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   Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Piers Hugill reviews

by Caroline Bergvall

Salt Books, 2005, ISBN 1 84471 092 0, £9.99

Via: Poems 1994–2004 by Caroline Bergvall

Rockdrill 8, Optic Nerve, 2005, ISBN 1905001070, £14.95

This review is about 10 printed pages long.

Love and grammar

Since she herself has largely helped to coin the term, the critical reception of Caroline Bergvall’s work has tended to focus on its performative aspects, as an example of something called ‘performance writing’. Cris cheek, for example talks of Bergvall’s work as seeking ‘to destabilise oppositions “between” the ephemerality of performance and the fixity of print’[1], whereas Marjorie Perloff has considered Bergvall’s œuvre from the point of view of its production as procedure. I don’t wish to deny the usefulness of this form of criticism of her work, or to claim that the concept of performativity isn’t of great importance both to her work as well as to contemporary poetics more generally; however, there is a case, I want to argue, that what is most significant about Bergvall’s work is exactly the way that it tends to recuperate areas of poetic sensibility that have been largely lost to the contemporary critical apparatus. I mean quite simply the idea that poetry is language heightened by the use of prosodic features that create a tension within, or draw attention to, the relationship of sound and sense, or more technically speaking between metrical and syntactical contours as they play out over the poetic line. Perloff’s approach to Bergvall’s work already hints at this approach via her reading of it through the oulipian poetics of Jacques Roubaud and Michel Bénabou, who sought to reclaim the ‘twelve tones’ of the alexandrine in the ‘perverses’ of their Alexandre au greffoir. Indeed Roubaud’s central claim in his work on French prosody, La vieillesse d’Alexandre, is that the alexandrine (the classical metrical line of French verse, analogous to the English iambic pentameter), and by implication metrical poetry per se, has not been superseded in the wake of free verse, but rather that it has simply changed its appearance and that ‘l’oreille, affranchie d’un compteur factice [of traditional metrical poetry], connaît une jouissance à discerner, seule, toutes les combinaisons possibles, entre eux, de douze timbres’[2].

And ‘fig’ is precisely this figure, or body, of prosody that Bergvall resuscitates, or redeems from the dead in her new book. Fig: Goan Atom 2 is the second in an ongoing series that began with the various versions that culminated in Goan Atom 1: Doll published by Krupskaya in 2001. It comprises a collection of a number of works dating at least as far back as 1996 in the case of ‘In Situ’, first published by cris cheek’s Language aLive series in a somewhat different form, and as Bergvall notes ‘the only one in the book which started out on the page and has had the page as its only working environment’ As always Bergvall has arranged the presentation of her book extremely carefully so that each element contributes organically, so to speak, to the overall poetic effect. As a practitioner of performance writing, therefore, her book is designed as a site of performance, as a performance not just of language, but of all that a book may be in terms of its physical spaces, its technological praxis, its use of image, paratext and margin: the book as stanza, a space or room in which Bergvall presents an opening out or bearing forth of works that unfold themselves in the rhythmic space and time of the book as object, as objet d’art. There is more than just a casual relation to visual arts in Bergvall’s work, and it is not always clear how to distinguish the body of the work from the body of the book, or even whether this would be a valuable exercise. This is all the more surprising since the book appears under the imprint of Salt Publishing, which is well known for its house format. Bergvall, for this production, has been allowed to choose new fonts, include the use of images, scanned handwriting, and introductory poetic statements contextualising the poems selected here; what I would call razos, for reasons that I hope will become clear.

