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Tracing Intertexts – (II)

Watch Vahni Capildeo trace the intertextual relationship between contemporary poet Caroline Bergvall, and the Middle English poet Geoffrey Chaucer.
Hello, my name is Vahni Capildeo, writer in residence at the University of York and we’re going to be talking about tracing intertexts. When you’re tracing intertexts, you’ll find some texts wrapped in to others in delicate or secret ways akin to echoes, perfume, or ghosts. Then again, there are texts which positively flaunt the interrelationship with other writing, Caroline Bergvall’s ‘Alisoun sings’ New York, Nightboat, 2019 is one of these. It glories in it’s relation to The Medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’. In particular, the famously sexy character ‘the wife of Bath’, whose name was ‘Alisoun’. Book design can nudge us toward sensing extra meanings in the relationship’s of a text.
For example, the wordless scarlet pages in Caroline Bergvall’s ‘Alisoun Sings’ hint at how inter- textual the poetry is. They are bright red like the stockings worn by Chaucer’s lusty wife of Bath, and why were stockings red? Why, because she was a scarlet woman and a conspicuous consumer. It was expensive to wear red then and it’s expensive to design books poetically now so aspects of the physical book can clue us in to its intertextuality. Intertextuality is a driving force and organising principle in Bergvall’s book which is titled with the wife of Bath’s name, ‘Alisoun’. As Bergvall’s narrator says, ‘what matters is the network of resonance that it brings up.
What matters is its capacity to pull up events, sceneries, struggles as well as crowds of contradictory, marvellous, spirited beings in a sonorous wake’. The section called ‘Bookes’ in ‘Alison Sings’, riffs on hundreds of years of song, philosophy, and more. Bergvall names these. Elsewhere she is more elusive. For example, the section ‘Pilgrimming’ has ‘Yes’ as a refrain for many pages. ‘Everything in the world began with a yes’ sounds intertextual with the Book of Genesis; and so it is. However, ‘Yes’ sounds like another lusty woman of literature, Molly Bloom from James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. Can you imagine the 20th Century Irish Molly Bloom and the 14th century English Alison doing a remix of each other’s earthy, energect tracks?
The pleasure of tracing intertexts is in such fertile encounters.

In this video, Vahni Capildeo traces the intertextual relationship between the contemporary poetry of Caroline Bergvall and the Middle English poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer. Find out how these poets are linked by books, the colour red, and stockings…

You may like to read this interview with Caroline Bergvall in which she talks about her collection Alisoun Sings. Interview with Caroline Bergvall on Alisoun Sings – Poetry Foundation website.

You can also read an ‘interlinear’ translation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath – Prologue and Tale here. An ‘interlinear’ translation is a translation which displays the original language, in this case Middle English, alongside an English translation. Wife of Bath – Prologue and Tale – An Interlinear Translation – the Geoffrey Chaucer page.

What do you think about an intertextual relationship between a very old work, and a very new work? Let us know in the comments below.

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