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Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Caroline Bergvall and Chaucer

I am intending, for a chapter entitled ‘Translation as Transformation’, to write about Caroline Bergvall’s uses of Chaucer. (‘The Petrarch Boys’ is prefatory thinking for that piece too.) The first time I encountered these works was at a Bergvall reading, possibly in Southampton, and probably part of a conference. It was a hilarious reading, pastiche rubbing shoulders with satire. My next encounter was when I reviewed Meddle English for Poetry Wales. I felt it necessary to contextualise ‘performance writing’ for the readership: ‘Caroline Bergvall,’ I wrote, ‘is a major practitioner (and theorist) of a mode of artistic production somewhat inaccurately called “performance writing”. Yes, performance, indeed collaboration with musicians and sound artists, is important to her, but so is operating in space, with installations and environments, peopled or not. (See her website This work, with its roots in language, is sometimes called “off the page” writing but this implies that printed text is merely a “score”.’ But I added: ‘There is a lot of poker-faced commentary on Bergvall’s work that uses art-speak, much as I have above. This is unavoidable if the sheer newness of the work is to be explained, but it often misses, beyond the theoretics of language(s) – she speaks between three languages – how funny she can be.’ And of course, in my academic book I will have to do something similar. Like this I guess: ‘Caroline Bergvall is a trilingual writer based in Great Britain, known for both working across languages and across disciplines as her exquisite website ( illustrates well. Work, or versions of works, can exist equally as text, audio, film, video, and visually-minimal, linguistically-maximal, installation work. Literal aspects of translation enter her work in a piece such as ‘Crop’ which moves (as though by interlinear gloss) between English, Norwegian and French (Bergvall’s languages) and deals with the passage of the body through those languages. (Bergvall 2011: 147-51) One of her best known texts, which fits neatly into the appropriative poetics of conceptual writing, though it is hardly her most complex, is ‘Via’ which gathers (on the page, but also for inscription upon walls in various gallery spaces) 47 published translations (into English) of the opening tercet of Dante’s Inferno. (Bergvall 2005: 63-71) Both pieces play upon the vertiginous nature of trans-linguistic possibility (including the accidents of coincidence, whether between languages or between different translations).’

In both introductions I defer to the website which is, I think, the best introduction to her work, however much ‘the book may be one of the sites of linguistic performance’.

Although I review some of the earlier texts in the volume I am chiefly interested in its use of Chaucer now. I wrote:

The prose essay ‘Middling English’ offers the poetics of Bergvall’s work as a Steinian iterative exploration of four related near-homonyms: the sinking ‘midden’ of sedimented language, compost for the return of the repressed; the ‘middling’ blanket of standard language use; the ‘middle’ of linguistic flux and unorthodox exchange; and the ‘meddle’ of interference and transformation. … The fluxing ‘middle’ also hints at ‘Middle English’, the melting pot mash-up that became Modern English and in ‘Shorter Chaucer Tales’, Bergvall exploits its ‘networks and distributive modes of knowledge’. They range from the simple ‘Host Tale’, which collages every food and drink reference in Chaucer’s Tales, and which leaves the reader feeling hilariously crapulent, through to a satire on the Pope’s visit to Poland, where the language runs riot: there’s ‘a ban on all licour sales while the Papa is in toun:/For goddess love, drynk moore attemprely!’ There will be no adverts ‘for contraceptives, lingerie and tampons./Chaast was man in paradys, certeyn,’ and we have the word of ‘the heed of advertising for Telewizja Polska’ that ‘The body is so redy and penyble’ in the face of ‘frivolous ads’. The heteroglossic clash of languages and registers makes this funny, but think of Chaucer’s shady Pardoner and it suddenly seems appropriate rather than simply appropriated.

And think of Chaucer’s shady Pardoner I did. Over Christmas I sink into some long work to read (the year before last it was The Iliad and The Odyssey) and last year (i.e. 2013), I decided to read The Canterbury Tales and did (with the exception of the ones in prose, which I felt, even through their own ‘poker-faced commentary’, the editors of the Oxford volume were telling me not to bother with!). It was partly research for the Bergvall but it was mostly for its own sake. I experienced the pleasures one usually associates with the work: the variety of character and tale, the vibrancy of the language, etc… I experienced the pleasure of re-encountering works I read at school (‘The Franklin’s Tale’ and ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ which I had on vinyl and dug out for its occasion), texts which linked up with the Bergvall project; and others I’d not read before (and now shamefully, a month later, I’ve completely forgotten). I marvelled at the ‘unfinished’ nature of the project – ‘unfinish’ being an obsession of my poetics – and I enjoyed Chaucer’s self parody as a hopeless (and overweight) poetaster. I particularly enjoyed ‘The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale’, where the Canon and Yeoman appear out of nowhere like The Lone Ranger and Tonto to the pilgrimage, and the Yeoman manages to escape the thrall of the Canon (who speeds off) to tell a wonderful tale about fraudulent alchemy (I take it that Chaucer would have believed in real alchemy). As you can see, I enjoyed it and it was partly to escape my Canon-like responsibilities as poet-critic and pedagogue that I undertook this reading.

