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Vincent Broqua

Pressures of Never-at-home

This piece is about 16 printed pages long.

paragraph 1

‘Never-at-home’, a strange coinage.


In Langues sans demeure (2005), Marc Crépon reconsiders Kafka’s language and qualifies Deleuze and Guattari’s statement that a writer such as Kafka deterritorialises language and digs a hole into ‘a major language’ so as to be able to exist at all (Deleuze, Guattari, 1975). Marc Crépon argues that more than digging a hole within language, Kafka’s language emerges from the impossibility to own language:


Life can be made bearable through the discovery of an other tongue/language which escapes the grip of oikos (...) a tongue free from the laws of home, that is, perhaps, free from the laws of any house (Crépon, 40-41).[1]


For Crépon, Kafka’s language escapes familiar language, collective history, nation, and home. M. Crépon asserts that what belongs to the writer is not language per se but the distinctive manner whereby he or she accommodates it:


It (this manner) consists in wrenching a language from its dwelling (...), i.e. in introducing alien elements into it, elements in which home (the father’s house, the office, the nation etc.) will not look familiar (52).


In ‘Thinking of Follows’, the German-born American poet Rosmarie Waldrop points out that ‘in crossing the Atlantic [her] phonemes settled somewhere between German and English.’ She argues that she speaks both languages with an accent (Waldrop 2005, 208). Similarly, the Norwegian-born English and/or American poet Caroline Bergvall noted that though French is her first language, she speaks the language with an English accent; conversely, though she has now lived in England and America for most of her life, she always retains a slight Frenchness in her English. The two poets are, as Waldrop’s phrase beautifully encapsulates it, ‘between, Always’ (Waldrop 2005, 265).


Indeed, the site of the two poets’ linguistic identity is somewhere between seas and oceans, i.e. spaces that, for the most part, do not (legally) belong to anyone. As Waldrop writes in A Key into the Language of America, the sea is ‘a site of passage, of dreadful to move on, of depth between’ (Waldrop 1994, 37).[2] They do not own the language they speak, nor, as Crépon argues, are they owned by its familiarity.


In Deleuze and Crépon’s perspective, to have no assigned nor assignable linguistic identity or, that is, to be under the pressure of ‘never-at-home’ is an otherness necessary for writing: if, as do Stein and Ponge, one sees the poem as an act of writing, or as a text constantly displacing itself onto other linguistic territories− and thereby annihilating the notion of a fixed territory− Waldrop’s and Bergvall’s positions between languages as well as their methods of composition constitute a poetics of deterritorialisation or a poetics of ‘never-at-home’.


I. Alienating territory: ‘My non-place’[3]


1) Fragment


alienating, vbl, sb.: the act of estranging, or transferring to another owner.
alienation: 1. a. The action of estranging, or state of estrangement in feeling or affection 2. a. The action of transferring the ownership of anything to another b. The taking of anything from its owner [...]. 4. Mental alienation


2) Differentiating sites of passage


Waldrop’s A Key into the Language of America is made of thirty-two chapters following the titles and order of Roger Williams’ A Key into the Language of America, an English treatise on the Narragansett language written in 1643. Each chapter of Waldrop’s text is made of five parts systematically constructed on the same form: first, the title with its strange 17th century spelling, then a chunk of prose collaged from various texts, then a vertical list of words or syntagmas. As you turn the page, the fourth part presents an italicised chunk of quasi-autobiographical prose, and the chapter ends with a vertical poem. The book is peppered with bold-face Narragansett words borrowed from Williams’ treatise. Sliding from one century to the other, from one language to the other, or from impersonal prose to a narrative between fiction and autobiography, the different parts of the poem create the restless possibility of exchange, or of passages between centuries, territories, and languages. Constant transaction and alienation occur between what one could term differentiating sites of passage such as the thresholds of the text, the hinges between bolded and normal text, the passage from childhood into adulthood (recorded in the narrative prose text in italics through the metaphor of a walk from the margins to the centre of a city), and the motion of signified and signifier. Indeed, when words and identities move across the multifarious sites of passage, the text becomes a different object. Language and its inherent sense of appropriation are othered and analysed poetically. Of all the terms imaginable, Waldrop chooses to question ‘America’.


