In The Likeness Of Man:
Johannes Bjerg
s Penguins

By Jack Galmitz


Jack Galmitz has kindly written an analysis of my bilingual haiku book “Penguins/Pingviner – 122 haiku”. I am very honored he chose to do that and grateful for him reading the poems in this way. As Jack himself is a well known haijin with excellent publications to prove his skills I am doubly honored.

Here is the full text:

In The Likeness Of Man: Johannes Bjergs Penguins

By Jack Galmitz

Im not a betting man, but if I were I would wager that there isnt a human on earth who doesnt like penguins. Sure, at the zoo you have your big cat lovers and your seal lovers, and your reptile lovers; but, who, pray tell, doesnt simply adore penguins. Again, though Im no betting man, Id wager that it has a great deal to do with the fact that they are like us, made over in our likeness, with this difference: theyre essentially benign. This makes all the difference doesnt it? I mean, if human beings had a history of benignity, we might love our fellow men in the same way we love penguins. But, alas, history has the last word and penguins, Im afraid, win out.

So, the fact that Danish poet Johannes S.H. Bjerg wrote a bilingual book titled Penguins/Pingviner (Cyberwit.net, 2011), which contains 122 poems about penguins is, in itself, not so surprising. The fact that he is the first that I can think of who centered his attention on Penguins is what is dismaying. In fact, I think Mr. Bjerg is the very first poet to write about penguins and hes from Denmark, not Antarctica. So go figure. Perhaps, Mr. Bjerg is just the most loving man in the haiku world and thats why he wrote Penguins: to give back.

On a more serious note, Mr. Bjerg opens Penguins with a poem that encapsulates, as any good opening of a book does, the technique, purpose, model of what will follow throughout. It is something of a meta-poem, as it uses the time-tested haiku technique of comparing two disparate things by their physical likeness, yet tethers two things we generally think of as unrelated. There is, however, a tongue-in-cheek attitude expressed in the poem and it is this sense of humor, this device to break apart ordinary associations that we find as Mr. Bjergs method of choice.

on the backside

of the moon

lurking penguins

Americans usually refer to the dark side of the moon, so I dont know if backside is meant as a rude reference to the buttocks or whether it is how the Danes refer to the side of the moon that never sees sunlight. In any event, since the moon doesnt rotate on its axis, the dark side of the moon has always represented a mystery to man and now it is solved: penguins are lurking there. This, of course, is absurdist and meant to be so. Penguins, like the moon, are mostly black with white bellies and thus similar in appearance to the moon, with its white facing us and its darkness kept from view. Thus we have haiku in its pristine form.

The poem is impossibly true, what Tzvetan Todorov called the fantastic and the fantastic is the modus used by Johannes Bjerg throughout Penguins. So, for 3

the sake of further articulations, let us have a definition of the fantastic as understood and written about by Todorov:

Todorov's greatest contribution to literary theory was his defining of the Fantastic, the fantastic uncanny, and the fantastic marvelous. Todorov defines the fantastic as being any event that happens in our world that seems to be supernatural. Upon the occurrence of the event, we must decide if the event was an illusion or whether it is real and has actually taken place. Todorov uses Alvaro from Cazotte's Le Diable Amoureux as an example of a fantastic event. Alvaro must decide whether the woman he is in love with is truly a woman or if she is the devil.

Upon choosing whether the event was real or imaginary, Todorov says that we enter into the genres of uncanny and marvelous. In the fantastic uncanny, the event that occurs is actually an illusion of some sort. The "laws of reality" remain intact and also provide a rational explanation for the fantastic event. Todorov gives examples of dreams, drugs, illusions of the senses, madness, etc. as things that could explain a fantastic/supernatural event. In the fantastic marvelous, the supernatural event that occurs has actually taken place and therefore the "laws of reality" have to be changed to explain the event. Only if the implied reader cannot opt for one or the other possibility, the text is purely fantastic.

Perhaps the most commonplace assignment of categories to penguins is as French bistro waiters, waddling with their black suits and white shirts.

sore throat-

Im served chamomile tea

by penguins

Where should this poem be placed in Todorov’s schema? With a sore throat a person could have a fever and so the illusion could be real or the fantastic uncanny. Yet, our first inclination is to laugh, because of the similarity of penguins to waiters and the updating of this image by the use of “chamomile tea.”

Then there is that time-honored association of penguins and nuns based on the likeness of the nun’s habits with the penguins’ colors. Mr. Bjerg cannot resist the humorous confrontation of the two; it is something like slapstick comedy, but the slapstick comedy of surrealists/dadaists like Marcel Duchamp, Hugo Ball, et al, in that rather than anthropomorphism , penguins are given their due as so human-like as to equate to human beings.

outside the church

a show-down between