Sometimes, when a specific distortion in the vowels is achieved
we can hear heaven
—Sean Bonney, Happiness
Reading is an insufficient and inaccurate name for the encounters, engagements, and experiences of Caroline Bergvall’s work. Bergvall’s writing does not describe; it does. Things cohere and uncohere. Within the architecture of her recently completed trilogy comprised of Meddle English (Nightboat, 2011), Drift (Nightboat, 2014), and Alisoun Sings (Nightboat, 2019), we play, we disorient, we delight, we grieve, as a “meshwork vibratory NRG that unpacks memry lockage and releases love-patternd terrains thru sonic shok” (ME).
The trilogy begins with Meddle English, which braids together the past and present through evocative re-writings of The Canterbury Tales with other transhistorical and geographically vast political and aesthetic works including homages to Carolee Schneemann and Inger Christense. In Meddle English, Bergvall inaugurates a language-strategy that continues throughout the trilogy. She terms this strategy variously—meddle english, meddling englishes, and other such variations—and provides capacious definitions for its work: “the mysterious pleasure grain of the vocalizing, materializing text” (ME) that “stretches the complacent (not the technical) standards of much commercial or academic publishing” (ME). This invention folds middle english spelling and vernacular into contemporary textspeak, and other convoluted spellings that jostle up-to-date norms of spelling and grammar.
Drift collides, contorts, and collapses time, space, and language, while also tackling the forced movement of discarded bodies. The central poem of Bergvall’s book derives from a report of the deaths of 72 Libyan refugees whose bodies and cries for help were abandoned and ignored by European vessels. She combines this report with a repetitively handwritten Old Norse runic letter called the thorn, ongoing translations of the anonymous medieval poem “The Seafarer,” and essay-poems attending to individual and mass global movement. Bergvall again incorporates hybridized meddle english and handwritten etchings that invoke both line/drawings and word/letter but belongs to neither category.
Alisoun Sings, the recently published finale, does not deploy the visual marks of Meddle English and Drift, but nonetheless extends Bergvall’s work meddling with English (and) language conventions, befuddling standards of readability. She mixes together phonetic spelling, medieval words and spelling, and textspeak along with quotes from disco songs, Kathy Acker, Audre Lorde. While these meddlings with English in Alisoun Sings employ recognizable letters, the letters’ relation to recognizable words remains disrupted; through unconventional spelling, one must slow down to sound out, parse out, agonize over the letters before they congeal into meaningful words. Despite falling under the category of poetry, the trilogy puts pressure upon the distinction between the visual mark (or image) and linguistic sign (the word), between sound and noise. The etchings of Meddle English, the struggle to write out the lost runic mark in Drift, and her ongoing unconventional play with syntax, structure, and spelling. Bergvall suspends the letter-mark, refusing to fold it into a language that we know and recognize as standard English. She introduces an indeterminacy into her poetics: her glyphs sometimes have the status of a visual, material mark, at times the status of a readable letter, and at others the status of a sound.
Bergvall joins other poets engaging the problems of legibility and readability. Erica Hunt, in her essay “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics,” published in 1990, that “the codes and mediations that sustain the status quo abbreviate the human in order to fit us into structures of production,” and thereby, her notion of oppositional poetics requires “oppositional frames of reference.” In other words, what are the very structures and forms of writing that dehumanize us and uphold ever-pervasive systems of domination? She demands an oppositional frame as a combatant poetic force. Lyn Hejinian, a fellow Language-aligned writer who investigates linguistic structures relation to political resistance, writes in her 1995 essay “Barbarism,” that to oppose structures of domination, we must “challenge [language’s] naturalness…secreted not only in our vocabulary but at every linguistic level including the ways in which sentences are put together.” She urges that this requires us to “explore new ways of thinking by putting language (and hence perception) together in new ways.” This chorus of thought demands of our poetry and politics other routes of arriving, rather than concede to a status quo seeped into every linguistic level. Pushing Hejinian and Hunt’s notions to a certain extremity might mean verging toward the illegible, unintelligible, unreadable—upsetting conventional codes and all linguistic levels till we arrive at the babbling tongue, toward a language not easily identifiable as such.
