Swallowing Feathers by Vilde Bjerke Torset.
How to frame Torset’s coordinating metaphors, structures and orders? The poems are scattered like yellow petals of an anguished rose strewn over the feast table. First and probably last word: these are poems after the catastrophe, whose ‘shadows/ are deaths or depth traps.’ The rest is speculation. And do we have to do that, speculate and expose? As she herself says, ‘Writing do I have to spell it out I extract myself/ and wonder how little is needed before peeling/ the self centred onion not concerned with weeping…’
Begin with the Legend of St Francis in Paradiso 11. He leaves the world to found a fraternal order, ‘ which Torset formaldehydes as ‘ the pragmatic thing to do’, a matter of ‘giving away reality…’ He gives up wealth and society and is a scandal to that world, ‘cut into things that don’t exist anymore/ … braces itself for the flagellation…’ . He marries Lady poverty. Boundaries between the physical and spiritual are blurred. He parodies the legal and institutional fictions of society. Lives betwixt and between. Is all, so to speak, a doubled, liminal existence. The two worlds of contingency and history and absolute Paradise and Redeemer existence shimmer. Communitas is the speculative myth, a scandalous utopia, disengaged from history yet historicized. It refreshes structures of the world.
Exile becomes a stance from which the poet as pilgrim can speak to the world and impose order on it. The poet experiences all this as a series of synecdoches – rehearsals of the event. Eden is the ordering of history, the liminal area from where we have a vision of secular order. The poet encounters Matilda Astrea in the garden sequence at the top of Purgatory and Eden, rather than an oasis of tranquility is a space of radical ambiguity. It is part of the geography of the world, a painful confrontation with a personal own past as witnessed in Purgatory 30 to 31. And only then does a new journey with Beatrice start. In Torset it’s Norway and London, now and then, here and there. She’s well aware. Matilda is a former erotic adventure of the poet. Ezra Pounds’ Calvalcanti and his pastorella draws in Torset’s stewed nature. Matilda is thus a kind ofs eros, and a version of Proserpina who was raped by Pluto who lost Eden. Her eyes are those of Venus when wounded by the arrows of Cupid. Leander’s hatred of Hellspont separated him from this beloved. All this is a version of Adam caught in the instability of being human, where any language of secular history – of any history, including the persona, prefigures the City of God at the final end of time. Here only is the place where fictions of a golden age coincide with reality.
Poetry according to this is the Garden within a specifically Christian dispensation, a blurred margin between inside and outside the world. Torset is wilding all this. If any of this rings true it’s firmly buried and chopped into little bits. A reader must hunker down and recognize that if anything is happening it’s dangerous. Probably under a moon. Adams’ name is just four letters scattered across the globe. In this sort of pastoral any virtue of hope brings together two different pastoral traditions. On the one hand there’s Isaiah’s version of a new paradise where wolves and lambs, leopards and kids will lie down together (Isaiah 6-7) which also echoes the fall of Mantua - city of Vergil- from Arcadians place in secular history. And on the other hand? A firm notion of anti-prophetic momentum.
Torset’s dark pastorals, her unharmonious Edens + pastorals, those swallowed feathers to start with, all comes in at an angle from this. And there’s also a barely seen Edenic friendship theme running through the distraught fragments which acknowledges the link between friendship+ Eden in this old pastoral tradition, something that is often overlooked and which brings a warmth to her poems, and a renewing though difficult hope. Ambrose sees friendship as as foretaste of the harmony of Heaven. Paulinus of Nola also. In these moments friendship is understood as raising oneself with God but they talk of friendship purely as a private term. Dante, poetic modernism’s founder via Pound, Eliot, Beckett, Joyce etc, historicises friendship via the metaphor of unity. It is emnity that destroyed the garden and pulled it into the history of the world. Beatrice reminds the poet of Exodus which is a type of baptism , a sacramental renewal via grace in the double sense of reenacting Exodus and as the font of baptisms – one a preparation of grace, the second the descent of grace itself. ‘I chose my twin whispers/Nothing to be done’.
Exodus is thus the city and and the garden and also the area of history enacting metaphorics of the desert. We are home by being in continuous exile. Dante radically shifts the notion of pastoral by placing the estrangements of the city to the bucolic odium of Eden. Torset too. City and garden are no longer opposed in this poetry. Before Dante Vergil had already tested this idea in Book 8 of the Aeneid where the idyll is marked as a future ground of Rome. Arcadia was already intruded by the violence of Hercules and the war between Aeneas and Turnus. Dante uses Biblical images of the city and enclosed garden of Jerusalem. St Jerome transposed Eden to the garden from the countryside, now totally paganised. The city becomes a humble, frugal place of innocence. The Crusader Cacciaguida remembers Florence as a humble village.
But the city is corrupted by decorations, a closed, self-sufficient circular universe like the mystical rose. God, where there’s plenitude in a poverty, discards the temptations of trespass. Adam and Ulysses are models of such trespass. The poem is a type of Jerusalem, a city corrupted by disunity within. Confusion means Babylon here where family and society bonds were ignored. Cacciaguida in paradise sees the totality of event through the eschatological cities of Babylon and Jerusalem. Earth city is finitude, all will end. Its mutability is all governed by fortune. Torset begins here, with a knowing modernistic sensibility that warns that this is all far far away and asking, ‘ don’t you know it can’t eavesdrop/on your scriptures…’ whose entropic murmur can evoke ‘ your rosetta around your neck’ which ‘is the /noose the loose the moose…’ which tarries with nonsense and the eschatological doom where ‘ there’s not much to hold onto into/where burnt tongue fell.’
She’s a war poet in just the sense that she’s still fighting a backwards extinction from Eden to Jerusalem. Like all the high modernists do. We can break this down into three parts: one, the upper/lower casement of her Nordic modernist two hand; two, the deranged nitre of a staged Bataille pastoral reading of the mutable poet governed by fortune; three, the final wink to Belacqua, Beckett, Joyce, Dante and the hem line of pilgrim redemption. Whew! Are you kidding me? No.
