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The (re)birth of texts: copying, borrowing, recycling

in Ark Review/Essays by

“…Originality is a hallucination of intertextuality…”

P.K. Saint-Amour

They say all poetry is theft, but I prefer to see it as borrowing. Caroline Bervgall, artist-poet, recasts Bildschirmfoto 2017-02-08 um 22.13.07The Seafarer, an Old English poem in her most recent poetry book Drift (2014) by playing with the materiality of the language. This experimental work of art delves into different layers of history, being, voyages, water and the malleability of language. Citationality is the preferred method of work for Bergvall, who has previously written Fig, a text made out entirely of citations of Dante’s Inferno. Words and letters are recycled, metaphors reiterated, symbols copied – all to the purpose of creating newness.

The Seafarer is the same poem, despite having gone through the mind and pen of Pound (1911) or Bergvall (2014). Despite its metamorphosis, change has not altered the poem entirely; an idiosyncratic quality remains, like a trace. Water is the primordial element; it is the origin of life. Adrift in a vast sea of uncertainty, the poet is reshaping her notion of the origin of language and her complex origin. Bergvall is playing with the sounds of language, the kinship of words, their roots and their drifting into another tongue. She manages to create another language through the borrowing of pre-existing material. Besides the meditation on the origin of language and the sisterhood of English and Norse, Bergvall is also encouraging her readers to ponder on the origins of her poetry: an anonymous poem written in Old English about a man lost at sea. No poet is an island; everything is in dialogue with the past, the present and the future poets.

Today, the original text of The Seafarer is impenetrable by a modern reader. In her re-casting, Bergvall unearths the long lost letters of Old English and Norse, the thorn (þ) and the yogh (ȝ). They are mainly employed in the first part (out of six) titled “Seafarer”, and it reads as a message transmitted through time. By mixing Old Norse, Old English and Modern English, she gives birth to a new language, a hybrid. In North 1, the repetition of “north nord norþ norð norit norÞe norh northt” is distorting the familiarity of the word as we know it. The repetition acts as a mechanism of de-familiarisation and re-familiarisation with the old spellings and pronunciation. Here the repetition can be read as a metaphor for her work with Drift: the novelty which occurs through repetition, not through the lack of it.

Bergvall also created a performance around Drift for Southend Shorelines Festival in 2014. You can check it out on vimeo. She is translating her work through her body, her vocality, her mind. The Seafarer feels sifted through her. I wish I would have seen it live.

Bildschirmfoto 2017-02-08 um 22.13.21

Without a doubt, the interdisciplinary quality of Drift is its strong point. By bridging the visual, the textual, the symbolic and the aural, Drift becomes a work which lies at the border of the ancient and the present. This is not your ordinary poetry book, but rather, a work of art where every sound, letter and image resonates with one another to create a whole.

In the section titled Þ Bergvall sees the letter Þ as a potential tool used in farming by Norwegian folk. She connects the world of the senses and materiality with the symbolic. While the symbol Þ has vanished from the English language, the sound of the letter lives on in the English language as the voiceless ‘th’. The death of this symbol is a metaphor of the metamorphosing of themes and imagery – there is a similarity in difference. Bergvall plays with the texture of language and she exposes it visually. Bergvall is digging into her linguistic roots, and consequently archeologising her linguistic being and her inherited language: she skins down the words of their meaning, and focuses on the symbolic. The symbolic becomes a recasting of the material. Þ becomes a motif – there are 8 pages which have the Þ printed, repeated and ultimately, drowned in too much ink. This repetition feels a bit trite, but it does not detract from the book’s greater scope.

In the most touching section, Report, Bergvall extends the metaphor of the lost sea traveller to the modern struggle of the migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea on a boat. The Seafarer is a metaphor for the loss of the soul, the displacement one feels in this world, through the displacement of a body. Bergvall pushes the boundary of this metaphor to the physical travel of modern migrants. The re-telling is cold, information as if gathered from an official account. 72 people, in a boat suitable for only 12, were left to die in the Mediterranean Sea, on the 28th of March 2011. Drifting, directionless in the vast, all-encompassing water, without help from any authorities.

There is the loss of the self through this uprooting, a loss of certainty and language. The voice of the Anglo-Saxon poem is describing drifting without modern navigation. Similarly, the migrants in Report are lost, confused, misreading the direction pointed by the fisherman. This misinterpretation of the geography proves fatal. There is a gap between the migrants on the boat and the supposed rescuers. The ‘rescuers’ act in a detached manner: keeping their distance and not helping despite seeing the horror of the already dead bodies aboard. They take pictures, providing documentation and yet refuse to interfere in any other way. They let the migrants die. Through incorporating this passage in her book, Bergvall is preserving the lost. The paratexts and visuals which accompany the book are enhancing the experience. The image on the cover and backcover is a macro treatment of an aircraft sighting photograph of the ‘left-to-die boat’. Pixelated pictures of the boat have also been pasted in the book, along with some black pages with white dots representing constellations. The enveloping darkness experienced by the migrants is thus ten-folded. With this book, Bergvall is archiving language and experience. The lives of the migrants are remembered through the preservation of their account. By offering them space and language, Bergvall makes her readers remember such fates.

Bergvall is drifting in her sexual identity, on a boat of uncertainty in this world which requires clear definitions of the self. The repetition amplifies her loss, her inability to articulate her sexual drifting.

She irritates English at its surface through this unconventional translation. “This is not a translation project yet it feels as though I’m working it that way” (D, pp.143). Her work makes one meditate on how language is just translation: a visual or spoken symbol translating the material.

This book is not just a lump of digging linguistic threads between languages. There is also a drifting outside normative sexuality and exploring it.

Your legs are the legs of legs

your arms are the arms of arms

your face is the face of face

let the tides

when the shaking starts

Bergvall is drifting in her sexual identity, on a boat of uncertainty in this world which requires clear definitions of the self. The repetition amplifies her loss, her inability to articulate her sexual drifting.

Bergvall effaces the border between the spoken and written word by mixing up the spelling, she unsettles the pristine, pure condition of English. Bergvall plays with the image of the dictionary as an authority on language through her pastiches, collaging definitions and forging linguistic pathways in between words and languages. She deals with language in an archaeological way, combining a scientific approach to her process as the same time as building historical associations. I would call Bergvall’s work creative translation. She enhances her rewriting, rooting it into being, with the surrounding materials she employs: the visual, the vocal, the materiality of the book itself.

Ilinca has a masters in English from University of Copenhagen. Originally from Bucharest, she lived in Vienna, London and now the Capital of Denmark. Interested in postcolonial literature and literatures of diasporas – mainly because displacement has been her reality in the past 10 years.

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