But now I’m the other side of it and need to knuckle down to Bergvall’s Chaucer Tales. I want to write about them as modes of translation, given that my notion of translation is broadened (partly through the study of Hughes’ and Atkins’ Petrarch and through the Semantic Poetry Translations of Stefan Themerson, an important missing link for me in the history of formally innovative poetry) so that it includes all kinds of social and cultural trans-form-ation.

‘Middling English’ I described in my review with a summarising force which quite impresses me, on reflection. I noted, in its first part, ‘the sinking ‘midden’ of sedimented language, compost for the return of the repressed’: or the transformative ‘tracing up of re-emergents’ as Bergvall puts it. (9). ‘The ‘middling’ blanket of standard language use’ is considered. Chaucer’s English privileged a Southern dialect (I think some roguish clerks are given Northern dialect on one of the Tales) but ‘everything about Middle English was a mashup on the rise’ (13) in Bergvall’s words. ‘Mashup’ is a nice contemporary term for the changing nature of the language Chaucer inherited and modified, its ‘influences and confluences’. (13). It led, of course, ‘on the rise’, to Modern English which is – in an un-nice contemporary term which Bergvall quotes - ‘the language of interoperablity’ of international affairs and trade: World English. (12) But Bergvall wonders: ‘The point is less whether it is a world language than the kind of world it perpetuates.’ (12). In terms of Chaucer’s English, the point of Bergvall’s experiments are less to do with whether Chaucer’s English is the beginning of that World language than the kind of world it prefigured, how it prefigured it, and how it may be made to operate as critique of that world now (as archaic residue, ‘re-emergent’ through her formal practice). From Southwark Out, as it were. ‘The “middle” of linguistic flux and unorthodox exchange’ as I called it in the review includes that mashup but also ‘writing in culture’ more generally. (16)

Since my themes are form in the book generally and transformation more specifically in this chapter-in-progress, Bergvall’s contention about transposable media and mediation is important because it is cast in formalist terms: ‘A text takes on forms that extend language into electronics, data systems, aural proximities, means of generation and dissemination that affect the material and temporal traffic of a nodal series of “pages”’. (15) Aesthetic versions of these transpositions are, of course, the formal hallmark of Bergvall’s work (again, the shorthand move is to say: have a look at the website). New media ‘signal that the forms of exchange and learning most widely sought today place transformative and connective value on locationality, transport and audio-visuality.’ (15) Her own work demonstrates how this happens in site-specific installations with sound (language and/or music). ‘Poetic art,’ Bergvall says (she shies away from the word ‘poem’ repeatedly, probably a mistake, since I think we should transform the nature of the ‘poem’, not leave it behind) ‘becomes an occupancy of language made manifest through various platforms, a range of instrumental tools and skills/ and relativized forms of inscription’. (15-16). Her recourse to Chaucer seems all the odder in this literate literary cultural futurism, her return to the last manuscript culture before printing.  

‘The “meddle” of interference and transformation’ of Bergvall’s fourth section is addressed quite directly: ‘My personal sense of linguistic belonging was not created by showing for the best English I can speak or write, but the most flexible one.’ (18) Even more appropriate to the grain of the Chaucer pieces, she announces her aim as ‘To make and irritate English at its epiderm, and at my own.’ (18) Her final triumphant ‘New apprenticeship and transformed commitment’, (19) is glossed earlier: ‘The apprenticeship of dialogue as encounter is necessarily a meddling of boundary, a heightening of points of internalized resistance or ideological differences’. (19) Although this is cast in the speculative mode of poetics (with a hint of manifestic programme driving it beyond that), the dialogue of Chaucer with contemporary realities is one of those encounters that meddles (with) the boundaries of articulation. ‘To meddle with English is to be in the flux that abounds, the large surf of one’s clouded contemporaneity.’ (18) The cloud is one of unknowing, of course, but meddle these texts do, ‘oiling creativity and artistry with critical spirit’ (18) as she puts it, those ‘heightened points’ she refers to above.

