The Power of Particle Physics

Michael Thurston

It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that experimental writing is emotionally arid, its brainy explorations of language and its commitment to difficulty wringing from the work any possibility of deep feeling as a reader works through the text. The wrongness of this assumption is obvious to anyone who has spent a sympathetic half-hour with the humor of Charles Bernstein, the witty rage of Harryette Mullen, or the breathtaking sorrow of Susan Howe’s most recent work, but there it is. On the other hand, in certain circles of experimental writing, there is equivalent animus against the poetry reading: suspicion of the its performance of presence, and of the occasion’s tendency toward sappy affect, whether that takes the form of shouted first-person lyrics or ranted slam improvisations. Here, too, the assumption is easy to challenge, and for every podium emoter eliciting from the assembled a chorus of approving coos one can point to performance poets in the tradition of Bob Cobbing or Maggie O’Sullivan or Christian Bök.

No one, in my experience, more effectively demolishes both of these commonplaces than Caroline Bergvall, whose new work, Drift, I got to witness over the weekend as it capped off a busy Saturday at the Modernist Studies Association Conference in Pittsburgh. But that phrase, “got to witness,” doesn’t come close to capturing the impact of Bergvall’s work. It was overwhelming, producing some of the most powerful and moving moments I have spent in the presence of poetry on or off the page.

Bergvall has for some time been interested in linguistic histories, in the lost characters and silenced sounds of our linguistic roots, and that interest leads, in Drift, both to the great Anglo-Saxon lament, “The Seafarer,” and to the Norse voyages of exploration undertaken about a thousand years ago. One of the “drifts” traced through this piece is that of sounds in English as vowels shift and consonants voice and unvoice their way from older to newer Englishes, the latter informed as well by other tongues against which it rubs. There are, though, losses beyond the linguistic limned here, chief among them the loss of dozens of lives when a boatload of North African refugees trying to make their way from Libya to Lampedusa was allowed to drift for days, out of fuel and without food or water, until it fell back, carried by currents, to the coast from which it had begun, all but seven of its passengers dead. That this drifting passed through some of the most intensively surveilled waters in the world forces confrontation with still another level of loss, that of responsibility or compassion in a world all too good at producing refugees and terrible at caring for them.

Some of the backstory was provided for the Pittsburgh audience, this event being not a full performance of the work but a presentation and explanation of parts of it, but Drift does not itself tell stories. Instead, Bergvall, working with percussionist Ingar Zach and programmer and artist Thomas Köppel, stages a dance and drama of interwoven and overlapping drifts, one lost sailor’s laments voicing and voiced by speakers lost a thousand years later beyond the other edge of Europe, the voice—Bergvall’s—accompanied, challenged, and buoyed up by a vibrant and discordant score, the texts brought to life visually as words projected in three dimensions swirl, combine, float, disentangle, re-combine, and, it has to be said, drift through references to maps of exploration, exhaustion, social order and disorder (London’s Northern Line is a good metonym for both), complicity, disengagement, and death. You can get a tenuous and flattened sense of the work here. What is missing in these excerpts, though, is part of what makes Drift so compelling: the agonized enactment of articulation’s difficulty. It is impossible to convey the pathos produced by the repetition of an unvoiced consonant, a “t” or “p” or “k.” Stretching the stutter out longer than an audience expects, longer than seems quite bearable, Bergvall builds tension: will the voice manage to come out at all? Her repetition of words and phrases, parts of phrases and parts of words, works with the visual combination and re-combination, highlighting here and there in the struggle for utterance the thematic agon at the heart of the work.

These practices are familiar from Bergvall’s earlier projects; in “Goan Atom,” words are similarly disassembled, their fragments drafted into stuttering repetition, and in a work Bergvall suggests is a precursor to Drift, the Anglo-Saxon character þ (“thorn”), one of two last runic characters to linger into something like English, trips her up, throwing “p” (the character’s appearance) into places where we normally find “th” (its pronunciation). Bergvall says that part of what she does in her work is push a chosen element or set of elements of language to exhaustion, to wring through repetition all the changes that inhere in it, to wring from it all the meaning it might carry. In Drift, with its visual and verbal references both to our long-lost archaic ancestor and to our refugee contemporaries, left to languish and die, Bergvall has made a work that exemplifies the political and emotional power that experimental poetics can release from the particles of language.