It is a set of Russian nesting-dolls, which means something if you are not Russian, and something else if you are. And something still further if you like dolls, and something else if you do not. For everything means something in terms of its not. And here’s where the book comes in, on little doll’s feet: this is the yearned-for (by those in the ought-to know) collection by Caroline Bergvall, representing ten years of her writing and thinking on the lay of language. Meddle English contains Bergvall’s recent Chaucer interventions, a portion of her previously published Goan Atom (Doll), and her trilingual étudies on the articulated corps that is us, as well as various essays that set forth, in semi-serial fashion, her poetics. A poetics on all fours, as they say, with today. Meaning that it is a matter of language qua language, which is to say, that sound that we make make sense.
Like any orchestration, there are major and minor movements in the book, which can be profitably categorized via the technologies involved. Technologies meaning techniques, but techniques with a twist. Typically in the way that function becomes form, for that is one thing about the current state of things poetic—we are now at the point in our art where, like all other arts, our forms must self-reflect. Not in the common way of a sonnet signifying something amorous, or not, yet in the not, still referencing the earlier significance, but in the more a priori mode of lyric meaning one order of aesthetic and ethical business, conceptualism another. Where all oxen are equally (and finally) gored. Whereas L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E admirably articulated its doublemint agenda, other poetries have been content to sit where they stand as if put there by nature. Bergvall’s technologies, by comparison, are only natural as nature is mostly human nature. So there are eliminations and emendations, interventions and interpellations. The latter are often collages in the classic modernist fashion, the writer’s hand wielding the clippers. These range from the simply shapely:
That for dronken was al pale
saugh that he was dronke of ale,
Ful pale he was for dronken
O Januarie, dronken in plesaunce
I wol drynke licour of the vyne,
I am wont to preche, for to wynne.
So dronke he was,
O dronke man,
Ye fare as folk that dronken wer of ale.
And for despit he drank ful muchel moore,
Lo, how that dronken Looth, unkyndely
For dronkeness is
And dronkenesse is eek a foul record
(from “The Host Tale”) i
To the baroque:
A new ideology of yvele evell evyl evil meanaces society
and it includes gay weddyng jolly marriage
abortion abomination and stem cell studie research
wrote the papel he hey in his bestselling scriptures book,
Memory and Identity.
The Pope’s noisy mouth had a mutt
and a deceptively brooding chin.
Ones once both saufly safely shut ad eternam
papal knights guards were quickly positioned.
There will be no collective revelrye,
gaiety merrymaking, drynke drinking,
duance dancing on tabules tables
or shaking one’s booty aboute around
or laying the shrewed cursed poisoned
yifte gift of one’s maladye
this sickness our need at the feet of the lifeless pontiff.
(from “The Franker Tale (Deus Hic, 2)”) ii
And lines that break with a snap or sharp snip:
(from “Fats,” from Goan Atom)Which puts one in mind of topiary, and rightly so, for there is a great deal of bush in this weld. (“One could also clear one’s throat and realize that one has spat out French slang, une chatte, a pussy.” “Cat in the Throat.”) And, to pursue this particular metaphor, there are many lips, majora and minora, in this, for it is a book of uncommon macaronic pleasures.
Some arise in some or many of us
noen reiser seg i noen eller mange av oss
se lèvent en nombre de nous
Some that arise in some of us arise in many of us
noen som reiser seg i nonen av oss reiser seg i mange av oss
que se levant en nous se relèvent en nombre de nous
Some that arise in some of us arrive in each of us
noen som reiser seg i noen av oss kommer frem i hver av oss
que se levant en nous se relèvent de chacun de nous
(from “Cropper”)And by major/minor, I refer of course to musicality, to the key of something, not its primacy. Bergvall famously splits her tongues, and though this is manifestly a work in English, and therefore a work about English, there is always the splitering of English into its various offal and bits, reminding one of the philosophic conundrum—if Argo is repaired during the course of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece, and if it is repaired board by board so that all the boards are replaced by the end of the voyage, then what is Argo? And this is perhaps one of the conceptual points: Argo is the site of Argo, no more. English, then, is simply a site of English, just as poetry is simply a site of poetry. Maybe less.