Though Williams’ and Waldrop’s books share the same titles, their ‘America’ is different. ‘America’ has become a name which the so-called ‘Americans’ and others use to define a country and a nation: The United States of America. Under the name ‘America’, a whole continent has been appropriated by a nation. Meanwhile, Williams’ ‘America’ has now become a small portion of the United States: ‘I live in Williams’s territory,’ Waldrop says in her preface to A Key ‘I was born “on the other side,” in Germany. (...) I can see myself, to some extent, as a parallel to the European settlers/colonists of Williams’s time.’ (Waldrop 1994, xix) Yet, her situation is different from Williams’: the English came to the Narragansett’s land and alienated it into New-England; Waldrop came to America, or rather to the United States, she adopted their language which is now hers. What is ‘America’ in Waldrop’s title then if not a polysemic name which allows her to create dialogues with pre-US territory and its ruins (xviii-xix, xxii), with the American colonial past, with an author with whom she shares initials but little else (xx), with seventeenth-century British English, twentieth-century American English, and with the now lost Narragansett language, with her background ‘on the other side’ and her current life on the America side.


What is ‘the language of America’? To Williams, it is a foreign tongue, a language that he wishes the settlers to learn so as to be able to understand and live with a foreign yet native population. For Waldrop, the language of America is both the natives’ and American English. Seen from her linguistic ‘non place’, America and its language are forever under Waldrop’s poetic scrutiny. Because of her ambivalent position, she never envisages language as a transparent and familiar medium to the poet.


3) Estranging and estranged territory


Via these sites of passage the question of estranged and estranging territory is inscribed at the heart of A Key. For instance, the cover of the book[4] (a plate from John Underhill’s 1638 News from America) illustrates the violent process of passage from Indian rule to English rule: ‘The figure of the Indians fort or Palizado in New England And the maner [sic] of the destroying it by Captayne Underhill And Captayne Mason.’ The drawing consists of a series of spheres showing the Indian combatants with pointed arrows, the English soldiers with guns with the wooden fences of the Indian fort in the very centre of the drawing. The porosity of the Indian walls is signalled by sentences written on the very illustration ‘Hear Entters Captayne Mason’ and ‘Hear entters Captayn Underhill’. Words are also used to clarify the illustration: the rows of burning houses are ‘the Indians houses’, the Indians are being shot in ‘Their Streets’. This linguistic as well as topographic appropriation of Indian landscape records the violent and violating penetration of the Indians’ enclosing space and the shift from Narragansett land to English land. Likewise, in John Foster’s 1677 map at the end of the book, Indian otherness is being translated into familiar toponymy. The English names of the new cities act as a means to turn Indian territory into a Christian European duplicate. The book thus opens and closes on the violence of white domination and on the construction of a territory through the physical alienation of another and the negation of alterity through a linguistic mimetic appropriation.


Yet, as we see and read these illustrations, their original significance is being relocated. Curiously enough, the cover illustration also has a disturbingly formal circularity to it which, zip-like, seems to open into an unsettling passage and to take on a depoliticised, aesthetic significance. This ethically ambivalent liminal illustration is emblematic of the ambiguous questions that the book explores. If mapping and words prove a means of establishing ownership and its corollary authority on new territories, questioning America implies a poetic analysis of linguistic rules and of the processes of authority which they presuppose as well as those whereby an author gives authority to his writings:


Like Williams, I am ambivalent about my position among the privileged, the ‘conquerors’. But am I among them? I am white and educated. I am also a poet and a woman. A poet, in our days, is regarded as rather a marginal member of society, whose social usefulness is in doubt. As a woman, I do not figure as conqueror in the shell game of archetypes, but as conquered. A ‘war bride.’ As a woman, I also have no illusions about the Indian societies. They are far from ideal (Waldrop 1994, xx).


In A Key, a clearly delimited space is being estranged into sites whose stability is jeopardised. The fluctuations and displacements that these differentiating sites of passage create allow Waldrop to question her estranged and estranging identity as writer and reader: ‘one writes to become someone other than one is’ (Waldrop 2002, 93). This concept of a becoming-subject is voiced by the speaker of the third part of chapter 25: ‘The pronoun ‘I’ may be an automatic figure, but the unavowable openings of my body grew larger in response to secret pressures and claimed to be my mind’ (Waldrop 1994, 52). Under the pressures of ‘never-at-home’, the subject is pushed into sites of passage which deconstruct essence – ‘may be’ – and transform the subject’s identity: if ‘I’ is an ‘automatic figure’, who is ‘I’? The transformation of the speaker’s body, her parallel onward movement, and the syncopated syntax of her prose narrative address the tantalising question that the book opens up: what and where is one? If one is under the pressures of ‘never-at-home’, isn’t one perpetually estranging oneself? Or, to take Charles Bernstein’s words on Stein: ‘Beside myself is that being that belongs neither to my past nor to my self’ (Bernstein 1999, 142).


4) Exchange. Words in translation


The journey from one continent to the other and the shift from the language of the ‘other side’ to that of the American side, is re-enacted when she ‘open[s] the boundaries of the sentence either by sliding sentences together or by fragmentation’ (Waldrop 2002, 90). The prevailing sense of displacement is enacted by the exchange and metamorphosis of words. For instance, her collages create ‘an interraction, a dialog with language, with a whole net of earlier and concurrent texts. Relation. Between.’ (91).


