The Natural History: Poems|
by Christopher Dewdney
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|Get Tay Fuck Ootma Road: The Avant-Garde's Friendly Face
by Carmine Starnino
"Perhaps the ideal place to begin any discussion of the poetry of Christopher Dewdney is the point at which the reader turns away in bafflement and self-doubt."
ű Alistair Highet, "Manifold Destiny: Metaphysics in the Poetry of Christopher Dewdney"
No, Mr. Highet, better we start with your sentence. The cheerfulness, for example, of "ideal" (as if the "bafflement and self-doubt" induced by Dewdney's work were a splendid exegetical opportunity rather than the thirteenth strike of the clock). Then the self-assurance of "begin any discussion" (we can be certain Mr. Highet isn't including himself with that hapless reader). And best of all is that "perhaps"; its nose-crinkling priggishness and how it immediately refrigerates the sentence with a highbrow hush. It's exactly this attitude, with its tacit notion of poetry as a class system comprising the clued-in and the clueless, that Dewdney has built his reputation on, and which now provides the accelerant for the avant-gardism currently in ascendancy in this country. This is a poetics whose anarchistic strategy¨to frustrate the reader's automatic responses to language through "indeterminacy" and the avoidance of "totality," "closure" and "linear thinking"¨has become the principal craze of our writing workshops. At 51, Dewdney is not only one of the most dedicated practitioners of this radical versifying, but his super-surrealistic phraseologies (where, for example, "stars drip out of the cutaneous erectile velvet blue bandshell night") have made him one of the most revered members of Canada's experimental elite¨a collective that can now serve up a canon (presently headed by Robin Blaser, Roy Miki, Steve McCaffery and Erin MourT), a father-figure (bp nichol), rising stars (Phil Hall, Lisa Robertson) and, of course, the techniques with which to interpret the exasperating work it produces. It promotes itself as the less-visited alternative to our mainstream literature, though the neglect it grumbles about is hard to square with its great visibility. Indeed the myth of the avant-garde poet as an anti-establishment margin-dweller is so widely held it provides convenient cover for an embarrassing truth: that by generating ingenuities unintelligible to everyone except the expert readers, the avant-garde is correcting a perceived elitism by introducing a genuine one. Scottish poet Tom Leonard, writing in his Glaswegian dialect, spoofs it thus:
helluva hard tay read theez init
if yi canny unnirston thim jiss clear aff then
get tay fuck ootma road.
The difficulties we encounter in Dewdney's writing are, of course, different from Robertson's vertiginous shifts of sense, or MourT's footnote-flecked abstruseness, or Blaser's dense syntax-splittings, or McCaffery's page-filling fireworks of random vocabulary. The difficulties of Dewdney's radicalism begin, in part, with scientific terminology like "carboniferous", "decalcomina" and "perihelion," which is used to encrypt expensively descriptive sentences ("white-tailed deer are melanized thermograms of themselves") that are, in turn, allowed to thicken into paragraphs. This pell-mell compositional buildup¨feeding freely and imprudently on whatever pastoral detail and attention-grabbing vocabulary comes its way¨results in a kind of enunciatory froth. But no matter. Dewdney's efforts at marrying poetry and science into a new lyric mood have made him the perfect avant-garde commodity: "helluva hard tay read" but enthusiastically tended to by a large crew of critics and poets (Robert Lecker, Stan Dragland and Christian B¸k prominently among them) who claim to appreciate every precept of Dewdney's verse. Their hunt for meaning, though, resembles that of Pooh and Piglet circling a tree, tracking footprints in the snow that they believe are those of a Woozle, then two Woozles, then "either Two Woozles and one, as it might be, Wizzle, or two, as it might be, Wizzles and one, if so it is, Woozle." B¸k, for example, has argued that "Dewdney sustains a contradictory tension between these two traditions [science and poetry] by affirming both of them even while denying both of them so that the relationship of the two traditions to each other in a hierarchy of value remains indeterminate and paradoxical." Does that clear things up? No? Then try to unriddle this rune, also from B¸k: "His text retranslates the text of nature into another text that is itself retranslated by the nature of the text." Good grief. Evidently, then, B¸k won't be much help with Dewdney's experimental epic, The Natural History. But if not B¸k, who? Who will persuade us that, life being short and books many, Dewdney's radicalism¨
Air foetuses billowing like the desert night, their water-brains open enough for detail. Thought impulses and thunder my fingers water dispersing porous into the land. The insects gather at night with their bases just below the regalia of summer foliage, this meaning haze and slanting rays of pit vipers. The two pilots sweat with grotesque electric contrails. There is peace at this point, a powdery luminescence of grass. The insects gather at night beneath the trees. And touching you were that my claims by dreaming but illusions that lay waste the foliage of your nervous system. Infra-red snakes sway in phantasmic waveform. Niagra inebriates the eyes, the granular phrasing of her invertebrate orgasms.