Poetics as a speculative writerly discourse is another of my obsessions and I have written about it a lot (in The Necessity of Poetics particularly; one (early) version here) but have never quite got round to publishing a whole book on it. There are scattered essays (including my inaugural lecture of 2007, which I ought to distribute beyond its academic journal publication in New Writing) and quite a few of the chapters of When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry are specifically about poetics documents, as have been my recent posts on Geraldine Monk. An exhaustive catalogue of poetics documents was also posted on this blog a few years ago, a number of posts in fact, when I thought that another outtake of a book would be useful for readers. Best to click onto 2009 on the right and find them between June and August. Very few people have followed them up. However, in this encounter with Bergvall’s work her poetics serves to introduce her ‘Shorter Chaucer Tales’ as they do in Meddle English in fact.
‘The Host Tale’ I described in my review (as I’ve shown): it ‘collages every food and drink reference in Chaucer’s Tales, and … leaves the reader feeling hilariously crapulent’. Is that all? Clearly not. I have described the technique (as does Bergvall in her note) and I’ve said a little about its woozy effect. It is quite a feast. The types of food described are immense and accorded some pleasure when I encountered some of these from Bergvall’s piece as I read Chaucer’s originals. Chaucer’s father was a vintner and he was raised in the importers’ area of London, hence the specificity of the listings I suppose (Chaucer was also a customs official). The text’s title ‘The Host Tale’ is not ‘The Host’s Tale’. Chaucer’s host was probably ‘real’: ‘Henry Bailly, the Host, has the same name as Henricus Bailly or Baillif, known to have been an innkeeper in Southwark, and a member of Parliament from that borough’, which was also Chaucer’s dwelling place at one point. (Note to Oxford: 3) The host in the Tales does not deliver a tale (although he would have if Chaucer had even half completed his task). But that is not the title. It’s ‘The Host Tale.’ The tale that hosts these quotations about the goods used by hosts, about hospitality. (I’m thinking about ghosts and hosts and acts of hospitality, about the very late and Levinasian thought of Derrida which I might check out here.) Playing host in this way differentiates it from the appropriative gestures of conceptual writing (or at least its theories), which allow little room for hospitality: theft is the usual metaphor, the specific practice of plagiarism. Exchange, learning and dialogue seem more prevalent in the quotations from Bergvall’s poetics, and make of her work a more generous encounter with its materials.

‘The apprenticeship of dialogue as encounter is necessarily a meddling of boundary, a heightening of points of internalized resistance or ideological differences’ both emphasises this ‘hosting’, but it also acknowledges what is going on in a text such as ‘The Summer Tale’. (19) Obviously this alludes to ‘The Summoner’s Tale,’ which is in turn alluded to in the text, but its subtitle (‘Deus Hic 1’), is another quote from Chaucer (‘God is here’). It is actually the Pope who is ‘here’, i.e. in the site of the poem: my review calls it ‘a satire on the Pope’s visit to Poland, where the language runs riot: there’s ‘a ban on all licour sales while the Papa is in toun:/For goddess love, drynk moore attemprely!’ There will be no adverts ‘for contraceptives, lingerie and tampons./Chaast was man in paradys, certeyn,’. That seems to be a true enough account, and one can see that the use of the Pardoner’s and Summoner’s Tales (they are both suspect ‘occupations’ towards the bottom end of the church hierarchy, of which the Pope is the top (and was in Chaucer’s day, despite controversies)). ‘The Franker Tale (Deus Hic 2)’ is even more outspoken as its title suggests, and anti-clerical (as is Chaucer’s work in some ways, with these theological parasites treated toughly in ‘The Friar’s Tale’, for example). A feminist rebuttal of Pope John Paul II’s ‘Letter to Women’, it collages phrases from the letter with a number of sources, including ‘The Franklin’s Tale’, particularly excerpts from the much longer list of atrocities that have been inflicted upon women. Dorigen at this point in the Tale feels she is obliged to surrender her body as she promised to a lusty Clerk who she thought would not manage to move the black rocks of the Brittany coast as she requested, half jesting. But by necromancy and magic he does and demands her body. She relates this catalogue of rapes and slaughters to herself and concludes: ‘Thus pleyned Dorigen a day or tweye,/ Purposynge evere that she wolde deyee’. (142) Luckily the Clerk has some sense of decency and, much moved by her love for her husband and her fatal sense of loss, releases her from her obligation; after all, this tale is a romance and its generic expectations are stronger than any plot device of necromancy! But that doesn’t relieve her examples of their horror, here reformed into Bergvall’s text with other materials:

