Teeming with literary references ranging from the Ilyad, the Odyssey, counter-revolutionary Soviet poetry, Dostoevsky, William Burroughs and Thucydides, as well as from Vygotsky’s social interaction theory and Tarkovsky’s visionary filmography, Warning Light Calling by Peter Graarup Westergaard is a collection of poems exploring the concepts of infection and disintegration in a science-fictional version of contemporary Aarhus, Denmark.

Caught between love for romance and love for poetry, protagonist Spacey Pete joins the interstellar war against the Soviet Union (or a variant of it) and goes into outer space to defend what he still perceives to be the values of democracy embodied by his country. As he loses his way among the stars becoming a red dissident, he comes back to the earth and finds out that a plague has wiped out everybody’s conscience, replaced by a “large airless vacuum”, state-sponsored hygge made flesh, sanitized and efficient. Now unemployed and at odds with the system, Pete tries to readjust to the dictates of a society he no longer feels part of, but ultimately has a meltdown experiencing dissociated behaviour and epiphany, “the dangerous gap” between the power of words and their uselessness, beauty and decay, death-altering art and inevitable fading. Then, he ends up in prison and is reprogrammed into proper, harmless communication to become a standard citizen again, forget about complications and set off to fight in the war one last time. Unless his life  “breaks into diamonds” and poetry/madness infects his eyes and ears all over again.

Though it may globally feel like a narrative, Peter Graarup Westergaard’s collection unmistakably deals with important universal issues from a poet’s distinctive and personal perspective, which in my view is what makes poetry true and necessary: shedding light into a question from an original, unexpected vantage point, sharing tiny gleaming revelations as they are uncovered from the debris of a specific (Western) literary tradition. More than anything, Warning Light Calling is a book about deconstruction and unlimitedness: on the one hand, the writing aims at deconstructing language and identity, disenfranchised by their own lack of purpose in a political and social landscape characterized by utter conformity, monoculture and blandness. On the other hand, the space adventure and the dissident status of visionary/troubadour/mentally ill/socially inapt Pete consciously decides to embrace allows the author to “sing the body electric” (as Whitman would say), and open both language and identity to all possible combinations. To use Graarup Westergaard’s own words, the writer can let us “experience again how the unlimited could be limited, the singular polyphonic the infinite final and the perfect imperfect” and reveal how identity ultimately is “unlimited, distributed”, celebrating the marvel of feeling that “There is no I in front of the wall to my mental prairie”.

Yet, in a world where democracy and war are the same thing, wishing for your own poetical unlimitedness to erupt without restraint can be very dangerous, because it is impossible to control: self-divided, shunned by the system and threatened by his own delusional thoughts, Pete constantly fights against the multiple versions of himself – the lover, the space cowboy, the dissident, the poet, the museum guide, the hot-dog seller, the gamer, the comrade, the lost citizen, the prisoner, the infected  ̶   because he is threatened with social exclusion (possibly the most unspeakable of taboos in Nordic countries) and permanent human malfunctioning. More importantly, he is seen as a threat because the language he uses clashes with the language the system requires of him, which leads us back to William Burroughs’ famous statement: “Language is a virus from outer space” (from The ticket that exploded), a statement the book constantly goes back to and seems constantly haunted by.

In pandemic-stricken Aarhus, language makes control and totalitarianism not only possible, but inevitable and enduring. For a poet, the only solution can be cutting through its infallible linearity and cleanliness, turning language into a series of fragments which might elude the system and free individuals from authoritarianism. Epitome of high mutual trust level and excellent welfare system, Denmark is here depicted as a country losing (or on the cusp of losing) its authenticity, ravaged by a version of Corona virus which reads like a counterfeit of meaning, social responsibility, community and creativity and gives in to emotional interaction immunization, pre-arranged slogans fed to the populace to make them harmless via “chemotherapy against communication cancer”. In many ways, the entire book can be seen as a critique on Danish efficiency, but also as a “warning light calling” against the gradual deterioration of Nordic countries’ core values in the name of globalization and profit: as Pete and his (madness-generated?) lover Yelena try to “hide from the spreading death”, we can feel global capitalism, mutual distrust, populism and cultural repression lurking behind the ghost of death.  And yet, the author seems to suggest, through poetry we can try to find meaning again, its beautiful madness lighting up in the sky hoping for someone to hear “the divine buzz from heaven” sent out from all poets floating into space,  like “a trembling vibration in my weak flesh”.