¨is really worth our readerly patience, devotion and goodwill? And, unpersuaded, how does one even reply to such writing? Object on the grounds that Dewdney's sentences are impossible to crack, that they're trapped inside the insolubility of their own inventiveness, and you'll be chidingly reminded that that's exactly their iconoclastic aim. Allen Hepburn will tell you that by "eliminating the distinctions between self and world, literary and scientific discourse, poetry and visual art, poetry and prose, and between sense and nonsense, Dewdney teases the mind insulated by the 'opaque logos,' and armed by habituated thinking, into unfamiliar regions of awareness." And Stan Dragland will agree, adding "it shouldn't be surprising that the language which brings such spoils to the page, and constructs a new universe of them, will not be what a reader is used to." Dewdney sees it as striking a blow against the ready-made referential logic of consciousness in order to provoke "unthought-of possibilities, suddenly hostile and chaotic." By conveying meaning's ungovernable fluidity and waywardness, Dewdney's writing is thus designed to break old perceptual thresholds. The problem, however, is that those "hostile and chaotic" flakes of phrasing can't perform their mind-refurbishing duty until the reader is taught to affix the appropriate avant-gardistic signature to them. When reading Dewdney it's therefore crucial to keep in mind the basic idea that props up his practice¨the rejection of a discredited, obsolete poetics founded on the reliable, stable transcription of reality¨ because that signpost will be all that exists to reassure you that "Genital clusters, leaf groin of digestion" is to be taken seriously. Any sympathetic experience of Dewdney's lingua obscura needs to be deeply implicated in its official explanation; it's the only way to ignore what our senses are screaming at us¨that the writing is gibberish¨and become Dewdney's ideal reader, one who enjoys his own bewilderment and takes active pleasure in the logic-evading spectacle-effect of lines like "All the observers translucent blue, stuffed saran masses of hieroglyphics."
The sphinxism of this sort of subversiveness¨namely, that there exists writing so revolutionary one can only grasp it in the act of surrendering to its impenetrability¨is now the defining procedure of most experimental poetry. By persuading readers to reject the "easy" path to comprehension and embrace the "radical openness" of language, experimental poems boast higher imaginative satisfactions. A sentence like "The night sky is prehistory factored by the speed of light, a thick lens of time jelly, photon molasses" is therefore expected to unfetter your mind, explode your orthodox perceptions, and shock any thought sleeping on its cushion of comfort. Or so insist the tastemakers of the day. But that's the problem: the avant-garde seeks to enforce a reaction it cannot coax. Or rather, the avant-garde emancipates our consciousness by exciting its docility. Which is why, despite all the lexical freedom-fighting it encourages, it requires poets to fall in step with theoretical policy (linguistic experiments, to be properly radical, must be carried out according to certain truisms of innovation). And why, despite its call for greater interpretive liberties, a reader's correct attitude toward something like "swollen lips in the full noon sun, cocks, electromagnetic fields" is derived from postmodern bias and must be repeated by rote. So if you don't believe, for example, that "by deregulating the Cartesian hierarchy of mind's superiority to body, Dewdney situates 'you' within an ontological double bind," then you're merely compensating for an unwillingness to see things differently. The avant-garde may flout prescribed ways of reading and writing, but it clearly schools its own certitudes¨the most crucial being its infallibility, its absolute trust in its own avant-garde verities. And what powers those verities is the belief that artistic progress occurs in historical stages of innovation that the uninitiated, at first, always dismiss as incoherent. Dewdney's cutting-edge perversities, in other words, demand an accept-it-as-is fealty, and reluctant readers are regarded as trapped in assumptions that should simply be abandoned. Your dissent is merely a function of your irrelevance.