In chapter 19, ‘Of Fish and Fishing’, the word ‘fishing’ seems to have spawned ‘fission’ out of homophonic contamination; then ‘fissile’ is generated by the first four letters of ‘fission’, and ‘fiscal’ [fiskl] by a phonetic augmentation of ‘fissile’ [fisl] (AmE pronunciation). Likewise, the word ‘coyne’ in chapter 24, with its unfamiliar 17th century spelling, is anagramatized into a contemporary English word, ‘coney’, which, in turn, evokes archaic use and etymology: coney comes from the Old French conis/conile and the latin cuniculus, meaning a rabbit. The plurilinguistic associations permeating the English are mediated by two English words borrowed from the French: ‘coiffure’, pronounced à la française, and ‘cuneiform’, which comes from the latin cuneus. The translation of ‘Coyne’ into ‘coney’ presides over a flawed archeological reading where ‘cuniculus’ and ‘cuneus’ seem akin. The poem plays with our modes of reading.


The language in A Key is never at home because of the constant exchange and estrangement of the text through language games and word-coinage. For instance, Waldrop cuts and pastes playful Narragansett compounds from Williams’ treatise. In words such as ‘cowsuck’ ‘Gôatsuck’ ‘Pigsuck’ ‘Hógsuck’, the Narragansett suffix suck, signalling an animal, was applied to English words. Yet, because of their new context in Waldrop’s book and because of the ambiguous dialogue with ‘the language of America’, the Narragansett suffix seems facetiously othered into the English word for suction; it also seems that English words are glibly estranged with diacritical signs typical of the Narragansett language. These conversions from the English to the Narragansett language look like Waldrop’s own Oulipian linguistic games avant-la-lettre. In chapter 21 ‘Of religion, the soule’ (43), the process of word-formation through derivation occurs within the same language:




The word ‘soul’ is translated into a quasi-homograph and homophone sol, which presides over the selection of these five words. Their vertical arrangement heightens their formal similarity. The words thus seem to the reader to have been translated into pseudo-compounds created on a new prefix: sol-. This trompe l’oeil is also a process of dissolution. Indeed, the aura of such an important word in the history of Western thought as soul is dissolved into the musicality of the list translated, which aptly includes a French word for music. The word soul is no longer taken for its semantic value, but for its signifier, which is thereafter alienated into semantically unrelated though not gratuitous words. The last word encapsulates the poetic act of the chapter: in spite of its philosophical lustre, the word ‘soul’ is not different from any other word, it can metamorphose and melt into other signifiers.


Wordplay and collages from Williams’ treatise and their relations to the rest of the text are restlessly varied. They testify to the radical diachronic otherness of 17th century English such as in ‘Hayre’ (15), ‘moneth’ (21) and ‘marvailous’ (51), which one is tempted to read as distortions from contemporary English. Collages also attest to the synchronicity of 17th century English when syntactical and semantic boundaries are blurred between bold-type and normal texts: ‘’Tis common for a brother to pry a mass of igneous rock’ (11). Historical difference is at once signalled by the typeface and erased by the syntactical continuity between the two portions of the collage. The texts are thus never completely translated from one territory into another. The sites of passage formed by these sections of collage differentiate one language from the other and create new and different (differing) possibilities: they multiply meaning rather than restricting it to the strict and linear laws of grammar. With these constant displacements and relocations, Waldrop’s text resists the familiar laws of ‘American’ grammar.


5) Transgressing


The process of estrangement via ‘methods of translation’ (35) consists in making the usual syntactical and semantic boundaries of language porous thus allowing words to move in and out of a fixed linguistic territory. In chapter 1, the humorously liminal title blends in the text: ‘Salutations / Are of two sorts’. Yet, in spite of the fluidity of this threshold, the rest of the text always hinges on sudden, as if perpendicular, discontinuities in the syntax:


This lends credence, but no hand. Not so entirely Narragansett, the roof of the mouth. Position of hand or weapon conventional or volcanic formation (3).


The syllepsis in ‘lends credence, but no hand’ and the zeugmas are an integral part of the foreign tongue that Waldrop shapes around syntactical hinges. Similarly, ‘the roof of the mouth’ can either be read as a poetic licence or as a non sequitur. And the two conjunctions ‘or’ completely disrupt the apparent fluidity of syntax, for they link up clauses that are alien to each other. Eventually, one has to translate the text, that is, negotiate meanings and transgress the normal, accepted usage of signs. Consequently if Waldrop’s idiom is deterritorialized, it is more accurate to say that it is an impossible appropriation created by acts of translation, a translation from one language to the other, or a trans-lation between sites of passage.


