The Likeness Of Man: Johannes Bjerg’s Penguins
not a betting man, but if I were I would wager that there
isn’t a human on earth who doesn’t like penguins.
Sure, at the zoo you have your big cat lovers and
your seal lovers, and your reptile lovers; but, who, pray
tell, doesn’t simply adore penguins.
Again, though I’m no betting man, I’d 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:
they’re essentially benign.
This makes all the difference doesn’t it?
I mean, if human beings had a history of benignity,
we might love our fellow men in the same way we love
alas, history has the last word and penguins, I’m afraid,
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 he’s from Denmark, not
go figure. Perhaps,
Mr. Bjerg is just the most loving man in the haiku world
and that’s 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. Bjerg’s method of choice.
of the moon
Americans usually refer
to the “dark” side of the moon, so I don’t 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 doesn’t 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 the sake of further articulations, let
us have a definition of the fantastic as understood and
written about by Todorov:
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.
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
I’m served chamomile
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.
a show-down between
nuns and penguins
a gang of peguins
at the core of this humorous campaign, is the joy of
living, sliding belly-whopping on a hill of ice and snow,
in contrast to the serious intoning of the Church and its
teaching of salvation through belief.
Penguins don’t share religious views: they just
dare to live joyously.
is no salvation
outside the Church”-
but penguins dancing
is one last way in which penguins seem like human beings
in tuxedos and that is as members of an orchestra.
The humor of the following poems stems from taking
the figurative literally, a not uncommon device of comedy.
unlike penguins they
resemble an orchestra
slowly taking over
the wood-wind section
of the major sources of our fondness for penguins is their
They live, like humans, in large colonies, and for
the most part there is little aggression between them.
When they mate, they are for that period of time
monogamous, like humans, and like humans there is a
mysterious bond between mother and offspring, so that
amongst thousands of similar looking birds, mother and
chick can recognize each other’s calls.
They are birds, and yet, like us, they cannot fly,
and like us, they live on land and in the sea.
Johannes Bjerg subjects
this peaceable quality of penguins to contrast, thus
creating a surreal humor; he stretches the human-likeness
to qualities that are solely human and the intriguing
result is the denigration (humanization) of the species:
did you ever know why sometimes when you put coins in
vending machines, the coffee poured out without a cup, or
a cup fell but no coffee came out, or you pressed the
numbers and didn’t get your soda?
Here is the reason:
in soft drink vending
Besides the fact that
penguins share qualities with human beings, they are also
one of the few wild creatures to have no fear of humans.
In their communities, a human being can come quite
close to a penguin and it has no fear of him.
After establishing so many likenesses to human
beings, the willing suspension of disbelief allows Mr.
Bjerg to portray them in ways ordinarily inconceivable to
taken over the stock
they share in our interests to such an extent that any
human activity can be applied to them:
what amuses us amuses them:
penguins having fun
in the house of mirrors
they are so much in the likeness of man that, while
absurdist, Mr. Bjerg has penguins imitate human practices:
going as seals
and sharks for Halloween-
at the station
a Missing Person note-
sketch of a penguin
Penguins always live in
groups, in large numbers, much as humans tend to live in
cities to be gathered together; they are social creatures,
just like we are. Since they look alike to us, their sheer
number seems a uniformity, whether of opinion or action.
cutting short every debate
with a collective stare-
the penguin soccer team
in three shifts
Creation is accomplished
penguins in the quantum
to say, besides sharing many characteristics with humans,
penguins are different, indeed somewhat strange: they are
birds with wings that have become flippers and they cannot
fly; they are aquatic birds that spend half their time on
land and half on water; while they do not necessarily live
in Antarctica, they are capable of surviving extremes of
are in Penguins rife for
mention of the Flood
in penguin mythology
but of Fish Heaven
never waiting for a
but dying when the time
a modern world devoid of living, breathing myths, Johannes
Bjerg uses the unusual penguin as a symbol (something that
is unknowable, but suggestive of many things) throughout Penguins.