Reading poetry here is to twist a little, to reach down into a dark jolted city earth. I find archaic emotional derangements bleeding out of their joints. The poems are awkward, extreme gems of detonating furies ‘desiccated … concerned in rushing past.’ The distressing link between the past (including mythic as well as historical, personal too) and desiccation is a primary and primal concern running through what are intense poetic intervals. If what her hand dreaded were true then her heart is broken over everything – this might be the last phase of solipsism or an ingle to the relished world. It might not be a choice. The poems are in the spirits of Torset’s own uppercase hand.
In the realm of the written word, uppercase and lowercase letters engage in a perpetual push and shove and a profound tension arises—a funny, delicate balance between power and vulnerability, Beatrice and Dante in the first of the canti in the moon. In her relentless pursuit of the hallucinatory abyss of language, she subverts the established norms, employing uppercase letters as a manifestation of authority and, simultaneously, as a canvas for vulnerability, underscored by scribbled out lines and changes of mind. There’s Babel here, and hell, and Edenic ga-ga. The psychologically impossible ‘naming without thinking’. Gooning around as if impatient to get on to elsewhere.
Traditionally, uppercase letters wind up dominance, emphasizing dignity’s weight and an eloquent importance. They stand tall, their stature demanding attention, proclaiming a bossy presence. Torset converts them into an arena of contradiction—an opportunity to harness their command-and-tell emphasis while exposing the fragility of any such certainty, juxtaposing authority with exposure in a disarming display of deranged messaging. The letters are made small, look like squatting, unkempt figures, swamped by the large white expanse of each page, fragile and exposed as well as curiously muscular and physical, often at odd angles to the page limits, sometimes looking squeezed, forlorn, falling off even. Like I said, there’s a funny, delicate balance in all this.
Her scribbled out lines and changes of mind act as visual markers of uncertainty and introspection and this suggests a living mind that pushes back fixed thoughts, or even the very notion of completion. Meaning is both constructed and deconstructed as forensic assertion and acerbic self-doubt. She employs scribbled out lines as a poetic tool, turning inside out the stability of language, and inviting the reader into the vulnerable spaces between the written and the erased. It is within these intersecting realms that the true essence of her poetry resides—a delicate tension that invites introspection and contemplation that is in turn both comic and tragic. In doing so, she invites the reader to question their own relationship with certainty and vulnerability, to embrace the beauty and chaos that lie within the weirdly shifting landscapes of a particular human’s experience. But not think that by doing so they’re redeemed somehow. No one is that here!
To read Torset is inevitably to interrogate what reading is, and what writing is too. Her questions are about these activities, seen as ‘two broken halves.’ Historically, (so here comes the boring lecture) uppercase writing predates lowercase writing, so she is reaching back to the very beginning of it all. The origins of uppercase letters can be traced back to ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians, who developed intricate systems of hieroglyphs and cuneiform script. These early forms of writing primarily utilized the majuscule characters, characterized by their larger, more elaborate shapes. Torset’s lie small on her pages, as if we are seeing huge things but from far away. It was not until the Middle Ages, with the rise of Carolingian script, that minuscule letters began to emerge as a distinct form of writing. The Carolingian script, developed under the reign of Charlemagne in the 9th century, introduced a standardized and more legible writing style that incorporated both uppercase and lowercase letters. The widespread adoption of lowercase letters gained momentum during the Renaissance and the subsequent development of the printing press. The advent of movable type and the standardization of letterforms led to a greater differentiation between uppercase and lowercase letters, facilitating readability and improving the overall visual aesthetics of printed texts.
This evolution of writing, from the predominantly uppercase scripts of ancient civilizations to the inclusion of both uppercase and lowercase forms, reflects the ongoing refinement and adaptation of written communication throughout history. While uppercase letters initially held dominance, the integration of lowercase letters marked a significant development in the evolution of written language, providing greater flexibility, readability, and visual harmony in written texts. This is a part of the context needed to understand the complexities Torset is running with. It helps understand how she revolts against a staid refined veneer of eloquence that overlays what might lie elsewhere – hiding underneath or within the veneer, ‘veneeral’ so to speak. She also discreetly references her Nordic, Viking heritage and this adds to the performance and their content. So we can read in the light of this - ‘ Ghost is the skin seasoned with grating/mundanity concealed as sacrifice I can’t help/remote controlling memories to prove I’m still/there if desiccated at least/conserved in rushing past’ and see how she’s working out her ghosts as seasoned and grated skins, which is violent in itself, coupled with the urgency of a history as a ‘rushing past.’
Her derangements are insistent and take the appearance of necessities, as if written by the damned or at least those hanging around in limbo. Which we’ll come to. Of course historically, there is no direct link between the development of uppercase and lowercase writing and the Vikings specifically, but there is of course an indirect fusion. The Vikings primarily used the Elder Futhark. This consisted of a set of characters called runes, which were primarily used for carving inscriptions on various objects, including stone monuments, weapons, and personal belongings. The runes represented individual sounds and concepts. The uppercase letters used here – her majuscules - were derived from the monumental inscriptions of ancient Rome, and ignore the minuscules evolved from the Carolingian script. During the Viking Age, which coincided with the time of Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire, the Vikings from Norway conducted extensive raids, trade, and exploration throughout Europe, including areas under Carolingian rule. But standardization and improved legibility are exactly what Torset is consciously wrestling with and seething against. There is a subtle interplay working these strands in her poems – runic opposing script, majascules opposing miniscules, Viking Elder Futhark opposing Christianising Latin. It’s all in the furtive mix.
And if she has a view of how to characterize all this, it’s probably as a contamination directed precisely at you, the reader, and no one else, a contamination that brings about a second you and a second her who, having read, having listened in, having been read, having been listened to, actually gets to a point of gratitude. ‘I speak to you not another’, she writes, ‘ this you drying the ink the /second you if you will and /I apologise after genuflecting/for contaminating you with/this other you…’ and ends, ‘ so you bear /with the other you or private/to be personal because you/know you get me and this/second I is grateful.’ So within the collection is this other element, one of grace and connection, of eros and love too. And friendship. Which we’ve already noted. Maybe. Maybe.
