Meddle English: New and Selected Texts
(Nightboat Books, 2011)
Glancing quickly and obliquely at the front cover, I got the initial impression of a vinyl record or, better yet, a compact disc—as if “BERGVALL” were the name of a band and “MEDDLE ENGLISH” were the name of an album. Nevertheless, this momentary misrecognition is fitting, since any understanding of Caroline Bergvall’s work must take into consideration the inter- and multi-mediality of her artwork and the various ways it has been archived, reproduced, and distributed; she has created installations, digital poems, drawings, and collages, and it is of extreme importance to hear her performative poems read aloud and articulated in her own voice as sonic events. Indeed, she has created a CD of readings and audiotexts called VIA: Poems 1994–2004.
Taking another look: the circular form on the front cover seems like a minimalist rendition of a breast—like the ones that humorously rotate in Bergvall’s animated Flash poem Ambient Fish or the single one depicted on the front cover of her out-of-print volume Goan Atom (1. Doll) (Krupskaya, 2001) which is reprinted here and forms the core of Meddle English. This misrecognition, too, is fitting as it imagines the mappemonde as an enormous erogenous zone. The libidinal and erotic body is never far from Bergvall’s concerns; here is an excerpt of her transcription of Carolee Schneemann’s 1965 film Fuses which features a breast or two:
REDBLACK film Kissclear burntfilm WHITE breast upside down
fuckrhythmshow breastsburnt film SEASOUND RED shadow
BLACK outline PINKbodySEASOUNDseagulls outline negative
Fuses, according to Schneemann’s website, is “silent film of collaged and painted sequences of lovemaking between Schneemann and her then partner, composer James Tenney; observed by the cat, Kitch.” Schneemann goes on to claim that “there’s no objectification or fetishization of the woman” in the film, which sharply contrasts with the fetishistic combinatorics of Hans Bellmer’s dolls that inspired (along with the cloned sheep Dolly) the writing of Goan Atom.
In actuality, the cover of Bergvall’s elegant new book, Meddle English, presents us with an illustration called “the roundness of the earth explained” from Gautier de Metz’s The Mirror of the World, a popular encyclopedic text that was translated and printed by William Caxton at the end of the 15th century. Caxton, of course, introduced the printing press to England and his contributions as a printer and editor mark the very beginning of the slow consolidation of English vernacular into a printed and standardized language. But before this period—as Bergvall reminds us in her manifesto “Middling English,” which opens this collection in a remarkably ambitious fashion—“[a]t the end of the 14th century, the spelling and fixing of Middle English was very much up for grabs…Everything about Middle English was a mashup on the rise.” Caxton was also the first to print Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Chaucer is one of Bergvall’s main interlocutors in the book. “The dispersed, intensely regional transformations of English active in the Middle English of Chaucer’s days,” says Bergvall, “are again to be found in the inventive and adaptive, dispersed, diversely anglo-mixed, anglo-phonic, anglo-foamic languages practiced around the world today, as they follow or emerge from the grooves of military, commercial, cultural transport and trafficking.”
“Middling English” is then a call to “meddle” with English, to explore its midden and excavate its fractured and fractious history, to combat the uniforming effects of what she calls “the middling” which obstructs “flux and larger access.” It is a call not to “purify the dialect of the tribe” (T.S. Eliot adapting Mallarmé) but to mashup and remix the “demotic [which] is built to last, / …[and] outlast[s] us” (John Ashbery). “Mashup,” indeed, describes one of Bergvall’s most successful methods; for example, “The Summer Tale,” a piece from her suite of appropriative texts called “Shorter Chaucer Tales,” intersperses quotes from Chaucer’s Summoner and Pardoner’s Tales with a 2006 online news article from the BBC entitled “Polish ice cream ban for papal visit” and her linguistic tour-de-force “Fried Tale” mashes up such disparate sources as “The Friar’s Tale,” J.K. Galbraith’s A Short History of Financial Euphoria, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, and Derek Jarman’s Last of England. Here are the first few lines of “Fried Tale”:
All juicit with an arseful of moola, wonga, clams & squids
doks stasht in identikl blakases hanging from ther hans
2 Suits, a mega pair of Smith, Blupils no dout,
viddying how they trading outa goodness welth stuporifik,
shake handes, hug n abuse ech othre on the bak.
In the midst of the second section, we code-switch into prose: “The newly started Banque Royale in Paris needed gold for its reserves. It hit on the idea that there might be some in the new American colonies although there was no evidence of the gold. Shares of the company were offered to the public. The response was sensational. The demand was high.” Such enlisting of collage for the reinvigoration of narrative yields us stories that humorously, but no less incisively, respond to our era of religious conservatism, greed, and financial crisis.
As a grouping of “new and selected texts,” Meddle English will provide the Bergvall initiate with a usefully diverse introduction. Those who are familiar with her work will likely find the various prose pieces (like “Croup,” which is a kind of compressed linguistic Bildungsroman/Künstlerroman of a trilingual writer, or “Material Compounds,” which pays homage to diverse artists such as Sappho, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres while meditating on the material conditions of artistic media, or “Middling English,” which is worth the price of admission alone) to be illuminating and refreshing. It is tempting to read the word “selected” in the subtitle in a double sense: these are texts selected from Bergvall’s oeuvre, yes, but many of them were selected, as found texts, by Bergvall to begin with. “The Not Tale” (Funeral),” for example, selects and translates the negatives in Chaucer’s description of Arcite’s funeral in “The Knight’s Tale”:
shal nat be toold
shall not be told.
