by Nicky Marsh
Caroline Bergvall's Goan Atom 1. Doll was published in September of 2001. Whilst the dwarfing of the poem by this inauspicious date was both understandable and inevitable, the redress of its relative critical neglect now seems necessary — not least because the work demands the kinds of complex cultural response that public debate has seemed increasingly unable to sustain in the period since its publication.
Goan Atom occurs at the junction of a number of different intellectual and aesthetic contexts: contexts which Bergvall has assiduously traced and, where necessary, created. Her contribution to performance writing is suggestive of both tendencies. Bergvall was pivotal to the theorisation of the ‘ intra disciplinarity' of a body of emerging ‘textual work' which needed to be read ‘through and beyond the literary'. 1 This work was informed by a variety of broad and overlapping aesthetic and intellectual traditions: feminist poetics, modernist experimentalism, performance art. In keeping with the renewed attention to the social apparent in North America's most recent ‘emergent' school of innovative writing, Bergvall has seemed successfully intent on consolidating these traditions through the political possibilities heralded by the critical-cultural activist. 2 This working across different terrains, further enriched by Bergvall's polylinguistic sophistication, forms an ambitious poetics that speaks not to a literal postmodern eclecticism but to the possibilities of connecting innovative thought with the abstracted political responsibilities of the contemporary. This is a model of the artist, as Goan Atom makes only half-mockingly clear, ‘as archivist as archaeologist as bricolist as cataloguist / as collatist as collectist as compilist as ethnographist'.
The interplay of these contexts and responsibilities is apparent in the variety of forms in which Bergvall has chosen to produce work. Krupskaya's 2001 publication of Goan Atom , for example, is actually only one of several distinct and independent manifestations of this text. The poem was also commissioned as a sound-text installation for the ROOT 00 festival and a sample from it was performed as a live text environment at the Liminal Institute Festival in Berlin in September 2000. The electronically rendered ‘Green Nip' that adorns the front cover of Krupskaya's paperback — an unnaturally perfect green breast, an apple-like 21 st century temptation for Eve — is taken from the hyper-text poem ‘Ambient Fish'. The printed version of this which occurs at the end of Goan Atom charges Bergvall's characteristically witty dynamism with the literal possibilities of change and mutation in ways which emphasise the visual and visceral movement of reading as much as of desire: ‘to fish your face in the door / a door a door […] to face your fish in the door / ador ador'. Bergvall's attention to the simultaneity and conflicts between the processes of coming into language and coming into the body, and their implications for the gendered and social political implications of representation, provide the poem with the remarkably adroit kinetic movement evoked by its title.
That Bergvall embeds these pleasured and pained processes of transformation in both the seminal traditions of the European avant-garde and in a queer critique is made clear in the two citations that precede the poem. The first, from Duchamp, ‘Arrhe est a art ce que merdre est a merde' highlights, like the later Joycean ‘Mouth in a Mool / Mool in a Bloom / Mater Regina was my first Gash not my Last', the particularly gendered inflections of high modernist abjection. One of the poem's more obvious aims is to recuperate the fierce energy of this disgust back into itself, apparent in the pleasurable aesthetised rendering of an ‘ex / Creme / ental / eaT / ing'. Such lines resound with the interference suggested by the Kristevean pre-semiotic chora and, perhaps more interestingly, with the physical possibilities of textuality itself. Bergvall's expansion of such possibilities has addressed not only the mutability of the realised performance but also the centrality of the body, mouth and tongue to the articulation of language. Such an approach questions the false distinction between a text and voice-based poetics and the assumed silence of the printed page. Goan Atom 's play on the fluid movement of synonyms and homonyms requires both sound and vision and exploits the ‘air / ink friction' which produces, Garrett Stewart has argued, a powerful, but obscured, ‘ “dyslocutionary” tension between phonemic and graphemic signification.' 3Goan Atom 's explicit rendering of this tension is often directed toward the recuperation of energy from a debasement that lies in a set of cultural prejudices that take on power beyond those of the Freudian abject. This non-phallic reading is not simply of an anal or oral childishness, but of a wider understanding of a queer — polymorphous — sexuality: ‘my lily pouuse my bridal suite / every mouth is ador'.
The second epigraph to the poem, ‘Anybod's body's a dollmine', relates the poem's recuperative movement to the figure of the doll. This informing trope resonates with the ambiguities and mutabilities of femininity as they are played out through discourses of ownership, desire, abjection and pleasure. The highest stake in this stalled narrative of maturation is the potentially oxymoronic fallacy of ‘feminine' agency. The dolly, who ‘Entered enters / Enters entered', is rendered a nightmarish creation: she ‘Sgot / a wides lit', she is watched ‘in the w oo ds', she is ‘sheeped / like a dolly / part out part ed / partout prenante'. As a grotesque prosthesis the doll combines the contradictory implications of femininity with the mimetic impulse toward the reproduction of likeness. The power of this latter capacity has been best described (albeit in a very different context) by Michael Taussig who understands it as an act of mastery, one that ‘provides access to understanding the unbearable truths of make-believe as foundation of an all-too-seriously serious reality, manipulated but also manipulatable.' 4 This dynamic is rendered all the more complex in Bergvall's work by the doubling of the doll with Dolly (the name, of course, of the first cloned sheep) in a move which suggests its uncannily literal reversal: it is not simply that we see ourselves without life but that we see life created without us. That this act is one of cultural power and control is evident in the submerged narrative of the poem in which the entry of the doll is preceded by that of the ‘ Host '. This figure, suggesting that the subsequent games have a superintending presence — be it Christ, scientist or author — alerts us to alternative models of genesis. The extended play on the etymologies of ‘corps' — ‘a detachable unit', ‘decorpsed décorps', a ‘tabled GROUP OF CORPOREALS ' — make apparent the slippage between the act of creation and the wielding of control and authority.
It comes as no surprise that the final pages of Goan Atom make the price, as well as the possibilities, of such acts of invention starkly clear. They move from the bold mutations of ‘Ambient Fish' to the grotesquely cool concerns of popularised science — ‘The hurdle is nerve tissue' — in a move which estranges us from both the innovative and the natural in order to make apparent both their opposition and their inextricability. The poem's closing words return the attenuation of these states to its primary concern with the power for change suggested by the possession of language itself: ‘workit baby / / and the spac eB ween's solids / & the spac in solDis peed s Peech'.
1.KEYNOTE: WHAT DO WE MEAN BY PERFORMANCE WRITING: Friday 12th April 1996: by Caroline Bergvall
2. Bergvall's description of the possibilities of the critical-cultural activist and artist are included in ‘A Form of Address: Caroline Bergvall reviews A Conversation with David Antin and Charles Bernstein ' in Jacket 22 , May 2003.
3.Stewart, Garrett. 1990. Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext . Berkeley: University of California Press, p.5
4.Taussig, Michael. 1993. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses . New York London: Routledge, p.255
BIO: Nicky Marsh works on contemporary poetics and gender at the University of Southampton. She has articles published in New Formations , Samuel Beckett Today and College Literature and articles appearing this year in Feminist Review and Sagetrieb . She is currently completing a monograph on poetry, gender and democracy, and is editing a book on ‘Reading Poetry' for Palgrave. See this issue's In-Conference section for Marsh's paper entitled ‘ Go Grrrl: The Zine and the PostLiterary.'