Bergvall takes up these concerns surrounding the il/legible and un/intelligible. Neat boundaries of history/present, word/image, legible/illegible blur as we encounter language as streams, heaps, rupture, opacity, revelation, and as a chaotic and physical relation. Bergvall’s devised meddle english collides with sections where only consonants or a single repeated letter spill down the page, generating nonlinear relations to wording or no longer related to words at all. Language stretches and contracts as a container of meaning. Our relationship to letters, marks, scrawls, words, is no longer based on rote recognition but becomes initially visual and material—even tactile, in handwritten etchings. Diving further into illegibility and ‘difficult’ reading, she offers us something living at the intersection of artist Robert Smithson’s “heaps of language” and Renee Gladman’s Prose Architectures—handwritten drawings where letter-like shapes pile up into tactile graphite, semantic word, sound, and structure. Language is a thing to be looked at, things are to be read, forming a structure we might inhabit. The page becomes a mass of lines that we enter into actively. At the end of Meddle English, Bergvall announces that “a lingual event is taking place” (ME). These texts aren’t static objects; they’re ongoing events in space.
Ongoing events correspond to ongoing struggles. Bergvall’s poetics ask how to speak both of and against atrocities, structures of oppression. She doesn’t answer this question; instead, she stages the struggle to answer it, producing zones of partial or temporary unintelligibility and the display of “voices in sub-language, and languages beyond language, and language after languages” (ME). There is a shared struggle and drive, between reader and writer, to navigate this zone of beyonds and afters.
Part of this mutual struggling is the fact that these pages are hard to skim. How do you skim a section of hand-drawn scribbles, of faint markings, of letters outside the Roman alphabet, of words unconventionally spelled, letters that do not necessarily add up to words, or words whose meaning only comes apparent through slowing down and sounding out? It is hard to summarize, if summary is at all even possible. But what of summary is desirable? What are the stakes of this resistance to an easy glance to glean the gist, of reduction to summary?
Bergvall, in the introductory section of Meddle English, makes the point that “this work…exists for a proactive and politically ‘non-absorptive’ purpose” (ME). The quoted ‘non-absorptive’ here refers to Charles Bernstein’s poem-essay “The Artifice of Absorption,” which interrogates the relationship between the text of a poem and the world it inhabits. In it, Bernstein says, “there has been a useful / questioning of what we are normally / asked to be absorbed into & / an outright rejection of any accommodation / with or assimilation into this ‘bourgeois’ / space”. According to Bernstein’s argument, certain kinds of language ”absorb into” the world—a world ceaselessly dominated and produced by capital. Bernstein warns that absorptive language accommodates the material conditions, the “bourgeois space,” that produces the text. On the converse side, “Antiabsorptive / writing recuperates the mark by making it opaque, / that is, by maintaining its visibility / & undermining its ‘meaning,’ here ‘meaning’ is / understood in the narrower, utilitarian sense / of a restricted economy.” Anti-absorptive writing privileges the word’s materiality over its assimilation into the meaning-economy of the world at large. While perhaps extreme, Bernstein’s aspirations of an anti-absorptive writing strategy opens onto urgent questions for poetics and politics: what ways of writing accommodate the world as it is and its governing structures, even as they could be summarized as speaking out against them? What ways of doing language do not accommodate or reproduce the very structures they seek to critique? What are other ways of meaning and making? Might rejecting representation within dominant systems and framings require us to rigorously pursue this question? What are other routes for us to arrive at a place together?
Certainly, illegibility, meddle english, and other techniques of lexical and linguistic disruption do not provide a neat and easy solution. Just messing around with convention does not necessarily and without qualification disrupt contemporary structures of power. But Bergvall uncovers a crucial device in the collective disorientation that this blend of techniques produces. When “our times are caught in a vertigo of excess, dilapidation, barbarism, bad reality, and despair” she says in Alisoun Sings, “we need exploits, boldness, inventiveness, strong joys.” She reveals and enacts the political and poetical stakes of legibility and recognition of letters, noises, and bodies, producing a way of encountering text, history, loss, and ecstasy, that themselves are ways of being with, of experiencing critical entanglement, and collective otherwises.
Bergvall urges that, with regard to her writing, “the point is less whether it is a world language than the kind of world it perpetuates” (ME). The vehicle of language, its makings and readings, becomes a concern of world-making: what world do we repeat, undo, or make anew? It is Bergvall’s proposal that we take the agent of language seriously in its world-productive capacities.