‘Dear reader, I have transgressed’ (46): the careful exploration of the different limits of language, the body, and territory, creates countless points of tension. Through their collisions, pauses, and alternating flux and syncopation, signs in A Key transform the well-mapped territory of Williams’ linguistic textbook, which becomes a non-place of linguistic exploration. Indeed with its hesitancy, A Key delves into the linguistic mechanisms of appropriation and dominance and of mapping out the unfamiliar, which is to say, it explores the logics of power. From this negative place, Waldrop manages to create a utopia where a different idea of power and language is fostered: ‘I have always thought of poetry as a way of building a world (...), building a counterworld, not better, but other’ (Waldrop 2002, 64).


Passage, trans-gression, trans-lation, trans-atlantic, these words suggest a movement across borders and boundaries, a movement of exploration with and within language. Indeed, exploration in A Key becomes more than just a motif or a metaphor. Her text is like the movement of a key into a lock, it opens up the poem to multiplicity and eye-opening curiosity. Thus the pressures of ‘never-at-home’ are perhaps a very powerful critical poetical and political key to the exploration of the life of language. As Crépon says of Kafka, these pressures allow Waldrop’s language to escape conquest and processes of capture:


Like many writers. I have foregrounded this awareness of the palimpsest as a method: using, trans-forming, ‘translating’ parts of other works. It is not a question of linear ‘influence’ and not just of tradition. It is a way of getting out of myself (Waldrop 2002, 91).


To say that Waldrop’s and Bergvall’s languages are ‘without a dwelling’ or ‘never-at-home’ cannot be negative or reductive. Their poetry does not boil down to an anecdotal point of linguistic origin, and ‘never-at-home’ is much more than a tag. Waldrop’s text is not bilingual nor multilingual poetry; it is American poetry, but something crucial is at stake under the term ‘never-at-home’ and under the constant exchange, estrangement, translations, and transgressions of Waldrop’s text. This ‘something’ is an idiom which re-actualises the explorations and adventures of modernity.

II. Caroline Bergvall’s act of writing.


6) Francis Ponge/Gilles Deleuze: an act


Montrer comment les choses se font dans le moment même, créer la communication directe, non par la récitation d’un produit fini, mais par l’exemple d’une opération en acte, d’une parole (et donc d’une pensée) à l’état naissant (Ponge 1970, 93).


In his May 18th 1983 class on cinema, Gilles Deleuze stated that:


Poetry consists in erasing clichés, getting rid of them, cutting sensorimotor associations, extracting out of clichés pure optical and sound images which, instead of triggering predictable responses in people, will shatter them in their very soul (...). One does not need committed art, one needs an art which performs its own action, in and of itself.


7) ‘Else-here’


Not committed but acting might be thought a good definition of Bergvall’s work. On a poetical level, her many performances and creative and critical texts function less as familiar givens than as active processes and intensities. Indeed, Bergvall’s poems confront textuality and situation: she specifically adjusts her text and her performances to their site. In her collaboration with Ciaran Maher,[5] as well as in Éclat, her texts were produced by the investigation of the site where the piece was supposed to be inscribed. These works arise from the pressure of what Bergvall calls the ‘else-here’ (Bergvall 2002, 221): i.e. the fact of inhabiting the world in the here and now and of displacing the sites of production of text, meaning, and territory. The displacement of these sites of production could be ironically captured by the fact that some of Bergvall’s texts have disappeared from the websites that were home to them. I do not choose this example for its ironical value only but because it testifies to something central in Bergvall’s work: the pressures of ‘never-at-home’ produce the absence of a safe and permanent home of one’s own (oikos). Indeed, her ‘else-here’ creates an oxymoronic space that goes against the normative laws of home. With the fluctuating dynamics of her texts, Bergvall tries to create a hybrid language whose main quality is its active impermanence. She experiments with a language of action which, to use her own terms, is like constant traffic on a crossroad.


As does Waldrop, Bergvall thinks of creating another language as of an exploration or a journey across language. Yet, as Bergvall’s ‘crossroads’ show, this trip is not linear; her texts are bred by points of contact where languages come and go. The vehicle of this traffic ‘at the crossroads of languages’(Bergvall 2002) is an overflowing, deconstructive linguistic movement challenging the notion of a dwelling for language.