But as William Logan has argued, it's easy to confuse fashion for progress, especially when the fashion happens to be your own. And it certainly doesn't take a philistine to realize that poetry that claims access to evolutionarily exclusive sources of insight is of no use to anybody. "Intelligibility," contends Simon Blackburn, "is a precondition of truth. If you cannot tell whether a string of words says anything, you cannot tell whether it says anything true." Of course, it's precisely the idea of truth that's in bad odor at the moment, and Dewdney's distrust of it can be observed in the endless abolitions he permits himself. His sentences wax and wane to his every deranging and dislocating whim, vexing language's truth-telling tendencies in the hope that some new detail will slip through, a detail so "hostile and chaotic" that the standard threshold for truth won't accommodate it. And if conventional logic is sufficiently frustrated then something genuinely off-course and unpredictable will occur. This is experimental poetry's most cherished axiom, but there's no reason to believe that flooding your sentences with the off-course and the unpredictable will pioneer a more revolutionary poem. In fact, such permissiveness doesn't generate poetry at all. It eradicates it. Poems find their poetry, as well as their most spectacular leaps of originality, in their fight with form, and form, at its most fundamental, is held together by a hierarchy of intentions. That is to say, according to the pressures of specific needs¨acoustic, argumentative, emotional¨certain decisions are given greater compositional consideration. Dewdney's ready-for-anything ear (where word choices can be as abysmal as they happen to turn out) loses its power to startle because its indecisiveness debases the intended "unstable" effect. True unpredictability is never haphazardly bred but is merely the more surprising facet of a poem's purposefulness. The Natural History, however, is a vast, vulgarly spewed saga of non-sequiturs, each sentence an isolated and eccentric accident. You suspect they might be rejigged any number of ways without anyone being the wiser:
Electric neo-carboniferous glow. All the observers translucent blue, stuffed saran masses of hieroglyphics. At noon the exposed limestone is a mathematical plain in critical grey light, a parabolic deflector of atmospheric space for Cenozoid bivalves. Sexual green, handsome green. Serotonin drips from the calculations. Interface of limestone and spring sky, the matrix evaporating. A wind stirs the fissure of camouflage, of expectant magnification. Under the swells a heat-wave submerges the river vegetation in the source of neural conductivity Glacial amphetamine lovemaking. All thresholds detail the single crystal of genetic solar irradiation. The blue optical spruce. Brasilia, harlequin nocturne.
Most experimental poetry gains its prestige from fetishizing its infringements, and The Natural History is no exception. Dewdney takes such obvious pride in his display of free-associating¨with all its jumble, distraction, and obscurity¨that he accelerates it to the point of automatism. Sentences like "The clarity of aerospace suspends the lactose silk of her breasts" or "the slow organic branchings of the glass machinery in the ravine incalculable" may seem to breathe a spontaneous air, but they are schematic spontaneities rather than authentic spontaneities. Far from capturing the churning, chaotic state of language at its most indeterminate, Dewdney is merely reproducing his favorite portrayal of indeterminacy. His sentences therefore fake the activity of innovation, because innovation, for Dewdney, is not a creative compulsion¨an impatience, say, at the unexplored resources of language¨but a party-platform obligation, an abstract activism. And this is the case with most experimental poetry where innovation tends to get programmatic because the language has to be predictably disruptive. That is, the text's ranking as an adventurous, innovatory work depends on the poet's skill at keeping the language routinely and recognizably arbitrary and disjointed. Otherwise readers would not apprehend that the text is resisting their attempts to read it (resisting the reader, of course, being the key feature of a poet's true reforming zeal). The Natural History is thus nothing more than ersatz experimentation where experimentation becomes an entrepreneurial effort as Dewdney franchises out his "instability" to one sentence after another. What makes these sentences so interchangeable (oh, and I made up the long passage which appears above, piecing it together at random using different parts of the book) is that every sentence, in its circumlocutory cheapening of language, is really exerting the same countermeasure, reprising the same violation. And what does that tell us? It tells us we are not being given insights about language, reality or consciousness, but are being given an avant-garde "truth" that Dewdney himself has fallen in love with.
