Poetry Meets Plastic


By Lori Cayer

Only days before the exhibit was scheduled to end, I went to the Winnipeg Art Gallery to see the 100 Masters exhibit. I went through the process of getting in, starting with waiting in the long line of other procrastinators, showing my membership card, paying a surcharge because it is expensive to fly irreplaceable paintings across the country, then at another desk for my handheld tour guide device. All this only took half an hour and then I was in and I set about looking at art the way I always have, up close and with intro to humanities and sciences textbooks in my head.

When I was sure I wouldn’t be blocking anyone’s view I stood within inches and looked for the drawing underneath or the extreme pixilation you get at that distance when the thing is down to only its parts. I thought about how costly paint must have been for painters like van Gogh and Riopelle who apply it like so much cake frosting or house stucco, respectively. I love falling into paintings, and poems for that matter, lushly, topographically thick with paint that still looks wet. But I also want to know why, after hundreds of years, it still shines. I want to see how the industrial revolution or photography or mental illness made a painter what he was, or how the human brain sees ‘landscape’ when the painter was not even painting one, slashing paint onto a canvas on the floor from a brush swung like a bat.

Our human nature is to divide into our various schools of thought and keep to our groups, but the act of being human combined with the act of art is necessarily a subtle drawing upon the whole. When science enters the equation art becomes more than just referential or existential, it becomes the metaphor of the real. We could even be at the beginning of a new age of wonder—one of biology and computing, of benefactors in the form of wealthy research facilities, of scientist/artists making petri dish paintings with microbes. And poets making endless polymerase chains of metaphor from a single source.

The Polymers coverMy little maunderings bring me to The Polymers by Adam Dickinson (Anansi), who is part of a vanguard of poets concerning themselves with serious science, addressing the ways in which each practitioner can find the wonder in the work of the other.

By polymers Dickinson means both plastic and DNA. By ‘numerous repeating parts’ he is also talking about our stubborn human connections to each other and to the manufactured world around us. He is not writing about the nature of science or experimentation itself, but rather what it gives us or leaves us with, that has become so ubiquitous as to be invisible. This work of poetry is an enterprise, not just a collection of poems. It is as comprehensive as a major research project, and in itself would have required months of research. It has definitions, illustrations, terminology, an index and tracts of scientific text—all reimagined into poetry. The poems are sublimely conceived of many constraining styles: mind-map hybrids of molecules and poetry, an alphabet poem, a concrete poem, onomatopoeia, molecules alone on pages but with poetic titles, and a zany kind of word play I have no name for. From CIGAR? TOSS IT IN A CAN. IT IS SO TRAGIC:

…It bottles the mind to think
that we take for granite the apples and organs
hanging on tender hooks as a pose to bearing the blunt
of the escape goat gone awry with the crutch of the matter.

But don’t we all have our limits with painting or poetry as to how little is too little? Too few words, or too little information or too much subterfuge? I was unable to read the book from beginning to end in the order Dickinson so carefully placed it. It was just too difficult for my rudimentary knowledge of chemistry and biology and was further complicated by the abstractness of his poetics. I found it much more enlightening and satisfying to crack the book randomly, sort of like a whole day of organic, genetically modified soy granola bars instead of one big meal of filet mignon with goat cheese and truffle oil. The majority of the poems are deeply evocative of the complexity of our information culture, but they are also often impossible to grasp if one is in the habit of searching for meaning in blocks of text. To read the poems is to be frequently frustrated by brilliant understandable passages immediately juxtaposed by brilliant but seemingly unconnected lines and images. I’m not saying poetry needs to be completely accessible, I love working for my poetry and Dickinson definitely is bent on expanding our comfort with challenging and unfamiliar constructions. I’m sure it’s not a lack of clarity, but a polymerase extrapolation of clarity upon clarity and I’m just going too fast, like trying to absorb an entire art gallery in an hour. From COVALENCE:

Its adhesive properties,
expressed in jellybean parenting,
are mechanical
in the fashion of foot
and ball and ball
and spoon fed
polygons, abstracted
from the kitchen cosmonautics
of father-daughter cells
gelled in geosynchronous

The poems cover a wide range of topics from childhood memories to debt, sex and history along with the plastics-related topics you might expect like bubble wrap and polystyrene cups. And there are a number of poems that are more easily interacted with such as in HO HOS, DING DONGS:

…What began
as an innocent hankering
for ambrosia salad
and decantered hooves
has become
a long chain of heists.
The pie fork
and the kidney
in their second languages.

This is smart poetry, evasive poetry, deeply specific poetry and is worth the challenge. Whether or not we are entering a new Romantic Age where the poets and scientists will once again belong to the same culture, it appears a new level of cross-fertilization is taking place. To know it is in our very biological nature to create landscapes in our art is to know wonder from the new science of neuroesthetics, which is the study of the neural bases for the contemplation and creation of art. The study of poetry has been around as long as people, but now it is becoming known how and why the brain creates metaphor. Given all of that then, poetics, as rigorously told by Dickinson, may stand in for the gene sequence of metaphor.

Anansi | 128 pages |  $19.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1770892170

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The Downlow on Parnassus

Lori Cayer

Lori Cayer is the author of two volumes of poetry: Stealing Mercury (Muses’ Company, 2004), and Attenuations of Force (Frontanac House, 2010). She also reads poetry for CV2 magazine.