Along these lines, though Bergvall is well-known for her gallery work, the page-as-site is contemplated sparingly in Meddling English. Those pieces, such as in Goan Atom, which do move towards the visual, move in the fashion of concrete poetry rather than image per se. Again, there is always a curatorial feeling in the work, meaning that the ademption is also at work, for in any cutting and pasting or sculpting or inclusion, within any omission from any exhibition, there is a cutting away, and the cutting away is part of what’s present. In other words, 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. The collection works as an argument for language as such—not for the incommunicability of language, but rather its hypostatic features. In other words (and we are lousy with words), its fundamentally fundamental nature, its capacity for scaffolding, its ability to wear a mask that masks nothing. For, as the formidable Mary Kelly has observed, “Well, language is culture, right?”
Which means that Meddling English is hermeneutics, if I can say this without blinking. I was in a club recently, talking with my friend Michael, and the sound was very loud. It cut out for a second, however, just as I was shouting “Foucault was right!” about something. Just like Foucault was right, though sometimes in the wrong way. By which I mean to say that there is a Kantian problem here of contemplation from within, a problem that every language-looker faces, for language is also a mirror, no matter how many facets or reflections it casts, there is the same brown-eyed soul staring back. In other words, there’s no language that is nothing but language, for there is always the unconscious. I should disclose that I count Caroline Bergvall among my actual friends, and am a flat-footed admirer of her work. The position of admirer is a prickly one, for to admire means to think long and hard on something, which oftentimes opens that something in ways that may be quite unfair to the thing at hand, but suitable to the point of admiration. This is the point of anamorphosis, as emblematized by Hans Holbein the Younger’s “The Ambassadors” (1533), a painting of two French ambassadors. The remarkable part of the painting is that there is a large foregrounded skull which cannot be seen straight on, but only from the side, at the expense of seeing the rest of the painting, as Lacan put it, “awry.” iii
Knots, according to Lacan, symbolize the Imaginary: its structure cannot be represented except in writing, or, “the unconscious can only be expressed in knots of language.” Bergvall is a knot-maker as she is a knot-undoer—each of her knotted constructions cede to their constituent parts, and each of her unthreaded strands tangle and torque into something else. Though not necessarily that tied down by the knot or suggested by its embroidered similarity to a rose. Thus, the Shorter Chaucer Tales are terrific constructions, but they are constructions where the struts show and in this showing, show how utilitarian art can be conceived. Material Compounds, a piece about pieces of paper, turns these heaps of leaves into heaps of leaves. There’s no mutatis, to my mind, because there cannot be a change of mind about language because language is what makes one’s mind. Bergvall opens the book with a nod to Smithson: “A heap of language.” Heap is a good Anglo-Saxon word, meaning a lot. Lots are what are drawn in terms of chance, just as conclusions are drawn in terms of proof. Bergvall proves Bergvall, by which I mean to say that there is a way that the forest can sometimes hide the trees: does the multilingual prove or disprove language? Is there a latent essentialism in the fact of a book, that is to say, in the act of some communication. As I say it, it shall be done. From the many, is there always just the one. Insofar as the unconscious is structured like a language, language is the structured unconscious. Dura lex sed lex, as they say. Just as although Meddle English is a concerted performance of polyvocality, the only voice heard is Bergvall’s. Bergvall is the only point of entry and departure for the book; there is no foreword, no afterword, no blurb. But unlike some conceptual poetry books that refuse such interpretory apparatuses, there is Bergvall, acting as interlocutor and writer and performer. This trinity is very interesting, especially in the Shorter Chaucer Tales series, as the collages there are entirely metonymic. Thus, we are thrown back into the lap of the one who writes. As in tongue. As in mouth, as in mind. Is this a problem. In other words, this is the problem.
i Listing the food and drink references in The Canterbury Tales (per Bergvall’s “Notes”).ii Includes “an excerpt from ‘Letter to Women For Beijing Conference’ by Pope John Paul II, dated June 29 and released July 10, 1995 by the Vatican; Presence of Francis Bacon in his studio; The Franklin Tale; John Ashbery’s Variations, Calypso and Fuge” (op cit). i This is a cheat of course. Lacan never said any such thing. Lacan said “à traverse.”