“The one who looks is simultaneously the one who destroys”

On human-animal relations in Andreas Vermehren Holm’s Alle tegn i samme natt (“All signs in the same night”)

Week of the Festival: Littfest, Umeå, Sweden

Around a year ago, I took part in the slaughtering of a cow at my parents’ farm in the north of Norway. Having hurt her foot, she was to be killed at the farm, by a professional butcher who arrived from the slaughterhouse. Well outside of the barn, the butcher shot her in the head with a bolt gun and immediately after stuck a knife in her heart. For days after the herd would stop and smell the ground at the exact place where her blood had been flowing. 

At this point she was kicking, and the butcher touched her eye with a naked finger to see if life had left her. Her body was lifted by the back legs with our tractor, letting the slaughterer slit her open and remove her bowels. He cut off her udder and threw it on the ground. In the artificial lights from the tractor the udder on the ground resembled a surrealist painting. Or even something from children’s TV. It had this homely feeling; this is what we point to when we tell children where the milk they are drinking comes from. I have witnessed scenes like this so many times by now, but the efficiency of killing still shocks me. There is no struggle. It looks like a perfectly clean act. 

The Danish poet Andreas Vermehren Holm (born in 1988) also describes the slaughtering of animals in his collection Antropocæn kreatur (“Anthropocene critter”). His three volumes of prose poetry and collage are preoccupied with the relations between humans and animals; in deconstructing human sovereignty, Vermehren Holm’s poetry is informed by old and new myths, by historical facts, as well as fantasy creatures. His poems force us to have a persistent, unsentimental gaze upon the power structures that shape our worlds. Anthropocene critter was first published in 2016, followed by Planetariske væsen (“Planetary creatures”) the same year and Skabningernes lovsang (“Praise of the Creatures”) in 2018. The three volumes were published together in a revised edition in 2018, under the title Alle tegn i samme natt (“All signs in the same night”). In Denmark, Vermehren Holm is mostly known for his small press Forlaget Virkelig, which has published authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Simone Weil and Cia Rinne, mainly focusing on short literary forms. 

The monster of Gevaudan

What makes Vermehren Holm’s poetry stand out on the Nordic poetry scene, is not only the insistent, distressing tone of his poems, but also his use of visual material. In all three collections, images are scattered between the poems; most of them display animals, and most of them display  animals that humans have somehow interfered with. Many of the photographs — of mice being used in scientific experiments, pigs gathered in tight spaces — are folded and worn out, as if to emphasise the human power to depict. The folded photographs seem to point towards our repeated shaping of other species. Some are taken from Georges Franju’s famous short documentary film “Le Sang des bêtes” (“Blood of the Beasts”) (1949) that brings brutal scenes from a slaughterhouse outside of Paris. Vermehren Holm’s visual material also includes old animal-themed lithographs, for example pictures of the Beast of Gévaudan, a man-eating animal that attacked and killed over a hundred people in the French province of Gévaudan in the 1760s. Both of these sources are also described in the poems that draw upon a wide selection of predecessors, from the Bible to Darwin, Knut Hamsun, Malcom X and several others.  

«The one who looks is simultaneously the one who destroys», reads the first sentence of Planetary creatures, alone on the first page. While slaughtering of animals can take place in one poem, the blood flowing in the next can be from the murders of people, stressing how we view the first as an everyday necessity and the second as something horrid, immoral and unnatural. None of us, least of all the observers, are free from blame, the poet seems to suggest. Vermehren Holm also includes himself as an accomplice in his sad, but at the same time furious chant (here is my translation): 

... I dreamt that nothing was blessed in the world anymore I dreamt that a murder was no longer murder I dreamt that we cut their tails off that we slit the scrotum open and removed the testicles that we cut their beaks off that we cut their beaks off and listened to the sounds and listened to the suffering but without hearing the words in our mouths that we said human cut their throats and let them fall into a blood red shaft that we said animal and left them lying on a hard cement floor in a sea of blood from their dearest I have a feeling of going astray I have a feeling of it also being me I have tasted blood and I can still taste

In this passage the “I” seems to be identical to the poet, but throughout all three collections, Vermehren Holm creates an “I” that shape-shifts and moves through different bodies and historical times. In one poem the person who speaks is part of the crowd lynching Farkhunda in Kabul in 2015, in another a butcher, and yet another the Greek hero Heracles. The anger is however always present, and has led certain critics to dismiss his poetry as too pretentious and insistent. But precisely because Vermehren Holm roams so wide, because his poetic fieldwork picks up on incidents from the collected world history of oppression, his furious and uncompromising critique becomes more than a moral rebuke.

Reading these three collections, I am often reminded of the cow at my parents’ farm. How could I partake in killing a creature I would claim to have cared for, or even loved? Vermehren Holm’s poetry touches on traditions that are deeply rooted in us. And even if he does not manage to dig up these roots, he makes a considerable pull, inviting us to acknowledge that tradition also implies trouble. 

The article was commissioned and edited by Helena Fagertun