But what is the ‘fig’ of the title exactly? The second of two epigraphs to the book reads rather prosaically: ‘a fig fruit, a fruit of fig’. This rather banal dictionary definition follows a quotation from the French poet Francis Ponge’s Comment une figue de parole et pourquoi (1977): “I admit not knowing very well what poetry is, but on the other hand quite well what is a fig’. Thus we already find ourselves in the midst of Bergvall’s playfulness, her apparent subversion and refusal of ‘serious’ discourse (as Drew Milne has suggested). Nevertheless there are some deeply considered reasons for the invocation of the fig fruit as the tutelary spirit of this book. The ‘fig’ of ‘8 Figs’ for example is defined in each of the poems as ‘a pattern’: each poem a necessary failure in the attempt to define a space, an entity, a process only ever qualified by the additive effect of each ampersand that faces the texts, with each ampersand in a different font as if the nature of this inevitable supplement were itself unstable and insecure. Of course the fig is a fruit here too: ‘a feel for fruit/ a touch of fruit’. The fig ripens (‘ A purple fig is purple first’) and bursts (‘Breaking the skin of [its] spell’); but such maturity seems difficult to harvest, remains strangely barren.

It is clear that the ‘fig’ is a figure; an illustration, but more significantly a cipher, the outline of a body that is never filled in. Nevertheless it is embodied, as the Parmesan expression ‘viva la figa’ demonstrates[3]: as well as being a slang expression for female genitalia figa takes on a strange exemplary life where it is used as the catch-all of phatic communion, Lévi-Strauss’s ‘manna’, the void centre that enables all other possible significations (in psychoanalytical terms this might be interesting given that in almost all other parts of Italy the term is cazzo (‘cock’), the phallic signifier replaced by a vulval one). ‘Fig’ might also be the polar opposite of the Edenic apple; a fruit that is both naturally innocent and knowingly guilty, the perfect symbol of the gap between the ideologically constituted body of the subject, and its obscene, bestial, reverse. ‘8 Figs’, as I have suggested, is constitutively unable to respond to any such direct questioning as to its nature. Each text glances prudently awry, and each ampersand, as well as adding a further qualification to the initial state of ‘definition’ the eight ‘figs’ are supposed to clarify, tugging and being tugged at by its neighbours, unravels into a hypnogogically constituted question mark.


‘About Face’ is both the masterpiece of Fig (and arguably of all of Bergvall’s work to date), and probably the key to making sense of the rest of the project that is manifested in this work. Given that the poem claims to be ‘about face’ it may be wise to begin by trying to unpack the specific constellation of ideas contained by this word, and consequently by the poem. Bergvall has herself helped in this process by providing working notes for the poem that are available on the internet journal How 2[4]. What is striking about her account is the degree to which she embeds her poetics in visual arts practices within this piece. As she notes in the introduction this aspect was consciously added to performances when she recorded a conversation with Redell Olsen on the role of the face in contemporary visual arts contexts used in later performances.

Furthermore the poem continually ‘quotes’ images from twentieth century artists: most insistently perhaps Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. (see Fig 1.), his apparently throwaway gesture of painting a moustache and beard onto a postcard reproduction of La Gioconda, the Mona Lisa, thereby disrupting a whole system of gendered readings of the face, and calling into question very directly the politics of subjectivity that the famous portrait sanctions by virtue of its cultural centrality (Bergvall suggests a ‘primary male transvestism’ for example, as if Duchamp’s image were in fact originary). In the context of Bergvall’s poetics we should not forget the paronomasia inherent in Duchamp’s title, with it’s play on the phrase ‘elle a chaud au cul’ (which translates roughly as ‘she has a hot arse’) thus queering the image’s reception at the textual level too.

Fig 1. Marcel Duchamp, <i>L.H.O.O.Q.</i> 1919. Drawing on photographic reproduction. 7.75 x 4.125” (19.7 x 10.5 cm).

Fig 1. Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q. 1919. Drawing on photographic reproduction. 7.75 x 4.125” (19.7 x 10.5 cm).

