"SHAKE THAT MICROTONE":
CAROLINE BERGVALL'S DRIFT
BY TIM FREEBORN
The Rusty Toque | Special Feature | Essay | November 30, 2014
Raised in a bilingual home--at meals, turning one way to speak Norwegian to her father, the other to speak French to her mother[i]--educated in France and England, and based in London and Geneva, Caroline Bergvall does not appear to have been troubled by the notion of finding a writerly voice. As in 2011’s Meddle English, much of her recent work consists of a plurilingual frottage, a stirring and often naughty playing with sound and sense that sees in Chaucer’s bringing together of dialects, loan words, and coinages a model for writers trying to make their way in the linguistic maelstrom of the present.
In Drift, published earlier this year by Nightboat Books, Bergvall extends her excavation of what she calls, echoing James Joyce, “the midden of language” to source texts from Old English (“The Seafarer”), Old Norse (“Håvamål,” from the Poetic Edda), and Icelandic (the Vinland Sagas), texts whose accounts of maritime travel offer analogues to the vicissitudes of human existence. This book is part of a multimedia project conceived for live performance: the July 17 debut at London’s Southbank Centre featured Bergvall reading alongside the percussion of Ingar Zach and the projections of Thomas Köppel (read Sarah Dawson’s enthusiastic review.)
Even without the accompaniment, Drift is a dizzyingly multiform work, for which the Joycean coinage “verbivocovisual” seems most appropriate, in its attention to the semantic, aural, and graphic properties of language. Each of the books’s ten sections is composed either of graphics (whether scribbles, treated photographs, or drawings), of prose (the diaristic entries of “Log” and “Þ" and the found text of “Report”), of a variation of a lyric genre (the gnomic “Shake,” the elegiac “Seafarer”), or of a poetry-prose hybrid (“NoÞing, ”the “Hafville” section of “Seafarer,” which also features typographical arrangements reminiscent of concrete poetry). Together, they track the experience of drifting, in its many modes (nautical, geological, existential, linguistic, and generic) and moods (bewilderment, elation, the vertigo of possibility).
To help the reader get into the spirit of the work, to induce a state that the Vikings called “hafvilla” (the confusion that accompanies a loss of bearings at sea, a term adopted by Bergvall for the third section of “Seafarer”), Drift opens with sixteen drawings, one per page, of flush-left, tightly ruled horizontal lines, many overlaid with squiggles or with blotched, bleeding ink. In a work inspired by maritime literature, the meteorological term “squall line” seems appropriate, if not entirely accurate. Not until “Log,” the book’s eighth section, which describes this project’s genesis, does Bergvall reveal that these drawings reflect her fascination with medieval manuscripts, particularly the preparation stage, during which ruling lines are drawn on the blank page. Making a series of grids herself as a “compensatory activity” while writing, Bergvall found that the lines began to meander of their own volition, to create their own forms, “short dances that release other spatial rhythms.” “Lines,” then, is an oblique but audacious statement of intent, announcing the scribble’s errancy, spontaneous energy, and indecorousness as central to the aesthetic of this work. It also announces the centrality of the pun--particularly the etymological, bilingual pun--to this work, in its reminder that “to write” derives from the Latin “scriblere.”
Rusty Toque readers are already familiar with “Song 1,” published in Issue 6. This poem, from the book’s second section, “Seafarer,” introduces both the motif of the journey and Bergvall’s excavatory approach to language. Following her ear--in “Log,” Bergvall writes, “I pretend to a possible one-to-one sound-to-sound assimilation, indulge in false friends and fake slippages, flatten out etymologies and historic developments” (142)--she begins her dialogue with the source text:
The first line translates the opening of the Old English “Seafarer”-- “Maeg ic be me sylfum sothgeid wrecan, / Sithas secgan”--but one can see immediately that Bergvall isn’t trying to render the line in contemporary, idiomatic English. (Compare twentieth-century translations, for instance, by W.S. Mackie—“I can tell a true tale about myself”--and by C.B. Hieatt: “I shall tell you a true tale about myself, speak of my journeys” ) Bergvall seems to share with Ezra Pound--whose 1912 translation opens, “May I for my own self song’s truth reckon” (207)--the desire to convey the strangeness of the encounter with the archaic language. Nevertheless, instead of adopting the patterning, as Pound does, of the Anglo-Saxon alliterative line (which she does only occasionally, as in Song 2), her relation to the source text proceeds through homophonic suggestion: “sothgied” (“true report”) leads her both to “sorry tale” and to “soggy truth,” the former appropriate for a lament and the latter for a sea voyage.
