Feb 26, 2014


initially published on the MARGENTO website @ uOttawa HERE

Adam Dickinson--The Polymers--or the Poetry-Chemistry Continuum

Reading Adam Dickinson’s new book is quite a challenge.  The title sounds like a chemistry treatise, there is no contents at the beginning, and the interiors abound in chemical diagrams, symbols and illustrations, notes and lists, indexes and methods, etc.

Okay, says the intrigued reader, let’s start at the start—the first poem.  The disparate images seem to come from a refracted seascape filtered through a series of what could be a number of carefully hidden (sometimes ironical) literary allusions—“Hail from inside/ the albatross” (Baudelaire and/or Coleridge), “coral beds/ waving at the beaked whale’s/ mistakes” (Shakespeare and possibly Melville), “Hello from the zipped-up/ leatherback/ who shat bits of rope for a month” (Zeno’s tortoise paradox sarcastically combined with Sextus Empiricus’ snake-rope argument?)—and a progress from the inner-subjective—or what could be conventionally called lyric (“the inside of the albatross”)—to the exterior world of consumerist and popular culture.

The short sinewy lines have most of them two strong stresses across a variable number of syllables, an accentual pattern that may represent the symbol “H” for the hydrogen molecule the poem represents on the polyester diagram the whole section draws, also present in the title—“Hail”—as well as at the beginning of every sentence in the poem, all starting with “Hello.”  One also comes across “Halloween Hulk” but other than that, “h,” especially as the [ h ] or [ ɦ ] sound-denoting letter, is almost absent.  Lost again?

From the argument/epigraph—printed on a semi-transparent-paper so that the two paragraphs can be read and seen through at the same time on both pages, although never as truly contiguous, since they are in fact printed each of them on a different side (and therefore somehow working as a Moebius strip)—we find out that plastic is “an organizing principle (a poetics)” for the “macromolecular arrangement of people and waste in geopolitical space,” and are thus presented with the metaphor of “social polymers,” patterns of our culture and politics.

And in a good Language and/or conceptualist tradition, such patterns are to be dug out of and explored through the language.  One learns, therefore, from the “Materials and Methods” section at the end of the book, that “Hail” is a “partial list” of “disintegrated greetings.”  Still, Dickinson not only disintegrates common formulations (is that really all he does there?) but also deconstructs literary/cultural commonplaces, in this case the opening traditional salutation/apostrophe of the classic epic—the Greek “Sing, O goddess” or, say, the Anglo-Saxon “Hwaet.”

Each of the poems in the section (and similarly in the following sections) correspond to a molecule on the polyester diagram (“Hail” for instance being the hydrogen one at the top of the central hexagon), but not in a predictable order—as the second poem for instance, is the last but one towards the right end of the chain of molecules, another hydrogen developed as “Halter Top (Translating Translating a Polyester).”  But the order of the poem-molecules is far from being the only element that renders the whole enterprise multifaceted and comically confusing.  The bracketed part of the title is, of course, a poetics in nuce of the book in its entirety, therefore speaking of a (molecular) sequence of chemical-cultural diagrams translated into letter (lettrist?) symbolism and then into poems.

Still, from the ‘explanatory’ section at the end of the book (in itself a funny, captivating poem) one finds out that the lines of the poem are actually all anagrams of the letters making up the name of the substance at stake—“polyethylene terephthalate”—hence, a, e, h, l, n, o, p, r, t, y.  The outcomes are fascinating, as the ‘game’ ranges from Mother-Goose-like sing-song lines and tongue twisters, “Let the python plot the thorn/ Let the hornet paper the tree” to surrealist ecopoetic riffs, “Nylon antelope threaten the Tylenol people,” to a baffling (al)chemical, geopolitical, and digital-age restaging of the tree-of-knowledge scene:

Her teeth apply to the planetary apathy.
They are polar, they are throttle,
the error apparent
to the hyperreal

with, among other things, a dart thrown at the multinational computer company in the last line.   The composition principle and the resulting baroque-surreal imagery work here (and not only here) towards, of course, a parody of Christian Bök’s Eunoia (in its turn a parody in so many respects), but while the latter’s main allegiance may be with Oulipo, Dickinson is adept at the magic philosophy of Pataphysics, which he fuses in his own fashion with biosemiotics, new media, and industrial chemistry or—when for instance reading another author’s text and counting the letters with most occurrences, then treating them as chemical symbols and drawing the corresponding substance diagrams—not pataphysical but “patachemical” lettrism and cabalism.

