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Caroline Bergvall’s Lingual Sculptures

By Sina Queyras

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Caroline Bergvall is a poet and text-based artist of Norwegian and French descent working out of London. I first heard Bergvall read at Blue Stockings, a wonderfully resilient little bookstore in the Lower East Side. As discussed in my previous post, Bergvall’s reading was one of those rare events that provide an absolutely transforming experience, taking me pleasantly outside of myself while rewiring neurons in my brain. I had not heard anything like it. Two of the pieces that resonated that night were “Gong” and “More Pets” which you can hear if you click here. I give you the first section of “More Pets:”

a more-cat
a more-dog dog
a more-horse
a more-rat
a more-canary
a more-snake
a more-hair
a more-rabbit
a more-turtle

The poem goes on to complicate itself with chains of words, riffing on the idea of hyphenated identities and creating new and amazing sounds in the word combinations:

a more-turtle cat
a more-turtle-more-cat dog
a more-dog-more-cat dog

And so on. One of the initial responses I had was joy related to the new possibilities that open up with these new word pairings. That was immediately followed by admiration for the way Bergvall takes an idea and turns it, and turns it. The element of surprise is always there. So much poetry feels like the discovery of an idea that wants such handling. Bergvall pushes things to an elegant form that seems absolutely complete. You can find more here.

Another favorite, provided above, is “Via: 48 Dante Variations” a poem composed of the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno. It includes every translation available in the British Library at the time of composition. Arranged alphabetically, these cantos, translated by poets ranging from Rosetti to Heaney, show the remarkable range offered in translations not only by different translators but also from different times:

1.   Along the journey of our life half way
I found myself again in a dark wood
wherein the straight road no longer lay
(Dale, 1996)
2.  At the midpoint in the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
For the straight path had vanished.
(Creagh and Hollander, 1989)

Brian Reed points out that the “uninterrupted undifferentiated flow” makes it “difficult to weigh the merits of the individual translators. ” Indeed the repetition of the three lines creates a rhythmic incantation that telegraphs the historical, translative and interactive practice of poetry. Reed again:

This emergent aesthetic combines the erudition, intertextuality, and conceptual complexity characteristic of Language Poetry and the Cambridge School together with the theatricality, dynamism, site-sensitivity, and emphasis on embodiment associated with neo-avant-garde sound poetry (as well as more populist forms of contemporary oral performance).

In a recent Folio devoted to Bergvall in HOW2 , Laura Goldstein notes that “Bergvall takes on a literary tradition generally accepted to be rooted in male decisions and, as a woman, she makes specific subversive moves to usurp such a system, uprooting the rules at their source.” There is something heady about the authorative way Bergvall appropriates and compiles, managing to be at once thorough, rigorous, performative, ludic and masterful. It is possible to compile all of the first 3 lines available in the British Library, and to do so in a way that illuminates not only Bergvall’s gesture, but the attraction of the original text, the force that draws the translators, the musicality of the larger project that the individual translator may or may not have been aware that he or she is, in a sense, taking part in by joining in the process of translation. Similarly there is the polyphonic, communal aspect of poetry and language, the joy always present in Bergvall’s work, even, as we’ll see shortly, when it offers a biting critique.

On occasion I play the first five minutes or so of VIA for students without telling them what it is. Without the setup there is the sensation of waves coming over one: wave after wave of slightly different versions of the same three lines, a fact that takes a while for people to realize if they don’t know. Like the best conceptual work, Bergvall makes the familiar strange by re-framing, but she also makes the strange familiar by re-framing: one learns a good deal about the difficulties of translation simply by listening to this work. It is, as Reed suggests, a roll call of translators, and a nod to the work they do, the repeated efforts to produce the perfect translation.