With “wrecan,” Bergvall’s uses homophonic association to evoke meanings from different centuries and registers. The Old English “to give expression to” is in play in this long poem of “some serious wrecan.” In a sense more immediate to this passage, the “serious wreckin” looks ahead to the storm-threatened ship and to the next line’s emotional turmoil of “ache wracked.” The homophone “reckon” brings together the bard and sailor, for whom reckoning is part of their vocations (nautical reckoning—“estimate of a ship’s position calculated from the log, the course steered, observation of the sun, etc.; also the action of estimating this”--enters the language in the 16th century, says the OED). “Wrecan” also suggests the contemporary slang term “rekkies,” or reconnaissance. In like manner, line eight’s “nightwacko” seems right out of Joyce’s book of the night, Finnegans Wake, marrying “nihtwaco” (OE “nightwatch” or “vigil”) with the Middle English “nightwaker” (reveller) and our contemporary “wacko” (the OED’s citation of the earliest usage of which is 1977). If some of these nightwackos, “cursed fools grimly beshipped” and lost in the fog, “couldnt get signs,” the reader of “Seafarer” is rarely troubled by a lack, finding instead a head-swimming constellation of possibilities.
In line 5, “gedayswindled” combines homophones from different Germanic languages. “Geswincdagum” (endured) is the term used by the seafarer, but Bergvall’s “gedayswindled” looks to the Middle High German “swindel,” which entered English briefly in the 16th century as noun denoting giddiness or vertigo, the sense of swimming in the head appropriate both for the seafarer and for readers trying to get their bearings. The “ge” prefix appears frequently in this work, a prefix that gives the appearance of Old English but that Bergvall appears to favour for its indeterminacy (in contrast to the prefix “be,” for instance, which Pound uses frequently in his translation and that denotes privation): Bosworth and Toller’s Anglo-Saxon dictionary reports that, while “ge” can give a collective sense to nouns and signifies the past-perfect verb, it “often seems void of signification,” appearing as no more than “a mere augment.” For the Old English “gebiden hæbbe” (“have suffered”), Bergvall gives the more palpable “gebanging head.”
At the level of the word, Drift blends languages and registers with tireless verve. Formally, however, the work varies impressively from section to section, a variety necessary and appropriate for conveying the frequent shifts of mood and subject. In “Seafarer,” the heavily enjambed lines can convey, as in “Song 1,” the sense of dislocation and separation. Line breaks violate phrase boundaries, separating prepositions and adjectives from nouns, verbs from their modifiers and objects. At other times, however, parallel syntax and phrasal repetition produce a different effect, working with enjambment to convey a smoothly progressing journey, as in “North 1” (the second section of “Seafarer”):
When co-ordinates disappear and the ship is overwhelmed by fog, the mariners lose their reckoning and become confused, experiencing “hafvilla,” the poem shifts to a curt, paratactic style of notation: “The fair wind failed. The wind dropped.” As they are overwhelmed by fog, typographic and orthographic degeneration takes us from “Then the wind ddroppe and they were beset by w inds” (“Hafville 2,” 37), to “Th f rw nd f l d Th w nd dr pp d” (“Hafville 3,” 38), to the orthographic stuttering that takes up all of “Hafville 5” and the first half of “Hafville 6” (40-2). Time and space having dissolved, the discombobulated mariners enter the community of “Hafville,” a roll of whose visionary residents appears at the end of the section: some are suicides by drowning (Woolf, Hart Crane), others drowned in accidents (Shelley, Albert Ayler, Li Bai, the latter while trying to embrace the moon in a pond), and others, like Arthur Rimbaud and Ingeborg Bachmann are chroniclers of life after the deluge (45).
