Erasure, Violence, & Survival: On Chase Berggrun’s ‘R E D’
Dedicated to survivors of rape, sexual abuse, and domestic violence, Berggrun’s erasure poems of Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ is an unmasking.
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“Ladies’ bodies are deemed unholy
by the very men who burn them”
(from “Chapter XIV”)
Classical works often find their way back into contemporary culture, either through modern adaptation or through the reoccurrence of key elements, themes, or characters that serve as inspiration for new work. In the case of Chase Berggrun’s R E D, a sequence of poems that are erasures of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the classic novel serves both as the source material and as the very thing being put on trial. Dedicated to survivors of rape, sexual abuse, and domestic violence, R E D is an unmasking, a dissection of Dracula that is focused on illuminating the dark and neglected corners instead of merely resituating or retelling a familiar story.
R E D is not an extension of Dracula, but it is also not a consumption or rewrite of it. Instead, Berggrun’s collection is like a sprout that has begun growing from the fertile soil in the shadow of the original. Berggrun gives it light and nurtures it so that the two works can be read side by side as two whole entities existing in a counterbalance with each other. I have never read Stoker’s novel before, which was likely a slight disadvantage when it comes to appreciating the full intention of the collection. Nonetheless, reading a summary online was enough for me to guess as to the sheer depth of repression and violence that must be found in the original.
Berggrun maintains the narrative structure of the original by making each poem an erasure of each chapter of Dracula, encouraging one to read R E D in a similar sequential and narrative manner. Simultaneously, each poem is a separate episode, an individual meditation one can read and ruminate on in one sitting without choosing to move further in the collection. In the introductory “A Note on Process,” Berggrun notes the connection between their own gender transition and the evolution of the narrator in R E D, for which poems like “Chapter IV” and “Chapter XII” were strong examples. The speaker tells the reader:
“My threatened body is more desperate
inside it I made a discovery
it was furnished with odd things but all of them were stained
Down I descended a tunnel-like passage
I made a discovery
hate awakened in me”
(from “Chapter IV”).
The two parallel voices — of Berggrun and Stoker and, by extension, of their respective speakers — can be felt in an ongoing poetic tension within the collection, Stoker’s misogyny constantly challenged by Berggrun’s speaker and creating a “Looking Glass”-style parallel between the two. The reader watches the speaker transform and is constantly, perhaps subconsciously, juxtaposing this change to Stoker’s classic as words that were originally nestled and even disregarded in Dracula are now imbued with a new power, brought to the forefront by Berggrun.
Berggrun’s collection is a challenge of literary and social conventions, of “man” and the idea of manhood. R E D reverses the roles and discourse found in Dracula in a way that makes man seem generic and woman complex. Berggrun’s reversal is not simply a turning of the tables, however. Instead, it is a poetic argument, a confession that appeals to the reader and asks him to set aside what he knew previously, to listen not to the “ultimate truth” but to the “I” that has always been present but deliberately overlooked and even hurt for speaking out in the past:
“Once he became furious and tried to kill me
He said there must be something wrong with me
getting worse every day
the fatal disease of the girl-mind”
(from “Chapter IX”).
At the same time, Berggrun embarks on an exploration of womanhood. They redraw the established boundaries of gender by refocusing the conversation on the violence and suffering inflicted by the patriarchal regime not only on women but also on members of the queer community. They address the patriarchal logic that woman is an extension of man whom he can mold as he pleases head-on:
“It was he who caused me to disappear
My husband my husband and other men
hunt me and command my flesh my blood my brain
This is my pollution story”
(from “Chapter XXI”).
Berggrun’s poetic erasure brings up the ongoing social erasure of several groups and communities. By bringing forward and refocusing the reader’s attention on specific words and phrases from Stoker’s novel, Berggrun also empowers those who are unseen yet nonetheless present, speaking to survivors, victims, and fighters.
R E D burrows into its reader, finding a crevice to take root and blooming until it becomes impossible not to feel a sense of sorrow, a painful pricking somewhere deep inside every time the speaker talks of the misogyny and dismissal they experience. Berggrun explores agency and identity in various guises but is never apologetic for doing so, for leaving ripples across a pond that has been still for too long, a sentiment echoed by the speaker who is speaking to readers but also beyond them, to their oppressors and the idle viewers:
“Forgive me if I seem remorseless
selfishness frees my soul somewhat
Not even God is with me now”
(from “Chapter XXV”).