And that Christian element is important because it helps drive a connecting line to the role of literature and Torset’s relationship to it. (again - we’ll have a go at this later). In Norway, the adoption of the Latin alphabet, which was the basis for the Carolingian script, occurred gradually over time, eventually replacing the traditional runic script for certain purposes such as official documents, religious texts, and importantly, literature. The spread of Christianity in Norway, beginning in the 11th century, played a significant role in this transition. Once we get to literature we can quickly wake to the high modernity and avant garde element in Torset’s work. If ever there is doubt about the sophistication of what she’s doing, we can see the way all this historical context informs this additional note. She’s a kind of edgier, funnier Morten Søndrol channeling Lettrism, Fluxus, Concrete Poetry, high moderns and Beat lavas and a whole bunch of other stuff to recharge the Now moment, playing with her own historic sense and jump-starting her origins like, as she puts it, ‘pressing play on trauma porn.’ Because let’s face it, there’s a lot of screaming going on beneath the hood, some sort of primitive Dido echo.
By embracing the potential of typography as a visual medium, allowing the shape and form of the letters to contribute to the overall artistic expression of their work we can see that runic memory inserting its visual and tactile qualities. And obviously, she challenges some of the traditional notions of what constitutes a poem and how it should be experienced as she delves into the complexities of the self, touching upon existential questions, personal emotions, and a dark violence of spry delirious humor.
Torset's artistry extends beyond the written word. She has also engaged in performance art and collaborated with musicians, dancers, photographers and film makers in interdisciplinary projects. Her performances often incorporate spoken word, movement, and visual elements, blurring the lines between poetry, theater, and the visual arts, and she’s known for her dry humour and dark enigmas. Last time I looked she had a horses’ head. But always, Torset’s vision is expansive, subtle, and strange. She’s both muted Bataille and miniaturist Beckett.
Bataille, in his explorations of the transgressive and the sacred, recognized the inherent power of the tactile and personal. He believed that the physical act of writing holds a transformative potential. In "Inner Experience" he writes: "Writing is a dangerous endeavor because it always starts with an inkling that what one writes might matter, that the words one writes might become the things themselves." I can imagine Torset thinking of her poems as strange homunculi, some friendly, but most too weird, dangerous and mad to be that. The intimacy of the poet's touch, the very embodiment of their being, makes her an entrance, an exit, a door. Bataille suggests in "The Accursed Share," that "… the being that writes the poem is neither interior nor exterior, it is the intermingling of the one and the other, the passion of interiority that precipitates itself outside and is exteriorized." A door in other words. In "The Tears of Eros," he writes that "The materiality of the work of art is an intensity, an energy, a fever. It is in this fever that its uniqueness resides." And in "Eroticism” he writes of writing as ‘… the displacement of the imaginary center of the world; what is in question is the relative place of the subject in relation to the totality of things…. Writing is a form of drawing, and drawing is a form of marking the body" and undoubtedly within Torset’s seemingly tiny, private, primitive writings there’s a singular prehistoric impulse to draw one's mark on the world as one’s own physical body.
In ‘verbal signature’ she writes: ‘the momentum between/a tongue and hard palate is where/now tastes the event horizon/ fold it and it fits.’ The ear hears the ‘rock and a hard place’ resonating off-kilter in this, of course. Torset works in the embodied but shadowy recesses of poetic lunacy, where the deranged and the visionary fire up alive from the bog lands and mountains under a cold moon, a cold sun, with goats and horses no doubt. This is most uncivilized, untamed writing.
Start with the insane act of swallowing feathers, a manifestation of inner turmoil and a violent, hungry gobble for downward transcendence. Feathers, often associated with lightness, grace, and flight, become potent symbols of longing and transformation. By swallowing feathers, the poet seeks to consume ethereal qualities, to ingest the essence of the quill, the write, the scratching pith that traces out slick letters. The poems are these eaten feathers, swallowed in the dark maw, bloody and oiled, gulleted, Leda and the swan feathers perhaps, all inverted, wrong, cruel.
Swallowing feathers becomes a fraught gesture – & Torset is all fraught gestures (but not just that!) - assimilating the intangible, devouring the unattainable. It is a first gesture of defiance against the limitations of the mundane, a scored moment of horrendous, primitive violence against the lightness and lies of eloquence, as if by eating the lightness she will be grounded again, held down to the surfaces, and be able to plunge through those surfaces and know the real, touch the sponge of that unfeigned realm, ‘like repotting fungi.’ Through this audacious act, the poet reverses the familiar clichés where we are asked to transcend the boundaries of the earthly realm and soar into realms unknown. She’s hunkering down with the hilariously wry insight, ‘ after all the only immortal cells are either cancerous or embryonic.’ She’s repotting everything.
Furthermore, the act of swallowing feathers hints at a certain darkness that lurks within the poet's imaginary. Feathers, delicate and fragile, carry an inherent danger when consumed. They become sharp shards that tear at the flimsy lining of the throat, leaving traces of pain and unease. You’d choke. Spit. Puke. They’re hard to digest. In this jarring of beauty and discomfort, the poet keeps the perverse violence small enough, reveling in that light touch. She settles down even when at her most vehement, and it's at such moments we encounter her muscled up humor. There’s a yearning for metamorphosis, a desire to shed the constraints of poetry’s unearthly form and embrace a less ethereal existence, ‘cutting into things that don’t exist anymore’ even. After all, swallowing’s not always eating. And it is always deranged, a furious congregate, a perverse act. Feathers, elsewhere heaven’s messengers of dove lightness and swan grace, become instruments of torment in the poet's twisted narrative, an insurrection against a numbing banality, against even beauty.
Each poem’s a feather, and with each feather emotion tears at the delicate lining of the throat with screams and a sophisticated imbalance of cruelty. It is a desperate attempt to extract meaning from the void, to extract solace from the very airy fabric that weightlessly suffocates and restrains. The feathers choke in a dark satisfaction that arises from the destruction of their own hollow flesh. And always she’s reckoning on destruction, death, the perverse need for horrors flapping over everything and curious about it all, asking, for example, ‘has it ever/ occurred to one how/dangerous it is to have/blood so easily accessible.’ It’s a good but terrifying question.
And what lies at the heart of these perverse acts? It is the unyielding rage, the seething anger of the poet's deranged verse directed through the words and the body complicit to a linguistic metaphysics of spirit violence. This is a fury directed at the suffocating grip of ineffable reality, fueling a desire for a rupture in the fabric of heaven to touch again the mundane. With this, she possesses a cunning ability to summon humour. Her humor is a demented carnival handing off the extravaganzas with formal brilliance. It twists the mundane into grotesque caricatures, exposing an appalling absurdity even in a greeting or slight exchange. ‘hair/he said/you’ve changed it’ is the whole thing, and as such you can’t help crack a smile and this in turn dissects the conventions of anger and despair, just as she does contentment and comprehensibility, in a microclimate of intimacy and a passing romantic (maybe) or (at least) friendly, horizon.