Once the fog lifts and the wind resumes in Song 14, enjambment and anaphora convey the course of the surging “nerve-fluid” experienced by the relieved speaker:
The sixth section, “Shake,” extends this mood, its shorter lines approximating the stanzaic form of its source text, “Håvamål”; the Old Norse poem uses the four-line ljodahattr stanza, two of whose lines feature caesura: adapting this form and using the repetition of the charm that marks this section of the Poetic Edda, Bergvall creates a series of five- and six-line stanzas:
Like the “Håvamål,” “Shake” offers directives for writing and living. The above poem from “Shake” recalls the fourth spell from the Norse poem (in Taylor and Auden’s translation): “If foes should bind me fast / With strong chains, a chant that makes / Fetters spring from the feet, / Bonds burst from the hands” (58). Articulating a visceral poetics based on the modulations of the human voice from “megavoice” to “microtone,” Bergvall reasserts the connection of poet with skald, the Old Norse bard of the oral tradition whose title originates from the Old High German skal (sound), skalliz (sound, voice, shout), and skellan (ring, clang, resound).
At the same time, Bergvall acknowledges that the ontological condition of drifting, as of writing, is both active and passive: you can choose to wander, but you can also find yourself being carried along. As above, you should “hold the game” but do so “with our give,” the capacity to give way, to embrace contingency. In Drift, Bergvall celebrates that one can use language with consummate skill but without ever being able fully to control it:
The homograph “ok,” which appears throughout “Seafarer” and “Shake,” functions as both the affirmative English interjection and the Old Norse conjunction “and.” She repeats it memorably at the end of the fourth poem, following a homophonic translation of “an vid lost at lifa” (Taylor and Auden: “a life that avoids vice”) first as “not lost at life” and then “with lust for life ok ok” (100).
For such a scholarly, allusive work, Drift never overlooks the power of the human voice, and a particularly memorable section of the book juxtaposes the incantation of “Shake” with the sober testimony of “Report.” The latter is an account of the 2011 “Left-to-Die Boat,” sixty-three of whose seventy-two passengers fleeing Tripoli for Italy died during two weeks of drifting in the Mediterranean, even though they were spotted by fishing vessels and photographed by NATO air- and sea-craft. In the manner of Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust, Bergvall distills her source text (the account produced by two graduate students in the interdisciplinary research group Forensic Architecture at Goldsmith’s University of London) into an austere lament, which inserts statements of survivor Dan Haile Gebre among the voices of NATO officials and the student’ stark description of the voyage. Rather than comment overtly on this appalling account of political apathy and paranoid border control, Bergvall places “Report” before “Shake,” which takes as its primary intertext the “Håvamål,” the main section of which imparts “Wisdom for Wanderers and Counsel to Guests.” In this position, “Shake” offers a valedictory for the Left-to-Die Boat:
Paying attention to the dead, Drift teems with voices, often transcribed, as in “Report.” “Þ” excerpts comments from newspaper reports involving the excavation of skeletons and runestones. While the Anglo-Saxon Seafarer wistfully recalls hearing maritime birds, Bergvall both lets them speak for themselves (“Whaup gulls yap yap yap yap”) and quotes another lyric that does so (Song 9: “Sumer is icumen in Lhude sing cuccu!”). Stuttering is honoured throughout, not only as a natural mode of speech but also as an affirmation of the motley character of language (in her essay “Writing at the Crossroads of Language,” she quotes approvingly Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of “stuttering in one’s own language” to flout “any claim to homogeneity” ). Sometimes it expresses befuddlement, as in “Hafville”:“a fog so th th th th thik k” (37) and, most memorably, the 1449 consecutive “t”s spanning the end of section four to the mid-point of section six. At other times, it comes on with the force of glossolalia, as in the fervent repetition of “ok ok” in “Shake.”