Another famous image from twentieth century visual arts that finds its way into the text is René Magritte’s Le Viol (see Fig 2), produced in various forms, like the equally famous painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe (See Fig 3., and the discussion of the ‘bride’ below). As with Duchamp’s work, this image immediately sexualises the face: ‘le visage qui est un nu de femme et ce que le spectateur a dans la tête’. The face becomes a contested site for a series of conflicted and irreducible problems in Bergvall’s poetic language: what Deleuze and Guattari in their treatment of ‘faciality’ (visagéité) describe as the ‘white wall/ black hole’ system that produces signifiance and subjectification at the level of the face qua ‘abstract machine’. The last and highly significant suggestion of portraiture in the poem is to Francis Bacon, who ‘pulls at face’. A typically subtle register of Bergvall’s nod to her debt to visual arts practices is present in the author photo on the back cover, which is blurred or treated to some form of ‘local scrubbing’ as Deleuze described one of Bacon’s techniques for dealing with the head in his paintings. Bacon, and hence Bergvall, thus wish ‘to dismantle the face, to rediscover the head or make it emerge from beneath the face’[5] (See Fig 4.).

By means of their concept of ‘faciality’, Guattari and Deleuze understood the face to be a special site for the construction of human identity, but specifically identity as a particular form of power associated with ideology at its purest. The face is the specific location where ‘signifiance’ and subjectification are joined and united in one semiotic system. This effect is produced by a surface of signs ruptured by the black hole of signifiance (white face and black eyes, white wall/ black hole): hence the face as a ‘surface’ or ‘map’ covering the head, and the facial orifices (eyes in particular) as ‘subjectivizing’ tears, overcoding it as ‘Face’. Of interest here is Deleuze and Guattari’s insistence that the face is specific to the White Man as such, that it incarnates a form of imperialism and patriarchy. Bergvall’s project of facial subversion is not a million miles from this. Behind the ‘monstrous hood’ of the face is the pure animal meat that she so often seems to evoke in the violent ruptures of her writing, the violations of identity that lead not to total destruction, but rather to new ways of configuring the relationship of body to face.

             The face is pulled off by
Ea t ing much fig
             Uch eating choking on face
eating much fg ig chkng on fc
Veg erot, think about, -gnize, another would have it-,

              figure prepares to faceload aF
acelike a redred rise
             this is not, why ox en, g, -ent,
ouldnt see err, twiny, I mean not tiny

                       Parting-like raised-like
like like like like
unlike unlike unlike unlike

Rather than the polylingual playfulness we get in other parts of the poem (‘Ceci n’est pas une fesse/ Settee nest past urn face/ Sees inhere your passing’), here there is terrible violence in the elisions of words (‘much fg ig chkng on fc’), a brutal, almost obscene force, where ‘face’ and ‘fact’ become ‘fc’ (‘fuck’). The polite likeness of a portrait becomes the animal unlikeness of the head without the face, ‘that horror’ that is literally ‘pulled off’. Elsewhere Bergvall invokes the image of Medusa, the mythical being whose gaze turned the viewer into stone, unless seen through a mirror:

and face will split
Face keeps
             Who d enied kept faceless
Who denied burdened with face
Medusa had no face mirrored every face is a face lost
brought out the shock upfront

medusa had none who mirro evry face a los
S another narr nobody dzz theb edla urm wider repr
emptati then none
between the living and the ed

One thinks of Ponge again and Derrida’s famous reading of his poem ‘Fable’[6], where, rather than the Medusa, the soul (Psyche) is reflected in the mirror (Psyché), itself reflecting back a facelessness that can only belong to a forever misperceived ‘other’. In the case of Derrida’s reading of Ponge this has the danger of ending in an infinitely recursive deflection, whereas in Bergvall’s poem the mirror actively turns against this glance leading to a literal ‘loss of face’; not necessarily a return to some form of pre-human primacy, as Deleuze and Guattari are quick to point out, but a movement beyond into forms of ‘intensity’ and ‘imperceptibility’.