8) Seizing, escaping: the dizziness of the text


The web version of Flèsh has a saturating and unfamiliarizing impermanence. It overflows with semantic possibilities and leaves semantic stability behind. As she explains, being ‘else-here’ means ‘[to be] placed neither at a transcendental degree zero nor at a nostalgic point of longing for one cohesive language’ (Bergvall 2002, 221). Flèsh begins with four strange vertically juxtaposed monosyllables: ‘Flèsh’. These four words are hyperlinks. Each one you click on directs you to a different sentence introducing a female figure (St. Teresa of Avilla, Unica Zürn, Hannah Weiner, or Kathy Acker). This phrase is another hyperlink to a quotation from one of these female figures. The quotation is a hyperlink leading to a prose text by Bergvall. Eventually, this text is a circular link to the beginning or ‘home’ of the piece.


The web performance of Flèsh is therefore a fast-pace expansion of signs which gradually saturates the screen. As one clicks and reads, the text speeds up from the terse and informative phrase of the beginning to very calm, almost scholarly, and epigrammatic quotations and then morphs into the spinning, spiralling, and stuttering end-text. The experience of reading is vertiginous, performing the Acker quotation: ‘I write in the dizziness that seizes that which is fed up with language and attempts to escape through it: the abyss named fiction’ (Bergvall 2006).


Indeed, while Waldrop’s texts are made of efficient and carefully adjusted moments of tension on the shifting boundaries of her non-place; Bergvall’s texts meticulously saturate language within language. This is exemplified in the very title of Flèsh. Its hybrid form brings constant reading motion: a great number of words overlap in the reading of the title: ‘flesh’, ‘flush’, ‘flash’, ‘flèche’, ‘lèche’, ‘lush’.[6] These words suggest rapid movement (‘flush’, ‘flash’), intensities (arrows), eroticism (‘flesh’, ‘lèche’, ‘lush’), i.e. the trance-like experiences that Bergvall refers to.[7] As the reader actualises the word Flèsh in his/her multiple language associations, the neologism ‘Flèsh’ becomes a word without any oikos. In his/her attempt to endow the word with meaning, the reader finds him/herself confronted with the fugitive locus of its impossible and forever escaping signification. Like a trance or ecstasy, the very impossibility of ascribing the word to one meaning or one language prompts dizziness.


The text produced by Flèsh carries on the logomachic process, which is also an act away from familiar language[8]:


Things had been going Rather Well. Sex loot. Caravans of PushpUsh. Needy machines  Easy To Please. Pissabout reFillable. Rubbed a Fff in It long enough to Suck Off Thereafter. The stakes  we’d lie in about. Everything pruned is happy as shaved. NowCaught In The Grip of. JUMPs the Surf with a Start Off the ace. Oars dig holes in Every Single Pie own I had ed absent mindedly. Row and row. Torn in the bell heat kicks  up spare heads. Something’s knocking against the SKin. arge persistent buLks In The Air. Brutally pulled  innards. Gut seizure GONgs concave. (Bergvall 2005, 22)


In this response to the Saint Teresa of Avila quotation, one hears the dizzying body of words created by the recurrence and the saturating effect of fricatives and plosives. This explosive texture of consonantal clusters such as /st/, /sp/, /br/, /mps/, /bs/, /lk/ unleashes a stuttering effect. This stuttering becomes a violence done to language, well-illustrated in the Kathy Acker section of Flèsh:


Go Figure s envisage a clea beach r coast m odes d’efacement. Entire circuits tRipping on friction. A face slow ed Right-Down revs the Grooves of Gyration comma the Stitching of Thought comma the Very Temporary Safety of Skin. Astride alights. L-Keeps. Hail. In-Mouth, Regina! (29).


The parallel impending disfigurement of the body and the violence done to the body of words are highly creative: ‘clea beach r’ (29) both underscores the graphic similarity between ‘clear’ and ‘beach’ and transforms the stereotype of a calm and soothing ‘beach’ in a potentially brutal ‘breach.’ The segmented ‘r’ first operates a sudden breach on the horizontal membrane of the sentence and subsequently generates meaning when translated into the homophone of ‘are’. Likewise, ‘m odes’ cuts ‘modes’ into two but also refers to one of the most classic poetic forms in poetry, in a poetry of deconstruction which is also an homage: ‘m’ can be read as in Duchamp’s Tu m’ where the letter is to be voiced as ‘aime’ (to love).


Though the text disrupts the normative apprehension of language, it is also a tribute to the creativity of a language written out of itself. ‘AStride’ for instance highlights graphically that to be astride (while horse-riding for example) is to have one’s ‘ass’ as a prominent and almost grammatical shifter. The capitalisation reveals a French name used for girls: ‘Astride’. The sudden friction of letters and of languages weaves or ‘stitches’ ephemeral moments of fiction together while negating any attempt at fleshing out a narrative. Indeed, the French pronoun ‘elle’ (she) is immediately denied any reference to a character; it is turned into the homophonic letter L, which a multilingual paronomasia then metamorphoses into ‘Hail’, the imperative used in the Roman Catholic prayer as well as in the weird sisters’ address to Macbeth: ‘All hail.’