Actually, in a recent essay on Kenneth Goldsmith (J. Mark Smith, ed., Time in Time. Short Poems, Long Poems, and the Rhetoric of North-American Avant-Gardism, 1963–2008, McGill-Queen’s U Press, 2013), he describes Goldsmith as “a kind of environmental scientist” that through his writing/recording techniques “illuminate[s] the membranes and structures through which information from and about the environment” (135, my emphasis) is processed.

It seems to me that if in the statement above we read the “structures” as polymers, we actually have a remarkably accurate assessment of Dickinson’s own poetics.  Moreover, if to that we add the proposition in the same essay to consider “the link between poetry that imagines itself as science (pataphysics) and science that imagines itself as poetry (biosemiotics)” (ibidem), we most likely obtain the most genuine key to the multiple layers of meaning in Polymers.  As a matter of fact, the typical pataphysical facetiousness and sarcastic humor are present in the very presentation on the back cover where we are announced this is “an extraordinary science project performed at the nexus of chemistry and poetry” (added emphasis).  This “science project” really combines poetry imagining itself as science and science imagining itself as poetry, since the “protocols” followed in writing the first poem (“Hang-ups”) in the “Polyethylene” section are: “Hiding behind humor can be dangerous applause in the hands of an addict.”

Maybe indeed, what “hides behind the humor” is a radical warning regarding the pitfalls of conformity in all walks of life, science and ecocriticism included (for not accounting for subjectivity, and the implicit scientific realism, respectively).  The only risk is for the reader who is even more skeptical than that to see in Dickinson’s pataphysical copious playfulness just the ‘joke(s)’ and, ultimately, an art-for-art’s-sake kind of accomplishment, since the criticism of everything can be seen from the other side (of the Moebius strip) as the critique of nothing.

But the poet does not flinch, and the stakes go higher and higher as he dauntlessly keeps adding new dictions, new puns, new facets, and, what is probably his strongest trump, ever shifting angles.  In one of the strongest pieces in the collection, “Chemgrass,” a fast-forwarded cartoon-style sex scene crossbreeds domestic “doing it” with home decor and surrealist vegetal-animal-parts and clothing and (heretically rendered) theology (and of course media and sports and politics) and what not in a deafening language blender (with a blown up diction) that will not (be) stop(ped) until the all-gulping poetic chemical grass (or “pot”?) is fully brewed:

… We shag all the flies
in the ripped-up scouting reports
from the dead-ball era.  Sunburns calisthenic
elbows and knees, exorcising exercise
with the double-stolen gnosis
of Clement of Alexandria, who declared
that for wedding performed on shag carpet,
the benediction remains in the dirt…

And so the sarabande goes on, reaching and then leaving behind fractal lines (oops, I almost said modular… ars poeticas)—“I field birdseed”—as the posthuman poetic catalyst consistently eschews any single-minded political critique: the “carpetbagging sentimentalists” commandeer the spot on the forehead needed for… faking.  It is not the ‘message’ or the attitude (of an “us” gradually obliterated anyway), but the configurations and maps of “geopolitical spaces” of waste(d) language.

Dickinson’s is therefore a fierce challenge, whereby, in spite of the apparent playfulness and exuberance, verse is actually confronted with (scientifically speaking) certain draconically stinted prospects.  Our age’s poetry thus becomes a huge mimesis and an ‘against-nature’ automaton at the same time, the most democratically inclusive manipulation orchestrated in ineffective elitist ways, an n-dimensional joke, vulgar without being popular, arcane without being revelatory.

But only a poet with an incredible vitality can make that compulsively apparent, one that, in a recent interview, has (paradoxically?) stated, that poetry is more relevant than ever.


