In The Likeness Of Man: Johannes Bjerg’s Penguins

By Jack Galmitz


                     I’m 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 penguins.  But, alas, history has the last word and penguins, I’m 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 he’s from Denmark, not Antarctica.  So 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.


on the backside

                                                            of the moon

                                                            lurking penguins

                      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:

                                            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-

                                                                                                             I’m 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

                                                                                                             nuns and penguins


                                                                                                             cornered by

                                                                                                             a gang of peguins

                                                                                                             nuns retreat

And, 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.

                                                                                        “There is no salvation

                                                                                                             outside the Church”-

                                                                                                             but penguins dancing

                      There 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 can’t

                                                                                                             resemble an orchestra


                                                                                                             slowly taking over

                                                                                                             the wood-wind section

                                                                                                             blowing penguins

                      One of the major sources of our fondness for penguins is their human-like conviviality.  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:


robbing Ikea

gang of penguins

heavily armed


roaming the streets-

gangs of penguins

stirring up trouble



taxi-drivers held up

by penguins

And 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 machines

                                                                                                             guerilla penguins

                      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 us. 

                                                                                        already they have

                                                                                                             taken over the stock exchange


Or, they share in our interests to such an extent that any human activity can be applied to them:


                                                                                                             the soundwaves

                                                                                                             cyber penguins

Or, what amuses us amuses them:

                                                                                       contagious laughter

                                                                                                             penguins having fun

                                                                                                             in the house of mirrors

Indeed, 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-

                                                                                                             penguin chicks


                                                                                                             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-

                                                                                                             10,000 penguins


                                                                                                             army  of substitutes

                                                                                                             the penguin soccer team

                                                                                                             never tires


                                                                                                             in three shifts

                                                                                                             Creation is accomplished

                                                                                                             penguins in the quantum field

Needless 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 weather.  They are in Penguins rife for mythologizing.

                                                                                       no mention of the Flood

                                                                                                             in penguin mythology

                                                                                                             but of Fish Heaven


                                                                                                             never waiting for a  cure

                                                                                                             but dying when the time is right

                                                                                                             selfless penguins

                      In 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, 1965).

                      Here are some examples of the penguin, the bird “god” performing its services to mankind:

                                                                                        surfing a chrome sky

                                                                                                             unifying world religions

                                                                                                             penguins with Mithras


                                                                                                             from a red flower

                                                                                                             they extract shining Utopias

                                                                                                             sensitive penguins


                                                                                                             forming a half circle

                                                                                                             chanting the sutra of compassion           

                                                                                                             penguins around Fukushima


                                                                                                             the Dharani Sutra

                                                                                                             and the Jesus Prayer- penguins

                                                                                                             watching over the world

And 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.

                                                                                        Constantly reciting the Gita

                                                                                                             10,000 penguins floating

                                                                                                             In Himalaya

The 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.

                                                                                       swimming as saviors

                                                                                                             the penguins visit villages

                                                                                                             up the mythic rivers

                      Yet, 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, pinned down.

                                                                                        while Jung juggles

                                                                                                             the collective unconscious

                                                                                                             penguins giggle

The 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.

                                                                                                             in a kindergarten

                                                                                                             all things wonderful exposed

                                                                                                             by penguin clowns

Parents, 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.

                                                                                                             fearing their flutes

                                                                                                             mothers buy earplugs for children

                                                                                                             penguins blow harder

Johannes Bjerg manages to use allusion to a famous poem by Hosai Ozaki:

                                                                                                             Even coughing still all alone

Penguins, though, are wholly social creatures and could never write this haiku.


                                                                                                             never cough


But, they are perfect Zen practitioners of haiku:

                                                                                                             perfect zen

                                                                                                             penguins write their haiku

                                                                                                             in water

meaning, 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

                                                                                                             above commerce

There 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 poetry.

   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.