Dark Matter is a poetry collection that may be problematic to get to grips with. This is in part due to the fact that Aase Berg was a member of the Surrealist Group of Stockholm in the 1980s. The problem, however, does not primarily rest with the collection’s surrealist undertones, but with the overall complexity that arises from translation – translation not only in its traditional sense of rendering one language into another, but also translation in terms of making metaphysical concepts malleable. Case in point: the introductory poem is a Swedish quotation of a German poet which has been translated into English.
While this is the only instance of double translation in its linguistic sense, it does give the reader a relatively good idea of what they are getting themselves into. Berg’s verse is by no means easy, and requires a mindset willing to think inside of the box outside of the box. Her verse is characterised by a kind of frenetic energy, obsessive search for existential truth and by an inertia that arises from the despair at being unable to find it. Perhaps the most telling illustration of this is her refrain-like sentences, scattered throughout the collection:
This whirling, howling, desperate lack of oxygen; the scream – if it had had enough oxygen to scream and a mouth with which to scream – the scream to swallow the entire lung full of clear wind.
The repetition of key words – in this case, “scream” – is coupled with adjectives evoking the Sublime to produce an effect of verbal hyperventilation. The syntax tiptoes from Gertrude Stein to Finnegans Wake: never quite Stein’s run-on sentence, and never quite the crafted disjointedness of Joyce’s novel. Moreover, the chaos is contrasted by the analytical calm that words such as “thus” and “therefore” introduce, effectively caught between an Apollonian and Dionysian dynamic of sorts.
Incidentally, repetition is very possibly the crux of the collection. The leitmotifs Berg employs are all quite strong images, most of which are related to death, disgust, decay, sexuality, and the grotesque. The most common recurring images are: skeleton, shinbone, oil, jellyfish, moray eel, jelly, slime, foetus, genitals, black, snail, shell. The frequent use of these words creates a cloying and oppressive, yet prepossessing, atmosphere that is as fascinating as it is uncanny. However, because these words carry such powerful connotations, repeating them too often might give rise to the view that they are undertaken for shock’s sake. Arguably, Berg flickers between the two: the resulting effect is literally neither here nor there; and considering the title of the collection, this is her desired effect.
In astronomy, Dark Matter is both invisible and hypothetical. Gravitational lensing demonstrates it exists, but it cannot be measured directly. Berg’s verse manages to slip between the cracks of convention as well and because of this may give rise to misconceptions. Incidentally, this is mirrored in the collection’s cover, which is predominantly black (thus building on the misconception that dark matter is dark). Its title is just off-black, which makes it as hard to detect as Berg’s agenda. Perhaps there is none; perhaps the collection is best read with what Keats called “negative capability” – in other words, to enjoy without feeling the need to analyse. Whether you like travelling or not, Dark Matter takes you on a journey of poems and poetic prose as challenging as they are caustic. Or, simply put: Dark Matter is the kind of trip you need to space out in order to appreciate.