He goes so far as to regard them as the saviors of
mankind; this is not meant to be literally true, but
surrealistically true, or mythological.
As Joseph Campbell, mythologist and anthropologist,
pointed out the first purpose was
"mythological symbols touch and exhilarate
centers of life beyond the reach of reason and coercion....
The first function of mythology is to reconcile waking
consciousness to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of
this universe as it is." (Masks of God, Viking,
Here are some examples of
the penguin, the bird “god” performing its services to
a chrome sky
unifying world religions
penguins with Mithras
from a red flower
they extract shining
forming a half circle
chanting the sutra of
penguins around Fukushima
the Dharani Sutra
and the Jesus Prayer-
watching over the world
while we’ve been taught that Himalayan monks have been
chanting to save the world, actually all the time it was
penguins who had assumed this responsibility.
reciting the Gita
10,000 penguins floating
penguin as savior will not be found in the world of common
sense and reason. In
fact, the whole of Penguins
can be regarded as a final assault on the early 20th
Century notion that reason and technology would help
humankind reach a perfection.
Of course, the early modernists, Dadaists,
surrealists, already debunked such a notion.
However, we can never hear it often enough, because
with each new technological conquest the myth of science
and technology is reborn anew.
the penguins visit
up the mythic rivers
for all that, Campbell, influenced by Dr. Carl Jung and
his exhaustive studies of myths, religions, arcana of the
alchemists, proposer of collective symbols shared in the
greater unconscious by all humankind is a source of
laughter to the penguins: they know they are the
“thing” itself and it cannot be described, analyzed,
wonders of childhood belong to children and penguins;
adults, by the time they look back and within, have
distorted memories, lost their sport and spontaneity.
all things wonderful
by penguin clowns
who want their children to mature in their society,
regardless of whether it is just and true and
compassionate to life, try to stifle the sound of the
penguins, the lure of the imaginary and fantastic.
mothers buy earplugs for
penguins blow harder
Bjerg manages to use allusion to a famous poem by Hosai
coughing still all alone
though, are wholly social creatures and could never write
they are perfect Zen practitioners of haiku:
penguins write their
of course, that they have no possessions, seek no
possessions, know of no way or road to Enlightenment (as
the Heart Sutra teaches):
never bother about
where roads go
reversing the agenda-
penguins place compassion
are many more wonderful, humorous, profound musings in Penguins, but it is not
possible to quote them all or discuss them all.
Johannes Bjerg was interviewed in Okiedoks.com (a
website dedicated to many things) and when asked about his
work, he had this to say:
I'm a haijin – haiku-poet. I write haiku in two
languages Danish and English. In this work I try to
develop a voice of my own. Haiku is traditionally a
nature-based poetry-form but has developed with the
conditions of the modern world. Now it concerns itself
with almost every aspect of human life. And luckily so.
Some haijin (this is also the plural tense of the word)
tend to insist on classical Japanese ways of writing, but
many more are trying to take haiku to the 21st century.
I'm one of them. Haiku should reflect the reality of the
haijin and reality these days is different from medieval
Japan. Now we live with the insights of the past and
thoughts and knowledge of a kind we've never experienced
before. I try to make use of all the different experiences
I've had during my life, all the -ism's I've encountered,
the philosophies, ideas, corporeal sensations and whatever
has made an impression in and on me in every kind of way.
I tend to grasp for the
“outer” or “inner” limits of this realm we call
reality. I guess I think of human beings – myself – as
a place where many layers of so called reality meet and
intertwine, melt together and come out in a new form.
Language is one tool to express this. Poetry is the best
language tool to do this and to me haiku is the perfect
I like to “stretch”
the language, I want to take it where it almost looses
sense because of it's inadequacy to express exactly what
is inexpressible. This sounds cryptic, and it is. Language
can go only so far … but how far before it becomes shear
nonsense … It's a bit like pricking a hole in
“reality” to find another “reality”. And this is
where it makes no sense talking about anymore. Only the
poem can do that.
We’ll leave it there,
with the poet’s words.
He is deserving of that respect.