Fig 2. René Magritte, <i>Le Viol</i>, 1934. Oil on canvas

Fig 2. René Magritte, Le Viol, 1934. Oil on canvas


In the first instalment of Goan Atom, as with Éclat, Bergvall conceives of the (liberated or sexualised) female body as almost cartoon-like once it has been gripped by desire, as endlessly elastic, absorbent, shifting and morphing as it flips back and forth between inside and outside, negating any surface-depth decorum: exactly what Deleuze and Guattari call ‘a becoming-animal, a becoming-flower or rock, and beyond that a strange becoming-imperceptible, a becoming-hard now one with loving.’[7]

Bergvall’s poetics, then, is very much an erotics too. For her language seems to be the very essence and basis of libidinal desire. Here too in ‘Flèsh’ Bergvall provides what amounts to a manifesto for a poetics that would unite flesh and bones, the sense and sensuality of language in the commingled bodies of grammar and prosody; the inherent eroticism of writing of any kind. In her introduction to this piece she announces that ‘[m]y work involved paying tribute to four writers who share a trance-like understanding of the connections between text and physicality, between violence and verbal illumination, between erotic and spiritual passion, and the intimate and public facets of a desire for writing’ (p. 21). As Bergvall herself suggests in the choice of St Teresa of Avila as one of her ‘witnesses’, and as Giorgio Agamben has pointed out elsewhere, this idea of language as an object of desire, as even a form of eroticism, is nothing new. St Augustine, in his work De Trinitate gives the precise name ‘love’ to the desire to know grammar, the vocabulum emortuum of Church Latin, that no longer lives on the tongue, and that to the novice sounds only as the possibility or suggestion of meaning before the Latin grammar has been learned. And it is this desire to ‘know’ which is not at all out of place in the carnal poetics of Bergvall herself. Agamben gives the more contemporary example of Antonio Delfini’s obsession for the fifteen year-old girl he overhears in Il ricordo della Basca, whose Basque was ‘a language of such touching delicacy that when I heard it, my heart seemed to want to put an end to its own beating, leaving things suspended forever in that moment’[8]. Of course the most obvious example of such a poetics is that of the Provençal troubadours and poets of the Dolce Stil Novo, who invented the modern lyric as ‘love’ poem par excellence. Agamben demonstrates that their love object is not the body or soul of any particular woman, but rather the experience of the love of language itself, in its mystery or impossibility (the unavailability of the Lady), which provides the motivation for the celebration of love in its specific, amatory (or more precisely courtly) mode in the individual poem.

It is perhaps in this sense that we can read ‘16 Flowers’, the first section of the book, which, modelled at least partially on Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers, weaves the themes of flowers and girls, love and language through 16 lines of five words each. Originally devised as permutational texts for John Cayley’s Nothr’s project, collectively these texts amount to something like the sestina devised by the thirteenth century Provençal poet Arnaut Daniel, where, in this case, each line bears within it a trace, or rhyme, of the previous, and in which each flower inwreathes the themes of all the others in its arrangement: ‘petals’, ‘hearts’, ‘love’ ‘roses’ and climactic ‘heavens’ are thus woven together, as are English and French, as if the bodies of two lovers, who, meeting, communicate in Bergvall’s unique hallucination of language.

The very gap between the rhyming elements in these poems offers the first glimpse into the most profound reading of ‘fig’; for as much as anything ‘fig’ must stand for poetry itself, as the patterning of language, and for the pleasure of language as pure asignifying Being, before signifieds and signifiers are knitted together. This figure, this pattern, is the difference and repetition of prosody, the simultaneous integration and fracturing of sound and sense in language. More explicitly ‘16 Flowers’ represents the place of desire in language as a girl, the desire for whom leads language to burst open, dehiscent, indecent, this dream of language providing the dead space of a speech in stasis, between subjects, detonated in exploding flower-bombs; but perhaps also including the possibility that poetry is an alien, faceless menace, the ‘radical evil’ of the Lady epitomised by Žižek in his analysis of Lacan’s conception of Courtly Love[9].

As an organ of the poem the ‘fig’ should also be read alongside Agamben’s reading of ‘corn’ in Provençal poetics. As well as being the obscene bodily orifice of many sirventes (poems of personal abuse, invective and satire), the ‘co[r]n]’ (‘con’, ‘cor’, ‘cœur’, ‘corps’, ‘corpus’, the Leiche, “corpse”, of Minnesänger poetics), connected homophonically to ‘corn’ and ‘cornar’ (to sodomise), is the technical term for the idea of rim’estrampa or dissolut, what the same Minnesänger poets called ‘Korn’, ‘an unaccompanied verse that is at the centre of a strophe, yet rhymes with the corresponding member of the following strophes’[10] thus linking the bodily orifice (cunt, anus) of the poem (figured as woman, the Lady of courtly lyric) with the figure of metre as a moment of structural rupture, enjambment.

