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This is Jacket 12, July 2000   |   # 12  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

Drew Milne:

A Veritable Dollmine:

Caroline Bergvall, Goan Atom, 1. jets-poupee
(Cambridge: rem press, 1999)

This piece is reprinted with permission from Quid magazine, c/- Keston Sutherland, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge England CB2 1TA UK: thanks, Keston.

You can read a six-page excerpt from this book in this issue of Jacket.

Martini finished — now what?

IN THE ABSENCE of a more developed review culture, readers of this recent book by Caroline Bergvall might wonder about the status of its intimacy and public address. This is work which flaunts its poetic affiliations with some panache. The opening epigraph from Duchamp — ‘Arrhe est ... art ce que merdre est ... merde’ — suggests the workings of a cosmopolitan wit, suspicious of the superiority of ‘art’ over other games, and happy with a whiff of eau de toilette from the Dada urinal. The text parenthesises a ‘Homage to Louise Bourgeois’, and gives succour to impressions that this is a post-Dada, post-surrealist poetics, one that pooh-poohs the boy’s own paper heroics otherwise familiar from various admirers of Bataille and Deleuze. If the epigraph also arouses expectations that the book will play with the poetic, idiomatic and vulgar potential of dropped consonants and arty franglais, then readers are in for a treat. A certain Eurolinguaphilia is needed to appreciate the verbal play: ‘slip on a slap on a chatte Cat upfront to sleep with broad Loot Outbroads La-Bonkings’. Pleasures from what one might find on the tip of one’s multilingual tongue are much to the fore.

      The italicised statement on the book’s second page indicates the exploratory premise of the book: — ‘Anybod’s body’s a Dollmine’. ‘Bod’ evokes the abbreviations of contemporary sexuality — ‘nice bod’ etc. Tensions between bod, body and ‘corps’ prompt the questions of fantasy and desire suggested by ‘Dollmine’. Asking whose ‘any’? reveals more political dimensions in our collective participation in imaginary dolls:

To take advantage of the interior mechanism
run through the thoughts retained of little girls
as a panorama deep in the belly
revealed by multicoloured electric

If this locates illumination as a problem, the poems themselves use puns to illuminate lewd qualities in familiar idioms, for example ‘Such Heir Hair Air Errs’ or ‘La bour La bour La bour / Wears god on a strap / Shares mickey with all your friends’. The poetic sexuality of nursery rhymes is always close to the surface, but adult retrospection moves deftly between cultural allusions and the double intendres of ‘fanny face’ and ‘ex / Creme / ental / eaT / ing’.
      Future parts of Goan Atom may reveal the relevance of the political geography of Goa and an-atom-y. An imperative — ‘go on at ’em’ — also lurks in the title’s folds to embrace the helpless pun-lover. Perhaps the text’s ‘Dolly’ alludes to Dolly the sheep, the unfortunate victim of boys with toys let loose on genetic material. ‘Poupee’, however, confirms that the book is interested in dolls of more than one kind, within a genealogy that might stretch from Hans Bellmer’s dolls to the Cindy dolls and Chapman brothers of contemporary art. The book casts a flirtatious eye towards sapphic chic and the aesthetic imperative to get dolled up.
      One response to this kind of work is to doubt its seriousness. A pathology of modernist ‘rigour’ needs to be written to explain different aversions to radical irony and the artifice of wit. It is as well to note, then, that this book engages the aesthetics of imaginary dolls in contemporary sexual politics through the seriousness of what might be called queer poetics. Whatever the appropriate critical vocabulary, the book challenges dominant reading strategies associated with ‘seriousness’ and the sexual politics implicit in types of avant-garde textuality with which it is superficially comparable. The book’s style and stylish presentation develops a lighter, more playful sense of sexual and textual pleasures than this suggests, in part because of the confidence generated by the elegant typography of the book. One of the intriguing features of this book, then, is the way it opens up the question of implied communities of reading, and the performative status of identity. This echoes a question articulated by Sarah Cooper as to whether reading queer theory can be said to construct queer readers who are not necessarily nqueer-identified’. (See Sarah Cooper, Relating to Queer Theory: Rereading Sexual Self-Definition with Irigaray, Kristeva, Wittig and Cixous (Bern: Peter Lang, 2000).) The text’s signature makes a difference to the status of ndolls’ for different subject positions and sexual orientations. But the book’s affirmatively erotic games also foreground the performative slipperiness of the ‘subject’.

