Resistances among existing communities of interpretation and avant-garde factions reveal persistent but unspoken judgmental norms. In a culture dominated by heterosexual kitsch it is perhaps unsurprising that puritanical formalism persists in resistances to the poetics of high vulgarity. One might trace the literary formation of such resistances back to the reception of Keats and forwards through the reception of Finnegans Wake, Artaud, Genet, Burroughs or Wittig. Resistance to high vulgarity often ascribes infantilism, insanity or immoral nihilism to texts whose playfulness dismays the authoritarianism of unacknowledged legislators. The regularity with which the pleasures of paronamasia are condemned as ‘low’ or ‘unearned’ provides one measure of the puritanical work ethic implicit in much critical accountancy. The awkwardness of sexuality provides another. Questions emerge, then, regarding resistances to erotic poetics from different positions and the lack of consensus around what used to be called polymorphic perversity.
In this light, the line ‘workable pussy’ appears to have its erotic cake and eat it too. Readers might be forgiven for wondering how far they are invited to take up such subject positions or invited to watch. Few indications support anything so gauche as a ‘first person’ voice or experience. There are nevertheless signs of critical reflection on resonances which seem private rather than public, along with signs that imply an analytic inquiry into processes of infantile repression and object relations — ‘Poking faeces with a stick’. Language is foregrounded as one of the objects whose place in the assimilating mouth is allowed to gambol through the filters of adult formalism: ‘warf warf laffing / (sucking on Lolly) / (swings a melody)’. The sense that this is a performance for textual voyeurs is supported by gestures towards an emerging dramatic scenario. Capitalised characters, such as HOST, HEADSTURGEONS and FISHMONGRELS, enter the textual stage. But the writing never quite loses its formalist dignity to the extent of becoming a naturalist theatre.
The text comes closest to a stable language game in the page-long theme and variation played on the line ‘Ambiente fish fuckflowers bloom in your mouth will choke your troubles away’. This tour de force performs its variations as if to suggest the plenitude from which the rest of the book’s more singular moments of text were selected. A note in the colophon material states that this comes from a collaborative text-sound installation. Performative potential is evident. But the ‘Ambiente fish’ page generates a sense of its own parameters which is paradoxically reassuring, precisely because semantic variety obviates the need for interpretative agency to move beyond rehearsal to a more stable and idealized performance. The rest of the text remains labile and yet exacting, generating the appearance of playful indifference to the framing rules of the text while maintaining a cool, formal decorum. One of the risks of this strategy, however, is the way that the text interrupts a particular word-form by wrapping it around the line-ending: ‘while herl / egs dow / non the ground’ or ‘Sgot uP / elvis’. The delayed emergence of conventional words amid staged enjambment comes to seem too arch, as if nervous with more stable sentiments and happier with typographical disjunction than the pleasures of lusher textures. These wrap-around spectacles stand in the way of repeated reading, without offering the compensations of a throw-away ephemerality.
The reader’s agency comes back to the ‘doll’ that is or is not ‘mine’. The underlying question is the relation between moments of performed transgression and the sense that there are scripts more powerful than dreamt of in the agency of performativity. The difficulty of moving beyond essentialist conceptions of the ‘subject’ is a familiar problem in queer theory. Just as there are difficulties for any conception of agency without political ‘subjects’, so poetics in which there is no doer behind the deed have difficulties distinguishing moments of textual subversion from coercive forms of repetitive performativity. Locating strategies of subversive repetition is perhaps less a question for writing than for reading or the performance of interpretation. But what part does writing play in such strategies?
Caroline Bergvall’s texts offer themselves as modes of ‘performance writing’, working both as residues of performance poetics and as scripts for performative interpretation. This generates ambiguities for readers more used to studying texts in order to establish an ideal or finalised close reading. Writing which offers a formalist plenitude of performative potential nevertheless tends to be insufficiently determinate for readers otherwise happy with performative approaches. A mark of this text’s interest is that it generates a variety of resistances, not least from those for whom it is all too easily written off because recognisably ‘other’. The challenge to the persistent fantasies of discursive impersonality fondly tended by patriarchal poetics highlights conflicting values. These resistances suggest important conflicts of taste among contemporary readers precisely by being positioned between queer theory and poetics, and at the intersection of performance, performativity and sexual politics. For the reader interested in such questions, there is much to enjoy in the playfully erotic inferno of baby-talk, stammered plosives and other dollmines. Perhaps, moreover, these forty or so pages of ‘jets-poupee’ prefigure the throwing away of youthful dolls to be achieved in the purgatory and paradise of future parts of Goan Atom. Even if not, there is more than enough here to generate interest in future developments.