Discussion Guide

Catching the Drift

Mysterious Passages in the May 2014 Poetry.

The first few pages of the May 2014 Poetry feature not poems but illustrations: fields of horizontal lines overlaid with ridges, scribbles, or whirlwinds of ink. Then come words, descriptions of a sailing expedition that evolve unexpectedly as the piece continues. The title of this work by Caroline Bergvall, “Drift,” evokes the motion of the sailors. It also captures our own progress through her artfully disorienting project: we waft from one part to the next, wondering at where we’ve been taken and, all the while, trying to catch Bergvall’s drift.

Take those illustrations: what do they suggest? Perhaps—in keeping with the poem’s marine themes—they represent the ocean enduring various disturbances. The squiggles and whirls of ink hint at harsh winds and eddies, and in the final image, a dark splotch of ink lies above the sea—a lightning bolt striking the ocean in the thick of a storm. Or might the lines indicate something else entirely? They could denote lines of poetry, which often endure their own kind of violence: cross-outs, revisions, damage, loss.

In the text portion of her project, Bergvall presents us with a poem that does seem to suffer damage. She begins:

The fair wind failed. The wind dropped. Winds were unfavourable
straightaway. The favourable wind dropped and they were beset by
storms so that they made little progress. Then the wind dropped and
they were beset by winds from the north and fog; for many days they
did not know where they were sailing. The fair wind failed and they
wholly lost their reckoning.

“Reckoning,” which refers to the sailors’ navigation practices, comes from an Old English word meaning “to recount or relate,” and Bergvall’s recounting also gets “lost” here, contradicting itself and circling back: the fair wind fails, and then the wind drops (is this a different wind than the fair one?), and right away (but not until the third sentence) the winds were unfavorable (but hadn’t they just dropped?), and then the wind dropped (but hadn’t it already dropped?). And so on. This mystifying narration might leave us feeling—like the sailors—adrift.

But rockier waters await. Over the next several pages, Bergvall cycles through these lines again and again, but her words get chipped away and rearranged. “We embarked and sailed but a fog so thick covered us,” she writes in the first version, and in the second, “We mbarkt and sailed but a fog so th but a fog so / th but a fog so th th th th thik k overed us,” and in the last, “W  mb rkt  nd s  l d b t   f g s  th b t   f g s  th  b t / f g s  th th th th th k k  v r d.” It’s as though we’re losing sight of the poem in the fog—or as though severe weather has battered the text, which is breaking up and sinking like a shipwreck.

Solid squares of “t”s follow these eroded poems, and now it’s our eyes that drift, lacking anywhere to focus. The “t”s might remind us of ripples of water, their points hinting at tips of wavelets—a calm sea to cover the now-vanished text. Just as ominously, the even ridges might make us think of windless conditions (“The wind dropped”). Lacking wind to fill their sails, boatmen drift; quiet seas can be the most disquieting of all.

Would you classify these squares of letters as text or image—literary or visual art? Or might they drift somewhere on the spectrum between those disciplines? 

When Bergvall then returns to text, she includes unfamiliar terms such as “wildering,” “forvillet,” and “hafville.” In this part of the project, such words—whether foreign, archaic, obsolete, or some combination thereof—form a linguistic fog through which readers must navigate, using our dictionaries as astrolabes. (The preponderance of Old English words, such as “Secgan” and “Hwær,” bring to mind the Anglo-Saxon tradition of writing about the sea, as in “The Seafarer,” translated here by Ezra Pound.)

“Hafville” appears particularly often: 

Major Tom hafville
Li Bai hafville

Rimbaud hafville

Shelley hafville

Amelia Earhart hafville

Jeff Buckley hafville
Spalding Gray hafville
Virginia Woolf hafville
Albert Ayler hafville
Reinaldo Arenas hafville
Hart Crane hafville
Ingeborg Bachmann hafville

At first glance, this catalogue is baffling; it might leave us feeling rather at sea. Fittingly, the Old Norse “hafvilla” reflects our idiom “at sea”—it refers to the profound bewilderment of sailors who have lost their bearings. Hence this list. Most people on it were at sea—whether literally, figuratively, or both—and several died by drowning: Shelley, Buckley, Gray, Woolf, Ayler, Crane, Earhart (according to speculation) and Li Bai (according to myth). The fictional Major Tom, a creation of David Bowie, drifted to his death in outer space, “floating in a most peculiar way.”

Notice that the list includes only artists and explorers. Might that juxtaposition suggest that artists are all travelers of a kind, setting off with each new venture for unknown, foggy lands, hoping their craft is strong enough to withstand whatever obstacles may lie in wait?

Originally Published: May 1st, 2014
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In