      Resistances among existing communities of interpretation and avant-garde factions reveal persistent but unspoken judgmental norms. In a culture dominated by heterosexual kitsch it is perhaps unsurprising that puritanical formalism persists in resistances to the poetics of high vulgarity. One might trace the literary formation of such resistances back to the reception of Keats and forwards through the reception of Finnegans Wake, Artaud, Genet, Burroughs or Wittig. Resistance to high vulgarity often ascribes infantilism, insanity or immoral nihilism to texts whose playfulness dismays the authoritarianism of unacknowledged legislators. The regularity with which the pleasures of paronamasia are condemned as ‘low’ or ‘unearned’ provides one measure of the puritanical work ethic implicit in much critical accountancy. The awkwardness of sexuality provides another. Questions emerge, then, regarding resistances to erotic poetics from different positions and the lack of consensus around what used to be called polymorphic perversity.
      In this light, the line ‘workable pussy’ appears to have its erotic cake and eat it too. Readers might be forgiven for wondering how far they are invited to take up such subject positions or invited to watch. Few indications support anything so gauche as a ‘first person’ voice or experience. There are nevertheless signs of critical reflection on resonances which seem private rather than public, along with signs that imply an analytic inquiry into processes of infantile repression and object relations — ‘Poking faeces with a stick’. Language is foregrounded as one of the objects whose place in the assimilating mouth is allowed to gambol through the filters of adult formalism: ‘warf warf laffing / (sucking on Lolly) / (swings a melody)’. The sense that this is a performance for textual voyeurs is supported by gestures towards an emerging dramatic scenario. Capitalised characters, such as HOST, HEADSTURGEONS and FISHMONGRELS, enter the textual stage. But the writing never quite loses its formalist dignity to the extent of becoming a naturalist theatre.
      The text comes closest to a stable language game in the page-long theme and variation played on the line ‘Ambiente fish fuckflowers bloom in your mouth will choke your troubles away’. This tour de force performs its variations as if to suggest the plenitude from which the rest of the book’s more singular moments of text were selected. A note in the colophon material states that this comes from a collaborative text-sound installation. Performative potential is evident. But the ‘Ambiente fish’ page generates a sense of its own parameters which is paradoxically reassuring, precisely because semantic variety obviates the need for interpretative agency to move beyond rehearsal to a more stable and idealized performance. The rest of the text remains labile and yet exacting, generating the appearance of playful indifference to the framing rules of the text while maintaining a cool, formal decorum. One of the risks of this strategy, however, is the way that the text interrupts a particular word-form by wrapping it around the line-ending: ‘while herl / egs dow / non the ground’ or ‘Sgot uP / elvis’. The 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 textures. These wrap-around spectacles stand in the way of repeated reading, without offering the compensations of a throw-away ephemerality.
      The reader’s agency comes back to the ‘doll’ that is or is not ‘mine’. The underlying question is the relation between moments of performed transgression and the sense that there are scripts more powerful than dreamt of in the agency of performativity. The difficulty of moving beyond essentialist conceptions of the ‘subject’ is a familiar problem in queer theory. Just as there are difficulties for any conception of agency without political ‘subjects’, so poetics in which there is no doer behind the deed have difficulties distinguishing moments of textual subversion from coercive forms of repetitive performativity. Locating strategies of subversive repetition is perhaps less a question for writing than for reading or the performance of interpretation. But what part does writing play in such strategies?
      Caroline Bergvall’s texts offer themselves as modes of ‘performance writing’, working both as residues of performance poetics and as scripts for performative interpretation. This generates ambiguities for readers more used to studying texts in order to establish an ideal or finalised close reading. Writing which offers a formalist plenitude of performative potential nevertheless tends to be insufficiently determinate for readers otherwise happy with performative approaches. A mark of this text’s interest is that it generates a variety of resistances, not least from those for whom it is all too easily written off because recognisably ‘other’. The challenge to the persistent fantasies of discursive impersonality fondly tended by patriarchal poetics highlights conflicting values. These resistances suggest important conflicts of taste among contemporary readers precisely by being positioned between queer theory and poetics, and at the intersection of performance, performativity and sexual politics. For the reader interested in such questions, there is much to enjoy in the playfully erotic inferno of baby-talk, stammered plosives and other dollmines. Perhaps, moreover, these forty or so pages of ‘jets-poupee’ prefigure the throwing away of youthful dolls to be achieved in the purgatory and paradise of future parts of Goan Atom. Even if not, there is more than enough here to generate interest in future developments.

If your browser has the ‘Flash’ plug-in, you can see part of this book presented in an interesting performative format at

You can order copies of Caroline Bergvall’s book goan atom (part 1) from the publisher, rempress, 30 New Square, Cambridge CB1 1ST, United Kingdom

Drew Milne’s Website:

Illustration at top of page: copyright © John Tranter 2000

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