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]

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