This is where the link to Beckett I noted earlier emerges clearly. Beckett's letter regarding his desire to "punch a hole in the fabric of language" was written to a German friend, Axel Kaun on November 6, 1937. Torset is taking up Beckett’s aspiration. In this correspondence, Beckett expressed his frustration with language's inability to fully convey the complexities of human experience. He sought to surpass the limitations of linguistic structures and delve into a more profound understanding of existence. The specific quote, "To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now," encapsulates his yearning to uncover new forms of expression that can navigate the chaos and confusion inherent in human life. Torset’s poems are working that agenda out. In her deranged style and exploration, she shares Beckett's aspirations.
In "Echo's Bones" Beckett writes: "How bewildered I am by these/ inexplicable errors of birth/ these dwindling occasions for being." These inexplicable terrors of birth are scattered throughout Torset’s collection, as in: ‘ A home grown body was it’s pride/cut into things that don’t exist anymore/ But braces itself for the flagellation…’, ‘ I cut off my finger and threw it/in the food waste bin binding contract/diseases, not venereal, not international/ but humoristic hermeneutics,’ etc etc etc. Beckett's poetic works often evoke a sense of fragmentation and disintegration, the disruption of language: "what? who? no! she! said! yes! but! . . . no! she! said! no! she! said! . . .",(Beckett); ‘I scream/You scream/We all scream/ They press mute/Its awkward/ Akrive – skrik/Schreben – Schrei/Cri –Ecrit/Grito –Escrito’ (Torset); an emphasis on silence and non-communication:"Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It's awful," (Beckett); ‘Tunnels of silence and I/In first position stretch/Thinking how idiosyncratic/Is nothing like synchronized/ idiots who sharing steal’(Torset) : desolate landscapes and barrenness: "I shall never be silent. Never. . . . I can't go on. . . . I'll go on," (Beckett): ‘I chose my twin whispers/Nothing to be done’ (Torset) and so on.
Through their exploration of existential themes, the disruption of language, and the portrayal of desolate landscapes, Beckett and Torset form a connection that spans their endeavors. Their shared sensibilities confront the disarray and absurdity of everything done and to be done. You just know Beckett would love Torset’s line starting with ‘ I find funny how/you can polish an earlobe’ and ending with ‘a girl with translucent ears sitting on the gate under hungover sun illuminating sound.’ That’s just very, very impressive.
Torset’s words possess an ineffable weight, drawing inspiration from the silence between heartbeats and the longing in the eyes of lovers (say). With every syllable, the poet conjures a momentum that transcends the mere conveyance of meaning. It is a momentum that propels the reader into uncharted territories, where tongues dance with the boundaries of cosmic event horizons. Event horizons, those celestial thresholds from which nothing, not even light, can escape, serve as good-enough metaphors in the poet's works – but shouldn’t be taken as gospel. Nothing should. Her language engulfs the reader, transporting them beyond the confines of ordinary perception and into the depths of the carceral unknown. Through the fusion of linguistic momentum and cosmic boundaries, Torset crafts verses that rupture prison bar existence, revealing ‘instinct chatter’ and ‘warm bodies once upon a compound fracture’ as alternative spaces.
Astrology, with its belief in the interconnectedness between celestial bodies and human destinies, is ambushed by Torset: for ‘ … why indeed would anyone bother with astrology when there /is astronomy…’ ? The music of planets, the alignment of stars, and the celestial clockwork all become displaced, ground down, and become merely anomalous symbols. Yet the poet is never done with closing down things and remains amongst the remains of these astrological motifs to explore themes of fate, transcendence, and the enigmatic interplay between the individual and the cosmos which ‘cannot die but meet in the bridge of night.’ Torset can do that kind of beauty as well as the ‘scratch… grease and /deep fried’ stuff . She’s various and multifarious and may be legion. It all adds up to shadowed depths of poetic creation, where the boundaries of reason dissolve into a frenzied contamination of words, a tormented soul, a conduit for eternal secrets that lie buried in DNA and the abyss. Which are not necessarily different things.
Torset carries an instinct for macabre imagery. Poetry is a kind of tarring and feathering—a grotesque ritual of degradation and punishment, an iron maiden with brutal acts of both cruelty and transformation. In her works we’re in a strange visceral discomfort, forced to confront our own shadows, the dark recesses of our desires and impulses whilst remaining in some respects fully functioning to the world. (Which is the problem of course!)
Immortal cancer and embryo cells haunt the poet's verses, embodying the paradox of dying life's eternal struggle for eternal life. Cancer wakes up our own remembrance of mortality and the fragility of our existence and so the dynamic of Jerusalem nodded at at the start . In the embryonic poet cells, we glimpse entropic seeds of regeneration and renewal that will outlive us. The poet explores the dichotomy between creation and destruction, the nature of existence that defies permanence by its own threatening permanence. And the biological actuality that grounds poets. And the pastoral myth made in history (not some enchanted ground or prefiguring to make pastoral happen).
In Torset nature is perfected by art not contrasted with it. It’s all done within a strange Exodus story. A garden left to become a desert. A desperate voice crying out. A sense that Communitas has been corrupted, empty and become no more than a deluded abstraction. A kind of cannibalism. A sense of events, feelings, laws no longer about rational ends but provisions spun out in October, ending by mid-November. There’s corruption in the world of history. Her voice arises in a condition of marginality to both historical nightmares and an idyllic communion between Vergil and Sordello. Imagine. Within the poet's verses lie enigmatic whispers of a universe and a life that eludes. They are the unspoken truths that reverberate through a broke-backed cosmos, whispering of mysteries we can only glimpse in fleeting moments of revelation. Homegrown bodies with hands behind their backs populate this. These enigmatic beings, grown from the soil of the earth, embody the primal connection between humanity and the natural world. With hands bound, they symbolize the constraints and limitations and an innate yearning. Or they’re just waiting and don’t know what to do with their hands. You takes your pick.