And it is precisely enjambment that is the supreme prosodical moment of Bergvall’s poetics, with its propensity to both dismember the bodies and faces presented in ‘About Face’ as they are constituted by language, but also, paradoxically to stitch them together again, and thus recreate the ‘body’ on the other side of the gulf that enjambment produces, as Hans Bellmer’s mineure articulée (see Fig 5.), or as Bergvall acknowledges, as a de-natured female body, Donna Haraway’s cyborg body, a construct of both technology and discourse combined, rather than the subject of ‘natural’ patriarchal repression[11].

Fig 3. René Magritte, <i>Ceci n’est pas une pipe</i> or <i>Le trahison des images</i>, 1928-9, Oil on Canvas.

Fig 3. René Magritte, Ceci n’est pas une pipe or Le trahison des images, 1928-9, Oil on Canvas.

Just as there is a movement from the ‘oscene’ razo (‘reason’, the biographical introduction to a poem) to the ‘poetic’ sirvente in Arnaut Daniel, for example, so the logic of ‘the anatomy of the body of love has a strict correlate in the poem’s metrical structure’, and so the chopped-up pieces of identity scattered throughout Bergvall’s poems are rejoined at the level of poetic language to acknowledge their ‘true nature’ as objects of discourse. This, in fact, is the supreme poetic statement; as Agamben notes: ‘[e]njambment thus thematically marks the “rupture” between metrical pause and syntactical pause’[12]. It is just this point that Drew Milne misses in his review of the first part of Goan Atom, where he suggests that ‘[t]he 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 texts. These wrap-around spectacles stand in the way of repeated reading, without offering the compensations of a throw-away ephemerality’[13]. On the contrary, it is the use of enjambment that is most characteristic of Bergvall’s approach to poetics as such, and far from being ‘arch’ or ‘staged’ it is the sine qua non of the poetic construction, or making (poiesis), of the female body as ‘locus of ideological codes’ as well as cyborg meat-machine.

It is perhaps also of interest to note that Agamben sees the logic of Arnaut’s innovation, i.e. his raising of the ‘corn’ to the position of the very nature and heart of poetry itself as finding its ultimate expression in the practice of Stéphane Mallarmé: both ‘the emancipation of the poetic text not only from song but from all oral performance in general’ and his use of the page itself as a metrical unit: ‘in other words: poetry as something essentially graphic’[14]. If there is one consistent feature of Bergvall’s poetics other than its tendency towards enjambment as a means of constructing the poetic line, it is the equally marked tendency to compose at the level of the page, and to think of the page as the performative space in which the poem operates. This may not be so marked in Fig, because of the limits of the format used to document such a wide-ranging practice, but it is as essential to Éclat as it is to Goan Atom 1: Doll and many of her other projects.


Bergvall has claimed that an intitial impetus for the writing that became ‘About Face’ was Duchamp’s ‘Large Glass’ and his meditations on the ‘bride’, and it may be useful to remember that the original subtitle for part 2 of Goan Atom was to have been ‘Bride’. What is most obviously left of this plan is the image on p.47, a versioning of René Magritte’s drawing Ceci n’est pas une femme. Here we have the same image, but this time with the legend ‘Ceci n’est pas une bride’. If the subtitle ‘Doll’ of the first part of Goan Atom suggested a biographical (or biological) progress from girlhood to womanhood, but under the sign of various forms of patriarchal repression (‘Doll’ implies the reduction of womanhood to the triviality of play qua toy), then ‘Bride’ is the grown-up version. In French ‘bride’ means ‘bridle’, that which controls the animal strength of a horse and submits it, so to speak, to human use, the use of men. ‘Bride’ therefore, implies both strength and subjection, and the refusal of repression as a ‘becoming-animal’, a ‘becoming-intense’ that subverts the control of the patriarchal social order, the order of the Great White Man. The ‘bride’ is a strangely liminal figure: a girl on the verge of becoming a woman, on the verge ( outer edge) of sexual experience; a woman becoming animal (and still bridled), or an animal becoming woman, restrained, held back in this peculiarly S&M image. Bergvall is sometimes capable of reaching these outer limits too. ‘In Situ’ starts fairly quietly with plenty of white noise in the form of pure punctuation. Then letters start to come together in clusters leading up to a tour de force of sexual energy, the same linguistic libido that motivates ‘16 Flowers’ and ‘Flèsh’. And yet even here the animal returns; as a ‘pony’ for example:

