I cannot imagine how someone nowadays could write a poem which is longer than, say, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, yet Johan Jönson has dared to do exactly this: he has just published a long poem of 2,272 pages, which mainly, but not completely, consists of two stanzas of five lines per page. The form he has invented has a name of its own: ProponeisiS, or, as the subheading says, Zoembient växelverkanvers. But who is Johan Jönson? Born in 1966, he has been publishing poetry since 1992 and is regarded as one of Sweden’s foremost poets. Probably you have not read him, and that is because most of his works are not available in English (apart from this little book, translated by Johannes Göransson). His breakthrough came with the 800-page volume Efter arbetsschema (According to Work Schedule, 2008), a book which earned him both Aftonbladet’s Literature Prize and a nomination for Northern Europe’s most prestigious literary award Nordiska Rådets Litteraturpris – and, again, in 2020, for Marginalia/Xterminalier. Here is what Ulf Olsson had to say about it in Expressen. The critic describes Jönson’s text as a “machine”:
(It) works for 800 pages, disgorging different types of text. A short slogan like “work and fun belong together” alternates with diary notes, job descriptions from nursing homes with accounts from the writer’s machine. And the text grinds and buzzes so loudly that one really isn’t capable of grasping its different parts: the machine is working.
Jönson is a conceptual artist. He builds poetry apparatuses, gets lost in typographical shenanigans, prose fragments, long run-on sentences, lists, verses scattered all over the page, streams of consciousness. But his works are far from being inanimate or apathetic. When Efter arbetsschema was published in Elisabeth Fryking’s Norwegian translation in 2012, his editor Leif Høghaug said that the reader was “swept away” by the book, and I consider this to be an accurate description of what Jönson does to those who dare to read what he has contrived. His writing is hypnotic, dream-like, radical, and one has to make sure not to get lost in the labyrinths of his mind. Even if there is very little one can hold onto – the title of his new book is a good starting point.
In Sara Abdollahi’s and Andrea Lundgren’s podcast Godmorgon, midnatt, Jönson mentions that ProponeisiS is a made-up word – or, if that’s what one wants to call it, a creation in the spirit of Finnegans Wake. (If you understand Swedish, you can listen to him explaining his title at around 1:22.) First of all, the title contains poiesis, the Greek word for “poetry”, which also means “making”. For Jönson, poetry connotes mechanical art – that’s not surprising given his numerous references to factory work. Pro, of course, means for. Other than that, the creation includes the Swedish word for “no” (nej), although it is written as nei. Taking these aspects into account, it is tempting to read Jönson’s obscure neologism as an apocryphal title: For a Negative Making – that is, a form of critique in a certain dialectical tradition, both private and political, socially critical and arty. It is a critique that in itself is a “P.S.”, a post scriptum to all of Jönson’s earlier works – or, rather, a summa of everything he has written before.
Zoembient växelverkanvers is another invented term, even a literary genre of its own. The adjective zoembient is based on a post-dramatic script written by Jönson himself and includes three words – zoe, zombie, ambient: zoe is Giorgio Agamben’s term for bare life. Furthermore, it implies that one aspires to reach a certain form of self-fulfillment through work – which Jönson’s “I” is never going to reach, precisely because his jobs are utterly absurd, both to himself and to society. Therefore, he has quite a different conception of zoe than any neoliberal would have. In a sort of introduction to his play script, he writes that the word “describes a form of flickering life, caught between vegetation and an insect-like existence, landscape and subject, environment and vector, discourse and evolution, redistribution and geology, movement and language, silence and obscurity”. A zombie is, of course, an undead bedeviling innocent people, an abhorred revenant that is difficult to kill, and a constant source of sorrow or even grief personified. Ambient refers to proximate surroundings (society and nature) – but also to electronic soundscapes: a background noise, elevator music, a machine humming in the background. Hence, Jönson uses poetry – aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language – to highlight the interplay (växelverkan) between living and inanimate spheres. What is alive? What is dead? Does his narrator still walk among the animate, or has he moved back to the inferno? Jönson’s narrating “I” is a kind of Orpheus whose Eurydice has never existed. He himself tries to sing but is drowned out by the buzzing city behind his back. The only thing he can do is to try again, to fail again, to fail better – although he can never give up singing.
The book is centered around “a proponeitic and zoembient subjectivity”. It refers to itself as “I” and is called “Johan”, but it cannot be defined as an alter ego of the author. Rather than that, it is, in the words of the Danish-Norwegian critic Susanne Christensen, “a serial I”, chattering about the violent society it lives in. This “collective” narrative instance is caught up between waking and sleeping, and, therefore, bears witness to an “inertia regime” – an account of a continued dehumanization through work, an existence between life and death, which is why it is exclusively capable of delivering sequence upon sequence of hypnagogic images. “Johan” describes how capitalism has inflicted damage to his body and mind. He has always had low-paid menial jobs, for example in a graphite powder plant, in nursing homes, as a cleaner, etc. He is suffering from constant financial strain and feels that he can’t provide for his family. Furthermore, he doesn’t have much time to write and moves back and forth between the gloomy existence of a worker and that of an author. This is what is meant by “zoembient”: “Johan” has to find a compromise between the animate sphere of literature and the inanimate sphere of work because he cannot live in both domains at the same time. But his only accomplishment both as a worker and as a writer is a certain stasis, a perpetual iteration of internalized procedures in a capitalist society which only takes and never gives, and reduces him to nothing but a shadow, a prospective version of himself he can’t recognize. In her review of Efter arbetsschema, Susanne Christensen likens Jönson’s poetry to the paintings of Norwegian artist Hariton Pushwagner, in which people merge with the dehumanizing urban environment, and the Swedish poet’s most recent book further confirms this comparison.