What gestures of impossible perpetual motion haunt the poet? Some. The awkwardness of screams echoes throughout, capturing a dissonance between the internal turmoil of the soul and the external constraints of manic life – ‘big red flashing that is not success…’ and being ‘… alone at the second coming.’ Torset dreams these up as if conjuring a spell of raw vulnerability , unspoken yearnings and unuttered reverberating fears. These screams, at once cathartic and disconcerting, confront impossible complexities of their own. They never end.
The book’s a medieval torture device and ‘the sounds birds make’, each part earthing and then unearthing the psychological traps we create for ourselves. It is the relentless pursuit of the elusive. Torset piles up her images - the chopped finger and the girl with translucent ears, the prefrontal context, the forced arranged marriage between tardigrades and troglodytes, a line of weeds, avoided banana skins, a left claw, impaled shield maidens, butter scraped over too much bread etc etc etc—images that both disturb and fascinate and scream and go straight to the right place at the right time and detonate like a good thought experiment (she likes those) and perplexes you to the next level. The chopped finger becomes a symbol of sacrifice and loss, a reminder of the pain and mutilation inherent in the human experience, and then it doesn’t and isn’t and is much worse or much better, or perverse, or sublime, or none of these, or both. And in the girl with translucent ears, we witness a delicate vulnerability—the ability to hear the unspoken truths and perceive the hidden dimensions of existence – but then that becomes trite and nonsense and not what she’s doing at all. And likewise across all of them.
Boundaries and sense dissolve, and the grotesque merges with the sublime. We’re both in the darkest recesses of the human psyche, inviting us to confront our deepest fears and desires with deranged imagery and unsettling revelations, and we’re in the banal where we are screaming to be released from our light vanilla. We encounter forensically protected promises that defy criminality and delicate artifacts locked within the vaults of the subconscious, and these promises shimmer with a spectral potency of art artfully done. They challenge our notions of accountability and morality, inviting us to question the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable or forbidden but they do without the high falutin, the daunting, the grandiloquent. Torset’s a fragile balance between truth and deceit, unravelling volatile universes unfurled within a cosmic verbal tumult. She confronts the script turbulence, the precarious discord between chaos and order, where worlds collide and we implode.
The denial of both length and meaning correlations challenges our innate desire to construct coherent narratives. She subverts, leaving us adrift in a sea of fragmented impressions and shattered illusions we didn’t know we had until she showed her hand as ours. Her writing dismantles the linear scaffolding that underpins our understanding, inviting us to embrace at best an enigmatic beauty that lies in the interstices of perception, at worst a brute horror. Probably something less than both. In this realm, meaning becomes a shifting entity, eluding our grasp yet beckoning us towards new horizons of misunderstanding.
There is no poetic complacency. Poets in limbo write in the half light of desire and hopelessness - they inhabit Inferno 4 - their beauties are pagan and enclosed things, an absolute space where time is crushed and poems are simulacrums of eternity they grope for but will never attain. Vergil returns there, recall. Her humour, infused with an intensity that borders on madness, is a laughter that pierces through any veil of complacency, unsettling our sensibilities and exposing our absurdities with whimsical twists ie ‘ potential perpetual motion isn’t/it just the perfect blooper’, ‘what does the length have to do with the meaning,’ I’m in emotional labour’ which are all done in wry straight-face. Hers is a very, very dry humour.
Throughout she has these phrases and the unexpected punchline so even if we’re embracing the absurd and it’s all terrifying, we might still grin a little, as when she tells us she’s ‘ made sense of my days by/ quoting lord of the rings.’ Film or book? Who knows. Changed hair and scribbled-out words become symbols of transformation and defiance and closeness. Then they prophesy. Then they clam up. Through the act of rewriting and erasing, the poet unravels spells, woven within the very act of writing, transforming poems into death traps and shadows where even alienation is ambiguous. The poet’s incantations ensnare the reader, immersing them in a world of intoxicating enchantment, forbidden knowledge and dark revelations. Distracting oneself becomes akin to clinging to celaphane, obscuring the blanks of existence. Tongues and hard places intertwine within the grumpy frustrations that arise from the gaps between intention and articulation.
Torset’s poems navigate the treacherous terrain where words fail less than being wellsprings of frustration, like from someone in hell predicting something bad. Folding and fitting, Torset bends and contorts language to suit and misfit. She explores the malleability of expression, bending words to their will and reshaping them into new forms but not really believing anything more than the stubborn emotions that rip along within or under or above them. There’s no rigidity of meaning but no invitation to explore the possibilities of reinterpretation either. Rather, they just remind us of how we fold and crease and that that’s it. Reason dissolves, and the familiar becomes strange. Which is what we hear a lot about but is actually rare.
Torset is aware that we’re confined, and that the confinement is physical and mental and everything else we have wrapped in ensoulment. We are all ‘confined to limbs’, as she puts it in ‘in the event of collapse’. Her deranged verses plunge us into a realm of heightened delirium and despair, where meaning fractures and no possibilities have to emerge but they might. In them we discover a distorted reflection of ourselves that embraces a chaos without solace in any enigmatic beauties, or in anything at all. Torset is the poet who yearns for space to be a clown, a whimsicality amidst terrifying, catastrophic vastness. Addressing someone who is worth a headache, she confronts all the riddles yet to be unraveled, exists on the fringes of understanding and becomes, in an uncanny moment, the death-daughter of a mountain, fevered and pale, emerging as if a Norwegian folk tale heroine, all cursed and strange and exiled.
The voices are vengeful Skadi or the enchanting Siv, ancestral and alluring and sometimes scary as hell. And sometimes clowning about in the disorders of flesh gone calamitous. And there’s weariness and exhaustion too, a sensation of being stretched thin, of expending oneself beyond capacity done in ‘a voice so soft her teeth hurt,’ hushed and tender, broken up by a tight dysmorphia that haunts each poem, an unyielding dissonance between self-perception and reality. We’re walking past corpses again and again, and the anomaly of the species, the wall of the face, the tinnitus of the night – these are the accumulating things that spring out of the poems and undermine and gird them (take your pick). She can rationally dismiss the magical, but nevertheless reads her Tarot, her crows liver, and fulfill emesis. If she needs to pause the compulsive – and we all do need that - she has to ask ie ‘you must give me space like/the pause in fellatio.’ Cannibalism and eros are the ruined conventions and retraced steps of ‘violent delight to violent ends whispered’ which can be taken as the focal points of much of the work, but no more than can ‘dead maggots cradling live maggots’.