creting.forms:Gi***… ..s… to!.*
[                                                                                         ]
ponyms:::::*strut… rapped.inloud/.mu5c1econ5tructions.

Indeed animal imagery is everywhere to be found in Fig: from the more obvious references to animality in ‘More Pets’ and ‘Dog’, to much more subtle references. For example ‘Say: “Parsley”‘, whose key theme is the shibboleth ‘perejil’ (parsley), implicated in the massacre of thousands in the Dominican Republic in 1937, metamorphoses word sounds via ‘dog’ to ‘rat’ to ‘pig’ to ‘frog’ to ‘turtle’ in its traversal of words that lead to ‘parsley’ in English. Various animal positions are adopted as if they constituted stages on the way through the poem’s language, poetic totem’s or fetishes, elaborating partial bodily constructs, combined with the focus on the purely phonetic or sonic features of the list of imperatives: ‘Say: “pig”/ Say: “fig”‘ and so on. The poem traverses the path from animal cry to the language of ‘mortals’, with its potentially fatal mastery of sense and identity, and is redolent therefore of the peculiarly French romanticism inherent in early modern linguistics (Condillac or Rousseau).

In her introduction to ‘More Pets’ Bergvall provides an earlier text, ‘More Pets Less Girls’, where it is a girl that is the object of transformation: ‘girl like a girl | as a girl likes a girl/ as a horse’. In the version published in the book this text has become an incessant, irrepressible menagerie. The purely additive nature of these animals (always more energy, more flesh, more pure physicality) constitutes a revolutionary reversal of the overcoding of the head in favour of the superficial face as ‘human all too human’ oppression: it is the positive side (the refusal of negativity, even where the text suggests it) of this loss of face. In other words the ‘face’ is about a certain loss of signification and the ‘bride’ about a gain in expressivity. ‘Fig’, then, is the figure that cuts across them, the figure of poetic language as it brings these contrary tendencies into relation with one another.

Fig 4. Francis Bacon, <i>Portrait of Michel Leiris</i>, 1976, Oil on Canvas

Fig 4. Francis Bacon, Portrait of Michel Leiris, 1976, Oil on Canvas

To come back full circle, as it were, ‘Via’, as Marjorie Perloff notes, is the most oulipian of all the texts in this book. It comprises an exhaustive alphabetical listing of all the English translations archived in the British Library of the first three lines of Canto 1 of Dante’s Inferno. As with ‘16 Flowers’ and ‘More Pets’ there is a kind of inwreathing inherent to ‘Via’, a transformation of its elements, this time of a purely linguistic nature. ‘In Oulipo terms, the sequence enacts its constraint because there is no progress, no “direct path” or “path that does not stray” to take us out of the maze of alternate tercets. Via is Vita, no more, no less’[15]. Here at its barest is the sheer power of the poetic word, the love that is language, eternally repeating the possible differentials of its lyric refrain.