[Adam Dickinson. The Polymers. Toronto, ON: Anansi, 2013]

Feb 1, 2014

ADRIE KUSSEROW--REFUGE--reviewed by margento

(Initially published on the uOttawa website "MARGENTO" here)

Adrie Kusserow--Refuge--Travel Lyricism Traveling Between Cultures

Challenging political clichés, clashing voices, and employing chameleonic speakers—“No one wants to challenge your story,/ you who never should have left Burma” outrageously says one of them to an émigré (who in her turn actually outwits a system ready to assimilate her with an obtuse if not downright derogatory generosity)—Adrie Kusserow’s latest collection speaks in a both complex and enticing fashion of Africa and Asia, war and the aftermath, traveling and immigrating, and the reshaping of the familial in a globalized world of enmeshed yet infinitely specific locales.

While going through this book, one is impressed with two complementary features—the remarkable variety and, at the same time, the pervading persistence of certain themes and motifs.  “Mud,” for instance, is one of the latter, a recurrent, strong and complex presence in the poems—“he [Arok Deng, a Sudanese hiding from the Arabs in the branches of a tree] shinnied down, scooping out a mud pit with his hands/ sliding into it like a snake” reads the opening poem (“Skull Trees, South Sudan”), a similar image being later on used in a much less threatening context for what happened to the speaker’s son playing in the mud in Vermont—“cold mud sucking his foot into its mouth” (“Mud (Vermont/South Sudan)”) while her daughter gets to know the world “through April’s black mud” in a poem that typically travels between the two places in the US and Africa, while staying urgently familial.  “Mud” also conjures compelling images from the traditional, familial, and political life of South Sudanese communities, as the speaker’s husband’s desperate attempts to save a boy from the cholera decimating a village are put on hold by “tracks large as elephants lying on their sides.”

Other poems fail where “Mud” succeeds though—such as “Borders,” in which the daughter jabbing the son “hard in the ribs” inspires in the speaker an unconvincing repetitive series of cause-effect pairings in which the family scene looks disproportionately irrelevant compared to the (inter/trans)continental one: “[her] anger spilling red down her face and chest.// And it happens again,/ whereby war, […]/ whereby the suffering of Kenya begets Uganda,/ begets my husband/ begets me, begets Ana, begets her brother…// Later in the mudroom, getting ready for school/ I see Will kick our tiny old mutt.”

Still, the latter is an exception, and after just a couple of pages, a totally recovered speaker resumes bombarding the reader with powerful images and figures, as the opening of a secondary school for girls (again, in) a Sudan described as a “post-war nursing home” occasions grim reflections on the women “stirring and tending/ […] their daily cauldrons of meat and blood,/ the war still raw inside them,” and as the ubiquitous mud is equated with being devoured and then birthed again by the foreign land—“whole jaws of road gaping open,/ van rebirthing through mud hole after hole.”

Here, actually, and even more so, in “Milk” and “Young West Meets My East (India)” Kusserow powerfully and convincingly combines the foreign political and cultural, with the most private and familial.  In the former she both stages and suppresses the worries and sometimes even deepest fears about her son and her husband against a Sudanese refugee camp backdrop, where while “Will on my lap, [is] trying to nurse between bumps” with his mother’s hands symbolically protecting him like “a helmet to his bobbing skull,” the locals witness the humanitarian convoys as well as the tragedies of war or the weather; and where she labors behind her “dogged Dutchman” “he afraid of nothing, really, not even his death/ me afraid of everything really, most of all his death.”  Kusserow’s poems are once in a while pierced by such sudden pangs of fear and vulnerability, yet it is their pertinent verisimilitude and confessional genuineness that ensure the credibility of the unrestrained assertions of vitality—and, yes, happiness!—that follow, a tone so rare in our jaded contemporary poetics: “Will’s nursing again […]/ swelling like a tick/ and though I don’t want to love/ […]/ the lush wetlands of our lives/ […]// the fat claw of my heart rises up,/ fertile, lucky, random/ pulsing and hissing its victory song.”

Besides the confessional-testimonial-political tune, Kusserow masterfully plays three other scores in the book—portrayals, allegories, and travel poems in which the speaker (at least apparently) assumes an omniscient narrator’s voice.