‘Double Double toil and trouble’ indeed! for the dizzying language toils in and out of itself, it doubles up language and unfolds it, therefore getting in trouble with it and troubles it. Among other ‘verbal illuminations’ (Bergvall 2005, 21), the text overflows with puns on ‘face’: ‘visage’, ‘efacement’, ‘a face’. ‘Envisage’ can be read as a French and an English word, ‘d’efacement’ has a French syntax but could also be read as an English neologism ‘defacement’, meaning the action of destituting the body of the identity granted by its face. In La défiguration, a book on Artaud, Beckett and Michaux, the French critic Evelyne Grossman argues that ‘these writers restlessly invent new forms and styles which figure-disfigure shapelessness. They invent writing whose ceaseless movement never solidifies but forever opens up to an oscillation’ (Grossman 2004, 114).


The question of the ‘face’ and of ‘defacing’ in Bergvall’s writing constitutes the writing of a dizzying movement which figures and disfigures language. This dizzying movement in and out of the body of words, which is also one in and out of the representation of the body,[9] builds a language which refuses an identity or, as Grossman says, it creates plural and moving identities (Grossman 2004, 114). The otherness of Bergvall’s language is produced by frictions: ‘entire circuits tRippings on friction’ (Bergvall 2005, 29). In this stumbling cadence, which the word ‘trip’ and the oddly placed capital letter reinforce, words are rubbed against each other. And these repeated and violent caresses produce vertiginous jouissance,[10] a linguistic trance that pushes the reader out of him/herself in multiple directions, beyond the borders of transgression, beyond the borders of the body, the borders of self and safe.


9) The alienating pressure of the body


This pressure on human and linguistic bodies is the precondition of a radicalisation of the critique of language and of a poetry of suspicion. In ‘Ambient Fish’ (Bergvall 2001, 72-73), the pressure is almost literal: a click on a breast of Bellmer’s dolls directs the reader to the text. Words and sounds subsequently fill the screen until they have completely vanished. Words move and overlap one another. When  they collide, they morph into another word: for instance ouch moves into bouche (mouth in French) into touche (the imperative form of to touch) and into touch. As words traffic between languages, their signifieds move from an interjection to the physical origination of this interjection, to the logical cause or consequence of the interjection: touch. Just as in Bataille or in Francis Bacon’s paintings, but perhaps in a more ironical mode, the passage from orifice (‘bouche’) to action involving a pressure on membrane (‘touch’) subverts language and our representation of the body through language: ‘and the mouth sHits out the Eye’ (58).


From touch to tact and contagion, the words contaminate each other until dissemination ‘soak[s] your dwelling away’ (73-73). Rather than integrated in the house of narrative fiction, words are digested into homeless litanic friction. In ‘More Pets’, the anaphora of ‘a more’ and a vertical list of animals are combined horizontally into monstrous creatures such as a turtle cat, a cat dog, or a cat rat, evoking the animal hybrids of German artist Thomas Grunfeld. In a world where Dolly the sheep is made possible by the laws of genetics, Bergvall uses a repetitive trope (anaphora) and a recursive poetic form (the litany) to combine letters and sounds in chimeras. Here, linguistic frictions ironically translate the personified animality of pets into the unfamiliar reality of hybrids.


As the poem develops, the animals are grafted to purely grammatical petnames: ‘rabbitnot’, ‘catnot’, culminating in such oxymoronic animals as ‘dogless dog’. In ‘a lessplus’, the poet has turned pets into a grammatical oddity. She further deconstructs animality into a mere rubble of letters: ‘turtle trtl’. In this mad-house of linguistically modified organisms, the real is disorganised, the organs of language seem to be unable to stop their grotesque contamination. The world of animals turns into a cancer of letters and this pathogenesis gives birth to new words: ‘horsecheval’. Languages mutate into the other: ‘more’ moves into ‘moins’ (less in French), ‘moins’ into ‘more’, ‘more’ into ‘monte’ (ride) into ‘mon’ (my); similarly ‘hair’ turns into ‘dair’ and into ‘air’ which combines with ‘not’ so as to create the apparently meaningless ‘notair’ and finally into ‘a no–tair’. Yet to a francophone ear ‘notair’ is not hot air; it sounds like ‘notaire’ (a solicitor), and ‘tair’ is the homophone of ‘taire’ (to go silent).


With its halting and hybridising dashes, the poem concludes in an aporetic non-ending where less is more and where the imperative ‘silence’ is both stated and negated: ‘a no–tair–plus–rab–more–turtle trtl’, which can translate as ‘a no–silence–more–extra[11]–more–turle trtl’. The last shrivelled letters seem to silence the text into defamiliarised meaninglessness. Moved by the contradictory forces of likeness and difference inherent to cloning and creative repetition, the poem therefore imposes silence and yet cannot reach the stable place of its ending; like Dickinson’s poems, it has more than a fine conclusive dying fall.