Rather than reproduce the familiar, these pages become places to get generatively lost—not to read words, but to confront them. The final section of Drift quotes Sara Ahmed: “being lost is a way of inhabiting space.” In her exposition of global upheavals, personal revelations, and geographically dispersed intimacy, getting lost becomes a vital yearning-towards, where one must strain against the tools we’ve inherited: “Like coming out of orbit, going into freefall, MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY, registering blinding panic or unexpected calm, depending on one’s preparedness of willingness to fall” (D). She suggests that being lost is an impossible zone we must inhabit, the negation that makes room for itself: “but how nor how how also how they shal nat be toold shall not be told” (AS). She holds language to a higher standard, refuses “sloganeering that passes for language” (AS), of language as commodity. Collectivity—across time, place, individuals—emerges from a willingness to fall, unsettling imposed norms of looking, languaging, and meaning in order to “materialize the ruin’s cohabitation with the present.” As cohabitators, we join her as “transdimensional fighter inside outsider outside insider.” (AS)
This contortion of writing braids together a rejection of normative schema for making language, with a rigorous reckoning with the ruins of the present in the form of manifold global oppressions, all while forwarding language’s sociality. Bergvall generates new collective sites outside of “normative schema of intelligibility” through that which dwells at the cusp of the unreadable. As she writes in an essay “Pressure Points: gendered and tacitical authorship,” here lies the hope for the “vitality of collective identification, new realms of imaginings.”
Akin to how we encounter the markings, lettering, meddle englishings that force us to think in new ways, slowing down is a virtue, running counter to capital’s demand to speed things up, increasingly and all-consumingly—what Marx describes in the Grundrisse as “the annihilation of space by time.” Alisoun Sings as a finale foregrounds this slowness, rendering overt the necessary slowing down involved in working through these pages, foregrounding the particular labor of reading her work and the labor of reading in general. Counter to capital’s demand for endless, rapid accumulation, “a slow pace not prevents a large mindset…slow is a turn to a more post-industral pre-caluptic pace of industry…active not nostalgic. Functional not profit driven” (ME). Her work strives toward decoupling meaning, making, and being from capital accrual and finance in the very way that we encounter her writing. Desire enters. Delight enters. Play enters. Capital provides sense; this trilogy shakes it all up.
To refuse easy summary, a seamlessly recognizable syntax, is to insist on a certain kind of slowness. Working through these pages is a slow, uneven build. Sometimes it is agonizing—attempting to reckon with loss, the irretrievable, the harsh violences that saturate history and the present. Sometimes it is full of joy, pleasure, sensuality. Often, it is frictively both, “a friction of energy fields / of sexual textile gainst sexual / textile of mental tissue gainst mental / tissue beings interweave as they meet” (AS). All readers arrive at this unfamiliar site, all struggle through and yearn towards. She takes up the task of antagonizing borders of nation-states and genre norms, disrupting capitalistic systems of making and valuation, fracturing patriarchal & racist logics, invoking our queerly beloveds, reading us into an expansive love affair with collectivity that seeks to “open up the polyamory of action” as she writes in Alisoun Sings. These are intimacies in language, an intensive openness, indeed a polyamory of action—a commitment to necessarily multiple dynamic, irreducible love affairs with the distant and proximate, stretching across and blurring the boundaries of time and space, for all those unified in struggle and orgiastic co-constitutive production of meaning and sounding.
In this way, poetry is performance. This is not an analogy: the poetry is an action, an activity and pursuit, moving through space and time with intention. This claim implicates the whole of poetry under its rubric. Bergvall’s, through her own, activates that charge through the necessary slowing down and reconstitution of reading in addition to and beyond the act of writing. Language is a living, ongoing performance; a shared constellation of action that stretches and contracts, that contains manifold simultaneous intimacies and affinities.
Bergvall turns “illegibility” on its head: she insists on a poetics that is neither merely read nor impossible to read. Instead, Bergvall attempts to offer another way of being, necessarily multiple. This affords space for unknowing, for the unrecognizable, where political vision and perhaps even political intimacy and solidarity does not require immediate recognition within our normative configurations of the sensible and knowable.
Bergvall’s project is one of striving and straining—an idealist, even utopian impulse on the grounds of an ongoing and scathing rejection of the world as such. To dwell in this idealism can be an uneasy and risky place. The outcome’s effectiveness is not a foregone conclusion. That is part of what makes this project and its undertaking so interesting; the insistence to ride something out in full. The risk and joy of this poetic project that works against our conventions, unseat normativities of how we make and mean. Sift through the archaeology of the present, these heaps of language to yearn toward another way of being.