Before we settle into our plush, faux-velvet seats, share bags of popcorn and watch the latest film about zombies who managed to escape from Pittsburgh and its parking lots, does anyone out there dream of making a movie about Jeffrey Dahmer starring Brad Pitt or James Franco?
No matter where you turn, post-9/11 America keeps upping the ante in the contradiction department. A typical day is apt to mean the press finds it necessary to document the three designer outfits the pregnant Kim Kardashian needed to wear in a span of less than twelve hours, while a photogenic newscaster with perfect teeth dutifully files a report about a baby that died of starvation, shrapnel or sexual abuse (take your pick) during the past twenty-four hours. The appropriate music follows each of these segments. And then come the lavish commercials about the secret enhancing power of a facial cream or the perfect dessert to cap a romantic evening.
America is a site of narcissistic extravagance and extreme deprivation, with the gap widening between the two. It exists somewhere between Technicolor fantasy and black-and-white documentary. It is both a country at war (with itself and with others) and a tacky movie in which the hostages are always freed just before the audience gets restless.
What would Walt Whitman have done with these contradictions seems to be one of the questions that motivated Johannes Göransson to write Haute Surveillance (Tarpaulin Sky, 2013), a book that shares something with Whitman, Monique Wittig, J. G. Ballard and Dostoevsky’s “underground man.” Göransson, who has previously published five books and translated the Swedish poet Aase Berg into English, is one of the few contemporary poets who bring disgust into his writing without cloaking it in irony or some other self-protective device.
In “Song of Myself” — which many consider Walt Whitman’s quintessential poem in Leaves of Grass — the poet famously declares: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” The speaker in Haute Surveillance is the bastard offspring of the gargantuan “I” animating Whitman’s poem. Near the beginning of the book, Göransson declares:
I write this for the mute actress and the dead girls and the Virgin Father who speaks in this mausoleum and Mother Machine Gun who carries my body through the tumultuous crowds. Sticky and stricken-out, I write this for people on posters. I write this for the breathers and bleeders. I write this with a geometry suggesting awkwardness. I write this as a punishment. I write this for those infested and luxurious and teeming.
I write this for the people who are at war.
I write this from hotel rooms and because I have a medical condition. The skin bleeds and pinches. It’s a ridiculous death I am living and I live it ridiculously in an economy of trickle-down disease.
Speaking of dead children: There is no place for immigrants in utopia and all film-makers must be renounced. I could never grow up in a house like that. Unless I was a dead child. An embalmed child. A child that never vandalized his own do-wop body with surveillance equipment.
I vandalize my do-wop body due to my modest self-control.
I call my line of work haute surveillance.
Is this what it means to be a poet with a social consciousness living in America? You are reduced to being in the business of fashionable observation. Or is all of America — where you can follow Justin Timberlake, the partially naked Rihanna and countless others on Twitter — in the business of high-class voyeurism, which is one small step away from renting a pornographic road movie in your shabby motel room.
This novel is written for breathing virgins. To help them understand the wonder that is their skin to help them perform admirably. To teach them about heroic and half-shot out buildings. To hurt them so correctly they will never doubt that they have been hurt in the kill. This is a novel about the black-and-white virginity of early cinema, the body tricked into doubles and contortions. Hello I am you.
In addition to the Virgin Father and Mother Machine Gun, Göransson has populated Haute Surveillance with the Starlet, Father Voice-Over, the Black Man, Sister Dark, the expresident, the Soldiers, the Genius Child Orchestra, abortionists and anti-abortionists. These and other archetypes keep reappearing in unexpected ways. Shelley Duvall, in The Shining, drops in from time to time. Various movies (Hiroshima Mon Amour) and books (In the Penal Colony) get mentioned.
What the poets associated with “Flarf” recognize — and the literary mainstream still ignores to a large degree — is that the Internet has flattened daily life into a constantly swirling, cacophonous mosaic. Instead of extending that jarring, two-dimensional world into poems, Göransson has absorbed Frank O’Hara’s “intimate yell” and made it all his own. Haute Surveillance is a world of wounded voices.
I have a nightmare about a girl covered with blood and when I wake up sweating my wife tells me a fairytale.
For all the disparate information that Göransson brings swiftly and confidently into play, Haute Surveillance is not a collage. None of it feels arbitrary, which is nothing short of miraculous. At the very least, the author’s ambition was to write a new “Song of Myself” addressing these confusing, contradictory times in which we are at war, as well as to construct memorable situations without resorting to a plot or other familiar literary devices. He succeeded at both. His reasoning is simple and direct:
Sometimes I want a room of my own, but mostly I just want a room without all these corpse-patterned wallpaper.
Göransson’s fast-paced, present-tense writing critiques itself while moving forward, collapsing together all of discourses and vocabularies associated with the nightly news, feminism, sexual identity, Hollywood movies, science fiction, performance art, pornography, and poetry invested in the stable lyric “I.” Bots from academia mix with bits of the street.
Haute Surveillance is written in blocks of prose, lists, and lines. The collapsing together of different discourses doesn’t stop at the literal. Goransson turns it into a book that is unclassifiable — part epic poem, part science fiction, part pornographic film, and all literature. He writes sentences that the reader has to stop and think about. This is what I found so powerful about Haute Surveillance.
In other words, I give you my childhood, you give me an odalisque with money in her snatch. I give you comfort from the scandalous world of fashion, you idealize me, placing a rose behind my ear.
It’s a deal for the radiantly impoverished.
Welcome to America, which prizes beauty above life. Haute Surveillance should be sold in every bookstore and newsstand in, on or about the premises of a bus station, train station, or airport.
Haute Surveillance by Johannes Göransson is available on Tarpaulin Sky’s website.