She’s exposing this drama, which is domestic, personal, love poetry and trauma porn both - and the horror of history on the big page too. We’re in the depths of the second coming, envisioning a lone figure adorned in a cowboy hat, embodying a paradoxical sense of solitude and purpose, emotional labor resuscitation routines distilled into three short lines, one line scribbled out—the act of erasure pragmatically giving away reality to swans, doves, and snowy owls, avian lives, salpeter acid and gran, chemical reactions, catalysts for transformation and destruction, guilt and hunger, the physical and all that jazz.
Taking Nostradamus off the guest list becomes at the very least an act of sacrilege, a rejection of prophetic certainty, and so a kind of acceptance of uncertainty and ambiguity where gratitude resonates within that second shadow person, a figure who may even understand the poet's elusive essence, or stand in for the hope of such a character and might, as we’ve hinted before, be a friend even. There’s a sense that the poems are charming hell and both her faces, scribbling manically three other brutal lines the words in between the sounds of the others within her liminal space, (which is what poems are) inviting us to listen with the ear of the soul. Overheated fortunes simmer and tales of tragic domesticity drive the poet to an intense longing, a visceral desire to tear out body organs (a kind of stereotypical Vikings thingy) - a metaphorical expression and a raw and primal instinct for a growing desolation and anger pulsating against the mundane, the numbing routine, the soul-crushing banality that veils itself as sacrifice but is a kind of literature.
The poet peels back the layers of this illusion, revealing the ghost that resides beneath the surface, tunnels of silence stretching and echoing within subterranean passages, haunting remnants of memories—fragments of the past that serve as proof of their existence, that offer little solace or understanding. A deranged need to press play on trauma porn arises within the poet's turbulent mind recognizes our twisted fascination with consuming narratives of pain and suffering, the voyeuristic allure of witnessing the unraveling of human lives, the unsettling undercurrents of psyche, the ripe banal dangers of sensationalism and the exploitation of personal tragedies. And she’s dipping her pen nib (imagine) in these death texts as a kind of final narcissism. Broken lines and scribbled half lines paint a portrait of fragmentation—a shattered reality that defies linear comprehension and uptakes the jagged edges of existence and its ruptures. The poems stutter, where she stops, and are as much the pauses and hesitations, the spaces between words, as they are their words. Meanings linger and take shape, are fleeting and lopsided, reload then dissipate. Retracing footsteps takes precedence over conforming to the economy of sense.
The poems reject the chaotic clamor of the mob mentality. But which mob? Whose? In five little lines, with four scribbles, there’s profound intimacy and longing and a reminder of the power of touch, the warmth of shared experiences, and the capacity for love and understanding, but its twisted, twisting, peeling back like the skinning torture of a martyr. It's a recognition of the Baptismal need. Her strange and violent pastoral myth not just an elegy for dead hopes elaborating a city in the mind. It’s not the mere contrast with the horror of history drawn up into a metaphysical drama of eschatology and resurrection and Heavenly Jerusalem. Here, in a wild moment, there’s a memory at least of the buried hope that Eden is possible on earth. If there’s a star-crossed romance taking shape its a love affair steeped in the scent of blood and the damned realm of chasms and night embracing the bodies of shaped violence.
We’re back with Matilda again. Whispers of endings hang in the air, sweet Shakespearean sorrows carved out differently from the original, offering the aches of lost love and sordid eros. Lambs with their own minds enter and "Clotting is such sweet sorrow" mis-hear echoes of Shagspeare’s lines, intertwining the visceral reality of suicidal erotics with the bittersweet beauty of loss and sad rememberance. Eros, in this realm, is ominous. It ceases to be a mere name or symbol of love and desire but is rather a spectre of twisted fate, of impaled shieldmaidens, their bodies skewered on the notion of ‘happily ever after.’ It is a fierce indictment of false promises , an indictment of conventional limitations and the exilic imposture. The poet yearns for the ability to eavesdrop elsewhere, on another's scriptures, to delve into inner workings elsewhere. Any star-crossed romance materializing here is permeated with a putrid stench of blood, death, suicide and exile, an olfactory reminder of the macabre, immersed in the bridged abysses of erotic night, where a union becomes an embodiment of absences, a void where shaped violence surrenders to whispered endings where ‘yesterday/there’s not much to hold onto .’
The sweet sorrows carved out from Shakespearean tragedies are those that are from their very origins perverted and distorted, twisted into grotesque manifestations of anguish. They inevitably, quietly, mock the notions of love and longing, leaving a bitter aftertaste, a venomous poison that seeps into the very core of erotic history. Torset’s lambs, once symbols of innocence, metamorphose into defiant creatures with minds of their own. They reject conformity and venture into the abyss of their desires, spreading chaos and discord in their wake. These wayward souls become agents of rebellion, defying norms and reveling in the chaotic dance of their own defiance but they will sorrow and they will die.
The Christian mythos can’t be avoided in the course of all this. You can’t have lambs, sacrifice, blood, Shakespeare, scriptures, martyrs and redemption without contending with and within that. Without justice, says Augustine, kingdoms are just great robberies. It is in the self that the flickers of God’s stability can be found. But Torset, echoing Dante here, refuses this: nothing can protect us from the chaos and nightmare of history. Torset counterpoises a secular city against Augustine’s anarchy. Yet her earthly city is just a region of shadows and can’t be the city of God. The mythic values of the earth are desecrated relentlessly by the highest poetry but nevertheless that poetry (like the Church itself, Dante would say) shares in the world’s desecration. The Incarnation is the pivot but only looks forward to the end.
Her poetry is stuck as being in and out of time. She speaks of the time to come but as a wayfarer, living in these times, being asked to interpret the signs and dicipher the figures of those times. As such, the world becomes a storehouse of signs that tell the alert wayfarer what the secular order is telling us about the divine order. Interpretation is dynamic, is about restoring the thread that binds these signs into an order. Poetry therefore requires self creation, of writing into this moment. Snatching elusive secrets and suspiciously reading the signs is what an interpreter has to do. Torset dramatizes this. Her modes of expression coincide with the exegesis. This is literary interpretation from the perspective unearthed by the artists in conversation with each other and their various works.
