from a surveillance camera. Movement, physics, behaviorism. I long for the light that is called merciless. I'm heading there."

*

Another take on the interiority-less figures of photographs: as a relief from "expression." A relief from himself. Suicidal. Maybe Greider was right.

*

Went to see Leif's exhibition. Unfortunately the janitors had thought it was trash and thrown it away. Fortunately Leif had managed to save the trash. I went back to my apartment and now I'm working on The Sugar Book. I am writing about trash and sex. My poems must be trashier, shittier, even more extravagant in their inflationary production. Making counterfeit money to ruin the economy.

*

I'm writing about a shitty Orpheus: "My wife tells me that the road to joy is littered// with corpses. I think they have sperm on them.///She thinks they have Xs on them."

*

I remember when one critic wrote to me in a blog exchange that I was "throwing bombs" at U.S. poetry. The violence of kitsch, the threat of the foreigner.

*

"He had similar plans to you," Joyelle writes in an email, about Nijinksi.

*

After drinking with Sara, we walked back towards our houses. It started to rain lightly. We stopped in a grocery store for cigarettes. Behind the counter was a picture of a beautiful gate, trees pouring out behind it. I asked the cashier, what is that a photograph of? He said a name I didn’t catch. It’s a park, he said, in Baghdad. It isn’t there anymore.

*

This morning on the official sign that read “This Area Is Under Surveillance” somebody had slapped a sticker that said “MY HEART IS A BOMB!”
 
 

Originally Published: April 10th, 2017

Poet and translator Johannes Göransson emigrated with his family from Skåne, Sweden to the United States at age 13. He earned a BA from the University of Minnesota, an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his PhD from the University of Georgia. He is the author of several books,...