The poetry and artwork of Caroline Bergvall examines language in a constant state of evolution. Language is a shaky ground on which the serif on an ampersand might subtly declare the whole of your history, and your pronunciation of a simple word -- like "parsley" -- might spell death. Words devolve into sounds with the power to join or divide. Thus, much of Bergvall's poetry is best experienced through means other than the page, particularly aloud in Bergvall's own nebulous accent. So her Pittsburgh reading this week -- the only U.S. appearance outside of New York in support of her new book, Meddle English (Nightboat Books) -- is a rare and exciting opportunity.
To Bergvall, language is too often an unnecessary divider between cultures. In her text-based art installation "Say Parsley," Bergvall examines shibboleths -- linguistic quirks that act as cultural codes. The title alludes to the massacre of thousands of Haitians in the 1930s, when one's pronunciation of the Spanish word for "parsley" distinguished a Dominican, and safety, from a Haitian, and death. Bergvall's piece is a process of "disloyalty," as she says in Meddle English: a "working at the undoing of a voice or identity we do not wish to be tagged as."
Bergvall herself had a borderless upbringing. Of French-Norwegian background, she was raised in mainland Europe and Norway, but works primarily in English and is based in Britain. This adopted home is of particular importance to Meddle English. Its centerpiece is a group of poems written in a smashed-up modern take on the Canterbury Tales -- and a smashed-up take on Chaucerian English -- telling stories of contemporary England's Polish immigrants and disenfranchised youths.
Since the mid-1990s, Bergvall has been a leading voice in "performance writing," an academic reimagining of writing as no longer fixed solely in print. (Think "performance art," not just the written word spoken.) Just as Bergvall's poetics seek to free language, performance writing seeks to free writing from textual exile. Along with installations and videos such as "Say Parsley" and "Ampersand," which look at language in site-specific ways, her work includes digital poetry (the online "Ambient Fish") and spoken word (her poem "More Pets" on DJ/Rupture's dubstep mix Solar Life Raft).
Bergvall reminds us that language is ours to use and enjoy -- not the other way around.
Caroline Bergvall reading 4:30 p.m. Tue., Feb. 15 (reception and book-signing follow). College Hall 644, Duquesne University, Uptown. Free. 412-396-6440 or www.duq.edu/english/events/index.cfm