All of the above are of course intertwined, as one would expect things to be in a coherent collection; they are all political, to start with, (but then, well, isn’t all poetry political?), particularly in the sense that being deeply familiar with African realities and at the same time keeping a sharp eye on American life (also as in the life of African and Asian immigrants to the US and its myriad of cultural and political implications), the poet is able to drop every now and then brief but acutely perceptive bits of social-cultural critique while mainly focusing on a particular character, event, or image.  Kusserow is in this respected one of the best contemporary illustrations of Simon Cooke’s recent critical assessments regarding cultural self-reflexivity as “a component of, rather than a substitute for, engagement with the other.” (Traveller’s Tales of Wonder, Edinburgh University Press, 2013, p 36)

In fact, not only are these forms and perspectives intertwined, but like in other aspects of Kusserow’s poetry, they are so in the most unexpected and ingenious (and therefore relevant) ways.  In one of the portrayal poems, for instance, “Dinka Bible,” whose epigraph is a reenactment of the empty tomb scene in the Gospels, now in an African context, a Sudanese boy (relevant gender translation of the myrrh-bearers) who finds his parents’ home burnt to the ground, when asked by “two figures in white” (again, relevantly ironic transposition of the angels into [white-coat wearing and/or racially white] relief workers) why he is weeping, replies “[T]hey have taken away my family, and I do not know where they have laid them.”  But unlike the biblical scene, the figures in white remain silent.

In the poem proper, the “lost boy” already has an American host mother who, when powdered doughnuts are offered to the congregation after the church service, “wipes the sugar off his mouth,/ marking him as her own.”  Some “fat ladies smelling like diapers [noticing he’s sweating heavily…] pat his damp skull” making him catapult “out of the land of good intentions/ and throw up outside.”  As is typical of Kusserow’s poetics, the portrayal and the funny-cynical and ridiculous-sad story of Achak’s new life in America equally involves flashes of the quotidian that are so much the more (culturally) pungent since taken through the eyes of a foreigner.

But the poet saves best for the last.  The host mother’s coming outside to check on the vomiting boy triggers in the latter a stunning insight into (some of) the muzungus’ (white people’s) relationship with the landscape, the God of the Gospels, and the other.  As the poem goes full circle and back to the image in the epigraph, the white woman is perceived as typically missing the mystery of the boy’s otherness, along with two other huge (‘familiar’) mysteries, the one of the resurrection, and of the nature around her: maybe even the stone that once rolled away from the door of the holy sepulcher actually just tried to escape the blank eye of certain onlookers…

And he knew how lonely Mary must have felt
when she came upon Jesus’ empty tomb,
this pockmarked country, cold as moon,
the stones rolled back from the muzungu’s eyes,
the black hole everywhere.

In the second genre, her characters are God, the Buddha, and even Mother Theresa, always “looking down” (from heaven) on a Yoga class, on lonely and tormented people still “instinctively opening their mouths/ toward sky” “like small birds,” or on an orphanage in Calcutta.  Just as the portrayals and the travel poems say unexpectedly relevant things about the familiar while focusing on the (cultural, racial, and topographical) other, in these poems the grim or ‘trivial’ reality is both minutely examined and placed in a surprising perspective as the heavenly observers find themselves in the most phantasmagoric situations.  In “Hunger Sutras,” for instance, both God and Buddha look down on the earth from “the hospital for sick, endangered, and arrested gods.”

In another poem, God has spent 300 years in solitary and is now taken to the lethal injection chamber.  When the omniscient “He” comically asks the guardian what happened, she replies (note the relevant gender markers) that “the New Age arrived, the Old Testament stamped out.”  When he is allowed one last look on “the whirling cacophony” of the Earth, he spots a yoga class where “they were all women” which “was no surprise,” given that all women “did was bitch bitch bitch/ toward the end of His rule.”  A shrewd and complex satire, with a humor of rather the absurdist variety, and, of course, harsh (post)feminist criticism of long-expired male-centered mysticism.  The keenest irony though comes at the end of the poem where, right before dying, finally humanized (not through the mystery of incarnation, but by being… turned on) by the fascinating spectacle of the women’s shifting postures and undogmatic religiousness, God begins “to unfurl,” thus escaping his rigid authoritativeness and embracing at last (his?) creation.

