“Utøya Thereafter” Harry Man and Endre Ruset (Hercules Editions) – book review

Utøya Thereafter Harry Man and Endre Ruset book cover

In July 2011, a terrorist detonated a bomb in central Oslo before travelling to the island of Utøya to commit a mass shooting. That day 77 people lost their lives (8 in the bombing and 69 on the island) and a further 209 were injured. Many of those killed were teenagers. “Utøya Thereafter” is a collaborative project using court documents and other research, with concrete elegies from Harry Man, where each poem takes on the shape of a portrait of the person the poem is about, and “Prosjektil”, Endre Ruset’s poem presented bilingually in its original Norwegian and English translation, plus a conversation between the two poets. The aim was to foreground the victims and survivors. On the island itself the learning centre has 69 columns of wood as a tribute. Not all of the 69 poems are included here so the names are not used.

The concrete poems are untitled. (literal translations for the two Norwegian words: stein is stone; bitlykter is flashlights),

…………………..The world
…………….goes by in the blink of
…………..an eye. The world is only four
………../five seconds old. The world goes
………by so fast you barely notice it. Run
……..ning out of the woods, bullets over the
…….grass go missing into the trees behind
…….you. You…….have………….to be on your
…….guard……………………………….not to miss
…….out……….The………..world……..is almost
……over…………………………………….before it’s
……..beg…………………………………….un. But it
………has…………………………………….begun. And des
………pite………….the fact……………that it’s almost over, it
………..still………………………………hangs over you. Almost
……everywhere………………………In the trees. The world
……is unseen stien……………….bitlykter. Attached to swa
ying branches. And…………..the world has stars like dots
of snow on squirrel hair.…..These squirrel-ferried stars scurry
through the world. And no one thinks of the night grasses, or
the mournful roots of the moon. And no one thinks of the ch
erry blossoms, nor the milk-white spaceships. Not right here.
Not right now. While the squirrels are running. Bullets rake
the grass toward the trees. And these four or five seconds are
all it takes. From the time you spot them until they are gone.”

On the island, the teenagers had seconds to respond when the terrorist starting firing. Most instinctively ran. In running, the words begin to fragment and space out in a tiny passage of time from the first shots to trying to make some kind of sense of what was happening. The words become denser again as time runs out. The colour white is associated with innocence and purity, with lives over before adulthood.

Here “Prosjektil” is a four-page extract of a much longer work, which interrupts the flow of portraits. It starts,

PROSJEKTIL i nakken, i ryggen, gjennom høyre lunge, inn i fremre, øvre del av
PROJECTILE through the neck, in the back, penetrating the right lung, into the
upper part of

brystkassen, tvers gjennom hjernen, i ryggen, gjennom brystveggan, venstre lunges
the chest, straight through the brain, the back, the left lung

overlapp, videre opp på halsens venstre side, gjennom skallebasis,
inn ved venstre
overlapping further into the left section of the throat, through the base of
the skull, the left”

The dry language of medical reports focus solely on the trajectories of the bullets, recording what physical damage was done. The details accumulate and readers are left unsure as to whether this was the damage to several bodies or one body which was struck by several bullets. The message the details give is how little chance those who lost their lives had. The spacing of the couplets, the way they alternate between left and right margins gives space for the impact of the description to work its way into the reader.

After the extract, the portraits continue,

…………………Like a helicopter that un
…………………locks an Amen from your
……………….heart, like housekeys in your
……………..mouth, like campanulas in the
………………shade, like a………………….breath
…………….through……a c………rack,……….like
…………….hide………..and………………………seek,
…………….when it’s……………………………….over,
……………..waiting…………………………………for the
…………….winner to…………..jog………………back.
…………..Like the face………………………….on a phone
………………outwaited………………………….by the dark,
………….like an eyelid clos…………………ing in a
………..roll of the lap, like…………………a carrier bag air-lifted
……………..out of reach…………………..of a catch, like aspen leaves
in flaresmoke unroll………………………..ing across the fjord, on Bolsjevika,
On the Pump House,……………………on hope, like hide and seek when
it’s over – waiting…………………………..for the winner to gallop
back, like a breath………………………..in the gap, like holding your face
to the future, like…………………….a helicopter circling without landing
on the lap, like the………………..turn of a key to a new house, like drawing
a new breath,…………………………like learning a new map.”

This isn’t just about the landscape, the island now taking on a new map of association with the fatalities of that day. But grief also feels like a new map. Families having to adapt to an absence and find new ways of relating to each other. Survivors adjusting to disability and/or trauma.

Endre Ruset observes, “Watching the trial and listening to the names of the victims and the places being read through, all in the order in which the victims had died, it was incantatory, like poetry, but the saddest, most profoundly awful and gut-wrenching poetry that I had every heard. It went right through my nervous system and into my body. I had a bodily reaction to it.”

Poetry is a natural response to extremes of emotion. It can carry the heft of trauma in a condensed form and offer a sense of controlling what seems too vast to grab or get a handle on. Harry Man’s portraits and Endre Ruset’s litany of trajectories offer a respect exploration of the resulting grief and trauma from that day for both the lives that were stopped and the ones that continue, bereft or surviving. “Utøya Thereafter” is packed with compassion and tributes that rightly centres the victims over and above the perpetrator. A remarkable achievement.

“Utøya Thereafter” is available from Hercules Editions.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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