David Kaufmann reviews Caroline Bergvall's Drift

(Nightboat Books, 2014)

Consider the fate of the thorn (þ) and the yogh (ȝ), two Gothic letters that fell out of use in the late Middle Ages, done to death by the printing press. Chaucer did not need them, but his contemporary, the Gawain poet, did. My computer repeats this history of loss on a smaller scale. It trips seamlessly through The Knight's Tale (though it does not always care for Chaucer's spelling), but Word deforms Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. While the Palatino typeface that I prefer accommodates the thorn as a special symbol, it stumbles on the yogh, which it replaces, somewhat mysteriously, with a colon.

An old joke tells us that a dialect is a language without an army. The same can be said of letters. As we all know, Chaucer's English—the language of London and the Court—won the day, while the Gawain poet's Midland dialect, with its Anglo-Saxon archaisms and its thorns, lost. Modern readers will be able to recognize The Canterbury Tales as English poetry. The same cannot be said for Sir Gawain. Let a single line—one of my favorites—serve as an example of the difficulties that the poem presents. Even without the yogh, it is a rather tough little nugget:

þe snawe snitered ful snart þat snayped þe wylde
(The snow fell sharply, and bit the wild beasts.)

Modern readers will have a hard time sounding out most of the words here and will find it harder still to understand them. What is more, the alliteration that marks the poem—the very bedrock of its prosody—will seem unfamiliar or even tasteless, the stuff of outliers like Hopkins or Dylan Thomas.

Caroline Bergvall's latest book, Drift, is haunted by the loss of the thorn, the yogh, and Anglo-Saxon generally. As a creature of hyphens and interstices, Bergvall is fascinated by what gets lost and found in the gaps. She is French by birth; half-Norwegian by parentage, she is now English to the extent that she has lived for decades in Britain. She is a poet, a visual and performance artist, and a willing collaborator in complicated installations and events. Drift is a product of these affiliations and activities.

A collection of texts (some presented as prose, some lineated as poetry), drawings, and photographs, Drift was born of a project that Bergvall undertook with the Norwegian percussionist Ingar Zach "to explore," as she explains, "the archaic, tribal traffic between voice and drum, between text and beat, air and skin, voice and breathing."

Bergvall took as her starting point the Anglo-Saxon text "The Seafarer," a poem of some 125 lines that describes the terrors and rigors of life at sea a millennium ago. It is a strange work in that it seems to fall into two very separate parts. The first is devoted to a markedly existentialist complaint about the plight of a sailor's life; the second, a recognizably medieval paean to the glory of God.

Bergvall engaged the poem, seeking to render it again through aural excavation—through translation as well as through homophones and false friends. As it seemed to elude her, it took on a primal force. In her recounting of her course through the text, she claims that "all languages and all my languages now flow[ed]" from the poem. Her struggle with "The Seafarer" has produced texts that are densely repetitive and densely allusive. They are often lyrically quite gorgeous in a way that has become uncommon in the rather austere world of contemporary avant-garde poetry:

When there was blossoming when boroughs
take with blossom Sumer is icumen in Lhude
sing cuccu! Birdpods grow on the barnacle
tree What gorgeous mingling ok lovesongs ok
honeysuckling ok allround horniness Hear,
hear heaving with tidal thoughts hustled from
all tha t-turning aroused gewakes the
shipwrecked lingers on the side scarpers to sea
Blow wind blow, anon am I

This account of Spring (and the misleading desires for wandering that it provokes) maintains Anglo-Saxon poetry's alliterative drive and it echoes Anglo-Saxon's use of compound nouns. It also retains the Germanic prefix ge that marks the past participle. But it is also quite contemporary in its vocabulary: "horniness" is a very recent word. Its repetitions are recognizably modernist. Here and elsewhere, they bring to mind and ear Beckett's later, brutally funny and existentially harrowing works. To cap it off, Bergvall lends the whole thing the folkloric timelessness of a ballad through the recurring refrain of the final line: "Blow wind blow, anon am I." This sounds like a quote from either Shakespeare or the ballad tradition, but it is not. It is in fact a lovely bluff. The speaker of the poem is "anon" to the extent that she is always about to arrive, to get to the point. ("Anon, anon, sir"). At the same time, she is not "anon." Though the speaker might be anonymous (as is the author of "The Seafarer"), the author Caroline Bergvall is not.

It is customary to call the first-person in a poem "the speaker of the poem," a clumsy translation of "le moi qui parle" of French poetics. In the case of Drift, though, there really is a speaker. Drift was, after all, occasioned by a performance. The first sections provide the script of a mixed-media event that Bergvall will present six times this year. The online video teasers for this performance are seductively hypnotic. Dense thickets of text move across the screen as if carried by unseen currents while the soundtrack consists of Bergvall's accented, expressive recitation, floating through a moody, musical ambience of synthesizers. Drift as a book thus carries within it the trace of the spoken word. The stutter in the section I quoted above ("tha t-turning") signals that the text exists to be read out loud.