What is also interesting to note is that like Goldsmith, the power here is the lack of creative intrusions: Bergvall trusts her concept, lets the original work speak for itself, and intervenes minimally by juxtaposing the one with the other, deciding how to order, giving each translation equal weight, and withholding commentary. Making such a clean, transparent decision is not only elegant, it’s daring and respectful: the entire project rests on whether or not that choice offers a meaningful intervention. And in Bergvall’s case, it usually does. The only quibble I have, and it’s not so much a quibble as a yearning for two versions: one with the translators’ names and dates following after, and one without.

Bergvall’s more recent work includes the Shorter Chaucer Tales. I could have listed this in my last post as well, as one that is both irritating and stimulating and ultimately transporting. I heard Bergvall read these tales at Fordham Lincoln Center, at an event curated by Charles Bernstein and hosted in part by Poets House and Fordham in celebration of Chaucer. The other performers were Wendy Steiner and Susan Stewart, and while they were good, I have to say that Bergvall’s take on Chaucer was far and away the most engaging, imaginative and successful. The audience, having been lulled into a semi-slumber, sat upright at the first note of her tale and some, such as myself, were on the edge of their seats experiencing a mixture of terror and delight, particularly at the Franker Tale: was she really going to turn the Franker’s Tale into a critique of the Pope? Yes, she was. I offer a snippet:

Women and children of Sudan! Women of Colombia!
Kashmiri women! Punjabi women! Women of France!
Women of Britain! Women of Finland! Women of America!
They of Mecene leete enquere and seke
Of Lacedomye fifty maidens eke,
On whiche they wolden doon hir lecherye;
And foul delight.
Susters and nieces! Mothers aunts and doghters!
Deus Hic! God is drunk!

At these wordes words heven rose glood
the deepest soun son sound
a song sangen entuned intoned
a dense clamour clamor cries out
Love is leaving! the Earth quakes quaketh
shakes under their feet!
some sort of deep tabour of drum or drone.
My tale is almost doon.

It was a more suspenseful transport, but transport nonetheless. You can hear Bergvall read all of the Shorter Chaucer Tales at PennSound, and find another conceptual poem in the July/August Issue of Poetry Magazine. While the latter is not translation in the strict sense, it is in the performative. Not being sufficiently fluent in any other language than English I can only look on the work of such tri-lingual poets and yearn.

Stay tuned for a brief Q&A with Bergvall.

Comments (14)

  • On January 26, 2010 at 3:07 pm roz wrote:

    Love that Via. I heard Bergvall read it live some years ago, and remember the audience sitting up and doing double-takes through the first bunch of stanzas, as the nature of the project gradually dawned on us. She didn’t introduce the concept beforehand and just dived right into reading the translations with her characteristic deadpan humor, so at first you could see people shaking their ears somewhat perplexed, like did I just hear the same lines read over again for the second, third time, only slightly altered, a little tweaked, and by the way don’t those lines sound awfully familiar, oh! Talk about boredom and repetition that winds up being anything but boring. A taxonomy of accretion.

    Glad you posted the audio links, as Bergvall’s voice, with all the trilingual traces embedded in it, is integral to the experience of her poems and just can’t be reproduced on the page-screen.

  • On January 26, 2010 at 4:12 pm Thom Donovan wrote:

    great work here Sina. I especially like how you talk about Bergvall as “conceptualist”–fleshing out this floating nomination–and examine the mechanics of her work. how you teach Bergvall is similar to how I have taught sound pieces in my classroom. not telling students what something is at first can be super beneficial to close/deep attention. especially when context is crucial. I have a similar exercise with Steve Reich’s tape piece “Come Out” which gets students to think about form and context, allowing students to hear the piece first then think about the composer’s situation/intentions…

  • On January 26, 2010 at 4:26 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    She does read awfully well. Thanks for posting that clip. I know what you mean about looking upon and yearning. If I thought I’d ever be like her, I’d be very, very jealous. I sure hope to have the time and drive to keep improving my own reading skills, and it’s cool to hear someone who is really, really good at their own. I don’t think agony is born of desire, though – I’m with Zelazny, who said (paraphrased, source not handy), in argument to that sentiment, that desire was simply the impulse to be, and the pain of it unending and joyful birth agony.
    PG

  • On January 26, 2010 at 8:08 pm evie wrote:

    i just loved listening to that clip. i listened from the harriet “home” page — which is to say, without having read your explanation of the concept. clip + concept = double love. i don’t know if i would love reading that poem, but i love hearing that poem. another happy collision between orality and lango…

    thanks for posting — i’ll be looking for that q&a you promised.

