In A Poem On A Boat At Sea

Reviewed: Drift by Caroline Bergvall


It’s dark in the room. You hear bells sounding, a cloud of text is afloat on a screen. You feel the sensation of drifting. A Nordic looking woman stands on the stage.

DRIFT is a performance poem as well as a book written by Caroline Bergvall and is based on a poem titled “the Seafarer” which was written anonymously in the 8th or 9th century. The performance, which I’ll be discussing here, is a 5 minute video representation of a 70 minute long performance.


Bergvall is on stage performing as well as musician Ingar Zach. Her collaborative partners include Ingar Zach and experimental percussionist, Thomas Koppel who designed the digital text and dramaturge Michael Praloug.

Bergvall is interested in challenging traditional conceptions of writing. In a lecture in New York at the New School she asks,

“What is writing? Are we going to keep on limiting it to what it’s been? How do we acknowledge this very specific materiality that we deal with to write and therefore to read?”

The environment created is similar to that of theater only the work is not written or presented in a linear narrative. In Bergvalls’ words, it is a

“broader notion of an expanded environment of reading and writing practice, which is much more of an immersive environment.”

By engaging the senses and including contemporary technology Bergvall creates a poem that is an experience of the past melding with the present as opposed to listening to a story about it.

Bells are chiming with an eerie far off melancholy, whistles are blowing and drums are vibrating. The digital text is dense and drifting on the screen, you feel as if you are on a ship at sea. Bergvall reads in language that sounds like a mash up of   medieval English and some type of Germanic language. At times speaking, at times singing, sometimes stuttering and repeating words and half words creating an experience of confusion, of being lost at sea. She speaks partially in something she calls “meddl-english” which she believes is a flexible language. It has an interesting effect in that it evokes both the past as well as the present and the future. I think of maritime explorers of a century ago discovering different peoples and languages and how they brought their discoveries back and influenced their native cultures.

This use of language also leads me to think of how the contemporary world is becoming more accessible through the use of technology, of how cultures are blending, of the opportunities in language mashup. Consider Spanglish for example, a combination of Spanish and English spoken in many parts of the United States, a sort of multicultural slang, a bridge de linguas.

In part the sense that you yourself are drifting during this performance is created by the words on the screen, they move like the surface of the ocean, changing into the cloud.

At times the drifting and hovering words moving like the surface of the ocean, breathing like a giant word filled lung.

At times words sail to the forefront creating a gentle visual guidance. The experience in whole is like a haunting that is half nightmare, half strangely comforting. This performance is as beautiful as it is disturbing, rather like the sea itself. Even the word “sea” connotes something different than the word ocean when you think about it. There is less ease to the sea, treachery, cold and struggle, it is murky and dark, hiding what is in it’s depths. The ocean suggests something more vast and calm. One goes surfing or snorkeling in the clear blue ocean, not in the sea.

There is an urgency expressed by the text of the lost seafarer along with the sense of a surrendered longing,

“let me, let me, let, let, let me, let me   freeze.”

A profound sense of aloneness and exhaustion is expressed in the reading. The voice mixed with the music and the ephemeral images conjures the beauty that might draw one to be an explorer of the sea. This piece places us into the mystery and the melancholy of that yearning. Words that are recognizable are being chanted alongside unrecognizable words, again the effect is disorienting in terms of time.

Bergvall’s use of alliteration is similar to the pounding of the sea, and to the pounding of the mind when it is panicking: “cold clammer of cudach, fell feet first, sink, sinking, sank.” The words moving on the screen now don’t make any sense, they are not individually visible, they are a giant cloud of words melding, colliding.

They are seemingly alive and are as hypnotic as the sea, as is her voice mixed with the haunted ringing of bells. The stress and panic is palpable though eerily calmed by the bells. The digital text enhances the reading adding a sensation of blur, a fog of mind and vision that one would experience being lost at sea.

The longest video available of the performance is 5 minutes and is posted on vimeo. There are 2 other videos on Bergvall’s site, one called “Otter” and the other “Shake” each shorter excerpts.

DRIFT is powerful because it evokes experience. The language is inventive, the voice is captivating and mysterious composed of stuttering, chanting, speaking and singing which are all gorgeous to the ear; at times she mimics the sea with her voice~ lapping, lapping, lapping, at other times it is shrill and crying like the sound of a seabird. The visual element and the live percussion all add depth, which enables sensation. You feel that you are in the poem, living it not just imagining it.

Just as theater offers the audience an experience, DRIFT brings poetry to that level of engagement. It is gorgeous, moving and dense while minimal enough that there is space for it to enter you in a deep way, like a dream.

The interdisciplinary process, Bergvall believes, offers “a deepening” of ones self and “enables other ways of thinking.”

I hope that she will continue to perform Drift and that I will have the opportunity to further wrestle and luxuriate with this provocative and lush poem.


dayni staddon's contributors note can be found here.









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