Caroline Bergvall
Nightboat Books, $19.95 (paper)

To fathom Caroline Bergvall's Drift, you must voyage through the book twice, along two profitable paths: the lost way and the lit way. The lost way begins with the inside jacket, the only useful context if you are going to read the book from beginning to end: "Due North / following / a medievel sea poem / a contemporary sea drift / an aircraft surveillance image / a forensic report / a runic sign." The lit way, which illuminates Drift’s methods and madness, doesn’t begin until sixty pages before the end. Only at the book’s conclusion does Bergvall provide sources and a table of contents. She saves orientation for last.

The book’s first section begins with a flummoxing series of sixteen line drawings. Mostly horizontal, sometimes partially crosshatched vertically or diagonally or developing into ovoid circles, they display gestures of line and smudge, redaction and emphasis, but no hint of alphabet. We find ourselves at the creative intersection of assertion and cross-out, musical staff lines awaiting notes, the exciting brink of language emerging from a lineated sea. The next section, “Seafarer,” opens with speech:

Let me speak my own journeys own true songs
I can make my sorry tale right soggy truth
sothgied sodsgate some serious wrecan my ship
sailing rekkies tell Hu ic how ache wracked from
travel gedayswindled oft thrownabout bitterly
tested gebanging head . . . What cursed fool grimly
beshipped couldnt get signs during many a nightwacko

Bergvall offers an English language mash-up: archaisms such as “wrecan” jostle with neologisms such as “nightwacko” and comprehensible compounds such as “thrownabout.” The poetical diction invoked with the prefix be- in “beshipped” helps us understand ge- as another prefix, one Bergvall will use often and which German speakers may recognize. Evolved from a proto-Germanic prefix, influencing English when it was Old, it was used to intensify verbs, or, one dictionary says, to convey “association or similarity,” “the sense of ‘result’ or ‘process.’” Apparently, to be “gedayswindled” will lead to a lot of “gebanging head.”

Letters stutter as if buffeted, vanish as if hidden by fog or sea.

Bergvall’s repeated words act as beacons orienting us through the linguistic confusion: “ache” and “wracked” recur, as well as verbs of struggle and assault, such as “gewacked” and “gebattered.” There are sixteen “Songs” in “Seafarer”—perhaps the score that arises out of the scoring in the sixteen preceding drawings? Each presents a linguistic field both familiar and foreign:

Kom on spin
up my skraelings hauled up shrimpis squides
globsters blobs meeremaides delfyns rorquals
Fought off the kraken the belching hafgufa the
heather-backed whale almighty fastitocalon

I don’t know at first reading what “hafgufa” or “fastitocalon” are, nor if they are actual Old English words or neologisms meant to telegraph Old English-ism (it turns out to be the former), but I definitely know that we are at sea, hauling the beasties in while beating some of them back. Bergvall has an ear for how the archaic and contemporary guises of English sound akin: a contemporary compound such as “nightwacko” doesn’t sound odd in a work that uses the words “wrecan” and “gewacked.” In presenting these guises of English across Drift, Bergvall creates a sense of the past’s linguistic presence in the now.

• • •

Drift is a long book of poetry, nearly two hundred pages. Early along the lost way we come to “Hafville,” the section that most intrigued me. It enacts a progression of linguistic dissolution while relating a history of fog and doldrums, in a mode of variant repetition:

The fair wind failed.The wind dropped. Winds were unfavourable straightaway. The favourable wind dropped and they were beset by storms so that they made little progress. . . . We embarked and sailed but a fog so thick covered us that we could scarcely see the poop or prow of the boat

By “Hafville 2,” the text starts to lose its reckoning:

We mbarkt and sailed but a fog so th but a fog so th but a fog so th th th th thik k overed us that we could scarcely see the poop or prow of the boa t

Letters begin to drift, stutter as if buffeted, vanish as if hidden by fog or sea. By “Hafville 4” we come to dissolution: “c ld sc rc ly s th p p r th pr w f th b t t t t t t t t t t.” Once that “t” is unmoored from “boat,” it stutters alone for two and half pages. The resumption of words a few pages later is thrilling: “t t t t t t / t go / t go off / t go off course / t go off course hafville.” The engine of the poem tries to turn over, to get us going again. In this vein, the last Hafville poem attempts to call forth (with some anxiety) a way to escape the doldrums and sail forth:

When will the wind come? Where will the wind from come? . . .
Will it come from the soot, bringing droughts and epidemics? . . .
Will it come from the leak, bringing mass dispersion radiation?
When will the wind come? Where will the wind from come?

The poem asks: Are accident and catastrophe the only methods by which we move out of drift and stasis? It is a question that resonates in these times of being ecologically, technologically, on the brink. Though well aware that disaster can move us as strongly as rescue, Bergvall ultimately invokes “rumbly love!” as ignition’s exuberant key.