So in this light, the fall of the world is the fall of language, and God the “Alfa e O” – the boundaries of the letters of the alphabet which are combined to produce an infinity of all possible words. History is the history of language: Adam speaks Edenic perfection: exile brings loss of unity, the Tower of Babel and chaos, the Incarnation, the need for grammar and, so, poetry and so so forth. If we are lodged in a world of language it is a world that removes us from the loving intimacy of sign and meaning. This is the gap between words and reality that occurred after we lost how to speak Edenic. Radical ambiguity prevails. We can’t tell the glitter of God’s word from empty fictions. This is not a matter of mystification or construction for that would require mere demystification or deconstruction. Nor is it the aporia of contrasting and contradictory options facing a reader. Torset understands that the problem is much, much deeper than those facile moves. It is a matter of adopting itineraries forcing self disclosure. The ambiguities of language force the quest.
Texts are deserts which test us and into which we must continually travel. The ‘continually’ is the important word there. This is not a dwelling place. In fact a Heideggerian notion of ‘dwelling’, of ‘being at home’, with all that ‘rooted’ and ‘blood nostalgia’ mess, is the antithesis of this, the temptation that lapses into the worship of idols and longing, that brooding wish to return home to Egypt, as the Old Testement Jews did once they had gone to the desert to escape their servitude. The instability and estrangement of the world is the instability and estrangement of the text. Is therefore the instability and estrangement of Torset’s text. What we are gifted in Torset is nothing less than the continual possibilities of error. The post-Socratic mind revolts against this, seeking wisdom and knowledge and intellectual certainties. This approach ponders the links between the intellect and love. Dante wrapped Socrates in half darkness and placed him in Limbo. So where is hope?
Hope becomes the antithesis of the despair of the philosophers with all their ironies and abstractions. Hope becomes the scandalous dimension of history in the poems. To interpret what is familiar without taming it, knowing there are meanings remaining that need further interpretation, and to live as nomads – Vikings - making the alien familiar, requires hope. And hope is impelled by love. Hence the buried love affair enclosed in the ruinous fragments of this collection. And friendship. Venus is love but is no longer the perverse passion of youth but taken up in torn palinodes of the mythic function of Dante’s Inferno 19. It becomes inevitably linked to the beginning of time and subsequently to the fall of Saturn and the loss of the time of plenitude, of that golden realm. Recall that Saturn cut off his father’s genitals and threw them into the sea and Venus eventually emerged out of the foam of that bloody castration.
Venus is the mother of Aeneas who is the beginning of Rome, founded on will, and Rome the symbol of a possible new history to come. Torset is once more writing that reborn pilgrim running first leftward to a kind of hellishness then turning right to paradise, setting off on a new journey noting the elegeic moment along the way – ‘ I’ve stopped flying now/too it’s much easier/to retrace footsteps/than conventions’. The poetry is about that moment when she recognizes Adam and Eve are no longer under the four stars. Calliope, mother of Orpheus, is invoked here – whose song overcame the daughters of Pierus and obliquely conjured the fall. Torset’s is an updated version of Calliope’s song.
So these poems can be read as an updated, picaresque rendition of Ceres’ story who gave harvests and corn, seasons of purgatory and time. Ceres has a tender heart and is opposed to turning the daughters of Pierus into pride magpies. But also it's a song lamenting Proserpina who was ravished by death – a violent memory of the fall and the very beginning of history. In this, purgatory oscillates between memory of the fall and longing for new. And Torset makes it plain that there is no one and for all conversion in the desert. We always are beginning. And in the beginning all is insecurity and hope, the transition from the night of hell to the morning of faith.
In the Christian mythos this is dew dripped from heaven, in Torset it’s other things. History and nature take on a sacramental unity in purgatory – which is where Torset is to be located if we layer this mythos in. In hell it’s fallaciously made out that history was a process of nature. But the dew fights with the sun. Is precarious. Is a difficult, a bloody hard process. Well, this is all very surprising but I will finish by going on a bit more on this. Purgatory is the world of reciprocity, where we are keepers of each other. No reciprocity is possible between the lost and the elect. A palinode or palinody is an ode in which the writer retracts a view or sentiment expressed in an earlier poem. Allusions in Dante here are often palinodes.
Let’s now do some heavy lifting. Torset can work her poems so in this purgatorial light they now figure in history not poetic allegory. The poems anxiously traverse the thread of an aesthetic drift into erotic poetry as an end in itself or alternatively making a choice to go down salvation’s road. Again, within the Christianised mythos, Virtues, according to Macrobius, give us knowledge of divine things. What things? Prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice. Plotinus says prudence is political, temperance purgatorial, fortitude is that required of the purged soul, and justice the exemplary. But the important thing is that these operate in the earthy order of history rather than in airy speculative transcendence. These are virtues of praxis, of work and effort. Torset can be taken as agreeing but not wholly but in part. She recognizes the tragic disharmony between our secular order and the Christian dispensation. (And of course I take Torset's relationship to this mythos as being Beckettian at most).
Her poems represent the providential scheme of creation and history as opposing figures opposed to that providentiality - and linked to Judas as the Fall, Hell and Lucifer. She’s screwing out of her material a latent duality in a bloody and secular history that just might be enough to redeem. She’s once more (because Dante did it first) removing the myth of the quest for Eden from any otherworldly realm and placing it here in irreducible history (maybe even a fragment of her own history). The loaded trauma porn is now Christ-ish and a way of recovering a redeeming republican caritas from extreme narcissm. How? And what’s this to do with anything?
One quick answer. By trashing eloquence. Eloquence is where every part fits life. It is fruitful self-making within the will and natural order. The City as civilization is seen as originating in this grammar of pure rhetorical language. But we’re all familiar with the fraud of rhetoric. Circe is rhetoric and her power turns Ulysses’ men to beasts. Ulysses tries to reshape them back to full humanity but nevertheless he’s leading his men into a final disaster. Why? Ulysses inhabits a zone of fraud . He steals the Palladium in Troy and its fraudulent wisdom. He just lies. Torset, like the avant gardeists and modernists before her, dissolves philosophy from the world of abstract truths to rhetoric and history, the temptations of truth and falsehood. She subverts the very possibility of philosophical allegorisations. Ulysses is a rupture between truth and language caught up in the world of contingency, is a fraud.
