On a late-afternoon dive to a den deep in the Pacific, the philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith came upon a cuttlefish whose skin was switching very rapidly between different shades of red and orange. Given its otherwise lack of movement or watchfulness, the cuttlefish, one of the subjects of Godfrey-Smith’s stunning yet meditative book on subjective experience, Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea and The Deep Origins of Consciousness, appeared to be in some sort of fugue state. Watching the display, Godfrey-Smith wrote that he “was reminded of dogs dreaming, their paws moving while they made tiny yip-like sounds.” Cephalopods like cuttlefish and octopuses have as many neural connections as a cat or a dog, minus a spinal cord. Their neural system is like a lattice that covers the body, even the arms, which appear to think for themselves, and move independently of the body when engaged in hunting or eating. What’s more, cephalopods have skin cells that change colors to signal to mates, intimidate predators or camouflage in their surroundings. In his book, Godfrey-Smith speaks of these changes as “mumblings of the skin” and says that it is a code that scientists have yet to break.
“Mumblings of the skin” would be an apt way to describe the work of Swedish poet Bruno K. Öijer, whose mesmerizing, haunting trio of poetry books, While the Poison Acts, The Lost Word, and The Fog of Everything, translated into English by Victoria Häggblom, was published by Action Books as The Trilogy in April 2020. A compendium of reflections from time spent on the road across 1970s America, The Trilogy is as viscerally indifferent to the presence of its readers as the dreaming cuttlefish was of Godfrey-Smith. Elevated to the status of a rock star in his home country of Sweden, Öijer is famous for blending music, poetry, and performance in a manner reminiscent of Dylan and the Beat poets, who were also his early influences, as were Dadaism, Surrealism, and American film noir.
The hypnagogic flow of poems in The Trilogy are, according to the poet, in conversation with Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, a series of elegies given by the dead lying in the cemetery of the town of Spoon River about themselves. Filled with images as hallucinatory and ghostly as the cephalopods who haunt undersea floors and kelp forests, The Trilogy will resonate most profoundly with those who have experienced a life-altering loss. Öijer’s speaker is trapped inside a world populated solely by the specters of his grief: a landscape of desolate, skeletal structures from which to imagine an entire world, the way historians imagine a civilization from an excavated square of ancient Roman mosaic floor. The past is layered over the present like silt, and any slight shift in the emotional weather of the reader can cause it to blow off and settle in new places, resulting in a near constant veiling and unveiling of images, ideas, and modalities.
Öijer was born in 1951 and lost his father to suicide when he was still a child. He was raised by a single mother in a working-class neighborhood in Linköping. In his poem “The Cold” from The Fog of Everything, he speaks about the destruction of his childhood home at the age of ten, to make way for mass housing:
took my childhood
crushed the apple trees
and the attics
crushed the adventure
and the beautiful old houses
from that moment
the daylight began to disappear
from my life
and I turned the other way
I had long conversations with the night
I remember lying awake in my bed
holding the pillow
its cover had a border of spirit voices
that whispered to me
One can weigh, in this poem, Oïjer’s urge to interrogate how our inner lives are set off like a tuning fork by sensations in the physical world against the desire to free oneself from a psychological space whose boundaries are defined by external trauma. Oïjer’s project appears to be to liberate the subconscious mind from the thrall of reason or logic in its quest to come to terms with the incalculability of life. The origins of his image-rich, iconoclastic poetry could be sourced to this vision, and to a decision to turn away from modern capitalist violence and the industrial plundering of romantic objects such as the “beautiful old houses” of his childhood, toward the spirit voices who whispered to him, and that chose him as their champion. Pushing back against elitist literary hegemony, Öijer positioned himself as a thorn in the side of the Swedish establishment, reinforcing his oppositional stance with theatrical stunts and outrageous readings. In his afterword to Trilogy, publisher and poet Johannes Göransson talks about how in 1975, after being awarded a $1000 stipend from the publishing house Bonniers, Öijer changed the sum into coins which he distributed on the platform of Stockholm’s central subway stop, all while reciting from his group’s manifesto.
According to Godfrey-Smith, one of the most vivid forms of consciousness is one in which we reflect on our inner thought processes or take measure of our inner states—thinking about thinking. Language is a means to organize the jumbled flow of images, experiences, and perceptions within us. The inner questions and commentaries that we form about the way we experience the world make up the bulk of art. That’s why the high intelligence of cephalopods remains a puzzle to scientists and philosophers. While they have a wonderful faculty to express themselves—the chromatophore cells of their skin—cephalopods don’t have an accompanying complex social life, being solitary hunters, to make such expressions of internal thought necessary. Why are cephalopods gifted with expression when organizing subjective experience into language plays no role in their survival? This gives rise to other theories, like the idea that having language may not be necessary to process complex thoughts. As Cormac McCarthy wrote in his essay on the subconscious:
Problems in general are often well posed in terms of language and language remains a handy tool for explaining them. But the actual process of thinking—in any discipline—is largely an unconscious affair. Language can be used to sum up some point at which one has arrived—a sort of milepost—so as to gain a fresh starting point. But if you believe that you actually use language in the solving of problems, I wish that you would write to me and tell me how you go about it.
Öijer’s poems are available to English-speaking readers because of the ardent labor of his translator, Victoria Häggblom. Like immigrants, translated texts often undertake a long journey away from the literary practices and traditions from which they originated. If one considers a translation of The Trilogy within the framework of radical defamiliarization, Häggblom’s ability to metaphrase Öijer’s poems into English while retaining the linguistic weirdness of the originals is nothing short of masterful. In her note, Hägglblom writes:
My interest in Öijer’s poetry has always been grounded in its deceptively simple, magnetic, and dark tone, his themes of loneliness, love, loss, death, memory, and destruction. Translating another artist’s work—especially when you live continents apart—is rarely an easy task; I’ve found the process to be like a long journey where, with each day, you learn something new about yourself, your traveling companion, and the world. There is a mystical beauty to Öijer’s language; a unique sense of melancholy, and I consider him a poet with great integrity and vision. His themes of time and impermanence, civilization and nature, responsibility and duty, borders and identity have never felt more relevant than in the current political climate.
Reminiscent of a cephalopod’s stunning chromatophore displays, The Trilogy often feels like inner conversations projected on a surface, unencumbered by annotation, with latitude and power to transmogrify its images from beautiful to tragic, dazzling to grotesque, benign to subtly menacing. By subjugating language to imagism, the poems form a path to explore one’s own inner world without the burden or the anxiety of fluency, to bring readers close to trauma while implicating sense-making as a trauma response, memory as an aggressor:
ravaged by rain you stood still
among childhood memories
under the bleached sheets
loomed the weight of furniture
screwed down to an evil parquet floor
the bare rooms
awoken from their sleep
slowly focused their gaze on you
The image of childhood memories as malevolent creatures awakening from slumber is singularly poignant, as it is emblematic of how childhood’s terrifying misunderstandings, psychological pitfalls, and irrational fears manifest in later years as intergenerational trauma. Emotional harm by a parental figure is a precise education in how to damage those who depend on us for safety. A family’s grief traps generations in a search for insight. The Trilogy’s specters, its infinite reincarnations of mystical objects, landscapes, and totems conjure a universe that metabolizes grief into surreal art that defies assimilation. Each poem is a room full of artifacts from the poet’s subconscious, waiting to be touched and examined. Like history, the poems offer no epiphanies, only clues to the most helpful questions.