However, there is a significant difference between the text in the book and the performed version on the CD of the same name, Via: Poems 1994-2004 produced by Optic Nerve as the eighth in the Rockdrill series that has also included Robert Creeley, Tom Raworth, Jerome Rothenberg and Lee Harwood. For the recording of this title piece, Bergvall collaborated with the Irish composer Ciarán Maher, who produced an additional 48th ‘translation’, running beneath the whole of the reading, composed of the digitalised fractals of Bergvall’s own voice. This produces a sometimes quite eerie undertone to the reading, a subvocalisation of the text, that draws a concrete analogy with the transformation of text occurring at its ‘surface’. The new CD is an extremely welcome addition to Bergvall’s output making available performances of her work that give sense to the term ‘performance writing’, the significance of which might not always be so apparent.

Fig 5. Hans Bellmer. Plate 12, <i>Les jeux de la poupée</i>. Paris, Les Editions Premières, 1949. Hand-coloured black-and-white photograph.

Fig 5. Hans Bellmer. Plate 12, Les jeux de la poupée. Paris, Les Editions Premières, 1949. Hand-coloured black-and-white photograph.

Many of the tracks on the CD are performances of texts in Fig, such as ‘About Face’, ‘8 Figs’, ‘VIA (48 Dante Variations)’ and ‘GONG’. Others come from the earlier part of Goan Atom, including ‘Ambient Fish’ and ‘Doll’, or remain primarily independent performance pieces such as ‘RIDE’ and ‘Rapid Eye Movement, Part 2’ that demonstrate performative aspects of Bergvall’s work that aren’t so conducive to the book format. Interestingly many of the pieces that are in common with the book contain considerable textual variation; evidence both of Bergvall’s compositional technique as well as her aesthetic attitude towards closure and textual authority.

It is easy to get absorbed in the brilliance of Bergvall’s performance, which is one reason why for this review I have concentrated instead on Fig as text in order to draw out some of the more ‘classically’ poetic elements of her work. To return to my initial contention, I would suggest that what is most innovative and most successful about Fig is paradoxically just that which might also be taken to be most traditional about it, its apparent concern with deeply considered ideas of prosody and the significance of the poetic line in articulating a peculiarly poetic form of thinking; the traversal of lines of desire over structures of rhythmic formation, the various tensions of sense and sensibility, face and meat. In short Fig is the very incarnation of the Amor de lonh, the love that can never pass into knowledge, the language that remains forever outside sense, ‘that can never be translated into the logical experience of signification’[16]: that is, it is poetry.


[1] cris cheek, ‘Caroline Bergvall: writing and reading, the sites of performance’ <> [accessed 19 July 2006] (para. 1 of 38)

[2] Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘Crise de vers’ in Igitur, Divagations, Un coup de dés (Paris, Gallimard, 2003), pp. 247-60: 250. A translation is provided by Marjorie Perloff in ‘The Oulipo Factor: The Procedural Poetics of Christian Bök and Caroline Bergvall’ in Jacket, 23: <> [accessed 19 July 2006]

[3] Indeed Parma is notorious in Italy for being the city of ‘le fighe’ (beautiful women).

[4] ‘Piece in Progress: About Face (Goan Atom, 2)’ in How 2 1, 6 (2001) <> [accessed 19 July 2006]

[5] Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (London: Continuum, 2005), p.15.

[6] Jacques Derrida, ‘Psyche: Inventions of the Other’ in A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, ed. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), pp. 200-220

[7] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London, Athlone, 1988), p.187.

[8] Quoted in Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), p.120.

[9] See Slavoj Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Women and Causality (London: Verso, 1994, 2005), pp. 89-112.

[10] Agamben, p.27.

[11] Also see N Katherine Hayle’s discussion in How We Became Post-Human: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), pp. 113-130.

[12] Agamben, p.34.

[13] Drew Milne, ‘A Veritable Dollmine’ in Jacket, 12: <> [accessed 19 July 2006] (para. 8 of 10)

[14] Agamben, p.33.

[15] Perloff (para. 30 of 38)

[16] Agamben, p.64.

Piers Hugill is Lecturer in Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Southampton. He is also currently completing a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London on contemporary theories of prosody and rhythm and their application to experimental and linguistically innovative poetic practices. He edits the journal of experimental translation reception, and is a member of the collaborative writing and (anti-)performance grouping London Under Construction. He has published poems and critical writing in a number of journals. You can contact him at