Women of Bosnia! Women of Rwanda! Women of Afghanistan!  
            Women of Bengal! Kurdish women! Women of Chetnya!
            Whan thirty tyrants, ful of cursednesse,
            Hadd slayn Phidoun in Atthenes, at feeste,
            They commanded his daughters for tareste,
            And bryngen hem biforn hem in despit,
            Al naked, to fulfille hir foule delit, their foul delight
            And in hir fadres blood their father’s blood they made them dance/
            Upon the pavement, God yeve hem meschaunce!
            Kashmiri women! Punjabi women! Women of France!
            Women of Britain! Women of Finland! Women of America!
            They of Mecene leete enquire and seke
            Of Lacedomye fifty maidens eke,
            On whiche they wolden doon hir lecherye;
            And foul delight.
            Susters and nieces! Mothers aunts and doghters!
            Deus Hic! God is drunk! (33-4; Chaucer quotations at 142: Oxford)

‘My personal sense of linguistic belonging was not created by showing for the best English I can speak or write, but the most flexible one,’ wrote Bergvall and this might be an example of what she means. (18) It is also ‘meddling’ – a metaphor for formal innovation – with ‘English’, which (again in Bergvall’s poetics ) ‘is to be in the flux that abounds, the large surf of one’s clouded contemporaneity.’ (18) And clearly Latin is read in a kind of pigeon schoolgirl Latin joke at the end. The ‘Women of Afghanistan!’ (and others listed) contrast with the equally papally-hailed ‘Women of Britain’, but the Franklin’s minatory account of ‘foul delight’, mass rape amid martial atrocity, is accounted for in this ‘clouded contemporaneity’, one that is not just clouded but whose supposed supreme being is completely pissed! This passage typifies the inter-lingual play (and the interlineal glosses) and equates ancient rapes with contemporary oppression, quite obviously, but no less powerfully for that. It surpasses the satire of the Pope’s dry visit to Poland with its seriousness but the tone remains the same. Something makes me slightly uneasy about this comic frame (and I am leaving out the presence of Francis Bacon the painter in this text). The final linguistically doubled ‘farting/ in the hoote hot somer summer heat heete’ may be ‘the old Papa’s/ body finally flying free/ quit of his distasteful containee’ doesn’t quite do it for me, although it clearly foregrounds the distrust of the bodily in Catholic thinking, one of the supposed delights of Chaucer’s writing, even allowing (or ignoring) his supposed deathbed recanting of his baser tales. (34-35) (Despite knowing it was there, I found a surprising amount of farting and fucking in Chaucer’s Tales.)  Though re-reading the quoted passage out loud (quite a pleasure with both Bergvall’s and Chaucer’s texts I have found) the ‘God is drunk!’ feels quite sardonic and dark, so maybe I need to re-examine it. (These postings are deliberately not trying to arrive at ‘final’ readings, though I know that a certain finish must be reached in polished literary criticism, though even there isn’t the discourse saying, in effect, ‘This is so, is it not?’ where there must be enough unfinish for a response other than the absolutely affirmative? Otherwise, why read literary criticism?)
The longest ‘shorter tale’, ‘Fried Tale (London Zoo)’ is in four parts and a range of new materials are introduced. The text, block-like on the page, is in some ways the most malleable, formally speaking, because parts one and four provide the texts for a number of broadsides that can be read separately or were displayed as part of the ‘Middling English’ installation at the John Hansard Gallery. The broadsides may be seen here. The installation may be glimpsed here. Russell Hoban’s novel Riddley Walker (a post-apocalyptic novel narrated in post-nuclear holocaust patois) joins Chaucer as a ‘flexible’ linguistic device, as does the dystopian language devised by Anthony Burgess for A Clockwork Orange. Just as prominent is text-speak. They truly ‘irritate’ English, though Chaucer is low in the mix. The first part is a dialogue between investors (or they could be criminals; or both: ‘By St Madoff!’ one of them ‘trupts’, perhaps giving his game away (40)), speaking a strange intimate argot which only they possess.

