Rolling On Broken Glass by Jesse Hilson

Voideuse. Kaisa Saairnen. FERAL DOVE, 2022, 67 pages

Kaisa Saarinen’s poetry collection Voideuse is 67 pages of artfully inflicted pain. On the very first page we are alerted to watch out for punctures: “these pages contain stage knives and safety needles.” Don’t be fooled; you’re not safe here. As a reader you should proceed as if you’re a balloon animal rolling your way to a museum exit across an exhibit floor of broken glass. It’s dangerous but there is art here to perhaps adulterate and diffuse the acute, tiny instances of bloodshed. 

There are twenty-six stories and poems here, and a good deal of them serve as reportage from S&M scenarios, and I don’t mean light bruising and discomfort but blood and sharp pain. Piercing with sharp needles is common to the writing; on more than one occasion someone carries a “sharpbox” into a room as the narrator watches.

The temptation is there for a square vanilla-type reader who is averse to pain to be horrified by this harmful content. But Saarinen dwells there like a aquatic creature living in close proximity amongst dangerous living razors, and brings these sensations back to the reader with a dispassionate, chilly gesture that doesn’t care if the reader gets it. I got the impression at moments that Saarinen was trying to outdo other writers on the subject of pain-as-pleasure, presumably with a large degree of success. I’ve never read anything like this. The role-playing maid in “My Love Is Of My Body (An Unholy Seep)” undergoes a series of sexualized BDSM rituals that had me squirming in my chair. It raises a question in a reviewer: how much is literature like this meant to appeal in a voyeuristic way to those outside the circle of habitual pain looking in, and how much is it meant to resonate with those already indoctrinated into the secret world of doms and subs? Whose nerve endings are poems and stories like these meant to stir up?

Not all the works in Voideuse pertain directly to physical sex games; it might become unbearable if they did. Often the pain doled out is nothing more than the pain that develops between people in jagged, unusual relationships. An attempt to enlarge the subject matter from the personal to the societal (possibly a mistake) would lead me to think that Saarinen is describing aspects of contemporary urban life among damaged young people. Once again, we must interrogate what we mean by “sick” or “twisted” because perhaps it is nothing more than reality that can’t be easily judged.

I preferred the fictional prose-worlds Saarinen to the poetic pieces, perhaps because they drew me in better, neater, more thoroughly cutting off vectors of escape, perhaps? The story that stood out to me because it had the most human resonances was “Divide et Impera.” A young woman tires of people in social situations telling her “You look lost,” and the encounters that follow as people try to direct her to be found. “Sometimes the right to remain lost is only given after lengthy negotiations,” she narrates. It’s a mercy when people at parties allow her that freedom and that oblivion. She picks up a guy and, in an acute psychological observation says she “won’t look at his face, because only his stranger-ness can kill the familiarity of my dread.” Sex with the partner with whom she is “looking for a fight,” a rushed job interview and doctor’s appointment. The change of settings is jarring, unannounced, and suggests a distracted mind suspended in a numb gel of depersonalization, an object on a conveyor belt passing from personal situation to personal situation. Lydia (we’re told her name) in conversations with other people seems to level with them, herself, and the reader more than anywhere else in the book. She drinks vodka with a friend by a river and betrays some emotion:

“Can you tell me,” I say, and the earnestness of my tone makes me cringe despite the alcohol, “what is the difference between dissociation and enlightenment?”

Her friend after some thinking answers that “transcendence is divine, going beyond your usual self — leaving it behind for something better. A state of enlightenment. Dissociation is its twisted mirror, preventing you from knowing and developing yourself.”

Lydia right away gives the kind of kicker thesis for the whole book:

“Okay,” I say. “But it feels like enlightenment, sometimes. It feels like I’m touching something that I’m not allowed to — something vast and forbidden. It’s just beneath the surface. I get so close to understanding.”

It is in some ways too early to say — or there aren’t enough data points to chart a larger arc — but there seems to be a kind of newer movement (at least in the books I have read lately) of women writers touching on this enlightenment in dissociation in fiction and poetry. The experiences of women seems to bear this frightening quality of frankness and a vast, aestheticized inner emptiness that could be peculiar to individuals — or it could be something bigger, some shared cultural psychology that women writers use as a kind of baton passed off in a relay race to other women writers. Writing is for anyone who picks up a book and reads, and this book spoke to me in many ways, but like Elle Nash’s Nudes, or Elizabeth Aldrich’s Ruthless Little Things, I had the feeling that I was eavesdropping on black magic incantations shared between members of a sisterhood at the end of time, handing out to each other shards of mirror reflecting supreme pain and emptiness that I was, perhaps fittingly, excluded from. Writers are, again, equal in their individuality, but one gets the feeling that this prickly, forbidding atmosphere could only be broadcast from a female radio station at three in the morning. 

Many more tacks and patterns of serration are found in the book than I have remarked upon, although they have all pricked my fingers; for example, the obsessional, lyrical motif of blood used as paint returns again and again like the refrain of an unsettling but hypnotic song. I would say that maybe the healing after a stab wound is the crucial part of the experience of the book, but I can’t be certain of that, or any of Saarinen’s bigger design until I return to drag my pupils against her next, more developed “sharpbox.”

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