Review of Chase Berggrun's R E D (Birds, LLC, 2018)

“A storm of a woman / transformed with red light”: Chase Berggrun’s R E D

review by Logan February

Chase Berggrun's R E D is an inventive and socially conscious work of erasure — a poetic form I've loved for years. The volume is a triumph of the author’s imagination and the tenacity of their craft. Berggrun's speaker introduces the gothic narrative by saying: “I was thirsty,” and truly, R E D is a poem driven by various forms of thirst and desire.

An unnamed woman is exhumed from the melodramatic and misogynistic landscape of Bram Stoker's Dracula, and placed in the role of a brutish man's docile wife. At the beginning of the poem, she says:

I was a woman      in the usual way
I had no language       but distress and duty

Through their commendable hyper-editing of the root text, Berggrun has crafted a debut that is searingly resonant with the politics of our time, making the work a master class in the endless possibilities of the erasure form. Bergrunn's speaker is so convincingly developed — the poem reads as though her voice were there all along, a woman with a mind of her own.

With a diary-like intimacy, the docile wife reveals herself to the reader, and all of the multitudes she contains. She is a confessional feminist, a survivor, a sharp-edged rebel:

I took pleasure in disobeying
I determined not to compose myself
I suppose I was not unchanged
I thought I felt desire kiss me with red lips
Never could I be a girl on her knees
I was a storm of a woman
transformed with red light
heaving an imperious voice
forward into the dimness

Admittedly, this “imperious voice” was not always so. R E D is no simple feminist manifesto, nor should that be expected of it. After all, the root text is Dracula, the original vampire story. Berggrun’s erasure is heavy with blood and ruin, and understandably so. The book's title is an indicator of the violence that the speaker endures. Across the poem's twenty-seven chapters, she is in various ways abused by her husband (“Once he became furious and tried to kill me”) and it fuels her own fury. She reveals: “I made a discovery / hate awakened in me” as she realizes that her husband must die for her to be free of his terrors. She states plainly: “I was a woman against a monster.”

The poet molds their epic poem into the speaker’s unflinching, unapologetic confession to the murder of her monster and the recreation of herself. It is a beast-slaying, and the reader is inclined to root for her on this mission for agency and liberation. R E D gives a scathing takedown of toxic masculinity and domestic violence from the perspective of an “immensely strong” and vengeful victim.

The volume capitalizes on the intelligence, patience, and cunning of its speaker — “In that wind / the queerest storm coming.” But a certain restraint carries the book: because this woman, unlike her husband, is slow to anger, her world is slowly developed and made as real as the reader’s. The great triumph of R E D is the speaker herself. She is furious and pained, afraid for her life, but her devious and determined mind keeps the poem tense, thrilling, and urgent:

One outburst was unusual and so violent
his screams were appalling
I found my hands full of sound
When he apologised
I thought it well to humour him
He is reaping a harvest of lies
eating them like little crumbs of sugar

Logan February is a happy-ish Nigerian owl who likes pizza & typewriters. He is a poet and a book reviewer at Platypus Press’ Weekend Review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Adroit, Wildness, Yemassee, Raleigh Review, Tinderbox, and more. He has been nominated for Best of the Net Awards, and his first full length manuscript, Mannequin in the Nude, was a finalist for the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. He is the author of How to Cook a Ghost (Glass Poetry Press, 2017), Painted Blue with Saltwater (Indolent Books, 2018) and Mannequin in the Nude (PANK Books, 2019).