The Sugar Book by Johannes Goransson
Tarpaulin Sky, 2015; 208 pp
Reviewed by Carleen Tibbetts
Butterflies feeding on decomposing oranges, whores, dead starlets, Los Angeles noir, war, ruin porn, the last words people put to death by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Francesca Woodman and her photography . . . these are just some of the motifs and subjects Johannes Goransson uses to “make a language out of the bleed-through” in his newest collection, The Sugar Book. He writes, “I look at my orpheus mask like it’s prison sex,” and indeed, Goransson is an Orpheus of sorts. He navigates an underworld—one of sickly-sweet rot manifested in the hyper-real of reality—using Los Angeles as the most exquisite backdrop. He writes:
My body is precious in Los Angeles so CAKE IT UP.
In Los Angeles, a previous body is tasteless, we have to wash
the cake off, we have to give it feelings, a sense of interiority.
Art ruins everything yeah.
Goransson writes of Los Angles as fantasy, the fantasy of burning it, of burning down the illusory. The first poem in the collection, “Burn the Whole Thing Down,” asks “Have you ever fallen in love while a city burned?” Burning the “sugar” of Los Angeles to the ground. Burn the “sugar” of ____ to the ground. Except, “sugar doesn’t melt, it decomposes,” the poet tells us later on. When any structure decays, when the sugar of____ decays, what do we do with the remains?
Throughout The Sugar Book, Goransson uses language smeared with bodily fluid and sex, language spackled with violence and death (in addition to literal bodies in states of otherness, objectification, violation, and evisceration), in mini-Ars Poeticas and commentary on the state of art and the art scene. Lines such as, “in my heart of darkness I have abortions/and candy surrealism,” and Goransson’s writing that his allegorical son (whom he invents in the book to destroy Los Angeles) “is fois gras is cannibalism is ‘sounds ok’ is puking silk” are just some moments of ecstas/agon-y.
Goransson dismantles the biblical “though shalt not cast one’s pearls before swine” cliché. He gorgeously debases and disartuculates capital “P” Poetry in asserting that, “poetry is swines that we feed pearls.” Poetry is slaughterable filth—there’s nothing precious here, nothing to be valued. As far as the life imitating art or art imitating life debate, for Goransson, “Life is not realistic./Art taught me that./It’s not even life.” And the artist? The artist is a “pig corpse on a cracked mirror.” Art and poetry as degeneracy. As squalor.
Poetry is “so beautiful when it involves gasoline./Or when it gives you a gun that clicks.”
The Sugar Book is vile and violent, but also asphyxiatingly sweet, choking while gorging on its aloof, artful persona. It unsettles. It takes the reader far beyond their comfort zone, as poetry should. Just like Los Angeles herself, the poems inhabit that glittering/grotesque duality of Kardashian Family and Manson Family. They have that eerie Chinatown feel. They are the disarticlated woman in the Black Dahlia murder. They are Richard Ramirez in all his night-stalking terror. The Sugar Book asks, when any structure decays, when the sugar decays, what do we do with the remains?