Why am I so fascinated by the poetry of Caroline Bergvall? I’ve recently reviewed her new work, Drift, for that wonderful publication The Literateur, and done it twice (a necessarily doubling, see the reviews here). But I thought I’d explore a bit more what I like about her best work.
There’s a strong vein of intellectual enquiry there, an attempt to theorise or at least distill theoretical approaches to performance, poetic and social engagement, and the body’s engagement in life and art. But it’s not this I value in itself, it’s rather the heft of the linguistic work, which conducts the line of that enquiry in a manner which contrives to be both disturbing and congenial.
Bergvall at her absolute height for me is a poet of glottality: she herself writes of the ‘cat in her throat’. In my favourite works, which are the Dolly sequence to be found collected in her later Meddle English and ‘About Face’ from Fig, bits of words get pulled apart, letters within them get detached, creating spaces, blockages, variations of possible interpretation in the gaps, a life of language that is rent by itself.
Begin a f acing
at a poi nt of motion
How c lose is near to face a face
What makes a face how close too near
Tender nr pace m
‘About Face’, Fig
The glottality of the cat can be heard in riveting recordings of this and other poems of hers on her PennSound page.
It isn’t possible with her to read a pure voluptuous soundscape, a seamless flow – a charge of musicality that early Modernists levelled at their Victorian predecessors but with the passing of time (and some shifting of analytic terms) might be levelled at them and even a few of their radical successors. Rather, there’s the liberating sense in Bergvall that poetry is full of seams, seamful (and it’s hard not to think sinful and shameful, as my autocorrect would have it). I get part of this seamful effect from JH Prynne and Keston Sutherland in their rapid shifts of register and sense concealed within or breaking through a more tightly mandated grammatical and prosodic template, but Prynne famously dismissed performance as equating to whether the poet was wearing red socks at their reading:
“the specific occasional delivery is no more than an accidentalism of sound and behaviour” (‘Mental Ears’)
Disagreeing utterly, I think there’s something extra about the bodily engagement, the performance on and through the body in Bergvall, which I’m trying to articulate as ‘entrewoven’. This painful neologism is settled on here, to build on/unsettle the idea of an interwoven language, where what counts is not simply the weave of one word or phoneme or phrase against another, but the weave that we find in the ‘entre’ – which is in one sense the gaps between and in another the production of a between. Derrida in ‘The Double Session’ calls on the ‘entre’ and puns on the ‘antre’, the cave, where something echoic inscribes itself:
‘these grottal effects are usually also glottal effects, traces left by an echo, imprints of one phonic signifier upon another, productions of meaning by reverberations within a double wall. Two with no one.’
Bergvall’s cat is not just a blockedness, it’s a condition of articulation. Her broken-up language poetry is not just a mimesis of difficulty but (as with the vocal cords themselves) it creates out of resistance, vibration, out of a specific situation. My fascination comes from wanting to catch the cat(ch) in the throat, to understanding the infuriating, unpindownable, delaying, repeating, multiplying nature of that resistance.
Jacques Derrida, Dissemination (London: Athlone, 1981), p. 274.