The trajectory of this litany is now clear: from the very well organised anaphoric list of pets at the beginning, the text moves into a plurilinguistic machine that, like a contaminating illness, alienates the seemingly sane membrane of words into insane distortions. These games of illicit combinations are not mere word play; they are a risky and, to some, even scandalous wrenching of language from its dwelling. Though this repetitive deconstruction of the litany and of reproduction leads to a silence that wants more, the playfulness of its black humour suggests the at once fascinating, exciting and troubling energy of hybridising genesis.


10) Away from d/well-being


In the web version of ‘Ambient Fish’, the body is textualized and sounded, yet one part of the body (the breast) is also reified into a virtual webimage. The interaction between web-design and words gives rise to what Bergvall in her interview with Marjorie Perloff calls ‘a drone’: ‘Ambient fish fuckflowers bloom in your mouth’ (Bergvall 2001, 72). This leitmotiv combines the humorous and violent representation of hybrid sexuality. Bergvall criticizes Bellmer’s male conception of the body, yet she also engages with issues that Bellmer’s work explores in his dolls and his theoretical writings: the impossible representation of desire, the disjunctive representation of body and object, and the dismemberment and remembrance of words and body. In ‘Fuckflowers bloom in your mouth’ as in the whole piece, the body leads to words lead to desire leads to violence leads to pleasure. As I am trying to argue here, pleasure is bred by the alienating pressures of and on language. One thinks one dwells on meaning, and yet one is pushed away from the ease of d/well-being into an almost unreadable, untranslatable space. Indeed, more than just ‘not having a home’, Bergvall’s language resists a home. As she argues, her work and that of Waldrop’s ‘critique and respond to [...] the myth of Home(coming)’ (Bergvall 2002, 207).


As ‘[enters Dolly]’ (Bergvall 2001, 23) reflexively demonstrates, the pressure of hybridization (of Dolly, the cloned sheep, of Bellmer’s dolls, and of language) is also that of taking the risk of escaping a peaceful home. It is a means of moving away from the well-being of oikos: ‘Enter entre / en train en trail / en trav Ail Aïe / La bour La bour la bour’ (translating into: ‘in the midst of entrail / travailling garlic ouch / ploughing labour’). The passage from one language to the other and from one body to the other is the at once painful (‘Aïe’: ouch!), and humorous (‘Ail Aïe’) penetration (‘enter’) of the body of language (‘entrails’). Its labour breeds ‘horrible languages’ (65), ‘group[s] of corporeals’ (65), and is a humorous yet never soothing reversal such as in ‘bafr to ckont’ (65). In this pun on ‘back to front’, one hears the grotesque deconstruction of the close link between speaking, eating and sexual intercourse: ‘bafr’ (baffrer in colloquial French means to eat greedily) leads to ‘ckont’, that is to a sexual pun reminiscent of Katharine and Alice’s bilingual punning in Shakespeare’s Henry V. The labour of the text is both travailling and travelling entre, i.e. between languages, between words and letters. Bergvall’s texts are, to paraphrase Ponge, in a state of giving birth when they reshuffle languages and produce stuttering action and subversive energy. With this move away from the ease of normative and familiar linguistic modes, Bergvall’s use of languages could be aptly compared to what Deleuze argues when analysing Jean-Pierre Brisset’s writing: ‘there is no longer a mother tongue, all languages are sisters.’ (Deleuze, 10).


11) Unmastery: a conclusion


In ‘Writings at the Crossroads of Languages’, Bergvall’s article on plurilinguistic poetics, she speaks of ‘sites of tension and untranslatability’ and unmastery. Similarly, in ‘Thinking of Follows’, Waldrop argues that her linguistic ‘non place’ ‘has saved [her] the illusion of being the master of language’ (Waldrop 2005, 208). Waldrop, being the acclaimed translator of Edmond Jabès into American English, should be substantial proof that ‘unmastery’ does not mean being unable to use language correctly, but that instead it actually allows the two poets to move away from the tragic conception of language according to which one is bound to repeat imperfectly the music of a pre-existing language. One should view in their sense of ‘unmastery’ the absence of a Master or of a Supreme Good of Language. The absence of home for the linguistic identity of their texts opens up the multiple roads of writing. The ethics of their writing is therefore not guided by ‘you must write this or that’ nor by ‘you must use language like this or like that.’ Their ethics is no other than a self-assigned ‘you will write’ so as to survive the assimilation and the diverse processes of incorporation into a familiar absence of critique. Their privileged albeit marginal position allows them to scrutinise language and to deconstruct the subject politically, sociologically, and psychologically. Therefore, their language is not so much a minor language in a major language but an idiom: the construction of a room of one’s own without walls, roof or windows, just opening doorways.


