RED by Chase Berggrun
by Allison Bird Treacy
Erasure poetry, fundamentally an act of appropriation and reinvention, has been around a long time, but in 2017 it caught the attention of the New Republic. Since Trump’s election, reporter Rachel Stone noted, erasure poetry seemed to be undergoing a renaissance, specifically as a mode of commentary on Trump’s own pronouncements. In addressing this revival, though, Stone also observes the limits of erasure — the scope is restricted by the source, leading to the follow-up question, can erasure ever create something new? In the introduction to their 2018 collectoin R E D (Birds, LLC.), poet Chase Berggrun suggests that, at the very least, erasures can flip the script.
The poems in R E D apply the practice of erasure in specifically gendered manner. Based on Bram Stoker’s classic Victorian novel Dracula, Berggrun’s goal in R E D is to presents an alternative tale, “in which its narrator takes back the agency stolen from her predecessors,” to create something which is more than mere commentary. Their rules for construction, though — each poem is drawn from a single chapter of Dracula, with no alteration to the words — produce challenging, and not always productive, conditions under which to do so, as does the sheer length of the source text. Language is a tool, and Stoker’s language belongs to the master, leaving Berggun with white space as their primary means of alteration.
Typically, erasure poetry draws at least some of its power from use of white space; the silences are a central element. In working with such a lengthy text, Berggrun is forced to rethink how that white space will work, and while line lengths vary, the collection is largely made up of double-spaced lines, with occasional single-spaced stanzas interspersed. This use of double-spacing slows the pace of the poems considerably and, coupled with a heavy reliance on the word “I” to begin lines, turns the poems into lulling litanies. “Chapter II,” for example, begins:
I must have been asleep
I must have been held in his trap
I did not know what to do
I waited in that nightmare
I heard a heavy sound a noise of long disuse
Each line struggles to feel like a complete thought, and as Berggrun dispenses with punctuation throughout the collection, there is no impetus to join them. But there is also compelling use of white space throughout the collection, as seen in the fifth line above. Reminiscent of more tradition, short erasures, these applications of space serve as the reader’s only punctuation.
It may be a matter of pacing, but the most remarkable moments of R E D occur in the rare single-spaced stanzas. In “Chapter XV,” Berggrun reconstructs a section of text to read,
I start out lurid before outrage
I unhinged explanation from its frame
I violate limitation
and I condemn
the desecration of my body
While these lines lean equally heavy on the pronoun “I,” the single-spacing offers necessary propulsion to the words, setting them apart, unhinging them, even, from the framework otherwise imposed on the text. Similarly, the small break away from “I” as line opened in the line, “and I condemn” changes the readers’ internal metronome. Such disruptions are scarce, but forceful in their application in a text that is otherwise uniform.
Though — spoiler alert — Dracula’s former victim, the weak and delicate woman, wins in this version of the tale, Berggrun’s erasures are like many other: often compelling, but repetitive if only because they are bound to their source. It may take new language to go beyond comment, or in this case, beyond contradiction.