Yet, the manifold irony brings about more than just that—what is more impressive than the spectacle God watches, is the very spectacle of God watching, his amazement at the  “sacrotropic” “sea plants” women are, the drama of his own reactions and reflections, as followed by the truly omniscient sensibility of the poet.  The architecture of the satire thus allows Kusserow to indulge in a cosmic visionarism refused nowadays to any ‘orthodox’ Dante or Milton, and the reward for her shrewdness is access to a poetic beauty that most contemporary poetry does not even dream of:

…His mouth would sag when they began to pray,
slow and fluid as underwater ballet,
their bodies like tendrils curling up and out,
deep sea vines reaching, uncurling like fiddleheads in unison.

“No one told Him they would look so graceful” reads a line before the above quoted excerpt.  No one, but the poet who simply has the guts to do it—and just did.
Last but not least, in the third class of poems, Kusserow masterfully describes exotic locales that in the progress of the poem become the stage for multi-leveled cultural interactions.  In “Beneath the Sky, the Longing (Thimphu, Bhutan),” the “lust for the West [that] huddles like fog” is obliquely reciprocated by the “schools of ghostly expats” who cannot helping coming back to the same “density of longing,” but what the locals and Westerners share is also paradoxically what separates them, the “hard kernel of desire where the bulky psyche chips its tooth.”

In “To Market, to Market (Dharamsala, India, Tibetan Government in Exile),” the Himalayan boys turn “the switch of authenticity ‘on’” for the Western girls studying Buddhism, ready to deliver in an exchange in which it is hard to be sure exactly which of the parties is the commodified one, since the girls themselves are also “ready to fling the cramped purse of ‘the self’/ onto the street and give themselves to everything.”  The contemporary condition—as described by Susan Sontag in At the Same Time and by James Buzard as the “meanwhile problem” (both analyzed in Simon Cooke’s above quoted book, 53-54)—is the very substance of such poetry.  As the American girls get home with the “opiate” of their exotic ‘spiritual’ souvenirs, the boys in Dharamsala dream of their own myths (most likely of immigration and success).  The picture is ironical, but not only, as contemporaneity (the complexity of which is rendered, paradoxically, by the time difference as well) involves, along with the teenagers connected across continents through commodification and, therefore, miscommunication, vicariously living in a delusive elsewhere, the contrapuntally simultaneous and elemental image of the Dalai Lama that “rises to meditate at 3 A.M.”

In probably the most accomplished poem in this third category, “Christmas Eve, Kampala, Uganda,” the sordid atmosphere of the god-forsaken celebrating “compost city” brings HIV infected soldiers, abusive husbands, western pop music and muzungus “working off their Western guilt” all together under an anti-post-romantic and postcolonial hungover moon, “creamy and subdued,” inspiring not a poet’s ethereal vision but a drunken man’s masturbation.  Still this all ends with a ceremonial invocation, an almost mystical effusion—and just as in “Milk” we have encountered a direct assertion of optimism and joy, here we have a vibrant invocation infused with praise and prayer, ecstatic and enthusiastic in the etymological sense of the world (‘filled with/thoroughly experiencing the sacred’), again so rare nowadays.  Kusserow’s speakers have actually been in hell, and therefore can uniquely sing paradisiacal chants as well.

The great advantage of such poetry is that while delving into the grisly grimness, chronic dereliction, extreme dangers, and sometimes overwhelming horrors of our contemporary world (conventionally and quotidianly [as the poet puts it somewhere else, on “this glossy CNN planet”] always out there, and afar), it probes and expresses a genuineness that will also afford it a ‘pure’ solemnity otherwise virtually impossible in mainstream lyric poetry.  What one encounters in this verse is posthuman humanity and postpoetic lyricism and hymnalism:

…and the drunken man
sitting in a corner
working his cock into a frenzy
as his groans stretch wide with defeat
into some warm swatch
of the moon’s sweet milk.

Oh holy tenderness of this mute misty planet,
bless the fragile, harried nests
the tired and hungry build.


[Adrie Kusserow. Refuge. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2013]

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