It seems to me that through their vision of ‘unmastery’, Waldrop and Bergvall explore the question of territory and the creation of ‘another language’ that because it never is at home, is an on-going resistance to linguistic oikos. One could object that Waldrop does live in a house (with its walls lined with books), that the two poets have publishing houses, and the very fact that I am studying their poetry in this academic context shows that they do have a place. Granted! But perhaps, as I tried to show, the pressure to experiment in both Bergvall’s and Waldrop’s cases means questioning, interrogating this place, and constantly displacing it so that their language is impossible to appropriate in a fixed, determined, and alienating territory. In his book, Marc Crépon says: ‘What do I dream of? I dream of being able to speak and write without being immediately referred to the law (of home) and its sense of belonging and mastery. What differentiates one’s idiom from the mother tongue is that the latter always brings you back to the sense of belonging, whereas the former frees us from it or constantly reinstates the possibility of this liberation’ (53).


To confront the pressure of never-at-home with its companion questions of belonging, territory, and safety means to take a substantial risk: the risk of exposing oneself to shifting identity, a risk that Artaud, Stein, and Beckett felt as resistance to the normativity of familiar or home language. Waldrop and Bergvall write between languages, in the slit, on the edge or in the ‘doorway’ where one language becomes other; it is in this infinitesimal site that both poets create their idiom. Waldrop’s treasured motif of the journey and Bergvall’s use of that of traffic define their poetics as a trip between languages and identities, a trip where the poet, the text, and the reader are never completely at home.

Works cited

Bergvall, Caroline, Goan Atom. San Fransisco: Krupskaya, 2001.

———, ‘Writing at the Crossroads of Languages’. Telling Slant. Mark Wallace and Steven Marks (eds.) Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 2002. 207-223.

———, Fig. Goan Atom 2. Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2005.

———,‘Ambient Fish’. # 23 sept 2006.

———, Éclat. # 23 sept 2006.

———,Flèsh. # 23 sept 2006.

Bernstein, Charles, My Way: Speeches and Poems. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Cheek, cris, ‘Caroline Bergvall, Writing and Reading, the Sites of Performance’. # 23 sept 2006.

Crépon, Marc, Langues sans demeure. Paris: Galilée, 2005.

Deleuze, Gilles, Essays Critical and Clinical. London: Verso, 1998.

Deleuze, Gilles, GUATTARI, Félix, Kafka, towards a Minor Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Grossman, Evelyne, La défiguration. Paris: Minuit, 2004.

Ponge, Francis, Entretiens de Francis Ponge avec Philippe Sollers. Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 1970.

Waldrop, Rosmarie, A Key into the Language of America. New York: New Directions, 1994.

———, Dissonance (if you are interested). Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2005.

Waldrop, Keith and Rosmarie, Ceci n’est pas Keith, ceci n’est pas Rosmarie. Providence: Burning Beck, 2002.

Williams, Roger, A Key into the Language of America (1643). John J. Teunissen and Evelyn J. Hinz (eds.) Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1973.


[1] Unless noted otherwise, all translations are mine.

[2] The anacoluthon in this sentence is a good example of Waldrop’s coinage of a foreign language.

[3] ‘I had an American accent in my native language! I spoke nothing “right” any more. Even my speech marked my place between languages, between countries. My non-place’ (Waldrop 2002, 79).

[4] This illustration also links the preface to the first chapter of the book.

[5] ‘Say: ‘Parsley” (Bergvall 2005, 50-60) is thoroughly analysed by cris cheek (cheek 2006).

[6] In French ‘flèche’ is an arrow, ‘lèche’ is the imperative form of ‘to lick’ or the result of licking.

[7] Caroline Bergvall explains that ‘[her] work involved paying tribute to four writers who share a trance-like understanding of the connections between text and physicality’ (Bergvall 2005, 21).

[8] Ecstasy is etymologically a ‘way out of stasis’ or a ‘displacement’.

[9] ‘About Face’ concludes with an illustration. Mona Lisa is rubbed off (e-faced) from Duchamp’s LHOOQ, his moustachioed Gioconda. These remaining moustaches tend to look like the schematic representation of a female body in the nude. The emblematic inscription below ‘Ceci n’est pas une Bride’ (this is not a bride, this is not a bridle) is a pastiche of Magritte’s famous dictum exploring Saussure’s arbitrariness of the sign.

[10] Jouissance being defined here as a sudden, unpredictable and almost violent pleasure akin to orgasm.

[11] ‘Rab’ in slangy French means extra, extra food for example.