In a time of lackluster verse, books like The Natural History can seem more significant than they really are. But because Dewdney's writing is officially innovative, it does not even begin to be truly innovative. When Dewdney devises a statement like "at noon the exposed limestone is a mathematical plain in critical grey light" he isn't recognizing the intuitive persuasiveness of a new-minted valence, but rather recognizing a "rightness" dictated by a dogmatism that insists on indirection and distraction. So although Dewdney appears to be discovering some startling phrasal combination, his discovery is merely procedural. It is a cosmetic act of avant-garde phrasing that puts no very great demands on itself and thus discovers nothing. Dewdney, of course, exempts himself from form as a matter of creative truancy: he wants to shake things up, encourage a different linguistic resourcefulness, forge something fresh. But he accomplishes so little with this freedom that his truancy is merely an expression of truancy rather than its powerful, focused enactment. We certainly feel the jolt generated by all those odd, ad-libbed joinings ("distant amphetamine lovemaking") but that's only because language's exhilarating instability¨its rich shape-shifting, its fecundity of linkages¨is being confirmed in its crudest aspects. The verbiage of these thrown-together sentences is, in effect, a skimped effort at experimentation: Dewdney spends all the free strangeness of his conspicuously eccentric images without ever once risking the expenditure of a precisely chosen word. When Eric Ormsby depicts crow feathers as having a "coal chiaroscuro" the description's shocking aptness¨achieved by joining two words never before found in combination¨seems to me a more convincing breach of our standard linguistic arrangements than "The mild labile hysteria of gulls" or "Stars arbitrate the carnivorous solar dictation." Dewdney has in fact softened the task of innovation. He has subtracted its renovatory fury and left behind its ornamental attributes. Innovation, to use William James's much cited example, becomes the whistle on the engine rather than the steam that moves it.
In a recent TLS review, British poet Glyn Maxwell argued that Robert Frost's "crossing of contemporary speech patterns with traditional metres" was "more resonant and radical an advancement of poetry in English than anything else in this last century of modern, Modern, Modernist, or postmodern endeavour." Dewdney's fans¨those who take it for granted that his writing encodes a number of important worries about the limits of language and consciousness¨will no doubt dismiss Maxwell's opinion as wishful, believing instead that a demolishing of sense, content and form is today the only valid price to pay for a poetics able to successfully disabuse us of our old perceptual routes. But readers need to be reminded that there are other ways¨more productive ways¨of extending the consequences of that ambition. Indeed, avant-gardists like Dewdney not only succumb to the occupational temptation of mistaking their every disruption for a radical new pleasure (as if language were a useful tool for fighting convention only when fracturing thought, never when kindling it) but they overestimate the very radicalness of those disruptions. Poets have always been awake to the arbitrary nature of language and to the breach between reality and its linguistic transposition. Before Dewdney there was Paradise Lost and the clouding threat of "mist" that Milton begged God to "disperse" from his mind. Before Dewdney there was Wordsworth who, in The Prelude, dubbed the predicament the "sad incompetence of human speech." Before Dewdney there was Dante, in the Paradiso, grousing about failure of his approximations: "But oh how much my words miss my conception." Before Dewdney there was Wallace Stevens who suffered his own doubts: "To say more than human things with human voice, / That cannot be." In fact not only have poets been perennially aware of the crisis, but poems are themselves the most exciting products of that crisis. In the last stanza of "An Event" Richard Wilbur considers how poetry's bid to capture the essence of a specific occurrence¨a frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful undertaking¨does not leave it defeated after all since ű
It is by words and the defeat of words,
Down sudden vistas of the vain attempt,
That for a flying moment one may see
By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt.