  • On January 26, 2010 at 8:37 pm evie wrote:

    hmm… langpo.

  • On January 27, 2010 at 1:37 am Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    “…Punjabi women! Women of France!
    Women of Britain!…”

    I don’t even know what to say. Am in slight bit of shock. This is the only poem I have ever seen in my whole life that contains British AND Punjabi women. The shock of seeing something resembling oneself on “the screen.” See: Parminder Nagra in Bend it like Beckham. Hurray! Thank you, Sina, for your metagenomic “snippet”!

  • On January 27, 2010 at 8:42 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    Hurray, indeed. That’s what I felt hearing Bergvall at the Chaucer event, Bhanu. Kind of giddy.

    Peter, poetry, even poetry written “for the page” as some like to distinguish, is intended to be read. This is a fact that hampered my relationship for a long time. I was too shy and avoided readings whenever possible and yet heard my poetry and understood on some level that I was working with sound and the sound needed presenting. There was no discussion of the reading in my training, such as it was, other than to point out this “other” set of poets called sound and/or performance poets who did read with intention. Everyone else apparently moved about like jello and felt things.

    More on this in a post to come.

    Thanks for the comments, Thom, and Evie. Q&A will follow next week.

  • On January 27, 2010 at 11:05 am Peter Greene wrote:

    @Sina: My own work is pretty much completely textual, to the point of playing letter and word games positionally on the page. What you said resonated for me – I find the sonic elements of poetry emerging from the text continually, and I am not practiced at all in bringing them out. Interestingly, now that I’m practicing a little (one day, I may even come out in public, if I can get a bus ticket to the big town and a whole sackful of courage), I find that text elements lead to eventualities in reading that were unexpected and sometimes good. Catching the oral flow has caused me to rethink a few poems, too – for a second or two (I’m very loyal).

    Training! (jealous, confused). Sigh. I really shouldn’t have run away from art.

    Sina, I very much appreciate your taking the time to make this post, and to respond to me. This has been very valuable to me, much more than it might seem.

    Peter

  • On January 27, 2010 at 3:00 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    (overcomes terror) I know this isn’t the thread with self-promotion in the topic list, but it is the one with readings and fear-facing, so (crosses fingers) please do enjoy, or hate, or other, and please do let me know (braces self but happy): Hope the link works.

  • On January 28, 2010 at 10:41 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    We all take our training where we can. Poetry, it seems to me, needs conversation and isolation in turns. I’ll try to get to your link!

  • On January 28, 2010 at 10:43 am Jordan wrote:

    Performative conceptualism rocks.

  • On January 28, 2010 at 11:06 am Peter Greene wrote:

    Thx, Sina. My training took the down train, with reference and apologies to Spooner.

    PG

  • On January 28, 2010 at 11:08 am Peter Greene wrote:

    ps – here’s a better link: I YouTubbed myself.

    PG

  • On January 28, 2010 at 12:35 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Jordan, are you distinguishing performative from conceptual writing? Curious. I’ve been thinking a lot about conceptualism and what it has to offer, particularly women if I may say, though I don’t want to be swirled into a dialog about gender. Rather about the potential for an aspect of conceptual poetry that might in a way offer an ironic distance from such questions, creating a more ludic space of playful, generative, and forward moving critique.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, January 26th, 2010 by Sina Queyras.