Truth be told, these limbo chronicles can be as tiring as my description sounds. However, they are remarkable in terms of syntax: full of nested sentences, parentheses, and disruptions. The poem begins at a graphite powder plant and moves on to defining life stations: a childhood in a doomed family, jobs, an encounter with the love of life, and is constantly interrupted by small chapbooks – most of them only several pages long –, often right in the middle of a sentence. In the podcast I have mentioned, Jönson reveals that these chapbooks were planned as addenda to ProponeisiS, leaflets to be taken out by the reader and distributed anyplace in the book. Unfortunately, this was unfeasible for the publisher. Apart from these incognito poetry collections, the poem itself – that is, the sequences of two five-line stanzas – is not paginated. Given its length, this seems to be a sadistic trick of the author. However, it is not that the author gratuitously mocks the readers by denying them the comfort of knowing on which page they are at the given moment – his purpose is rather to allow them to go astray in the zoembient subjectivity’s mind. The enormous extent of Jönson’s text should not be viewed as the product of loose editing but as a sign of its obsessive qualities and transgressive potential.
Jönson recounts the history of a personal cataclysm caused by heavy work and elitist class distinctions. His language is full of anger, invectives and injuries. He does not have qualms about resorting to explicit depictions of graphic sexualized violence. There is nothing erotic about intercourse here (very frequently, sperm clumps are described as little white “maggots”). Ubiquitous images of violence even haunt the “I”’s sleep in such a way that I (don’t) hope he’s going to publish a dream protocol:
In a dream, I’m at home, but I’m forced to eat enormous heaps of fresh ravioli filled with thick sperm. It’s like chomping into a deliciously fat pillow pasta and realizing that yellowish, gooey ricotta or mozzarella cheese trickles from the middle of it. I don’t know why I need to gobble up this food, but somehow, I feel like I have to go for it. And I get pregnant, my belly swells up, becomes taut. When I’m expected to give birth, it turns out that the grotesque belly doesn’t contain a child but thick, semi-fluid, dissolved, feculent fat. It oozes out of me, both out of my anus and my contaminated, blazing red snatch, and somehow even out of the cesarean which has been made under my wobbling belly. The doctors and the midwives are kicking their heels, laughing scornfully.
In the Freudian sense of the term, this dream is a condensation of the violence the “I” is confronted with and subjected to every day. Apart from continuous harassment by employers and, as a poor person, being made invisible by an exploitative and elitist society, the “I” has to deal with the internalized violence it inflicts on both itself and others. As is customary in Scandinavian societies, it spirals into a crisis of conscience and självransakelse (self-examination): Did I commit any mistakes? And, if I did, how can I make up for them? The “I” has to answer this question by questioning the destructive aspects of its masculinity through literature and writing. It has “found itself within a forest dark” – not only like Dante but also like the man in Ulrich Schlotmann’s magnum opus Die Freuden der Jagd (The Pleasures Of Hunt), a stream of consciousness which is, in fact, a deconstruction of fatalist conceptions of masculinity. (Jönson mentions the author a couple of times, which is impressive because this novel has never been translated and is little known even in Germany.) The “I” is much more transgressive than, for instance, Karl Ove Knausgård in his autobiographical novel series – in the sense that it doesn’t indulge in narcissistic accolades of the self, but in collectivized images of brutishness caused by a harmful society. Nor does it engage in kitchen-sink realism or, as the poet would call it, “lifestyle liberalism literature”.
In a sense, Jönson follows the 19th-century Danish critic Georg Brandes who said that literature had to moot social problems – a request which became increasingly popular not only with Henrik Ibsen’s plays but is still going strong in a lot of Scandinavian books making their way into the Anglophone world. But unlike all those writers (among them Knausgård), Jönson does not dwell on trite simulations of middle-class life in the suburbs. In his conceptual art, he aims to represent the poor, the sick, the dispossessed and invents a disrupted, infinite poetical form, a rich tapestry of subaltern life in today’s Sweden. Does it hurt? Yes. Is it necessary? Not only that, it’s past overdue.
Many thanks to Albert Bonniers Förlag for providing an advance review copy.
About the Author
Matthias Friedrich was born in Trier, Germany, in 1992. He has studied at the Writers’ Academy in Hildesheim and holds a Master’s degree in Scandinavian literature and culture from the University of Greifswald. He currently lives in Trier. He has translated into German Svein Jarvoll and Thure Erik Lund, among others. Forthcoming: Kælven by Leif Høghaug; Vestlandet by Erlend O. Nødtvedt; Suget, eller Vasker du vores fuckfingre med dine tårer? by Ida Marie Hede.
You can learn more about Matthias and his work on his personal site Tvesynt (in German).