Fig is the latest from London based poet Caroline Bergvall, whose text and sound pieces have been produced internationally. The work is multivalent; repetition and variation are often overlaid with graphic, physically performative, collaborative, or site specific aspects exploring language and materiality. While one might argue that for a poet the page, or text, is primary, Bergvall’s conceptual and constraint-based poetic practice offers a compelling challenge to this basic assumption.
Like most of her work, “16 Flowers,” the first piece in Fig, was born of an invitation. In this case, collaboration with poet John Cayley began with an existing text morphing lines that contain flower motifs in Marcel Proust and Jean Genet. Bergvall prefaces her work with its historical context, a practice that is sometimes essential, and often shapes the reader’s experience. For instance, we learn that the lines are connected through “a logic of agglutination, of concatentation,” words admittedly unknown to this writer prior to reading the text, but words that now seem as essential as meter and alliteration. But Fig is not only a record of the poet’s practice, and while one might think that conceptual poetry is less about poetic attention on a syllabic, or line level, consider the following lines from “16 Flowers”:
smallred Vibrant lovegash pétales embedded
White throated flatfanned dressLash lovétale
PINkdraw –inGirls lovcrest pétalent Bedded
These lines, for me, only improve the number of times I read them, savoring the disintegration or, agglutination of meaning and sound.
In “The Oulipo Factor,” Marjorie Perloff describes Bergvall’s “sonic, verbal and rhetorical devices” as being derived from “post-punk music and sound poetry,” building on the Duchampian pun with sophisticated word play. “More Pets,” for instance, starts with repetitive disjunctions:
a more—cat a more—dog doga more—horsebut continues to build and complicate itself, introducing entirely new patterns of language: a more—turtle cata more—turtle—more—cat doga more—dog—more—cat dog
“Via: 48 Dante Variations,” is composed of the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno, and includes every translation available in the British Library, at the time of composition. Arranged alphabetically, these cantos, translated by poets ranging from Rosetti to Heaney, show a remarkable range, building to a rhythmic incantation that telegraphs the historical, translative and interactive practice of poetry. Those who cling to lyric, or narrative may find themselves disoriented, but they might also find pleasure in the structure, the tensions between repetition and interruption.
“Fig,” the title piece, is another work that may, on the surface be more accessible to those less familiar with conceptual poetry. But looks deceive. In fact, the piece’s history speaks to the transformative power of failure, and of process. Bergvall describes the devastating first performance of “Fig” in which “each section of the work bowed out” leaving, at the end of all the failed technology, the poet’s voice, the blue light of a dead projector, and the scratch of her pen in an echoing gallery space. But Bergvall reveled in this “stripping away” despite its public manner, and a few months later the piece resumed and was presented at the Kentler International Drawing Space in Brooklyn, later as a chapbook, and finally (Or perhaps not.), in Fig.
Bergvall is a skilled performer, inspiring and charismatic. One need not have encountered her texts in their performative incarnations in order to appreciate them, but if you have the chance, you should see, or at least hear her online. I like to imagine Bergvall calling in her poetry from a phone both in Cardiff to a bar in London, as she has done, or encountering it on the street, in a window (as was the case with “Dog”), as much as I like to think poetry might show up in a form I’ve not yet imagined. Not what I’m looking for, but what I had no idea I might find. That is the reward of such risk-taking.
Sina Queyras’ third collection of poetry, Lemon Hound, was published from Coach House Books this spring. Recently she edited Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets. She lives in Brooklyn and is co-curator of belladonna.