Thus the rebuffed effort (or "vain attempt") provokes a reactive force (or "flying moment") in the very moment of its setback. Poetry, then, is the happy effect generated by the "defeat of words." Or more accurately, poetry is what results when language, although defeated, discovers itself reinvigouratingly deepened and furthered by its defeat. Language ultimately falters because it is inadequate, yet it is the effort perpetually renewed against hopeless odds¨and therefore perpetually failing¨that forces language into flexing itself anew, wrenching fresh positions from its previous posture. And this is precisely why Dewdney's writing fails to challenge our expectations: because his dilemma is never converted into a dilemma, because nowhere in A Natural History do we feel the hard struggle, the true toil, of creating original images and perceptions. Emily Dickinson's poems, for example, are everywhere afflicted with the awareness of their unsuccessful approximating; yet their heart-stopping abbreviations and compressions ("After great pain, a formal feeling comes ű / The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs") brought something entirely new to poetry. Keeping in mind that it was the overwhelming anxiety for articulation, the marshaled persistence of the push, that fed Dickinson's innovation, one is therefore struck by the sheer idleness of Dewdney's experimentation. Sentences like "Delight tantric and warm the electric mirage loomed a dazzling currency, the water a quick molecular sand" or "There is a path for her nipples erect ozone the form of the graceful uncorrupt of another" don't suggest a deep, seditious (and therefore creatively rich) distrust of language. Rather, the interrupted coherence, the syntactical deferrals, the anarchy of registers suggest an aroused aestheticism, a stimulated surfeit: Dewdney always finds room to add another lazy baffling note to his endless obfuscating exploit. And after a steady stream of such casually enacted subversiveness (almost 200 frictionless pages of it) one can't help but feel that innovation¨particularly one praised for being so revolutionary, so wild, so upstart¨should not flow so professionally.
"Referential uncertainty" is certainly worth thinking about, and no doubt there exist readers for whom any encounter with writing that registers that uncertainty is a profound theoretical thrill. But let's please hang on to our common sense. It cannot be said that experimentalists like Dewdney (or Roy Miki or Fred Wah or Phil Hall) have patented a new poetic idea, or that their presence answers an imaginative need unsatisfied anywhere else, or that their work logs an epistemological skepticism which otherwise would have eluded us. Innovation is not a sacrament that only the chosen few can administer upon language. It can happen anytime a poem decides to gather together its thwarted, hampered pride and¨ admitting, once again, the improbability, if not the hopelessness, of the task¨rises to the promise of words. What I'm trying to suggest is that the avant-garde is, ultimately, an irrelevant concept. There is absolutely no need to constitute "innovation" as a distinctive aesthetic platform: good poetry, by definition, is intrinsically experimental, and good poets, by designation, are neologistic zealots. The refusal to submit to the exigencies of automatic speech has always been one of poetry's fiercest duties. But if poetry, as Pasternak once wrote, "searches for music amidst the tumult of the dictionary" then the avant-gardists have opted merely for the "tumult"¨a tumult unconnected to any sort of vigor, surprise, musicality or precision, a tumult smug in its careless and incompetent depiction of innovation, a tumult fostered by a criticism whose own blather is an approving extension of the avant-garde's own babbling ruse. And a tumult, moreover, whose very extremism¨by drawing to itself the debris that poetry excludes or refines¨seals itself off from any kind of real daring. "A few words, rightly placed" is how Kenneth Koch modestly defines poetry in Making Your Own Days, and indeed the great creative paradox of poetry is that the sense of creative volubility, of unhindered possibility, is generated by restricting the unfixed, facing-all-ways freedom of language. It is the reflectiveness of carefully chosen words, words subjected to the process of sifting and exclusion, that allows language, if fleetingly, to outrun its limits.