Nor how the gods
nor how the beestes and the birds
nor how the ground agast
Nor how the fire
This is, in other words, a conceptual text, a work whose merit depends so much upon the processes of selection and reframing.
In the recent anthology Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Northwestern University Press, 2011), co-edited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, Dworkin ends his introductory essay “The Fate of Echo” with a fresh reconsideration of the story of Echo and Narcissus. He quotes Book Three of Metamorphoses (in Rolfe Humphries’s translation) to highlight Echo’s appropriative and plagiaristic utterances in contradistinction to Narcissus’ confessional expressivity:
She liked to chatter
But has no power of speech except the power
To answer in the words she last had heard….
Echo always says the last thing she hears, and nothing further.
Dworkin argues that Echo represents a sort of classical godmother for a conceptual and neo-Warholian mimesis: “Echo, literally, always has the last word. And she sets the first example for many of the writers included here: loquacious, patient, rule bound, recontextualizing language in a mode of strict citation. Ostensibly a passive victim of the wrath of Juno, Echo in fact becomes a model of Oulipean ingenuity.” Dworkin’s reading, indeed, is a seductive one, and I applaud his effort to recover an underrated “power” from “chatter,” but it perhaps too easily encapsulates a neat binary between the lyric expressivity of mainstream poetry and the uncreative and unoriginal genius of what Marjorie Perloff has recently called “poetry by other means.” Moreover, I would like to understand Echo’s cited speech (her “citing” in opposition to Narcissus’ scopophilic “sighting”), as sited within a particular body. In other words, even if Bergvall draws heavily on techniques of copying and transcription (in, for example, her “VIA (36 Dante Translations),” which is included in the Against Expression anthology or in “The Host Tale,” which is collected in Meddle English), her poetic and artistic practices bid us to think beyond merely “a mode of strict citation” toward a critical citing through a sited and accented body.
In a 2005 Studio 111 interview with Charles Bernstein and his undergraduate students (which is archived as a sound file at PennSound), Bergvall emphasizes that “having accents is part of being in language and also being in writing.” She later explains that “thinking of the body as always having an accent one way or another…that’s something that’s crucial in my practice… the way that your, your body, your body is marked; it has a social accent.” (Curiously, this snippet is misquoted on the Kore Press website as well as on Bergvall’s profile on www.poets.org, the website of the Academy of American Poetry: “thinking of the body as always having an accent, as being marked with a social accent rather than a seamless national literature, is a part of being in language and writing.” Such a mis-transcription or paraphrase masquerading as quotation ironically irons out the audible “seams” of Bergvall’s embodied stutter: “your, your body, your body is marked.”)
When Bergvall writes in “Middling English” about her desire to “irritate English at its epiderm,” she is also speaking of her individuated accent as a poetic irritant to the homogenizing forces of “the middling,” which is a “smoothing over, a tense flattening, an artificial erosion, a surface stiffening” of the English language. In the closing essay of the book, Bergvall calls this accented irritation “A Cat In the Throat,” which is at once a frictive wounding and a point of connection. It is an obstructing rasp that one wishes to cough up and it is also, by way of a bilingual pun, a lingual engagement with the sexuate body (une chatte, Bergvall tells us, is French slang for “a pussy”): “Cat is my speech’s subjective accent, the intonation of my verbal patterns, the stutter of my silencing, an all-round explicit accentedness. So what if I were to decide to speak with a cat in the throat?” This dangerous speaking requires “a whole process of re-embodying one’s language’s spaces.” In the spirit of Bergvall’s feline polyglotism, can we imagine a “re-embodying” of Echo, an Echo with an accented body? And how might this extend a newly codified understanding of conceptualism?
It is interesting that Dworkin, in selecting the passage from Ovid to present a model for contemporary conceptualism, crops this line-and-a-half that occurs directly above (again this is Humphries’s translation):
Up to this time Echo still had a body,
She was not merely voice.
Later in the story, we learn that Echo becomes a disembodied voice of pure sound, her body now desiccated, her bones now ossified:
Her body dries and shrivels till voice only
And bones remain, and then she is voice only
For the bones are turned to stone.
Dworkin’s “cropping” of the issue of Echo’s body deeply resonates with Bergvall’s mixed-genre piece called “Crop”, which exploits a translingual homophone and anagram (kropp is the Norwegian word for “body” and corps, the French word for “body,” is an anagram of “crops”) in order to address and confront the forceful denial of one’s embodied existence; the trilingual text begins: “Some never had a body to call their own before it was taken away / som aldri hadde en kropp de kunne kalle sin egen før den ble revet bort / ceux dont le corps d’emblée leur est arraché.”
According to Vanessa Place’s review of Meddle English in The Constant Critic, “Bergvall’s book is an argument. Not an argument for conceptual poetry, for there is no mention of conceptual poetry in the book. While Bergvall is roundly considered a leading figure in conceptualism, she does not speak of conceptualism. She speaks of language.” I would like to assert that Meddle English is, in fact, a staunch argument for conceptual poetry, but it is not a conceptual poetry of pure citation: it argues, instead, for an accented conceptualism, for an embodied Echo, for a nymph with a cat in her throat.