Im keeping it Im keeping it all! screachit Sir Smith,
1 publikly onurd feend of skotisk stox.
By the spans ov green expans, wot brilyant lyfe.
All larf n dig deepa in2 the public kofins. (40)

Part two stays with the economic theme (‘phynance’), being a very funny cut-up and re-casting of JK Galbraith’s Short History of Financial Euphoria with other materials; ‘The circumstances that induce the recurrent lapses into financial dementia have not changed in any truly operative fashion since the Tulipomania of 1636’ is as funny as it’s unfortunately true. No Chaucer. Formally the interest of the work lies in the transformation of materials and the juxtaposition of the fragments, classic montage. If Rancière cries out as he does (somewhere) for disorder to be put back into montage, then he could do no better than to start here. Part 3 does contain some Chaucer (remember, that’s my focus), though part four doesn’t. Part three is short and un-sweet: ‘suk the air out of this terrifying hellhole with merciful subtronic nasty freqs liberation trail-outs’. (48) Part 4 is a bit of a surprise tonally, since much of it consists of a scientific debate about the head on beer. We are clearly back in ‘the Tabard’. (49) Against the jocularity of the beer-science the figure of Dame Justice appears. Whereas financial institutions had been satirised in earlier sections, their legal underpinnings are exposed here. ‘Dame Justice … no longer gives a smiling sod about the moral attributes or social benefits of equitable share-out of wealth…’ Or, or, or. Here follows a long list (‘she can be pretty longwinded’) culminating in ‘so-called transnational trafficking bloodsuck oilsprung hyperfunded plunderprize’. (50) Even a few borrowed motifs from Derek Jarman’s The Last of England can’t hold out against that: ‘Dame Justice. Who will die again be slain again. Nobody listening nobody listening.’ (51) This is the bleakest of the Tales, no doubt, and the one with least connection to Chaucer. (Is there a connection between those two facts?) It might find itself not appearing in my final account, therefore, but it’s good to account for it here, however inadequately.

There is one other text, the shortest, ‘The Not Tale (Funeral)’. It’s not a tale because it ironically eschews narrative while becoming a narration of negatives: ‘nor how/ nor how’. (37) It is ‘Funeral’ because it is entirely – Bergvall’s note – ‘a translation of a cross-section of Arcite’s extravagant and moving funeral in “The Knight’s Tale”.’ (161) It is interesting to see Bergvall using the word translation to describe her processes. Arcite’s funeral is indeed as Bergvall describes it, a funeral of honour for a knight who has died for love, in Chaucer’s highest romance. What Bergvall has noted is the curious presence of negatives (the presence of absence, if you will) in the account of the funeral, more specifically the building, lighting and burning of Arcite’s pyre, the narrator rhetorically listing what he cannot describe:

Ne how that lad was homeward Emelye;
Ne how Arcite is brent to asshen colde;
Ne how that lyche-wake was yholde
al thilke nyght; ne how the Grekes pleye
The wake-pleyes, ne kepe I nat to seye. (46)

There must be a name for this in Greek rhetoric (they are Greeks after all!), but the point here is that Bergvall spots the opportunity to strip out the detail and leave the essential device, the spine of mourning as it were. Out of supposed narrational ineptitude comes a string of denials of expressive acuity, which then again are whittled down to this strand of hypnotic (and still funereal) detail. 
Nor what
nor how
nor how
nor what she spak, nor what was her desire
Nor what jewels
when the fire
Nor how some threw their
and some their
and their
and cups full of wine and milk
and blood
into the fyr
into the fire (37)

Notice how Bergvall picks out the detail of Emelye’s (female) speechlessness from Chaucer’s rolling waves of denied detail:

Ne how she swowned whan men made the fyr,
Ne what she spak, ne what was hir desir;
Ne what jewels men in the fyrr caste. (45)

‘The apprenticeship of dialogue as encounter is necessarily a meddling of boundary, a heightening of points of internalized resistance or ideological differences’ (19) Bergvall writes, and this seems to be a fine summary of the poetics of these pieces (and I’ve quoted it twice already). The ‘meddling’ is the formal principle of these pieces, the interruption and interference, the intervention and the intermediatization of the results. Exchange and dialogue, in terms of formal appropriation, assimilation and transformation of a range of materials (including Chaucer’s Tales!), are ultimately acts of translation. If Derek Attridge says of more conventional translations, ‘The singular work is … not merely available for translation but is constituted in what may be thought of as an unending set of translations – for each new context in which it appears produces further transformation,’ then transformation as a process may be read backward onto translation, particularly where the language engaged with is the crucially important proto-hegemonic dialect Chaucer used: a world language in waiting, waiting ultimately for the sinister ‘transnational trafficking’ of our contemporary ‘Justice’. (Attridge 2004: 73)

(See also all the links to realted excerpts and dry-runs from and for The Meaning of Form here)  

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places