When we leave the “Seafarer” section, we encounter more flummoxing visuals. One looks like a grainy photographic close-up of an orange, but I was otherwise stumped and moved on to the enormously jarring “Report.” Instead of songs of drift, Bergvall here presents a factual report: “On March 27, 2011 a ~10m rubber boat overloaded with 72 migrants departed the port of Gargash . . . bound for Lampedusa Island, Italy 160 nm (nautical miles) to the north northwest.” It is a horrendous story: nobody rescues the people on this faltering raft, out of fuel and drifting off course, even though the Italian government and many other ships and aircraft track the raft’s travails. Only ten migrants survive. The story of such an event must be told, but I am not convinced Drift is the place to tell it. While “Report” is another lost-at-sea story, its abrupt swerve from the focus of “Seafarer” interrupts what I find is Drift’s most penetrating aspect—the way Bergvall appropriates and makes resonant for contemporary readers the timeless dreams and diction of the Viking-era skalds, those poets who gave us Beowulf and the Icelandic Edda.

“Report” is followed by what seem to be maps of constellations. I thought of old seafarers travelling by star and felt the compulsion to connect the dots, a general imperative for Bergvall’s complex book. (Later we will find out these are not maps of stars at all.) The images lead into “Shake,” where English mash-ups sometimes resume. To be shaken up as a result of travel and drift, to let yourself be shaken up—this is the message of “Shake,” which ends with these affecting exhortations:

Let the tides shake your life
let your life shake the ground
until your bones are bonedust
until your smile is smiledust
until your courage is delivered
ok ok until it is done

More graphics follow: we see what looks like the letter P—it turns out to be þ, the Old English letter thorn, which other sections of the book explore in detail—rendered in the rapid up-and-down motion of a seismograph registering an earthquake. Shake indeed! And then, after all the drift and loss and shaking, we come to the section called “Log.” Thus begins the lit way.

The longest section of the book (a tad too long), “Log” is a process journal for the whole Drift project: “The plan is to write a text for live voice, percussion and electronic text.” Bergvall speaks of a “turn towards the skaldic, shout-out traditions of poetic delivery.” Nearly all the aesthetic strategies I found perplexing are now illuminated. Why does the book open with drawings? “Sailing starts to take place in the unfolding of the graphic work. . . . Writing becomes tracks and traces and lines.” Is “Hafville” a literal place? “I turn to my Nordic heritage. . . . The sagas . . . describe episodes of being lost at sea. They call it hafville, sea wilderness, sea wildering.” What about all the feints at Old English? “I decide to use the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Seafarer’ as one of the central pieces.” Those English mash-ups? “I pretend to a possible one-to-one sound-to-sound assimilations, indulge in false friends and fake slippages.” What were those weird photos preceding “Report”? “I work with the photographer Tom Martin at macro magnification. I want to use the surveillance photo of the migrants taken by the French military aircraft.”

Besides providing context for Drift’s preceding sections, “Log” offers glimpses of Bergvall’s deep engagement with Drift-in-progress: notes on skaldic verse, difficulties with linguistic appropriation, meditations on feeling lost and foggy. (There are mentions of a previous life of partying.) Then there is a sudden and surprising hint at romantic travail: “To be with her I must undo what I know. To be with me, she must tell her husband, her kids, her family. A deep animal fear at this profound and life-changing impulse.” Talk about shake! And yet, this is the only mention of such a boundary-drifting, feeling-at-sea experience in a personal realm. Why include such information if you won’t plumb it? It feels like the reddest of the North Sea’s herrings.

• • •

Readers may regret that “Log” breaks the book’s spell. Some will have liked being a lost seafarer, having to wander and wonder—isn’t that the point? Others, not as willing as I to drift with Bergvall without expository rescue, will be grateful for her insight into how to absorb Drift: “this project is not an exercise in translation. . . . it is a template for . . . excavating language.” “Eventually,” she says, “one comes to a point where being lost can signal a starting point and can become its own type of activity.” Perhaps her best piece of advice for readers is this statement labeled “Navigation Instruction”: “accept / that you are being pushed about / work small, close-up.” This is excellent guidance for a book that may push us about, where lines appear to be written in both English and not-English at the same time, where skaldic dream shifts suddenly into journalistic report, then graphics, then diary, all confusing and intriguing in equal measure.

As rewarding and engrossing as the lost and lit ways of reading this book are, they are partial: Drift in total is a multi-media production, involving live performance and film. Videos I watched at the Poetry Foundation’s blog colored my expectations, establishing a haunting atmosphere I hoped the book would maintain and deepen. Perhaps this is why “Report,” the photos of the raft, and “Log” feel deflating: I wanted to keep Drift ritually alive and resistant to rational clarity—to keep it poetic. Despite these qualms, it fascinates. Go get lost.