Jacket 34 — October 2007        link Jacket 34 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Brian M. Reed:

‘Lost Already Walking’:

Caroline Bergvall’s ‘Via’


This piece is about 8 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Brian M. Reed and Jacket magazine 2007.
You can hear an MP3 recording of ‘Via’ on UbuWeb.

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In Summer 2000, the British poet and performance artist Caroline Bergvall, working together with the Irish composer Ciarán Maher, recorded a piece titled Via.’ Patiently and equably, she reads forty seven English translations of the famous opening tercet of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (1321): ‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura / ché la diritta via era smarrita,’ or, as her first source renders it, ‘Along the journey of our life half-way / I found myself again in a dark wood / wherein the straight road no longer lay.’ These passages appear alphabetically, from ‘Along’ to ‘When,’ and each is followed by a terse but sufficient indication of its source, the last name of the translator and the year of publication. The above translation, for instance, is credited to ‘Dale 1996.’ A quick library database search will turn up Peter Dale’s Divine Comedy: A Terza Rima Version, published by London’s Anvil Press.

Caroline Bergvall, 2006

Caroline Bergvall, 2006

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Over the course of ten minutes, a listener is treated to a remarkable, sustained exercise in repetition and variation. Certain words and phrases recur insistently — ‘midway,’ ‘I found myself,’ ‘dark wood’ — creating a stable backdrop against which variations from the norm stand out with unusual vividness. One notices immediately when ‘dark’ is replaced by alternatives such as ‘darkling,’ ‘darksome,’ ‘in darkness,’ ‘drear,’ ‘gloomy,’ ‘gray,’ or ‘obscure.’ Alphabetization creates a reassuring predictable pattern that is counterbalanced by the thoroughly randomized series of dates: 1998, 1893, 1995, 1854, 1915, 1884, and so forth.

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Proper names appear and disappear with alacrity. Literary celebrities such as Seamus Heaney, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Dorothy Sayers receive no more emphasis than forgotten Victorians and Edwardians. This uninterrupted undifferentiated flow makes it difficult to weigh the merits of the individual translators. For example, by the time a listener fully appreciates that she has heard the opening lines from one of today’s standard classroom editions of the Inferno — John Ciardi’s, Allen Mandelbaum’s, or Robert Pinsky’s — Bergvall is typically already one or more items further along in her list. Under such circumstances, textual specifics quickly begin to blur into one another, making any attempt at compare/contrast a futile exercise. In fact, over time, the bibliographic data tend to become altogether dissociated from the poetry. What sticks in the mind, for instance, is less Ciardi’s artistry than Bergvall’s mispronunciation of his name (instead of ‘CHAR-dee’ she reads ‘see-AR-dee’).

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How is one to make sense of such an unusual work? A classicist might call it a cento, a poem stitched together out of other authors’ writings. Bergvall, though, makes no attempt to suture her quotations into a single through-composed utterance in the manner of Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis or Proba Falconia’s Centones Virgiliani. Her Dante tercets remain free-standing nuggets presented in a starkly paratactic fashion. A specialist in contemporary poetry might label ‘Via’ a writing-through of preexisting texts, in other words, a piece akin to John Cage’s ‘Mureau’ (1971), Jackson Mac Low’s Words nd Ends from Ez (1989), and Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os (1976). ‘Via,’ though, is too formally uniform, syntactically conventional, and repetitive in content to sit well among such company. Bergvall’s turn-of-the-millennium impulse to look back to Dante’s Christian epic might please conservatives such as Geoffrey Hill and Harold Bloom, but her relative disinterest in publishing a written version of the work — ‘Via’ did not appear in print until the Fall 2003 ‘Transluccinacion’ special issue of the US journal Chain — more closely resembles the cavalier attitude toward book culture that one encounters in a very different milieu, that is, among slam poets, dub poets, and spoken word artists. In short, it can be difficult to find useful literary analogs.