For the refrain to the sixteen poems of her “Seafarer”—“blow wind blow, anon am I”--Bergvall evokes speakers of diverse traditions and eras, whose charms reflect variously the desires for flight, return, and safety expressed throughout the work: the Grimm Brothers’ folk tale of the Goose Girl, taken off course by a jealous chambermaid (“blow, wind, blow, I say, take Conrad’s hat away. Do not let him come back until my hair is combed today”); Shakespeare’s Lear (“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!”), Macbeth (“blow wind! Come wrack!”), and Julius Caesar’s Cassius (“Why, now, blow wind, swell billow and swim bark!”); and the recent bardic tradition represented by Muddy Waters (“blow wind blow, blow my baby back to me”), Tom Waits (“blow wind blow--take me away, you gotta take me on into the night”), and the New Orleans pianist Dr. John (“Blow wind blow All my troubles away”). “Anon” itself brings together the Middle English, in a sailor’s desire for travel “in a straight course or condition” (as in the object of a sailor’s desire) with the Old English “in one body or company.”
Later, in “NoÞing,” Bergvall explicitly celebrates the infusion of other voices:
The welcoming of such a medley accords with her source texts: in both “The Seafarer” and “Håvamål,” scholars suspect additions by scribes writing with didactic and moralistic purposes, changing the character of the speaking voice and thereby violating the coherence of the work.[ii] Drift’s fluid shifting among languages and registers happily ignores such editorial quandaries. It finds models in the Old English poem’s turns from elegy to precept and in the Old Norse sagas’ and Edda’s varied purposes of storytelling (both fantastical and historical), teaching, and admonishing.
However laudable its aims, much experimental writing feels like it must be endured rather than enjoyed. In the time I’ve spent with Drift, it never fails to provoke, confound, and gratify. With such deft navigation among languages, genres, voices, and drifters--what other work evokes Alfred the Great (patron of vernacular literature and the source of Ohthere/Ottar’s sea journeys, which were added to the Old English translation of Seven Books of History Against the Pagans), Saint Hilda (tutelary spirit of Hartlepool, supporter of the stuttering poet, Caedmon), and Iggy Pop between the same covers?--Caroline Bergvall proves herself an exemplary logonaut.
[i] “Caroline’s Norwegian Speakin’.” Charles Bernstein Video Portraits. November 12, 2006. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_lagXFEZlQ
[ii] See, for instance, I.L. Gordon on “The Seafarer”: “The lack of coherence and evidence of textual corruption after line 108 make it tempting to assume that the poem should end there” (11). For “Håvamål,” see Carolyne Larrington: "This poem was constantly shaped, revised, and refreshed with new material from the folk-stock by a succession of poets, working mainly, though not necessarily exclusively, in the oral medium” (18).
“Caroline’s Norwegian Speakin’.” Charles Bernstein Video Portraits. November 12, 2006. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_lagXFEZlQ
Caroline Bergvall. Drift. Brooklyn & Callicoon: Nightboat Books, 2014.
W.S. Mackie, trans. “The Seafarer.” http://www.usask.ca/english/seafarer/quartframe.htm
C.B. Hieatt, trans. Beowulf and other Old English Poems. New York: Odyssey, 1967.
Ezra Pound. “The Seafarer.” Translations. New York: New Directions, 1963.
The Elder Edda: A Selection. Trans. Paul B. Taylor and W.H. Auden. London: Faber and Faber, 1969.
Caroline Bergvall. “Writing at the Crossroads of Language.” Telling it Slant: Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990s. Eds. Steven Marks and Mark Wallace. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama
I.L. Gordon. “Introduction.” The Seafarer. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1960.
Carolyne Larrington. A Store of Common Sense: gnomic theme and style in Old Icelandic and Old English wisdom poetry. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
TIM FREEBORN lives in London, Ontario, where he teaches in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University.