Nightboat Books ($16.95)
by Greg Bem
The heart is the book, exclaim medieval lovers and philosophers. It is ones (sic) guidance and ones (sic) consistence hidden across inked out pages. It is the resonator chord, the corda of “hearts” when chanting, or when reciting by heart. I asked, is the heart guidance?
Alisoun Sings is Caroline Bergvall’s latest book, and the closing volume of an amazing trilogy focused on medieval English, ecopoetics, feminism, and an active address of body, form, and the power of personal and collective voice. The third book calls upon the spirit and spiritual force of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Dame Alisoun, re-contextualized in our 21st-century global culture.
Bergvall presents a dualism that reveals the passage of her own work and the endurance of the 600-year-old Alisoun, who continues to represent women and femininity. Alisoun’s singing examines countless topics that ring as true today as they did in the 14th Century. Investigations into freedoms and efforts fill the pages. Social organizing, publication and speech, sexuality, hate, and love are just a handful of these topics. But as easy it is to situate Alisoun Sings in its own, important space, this would be too limiting. The book’s predecessors, 2011’s Meddle English and 2014’s Drift, are fundamentally preceding, informing the third book and the trilogy as a whole.
Meddle English, which holds roots in an investment in experimental language, establishes an intention toward and a paradigm for polylingual values. From the opening prose work “Middling English,” Bergvall announces the process of discovery through history and etymology, using archaeological synthesis as analogy. “Language is its own midden ground,” Bergvall writes. “Letters, sounds, words are discarded from a language during accidental breaks. Or dispensed with, like outmoded cooking utensils. Or pulled out, like teeth. Entire jawlines of these.” Following this piece, the book begins to spiral outward, bringing in layer upon layer of language and languages breaking; the result is a wonderful merge of languages and concepts within languages. Not only multilingual, Bergvall’s convergence splices and pulls apart individual sounds, wracks the limitation of words, phonemes, and morphemes into puffs of utterance.
Often the elements of language Bergvall works from can be found in external sources. Though Bergvall’s notes indicate an ongoing exploration from earlier works, this collage form is established across individual works thanks to the anthological nature of Meddle English. As the most distinctly “selected works” of the three volumes, the book clearly integrates an incredible array of sources to find a new iterative conclusion. Indeed, many of the poems and prose pieces in Meddle English are versions of earlier works. While they sit firm in place within these pages, a well-incised whole, the nature behind them and the poetics within results in a feeling both fluid and intentionally unfinished.
As we see with the trilogy time and time again, firmness and finality have multiple meanings. Depending on the angle at which Bergvall explores, her poetry takes on additional meaning. It is a process, from beginning to end, from initial argument to substantive conclusion. Like many books of lyrical prose, progression is a combination of logic and flow.
In Drift, Bergvall explicitly examines the tension between knowing and unknowing, stability and shake, control and drift. It is a book of potential and a book of ambiguity. The argument toward transition and discovery is met with the argument toward belief and commitment. Drift is concerned with the history of wayfinding, the importance of direction, and the ultimate resilience that informs hope.
Despite its wandering, Drift is informed primarily by the narrative of “Report,” a prose work that summarizes the movement of a group of Libyan refugees who are stuck in the Mediterranean, slowly succumbing to no resources and no support from the authoritative structures around them. Bergvall’s integration of this horrific, hyper-realistic 2011 story, symbolic of the many migrations occurring at that time and since, continues inquiries into the role of the writer and artist earlier established in the works of Meddle English. Bergvall’s ars poetica is ongoing, emerging in new ways from book to book.
How does Bergvall situate her role in Drift, with its powerful storytelling spread across its pages? The opening of “Log,” a poem positioned in the middle of Drift, suggests an answer:
What is north. Is it a direction or a process. A method of a place. Is it space accelerated into time, like a glacial flood. Is it time spread into space, like permafrost. Is it always further on, further north until it makes a vertical drop, like a voice that traverses, illuminates everything but will not itself be held. Is it trajectory of endpoint, or both.