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‘Via’ is nonetheless worthy of academic attention because it represents a new phase in international English-language experimental writing. This emergent aesthetic combines the erudition, intertextuality, and conceptual complexity characteristic of Language Poetry and the Cambridge School together with the theatricality, dynamism, site-sensitivity, and emphasis on embodiment associated with neo-avant-garde sound poetry (as well as more populist forms of contemporary oral performance). Some of the relevant pieces, such as ‘Via’ and Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget (1998), initially took the form of recorded or live performances and only later appeared in print; others, such as Sawako Nakayasu’s And So We Have Been Given Time or (2004), began on the page but subsequently became the basis for innovative performance poetry; still others, such as Christian Bök’s beatbox-inspired work-in-progress The Cyborg Opera, have necessarily existed only in aural versions.

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Regardless, these writers have shown themselves to be thoroughly at home in the new media ecology of the twenty-first century. They are adept at composing in multiple and mixed media. Indeed, they are so comfortable with ‘cross-platform’ writing that they no longer seem to perceive any meaningful disciplinary boundaries between poetry, music, and the visual arts. Bergvall and her peers are as likely to put on a gallery show or put out an audio CD as they are to give a traditional poetry reading. While they gladly acknowledge poets as precursors — among them Bob Cobbing, Steve McCaffery, Maggie O’Sullivan, and Tom Raworth — they just as readily cite composers (Erik Satie, John Cage, Cornelius Cardew) and visual artists (Marcel Duchamp, Bruce Nauman, Yoko Ono). Goldsmith’s popular internet site UbuWeb exemplifies this sensibility. It mixes cinema, radio dramas, concrete poetry, conceptual pieces, edgy music, and an array of other kinds of formally adventurous art. What else would one expect of writers coming of age during the digital era, when anyone with a laptop can be an author, musician, and film editor, and when anyone who buys a cell phone also acquires the tools to be a photographer and videographer?

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A critic could try to analyze a piece such as ‘Via’ solely within a literary-historical context. After all, the work is, from beginning to end, redolent of a print-based archive. It is easy to imagine Bergvall in the British Library, consulting card catalogs and bibliographies and calling up book after book from the stacks. This mental image is highly suggestive. Instead of following Dante on his epic journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven, Bergvall gets no further than the opening lines. She remains mired in an archival wilderness that mirrors the ‘dark wood’ in which the poem’s speaker wanders.

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One could look to another Dante-phile, Samuel Beckett, to help comprehend this Sisyphean scenario. It has obvious parallels in every Beckett novel from Murphy (1938) to How It Is (1961). And one could compare Bergvall’s procedural mode of composition to Watt’s mathematical thinking or Molloy’s beachside stone-sucking. It is not clear, however, how far the Beckett analogy would be worth pursuing. The tone in ‘Via’ is all wrong. Bergvall’s delivery is level, unhurried, and Sidney Poitier-precise. She is a touch bureaucratic, or, perhaps more accurately, pedagogical, reminisicent of an instructor’s voice on language-learning tapes. There is no bawdiness, dark comedy, melodrama, or despair, let alone anything approaching the mad pyrotechnics of Billie Whitelaw’s performance in ‘Not I’ (1973).

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A better point of reference might be Gertrude Stein, many of whose compositional principles Bergvall appears to employ. Most obviously, ‘Via’ begins again and again. It occupies a continuous present that could be extended indefinitely by adding more and more translations. It is a showcase, too, for Steinian insistence, that is, her belief that repetition brings to light small but crucial distinctions, the sort of tiny variations that, as Bergvall illustrates, render every translation of Dante a unique text that puts a slightly different spin on the original. Finally, Stein would have appreciated the title’s bilingual pun. It conflates a spatial reference — in Italian, ‘via’ can mean ‘road,’ as in Via Appia or Via Dolorosa — with a self-reflexive gesture, ‘via’ in English meaning ‘by means of.’ An act of composition, an immersion in one’s medium of communication, creates a ‘path’ for oneself and others to follow.