Bergvall's peculiarly accented English is important in all this. Her periodic dips into other languages' rhythms, her occasional Northern European diphthongs and consonants remind us of her often-repeated insistence that she is set to undermine standard and standardizing English. It is hard to write this accent—or any accent—without resorting to parody or stereotype. More importantly perhaps, written transcription misses the cadence, the odd rises and falls that mark the voice's particular course through speech. In some of her earlier work, Bergvall got around this problem by sidestepping it. She sabotaged standard usage by concocting a witty bilingual poetry. She would pun between English and French by swapping vowels and syllables, or muck about with sound or spelling. (So she would write "flèsh," making a false friend between the French word for "arrow" [flèche] and the English "flesh.") About a decade ago, though, she changed tack. Rather than composing in a mash-up of English and French, she went historical. She created a patois that she dubbed "Meddle English," an idiosyncratic mélange of Chaucerian grammar and contemporary lingo that reminded some readers of Anthony Burgess's Russified slang in A Clockwork Orange. The result—a set of modern Canterbury Tales—is as witty, urban, and urbane as the originals.

Drift, though, marks something new. It is not citified. It is not witty in the manner of much of her previous work. Its anachronisms do not serve satirical or topical purposes. In short, the stakes seem higher, more traditional. Bergvall's search for the "archaic tribal traffic" turns out to be a search for origins, for the arche.

While part of the book is devoted to the case of the famous "Left-To-Die Boat"—the callous abandonment by Western vessels of a hopelessly overloaded ship of migrants fleeing Libya—Drift's particular heft derives from its investment in Anglo-Saxon. Unlike Chaucer's language, which, as I suggested earlier, was shaped by the Norman winners, Anglo-Saxon is the lost (or suppressed) dialect of the losers. Now, one should not get too melodramatic about this. English is still a Germanic, not a Romance, language. Even so, to go back to "The Seafarer" is to return the language to its German roots, to seek its origins across the North Sea and not across the English Channel. What is more, to ground our origins in "The Seafarer" (and not in Beowulf, say, or "The Dream of the Rood") is to read into Anglo-Saxon an existential pathos of suffering, errancy, and loss.

There is a biographical side to all this, an aspect that most likely lends Drift its sonic beauty and its lyrical intensities. Toward the end of the book, Bergvall writes of the thorn: "I went looking for my Nordic roots in the English language and found this sign." That fact that Bergvall finds her own roots in the thorn speaks to a problem that Bergvall discusses in "Croup," a piece that she published in Meddle English. While Bergvall's father is Norwegian and while she speaks that language, she cannot write in it. At some point a few years back, she was asked to produce an essay in Norwegian. Her hand swelled up in rebellion, making it physically impossible for her to write. Her body resisted its charge and "Croup" is all about the body's complicated relation to language. As always in Bergvall, complication is registered in a pun. In English, "croup" is a disease of the larynx. It is a false friend of sorts with corps and kroppen, the French and Norwegian words for "body." The body, it seems, speaks everywhere.

In the course of "Croup," Bergvall presents a telling myth about language acquisition. She claims that she finally came to French, her first language, through coming. She discovered it during her first experience of sex with another woman. In an odd inversion of Lacan, Bergvall goes on to write that she then lost her sense of French when the patriarchal order reinstated itself through its adamant rejection of her lesbianism. It was not until Bergvall reached good, queer London some years later that she re-found language. This time, it was English, and again pleasure held the key. The implications of this myth are clear: for whatever ultimate reason, Norwegian is out of the question. It is not seeded with permissible desire.

In this way, Bergvall's engagement with "The Seafarer" and with the original, originary form of English can be seen as her attempt to find a Norwegian that her body can stand. Anglo-Saxon serves as the desired mediation, the chart she needs if she is to cross the North Sea. Thus the patois the book comes up with can be read as a form of compromise crypto-tongue that exists somewhere between an historically vanquished English and an impossibly proscribed Norwegian. It is a haunting and haunted idiom of risk and loss. At the same time, like the strange ending of "The Seafarer," it seems to promise fulfillment, even redemption.

So Drift, even more than most texts, is driven by the passion of lost objects. Some, like the unspeakable something that Norwegian stands for, are unbreachably private. Others, like the thorn and the history it stands for, are communal and retrievable, if only by dint of hard work and patient excavation. As the book's drama shows, they are all the more precious for that.