Of the many opportunities these books provide, Bergvall’s persistent investigations into her own writing and her use of historical images as symbols is most powerful. Hardly apolitical, the pressure to move, to understand movement, to observe it, to demand an understanding of it, is balanced with an understanding of the gargantuan qualities of systems before, within, and beyond our time. Where Meddle English announces those systems through a core of appreciation for many languages and the establishment of process of linguistic experimentation, Drift moves into situations of helplessness and struggle that are so immediate and yet feel so far removed. The power within that gap and that reach provides a fantastic push towards Bergvall’s third volume.
While the first two books use collage, they both contain the voice of Bergvall as the center. Alisoun Sings moves toward a collective spirit through the arrival of the Wife of Bath as the voice and representative of the collective female spirit across time and space. It is this choir that not only presents, in a challenging blend of English forms, topics of horror and brutality and liberation, but also words from iconic feminists (and those who love the female identity) within recent generations. It would take a lot of space to name them all, but a fraction of the total voices present within Meddle English include lines from Nina Simone, Patti Smith, Kate Bush, Janelle Monae, Hannah Arendt, Anne Waldman, Judith M. Bennett, Emma Goldman, and Mona Hatoum—all bringing unique folds to the fabric of this work.
And fabric it is! Just as in Chaucer’s tale, Alisoun here provides commentary on fashion and the functionality of women’s clothing. Nothing is removed from social qualities and systemic social movement. In a section of “Stitch,” Bergvall discusses Emma Goldman’s beliefs that the “Textile factory is the seat of all revolution, quod she, wafting and weaving, all thinking and learning.” Each work moves forward logically through the ecological impact of the garment industry, arriving to the symbolic headwear the Wife of Bath is partially known for: “A vision of large halos arounding large seated figures at the centre of waves of cosmic oshun” Alisoun sings in “Head.” The streaks of theme and subject reward the reader who has continued to follow Bergvall since Meddle English.
That earliest volume highlighted kinesis and the energy of sexuality as the force that will empower, liberate, and reveal the many elements of humanity within voice and being. In Meddle English, the height of sexual energy feels vibrant, out of bounds, emergent and awesomely striking:
male rest Sideleg resting WHITE Burnt film face hair close nippleEyes stars face BLACK lock face close-up grasses wind SEASOUND she lies breasts back Stars face to camera
Long mashups containing experimental prose like this interleave Meddle English and are exemplary of the potential behind sexuality and a foundational way to create form and energy. This juxtaposition extends into the terror and trauma of Drift, and the oceanic potential for waves, chaos, and churn. The bodies in this book’s aquatic environments occasionally sit still and occasionally shake: “When the shaking starts / let the shaking / when the shaking starts / whats a safe place / whats a safe place.”
The collision and upheaval within language in Bergvall’s work reflect the control and openness that can also be read as sexual ecstasy and sexual violence. The contributions of each show up again in Alisoun Sings, but the anonymization, the distant and scattered sense of voice, is now Alisoun’s, and it too is a force of power, this time one that overcomes: “Th animal’s in me, thinking groing learning pumping ma bumcheeks to breastbuns mental concentrate much improved. Soon can chillax ma efforts, soften up wid ointments, get ywaxed all over, mead and prepare for all those what will be precious, nodout make me trouly” (from “Yoni”). Sexuality, in its many forms, is informed by history and system, and feels focused, reflective, and spiritually mature in this volume; the self-awareness and other-awareness in the context of all womanhood is clear. It is no surprise that one of the most profound moments of intimacy include Bergvall’s fascination with the heart (see the quotation at the beginning of this review) and her concern of love between women: “What is the naked truth of what it means to love and be loved, way inside and beyond genders, why to release and be released in such a way.”
Love binds, love connects. And through Bergvall’s ongoing commitments, those bindings and connections are explored thoroughly and beautifully. Closing the trilogy, finding the last poem, contains a bit of heartache, a sighing wish for Bergvall to continue. But, in fact, I won’t be surprised if that’s indeed what happens, if Bergvall finds yet another extension to this ongoing work. As Alisoun says in the book’s final poem, “The era of ma tellings nat bygone, just bigonne.” As symbol, as voice, as voices, there is much yet to read, many more moments to listen.