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Traveling along such a ‘road’ might lead nowhere, but that is not what matters. The point is to keep going, to keep the pen and the mind in motion as long as possible. The resulting tone, not surprisingly, resembles a long-haul truck driver’s cheerful stoicism. And, significantly, the existing recordings reveal that Stein even sounds a little like Bergvall when she reads aloud works such as ‘A Valentine for Sherwood Anderson’ (1922), ‘If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso’ (1923), and ‘Fifteenth of November’ (1924). Both are articulate, richly-timbred altos with a measured, self-assured manner of delivery.

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An integral aspect of Stein’s self-presentation, however, is her idiosyncratic virtuosity. Even her most permutational works, for example The Making of the Americans (1925) and Many Many Women (1910), eschew collage. Her verbal structures are invariably indubitably marked as hers, products of her pioneering experimental forays into linguistic possibility. While Bergvall might call attention to her own writerly practice in a somewhat Stein-like manner, she also downplays her ingenuity and craftsmanship, elusive qualities wherein the ‘genius’ that Stein prized so highly might be said to reside.

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Bergvall lets herself dwindle to what one might call a content provider, a cut-and-paste language processor and a rote reciter of others’ words. She places the spotlight not on herself but on the potentially interminable acts of translation that constitute a poem’s reception within linguistic communities other than the one of its origin. Despite certain formal and tonal similarities between ‘Via’ and Stein’s plays and poems, it would be astonishing to discover such an impersonal work among Stein’s papers at Beinecke Library.

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To understand the contemporaneity of ‘Via’ a critic cannot limit herself to print archives and published texts. She has to supplement literary history with interdisciplinary study, more specifically, research into the visual artists that Bergvall habitually cites as influences. One of her favorites is the Cuban-born US sculptor and installation artist Félix González-Torres (1957-1996). Of particular relevance are his candy spills, large frequently-replenished mounds of store-bought candy that museum-goers are encouraged to eat.

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These spills might evoke minimalist and post-minimalist sculpture, but they function more like theatrical props. By displaying manufactured commodities in an unexpected way in an unaccustomed location, González-Torres transforms an empty room into a dramatic scenario in which his audience is asked to participate. A simple act, savoring a piece of hard candy, becomes a gesture of communion with the host institution, with the artist, with the other visitors, and, in the case of works such as Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA) (1991), with an absent person being memorialized.

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This invitation to an oddly physical intimacy lasts until a given show ends. González-Torres inaugurates a temporary utopian environment in which people are free to experience abundance, childlike pleasure, and fellowship. Visitors are prodded to remagine ‘consumption’ as a noncompetitive sensuous mode of relating to others (however much candy one might take, there always is or will soon be more).

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Bergvall’s stance toward her materials is instructively similar to Gonzáles-Torres’s. Granted, translations of The Divine Comedy are not exactly a common last-minute-grab in a grocery store check-out line, but she, too, arranges her found ‘objects’ without in any way imposing her subjective judgment. This radically depersonalized attitude is rare in literature, even among the most die-hard samplers and collagistes. When Charles Reznikoff, for example, assembled extracts from old court cases to create his landmark historical poem Testimony: The United States (1885-1895), Recitative (1965), he might not have added his own words, but he did introduce lineation, and he placed his reshaped texts under subject headings.

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In contrast, in ‘Via,’ Bergvall, like many of today’s visual artists, seems to consider the most important part of the creative process complete after deciding on a generative algorithm: ‘alphabetize the first tercets taken from every English translation of the Inferno present in the British Library as of May 2000’ is her version of a González-Torres instruction such as ‘pour seven hundred pounds of black-rod licorice in a corner.’ The artist’s stamp, what makes an artwork ‘by’ an individual, lies solely in this original concept. The final product can include any proportion of texts composed by others or things made elsewhere. Why hide that fact? Why not give credit where credit is due, and why alter perfectly good raw materials?

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Does ‘Via,’ though, like a González-Torres candy spill, inaugurate a utopian space? The answer is not immediately apparent. As a recording, ‘Via’ does not convey the sheer physical presence, let alone the odor, of a huge mass of candy plunked down in a gallery. One does not have to make a special trip to experience ‘Via,’ nor can it, as a largely intangible artwork, have the same sacramental (or sacrilegious) impact as a person-scale ‘body’ on which audiences are invited to nosh.

