Nightboat Books, paperback,
80 pages, £12, 978-1937658205
As a self-declared performer and poet, artist and poet, making the ‘and’ of opening and inclusion part of a consciously ‘ampersandic’ practice, Caroline Bergvall often brings diverse strands together in her work: mixing art forms, melding languages, yoking conceptual procedures and high symbolism. Her new book, Drift, combines line drawings, poetry, a harrowing report of migrants on the high seas, a prose poem punctuated in Anglo-Saxon style, and notes on her production process. It shares its title and much of its content with a performance bringing her together with a percussionist and a digital visual artist to create a compelling sound-, sight- and seascape, which evokes even as it challenges the allure of the sublime.
Drift – whose barely anchoring principle is a retelling of Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer – is also in this ampersandic vein: a recognition of the drift of and between the senses, of the processes of repetition and deviation at play in the construction of a stable text or performance, of the drift that takes place in language across geography and time as the sailor ‘Sailed on due north nord … [and here, tellingly, my keyboard and fonts fail me, bereft as they are of runic signs] norit … norh north give or / take a few transmission errors’. Or put alternatively,
Language started shaking
ok the day started shaking
ok words are a matter of shaking
where ‘ok’ here is, as well as the anachronistic overlay of O.K. that we can’t fail to see, the connective and iterative Anglo-Saxon word akin to ‘auch’ (and, also) in modern German. Bergvall, who is of French and Norwegian ancestry but works primarily in English, has consistently shaken language in her work and let language shake her. Her punning and play brought in French and Norwegian words and phrases in earlier work, whilst more recently, in Meddle English, she experimented with Middle English as a form of constructive meddling. Her engagement with Chaucer generated a pseudo-language that drew primarily on Middle English but flaunted its anachronism of contemporary reference in utterly artificial mash-ups of this register with the text-message inflected urban patois of yoof, the devalued linguistic currency of boorish City traders, and a nod to the Russified argot of A Clockwork Orange.
If Meddle English veered towards the postmodern and humorously carnivalesque, Drift feels – as I reflected on the performance – more visceral. Arguably it gains this greater heft by feeling less experimental: sections here in which language is thoroughly torn apart feel more purely mimetic of storm and drift than her earlier experiments in Fig or About Face which broke words into elements creating a network of associative variants. Or perhaps, oddly in contemporary innovative poetry which tends to eschew personal or lyric reference, Drift gets this visceral effect by seeming more connected to a specific frame of mind in the poet which, although we don’t see it directly, nevertheless is hinted at quite strongly. In addition to the shaking of language, it appears as if the poet herself ‘started to shake’, and in the ‘Log’ section recording her process and notes whilst composing Drift, we are given several suggestions of the cruelty and lostness felt in, or at the end of, a fraught relationship. This sense of a personal loss of home, love and identity is fused with an outraged narrative thread around the experience of modern migrants: ‘Im a hostage of the waves / floating in my coffin I have lost all my papers all / I had with me’, which is emphasized in the stark calm prose of the ‘Report’ section which draws on published sources to outline how Italian, NATO and other authorities failed 72 migrants drifting from the Libyan cost in a dinghy meant for at most 25 – as a result of which all but nine died.
Together with its concrete commitments, Drift harnesses in its first and best poetic section the vigour of Anglo-Saxon rhythms, alliteration and diction to a superb and sustained linguistic play.
Cold gesprung weary worn were my feet frost
bound in the ice-blinding clamour of kulla
city sank further seafaring is seafodder heart
humbling Could scarcely move or draw my
Here, the line breaks over itself like the surge and slop of the sea, the line ending a buttress or point of resistance and tension forming an obstacle to the simplification of sense. The eerie theme of repetition as a continuous surmounting of conflict finds its apogee where
Hail hagl hard nothing else geheard gehurt but
sky butting against sea against sky against sea
In this final word, ‘against’ is played off ironically enough against ‘again’ in an image of sea furiously gaining as it clashes with the sky. Here is an effect which mirrors one set of Bergvall’s line drawings, in which ground (the straight horizontal line, plane or musical stave) and disturbance (frenetic, electric loops that might signify storm) increasingly fight and reverse polarity, to and fro. Like the performance, Drift manages to contain both an opening to the meditative and a sustained linguistic storm.