The sin of Ulysses is the very condition of discourse. Ulysses attempts to travel the distance between words and facts with the reality of experience. His true madness lies in this belief that the distance can be filled by knowledge, the utopian state where language is literally true. Ulysses’s speech can thus be set in a romance context, in imaginative areas beyond the known world but not quite Eden. Open and unbounded, this is the drama of rhetorical utopia, a vital impulse based on an evoked past and a knowledge quest. It isolates language in a spatial vacuum. Any continuity of words and things is subverted because language seems to come from a void. This holds a seductive promise. But of course it's here that tragedy creeps into the quest which is held in a limbo where we’re forever leaving the ordinary world for enchanted lands - but we never reach them.
This is the tragic reversal of the hero that wrecks any cyclical notion of one thing following another endlessly in a never ending cycle forever. This isn’t one thing within life but is rather the shattering of the illusion of any such wheel of fate. If we go back through Torset’s collection here its this notion of circular fate that’s being trashed. Hers are lines with one start and one end. She’s the anti-Ulysses. (Again, like Dante.) Ulysses loses authority through the discrepancy of his promise and his confronted tragedy. The golden world of his promise is dim and beyond him, his seductive language – his eloquence - can’t control his companions anymore. This is the treachery of rhetorical figures. This is what Torset knows. She is (if we place it in the controlling mythos of the redeemer) therefore rejecting pagan rhetoric as bondage to sin. Why? Because it has damned pretentions of going beyond pure art to truth and reality. Ulysses is placed with Guido – the epic with the quotidian. They have a tragic sameness. Ulysses leaves Circe and recalls Aeneas. The heroes’ fate is naming. Is memorializing the world.
Dante’s Inferno 20 is the canto of soothsayers, the perversion of prophecy where the false prophet and the daughter of the Theban Tiresias (who Ezra Pound memorialises) questions Aeneid, Rome (the locus of error) and in so doing naming itself becomes an ambiguity of divinatory language. Fire and flames here contrasts Ulysses with the pentacostal flames of Elijah the prophet taken up by a whirlwind in a chariot of fire. The contrast may be the Truth of genuine prophecy over the shiftiness of rhetoric. But how to know which is which? The ‘poet’s faculty’ may just be another version of Ulysses’ madness. Torset knows she may herself be transgressing and that it’s easy for language to be a fraud. If anything’s clear in the poems it’s this, that language is intrinsically ambiguous and shifty.
The flames that hide Ulysses act out rhetoric’s’ ambiguous agon between concealment and appearance. Well that’s pushing a lot of the Christian mythos onto Torset but I actually think it can help. In Aquinas there’s the distincton between violentia and fraus, on rapina and furtum where wrong done secretly is theft, done openly is robbery. Troy falls through hiding, Achilles is ensnared away from refuge by hiding his mother and the Palladium is stolen. Language defiles the Word, eluding the possibility of univocal proper meaning. The sun now represents the cycle of death and resurrection – that myth of secular eternity and Florence, Thebes and Troy follow its end. Thebes originates in violence, the horror of historical chaos and Torset’s are poems of these cities done in a more personal manner. Thebes is doomed to destruction and periodic reconstruction. Troy will be destroyed and replaced by Rome in a linear occurrence. Troy is the pivotal myth of history. It makes possible the providential establishment of a golden earth beyond trauma.
A world of translation, foreign to itself, unrepeatable and pointing to its own end. Aeneas looks to Italy as the promised land and Rome is his mediation of hope, his belief in God’s promise and a recognition that he is part of divine order. And somewhere between Troy and its (as yet) unfulfilled future lies the final destination. Ulysses however travels back east in a quest for regeneration, dying and resurrecting like the sun and ending up on a vigil in endless night on a way to a redemption he’ll never get. His is a journey toward death but one that seeks, tragically, resurrection. His old age is Ciceronean wisdom. He turns left at the pillars of Hercules. Human life is represented by the capital letter Y. Right and left forks. In the underworld Sybil points him to the right path. To go left is to go sunwise, where the universe returns to its point of origin. Dante asserts the discovery of the linear open-ended translation of history instead and Torset and her modernist instincts follows rightwards (ok, just remember Beckett, Joyce). In Inferno 26 man is no longer pagan and at one with the natural order. The wheel of fate and its ever turning circle is left behind. Ulysses’s jouney from Ithica and back and then off again is just nostalgia.
The sun as a foundation of history is therefore a deceptive metaphor . Its persistent concealing and revealing is nothing less than a sign of rhetoric and language. Language conceals . It mystifies but also hides and saves us from intolerable visibility. Ulysses dies when he sees the ‘montagna’ in the distance. Ulysses lies and deceives himself. He succumbs to the literalness of language and is trapped by his own tongue. Torset always remembers Ulysses and distances her poetic powers from that, from Ulysses rhetoric. She looks with fascination and at a distance. Hermes is invoked in Inferno 26, the night god who bears and lays open the message, the god of learning to read through the metaphoric ambiguities of the letter. Ulysses escapes Circe via Hermes. But Ulysses is on the wrong quest, bound still to rhetoric’s revelation. Ulysses therefore casts a shadow over the whole relationship between literature and history. And as an inheritor of this high modernist insight, Torset inevitably works in this shadow. Earthly cities are fallen, civil war addictive, and the 2 lights of Rome – Empire and Church - have eclipsed each other. Torset’s is Dante’s voice coming from exile from the city of life. What is this exile, she asks? Can she come home? She's rising, falling, downcast maybe but birthing amongst rejected nature and as such maybe, just maybe, redeeming everything' beyond falling rising/guild or hunger I don't know how/I feel about being back to/blue gives it profile not/weighing budding in lines of/weeds'
The final redemptive twist is the last: on the last two pages she recasts all the poems as printed miniscule. Reversing everything. It’s like finding out that what you took to be hell was actually just the opposite. Just read the damned poems won’t you!
Vilde Bjerke Torset is a Spanish Norwegian poet, artist and actor living in London. Her publications include works in A New Type of Imprint, BRYGG, Alvar Magazine, Ripple, Ren Sommer and Utflukt. She was a member of the Experiments and Innovations in Poetry program at Kingston University, where won the 2018 writers graduation prize. http://vildevalerie.com/