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It can, though, remove a time and space from the everyday course of life. A short discussion of a second of Bergvall’s favored visual artists, the 2001 Turner Prize winner Martin Creed (b.1968), can help clarify this point. Creed, like González-Torres, tends to make his art out of readymade items according to predetermined instructions. His art, though, is often less obtrusive than González-Torres, indeed sometimes hardly detectable at all, as in Work No. 88: a sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball and Work No. 79: some Blu-Tack kneaded, rolled into a ball and depressed against a wall.

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Creed’s most famous piece is Work No. 227: the lights going on and off, which requires that that the lights in a museum wing or gallery space be flicked on and off at five-second intervals. This intervention is minimal but its effects are unexpectedly far-reaching. One’s eyes are constantly readjusting. Judging distances becomes dodgy. A person has to think a little more than customary during simple actions like reaching or walking. Conducting a conversation becomes difficult, since eye contact must constantly be reestablished.

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Work No. 227 makes museum-goers acutely aware of how they perceive and occupy a space. Such an artwork cannot be viewed in the manner of a painting or a video. Rather, it demarcates a place and a slice of time as significant, and it shapes how people experience and remember what they witness while it is underway. Creed’s creed, so to speak, is summed up by his Work No. 232, a neon sign that reads ‘the whole world + the work = the whole world.’ An artist adds nothing new to the world. It is the same before and after she intervenes. She does, however, succeed in altering what and how people think about the world.

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‘Via’ lasts roughly ten minutes. For its duration, Bergvall reads sentence after sentence about being ‘midway’ through life and ‘astray’ in a ‘dark wood.’ In other words, she is continually reasserting the fact that the world is always joined in media res, in the middle of things. The divinely ordained right way forward has been lost — but it will always remain so, and ever has been. While alive everyone inhabits an incessant disorienting sequence of present-tense moments. The past and the future, especially postmortem reward or punishment (or oblivion), remain stubbornly off stage, except in a ghostly fashion, via inference, memory, or prediction.

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Of course, no one needs a work of art to remind them of this fact. But, like Creed’s lights flicking on and off, ‘Via, ‘ whenever and wherever it is played or performed, creates an acoustical environment that heightens a listener’s awareness of the succession of never-returning precious instants that constitutes being-in-time. And if there is more than one listener, they all simultaneously undergo this heightened consciousness of being plunged in media res, what Maurice Merleau-Ponty would call a thickening of perception. While not as dramatic a gesture of sharing as multiple people tasting candy from the same spill, this collective awareness of jointly occupying a place and time has ethical value. One affirms the existence of other minds and other bodies.

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Such affirmation is also a subtle subtext of Bergvall’s roll call of translators. So many people have recognized the importance of a foreign text, and a foreign writer. So many efforts have been made to give new readers access to a poem seven tenths of a millennium old. Yes, these patient persistent repeated efforts have failed to achieve a perfect translation that conveys every nuance of the original, but for two centuries certain individuals have nonetheless displayed a Beckettian pig-headedness and kept laboring away.

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In an era more given to demonization than mutual regard, while ‘Via’ might change nothing and give succor to none, it can nonetheless usefully call to mind the fact that everyone everywhere is nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, and while la diritta via might be unavailable, we do at least dwell in the same selva oscura. We must learn to make that wilderness our home, and we must learn to tolerate the others — even literary critics, even quixotic authors — as neighbors.


Brian M. Reed

Brian M. Reed




Brian M. Reed is an associate professor of English at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of the book Hart Crane: After His Lights (Univ. of Alabama Press, 2006) and the co-editor of Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin, Moscow (Getty Research Institute, 2003). He has also published articles on such contemporary poets as John Ashbery, Susan Howe, Tom Raworth, and Rosmarie Waldrop. His essay on the Russian experimentalist Elizaveta Mnatsakanova appeared in Jacket 27 (April 2005).

 
 
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