Book Review

The Swedish title of Helena Boberg’s second collection, Sinnesvåld (translated as Sense Violence by Johannes Göransson), appears fairly straightforward at first. “Sinnes” refers to the senses and “våld” means violence. But, as with the poems themselves, the title’s etymology is more complex. Sinnesvåld was published in Sweden in 2013, two years after Boberg’s first book, Repuls. Boberg has a background with a Stockholm-based surrealist group and is a participant of the international network Shaerat, which provides workshops and collaborations among female writers from Sweden, Palestine, Iran, and Iraq, among other countries. Sense Violence continues many of the preoccupations from Boberg’s first book: psychoanalytic concepts of gender, surrealist imagery, and the wounds inflicted upon women.

Sense Violence is Göransson’s most recent translation of poetry, after Aase Berg’s Tsunami from Solaris, which he published with Joyelle McSweeney in 2019. In his introduction to Sense Violence, Göransson writes that the “compound word suggests both the idea of violence against the senses and the idea that the senses enact a kind of violence.” It’s not just that violence throbs with every line in the book; Boberg has manufactured an entire industry of violence, an industry in which we all live.

Sense Violence is divided into three sections: “Predatory Drive,” “Li’l Eye,” and “Sense Violence.” The first two sections are relatively short, but they both address similar issues as “Sense Violence,” which consists of over seventy pages of the book’s ninety-four-page length. The book at once depicts the violence that men enact onto women, but also the violence that women experience from men, which might seem like one and the same, but Boberg’s style takes multiple subjectivities into account: “The I is only an event,” she explains, drawing our attention to the fluidity of perception and of violence as it’s utilized by men in many different ways. These variations of violence include physical forms such as rape and other forms of sexual assault, but also the emotional and psychological abuses that men enact onto women, like gaslighting. Violence, Boberg suggests, is organic and it hinges on the person inflicting it as well as the victim’s senses experiencing it.

One of the more striking features of Boberg’s book is her ability to reenergize hackneyed language with surprise and juxtaposition. Toward the beginning of the section entitled “Sense Violence,” we’re presented with a relatively straightforward image of a snake’s body as “twisted.” The next line subverts this easy description by comparing the snake to “a braid of closely related lusts.” It’s this contextual displacement of the sexual, the violent, and the visceral that adds gravitas to the book. In Göransson’s translation, the language that Boberg employs is familiar, but not laborious, which allows her to slice through the fanfare to which a less experienced poet might fall prey. Throughout the book, it’s almost as though she lures us into a false sense of comfort with images of flowers, animals, and the moon. At one moment, the speaker refers to “The loveliest sweetness” before revealing

Then they tear
it out
with a probe
Petals of blood
in formaldehyde

Here, Boberg calls attention to the ways in which men embellish their behavior, personal histories, and even language in an effort to ensnare women and inflict violence upon them.

Despite the violent subject matter of the poems, the speaker confesses, “I didn’t want to destroy,” yet immediately after this line, she explains that

I eat from
her body
so that I will
never grow

When the speaker describes a “hand [spreading] an innocent content,” we don’t believe her. Nothing here is innocent, because that would presuppose a period of time when patriarchal institutions didn’t observe women as “Pure and utter cabaret.” Similar to the ways in which the book’s images continually undermine our expectations, so too do the speaker’s stream-of-consciousness declarations. The speaker admits the necessity to destroy these oppressive circumstances, affecting the “ambience” of violence of which Göransson writes in his introduction. Throughout the collection, this ambience fractures under the weight of its own violence and then rebuilds itself with beauty before breaking down again. These phoenix-like resurrections and destructions occur over and over in the book, and this process seems linked to the frailty of human bodies and human systems.

This reincarnating violence is a result of the perpetual cannibalism in the book. The act of eating and the body parts associated with eating consume the rhetoric of “Sense Violence.” The speaker

for your tongue
as for
salted butter

and a male figure

with the finger
the fruit peel
Wriggles along the notch
until the flesh grows juicy

Not even language itself is impervious to the cannibalistic tendencies expressed in the book; the speaker even reminds us that “Once you have entered language you cannot get out.” “Night’s flowers” ultimately “[devour] the words / loose as oysters” and a woman “versifies sanguinely / pushes her verbiage into my mouth // I eat everything she has ever played.” Everything is included in this “food chain” on top of which is “woman . . . a utopia.” Anything and everything can become cannibalized because anything can be translated into something edible as a result of the book’s “volatile atmosphere.”

Ultimately, Sense Violence confronts androcentric establishments and modalities without promising a panacea, but the book isn’t without hope. We are encouraged not to challenge male systems and hierarchies alone, but as a collective—a feminist collective. By the end of the book, the speaker acknowledges that women continue to be “Choked by intoxication”; nonetheless, she urges us to “make love . . . to life / Become pregnant with ovaries hissing of violent love.”

About the Reviewer

Christian Bancroft received their PhD from the University of Houston and are the recipient of a Michener Fellowship. A finalist for the Rose Metal Press Open Reading Series and a semifinalist for the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award and the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry, they are the author of Queering Modernist Translation: The Poetics of Race, Gender, and Queerness (2020) and the co-editor of the 2018 Unsung Masters Series volume, Adelaide Crapsey: The Life & Work of an American Master. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Callaloo, The Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, jubilat, Gulf Coast, and Asymptote, among others.