The Utopian Science Poemby Jennifer K Dick
Corrupt Press, 2013
Review by Matt Reeck
“[O]ne should totally reject the standard opposition of ‘objective’ science focused on reality and ‘subjective’ art focused on emotional reaction to it and self-expression: if anything, true art is more asubjective than science.” Slavoj Žižek, “Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence”
If it’s hard to imagine poetry performing the tasks typically reserved for philosophy and science, it’s nonetheless interesting to imagine what sort of poetry might emerge from such an attempt. Jennifer K Dick’s Circuits is a poetic experiment that tries to marry these arts of thinking, and, as such, her book constitutes one possible definition of the unofficial genre of the science poem.
As Dick’s poem “Animal Logic” states, Science is theory (7). But if science is partially subjective, it avoids making explicit this subjectivity: It’s rarely the subject scientific process works to test and confirm (7). At the very least we must admit that whatever objective stance it intends to take, science nonetheless is a human endeavor, and, as such, one not free of subjectivity. Science too relies upon sparks of intuition and the gifts of experience—it remains a fully human task, full of human gifts and foibles: The problem [is] to say that science is logical (“The Price of an Idea,” 24). Moreover, we also might like to admit that all thinking is “theory,” in the sense that it is fundamentally speculative, and this as well includes science. If science is portrayed on the nightly news as being a sort of fact mongering, this is wrong: scientists will all tell you that they’re only interested in process—in forming hypotheses and testing ideas.
The book’s gift comes in using poetry as a means to interrogate science and vice versa but without doing so programmatically, or without an overweening goal. Simply, to do so would be interesting. Poetry, typically the domain of the subjective, can use the pathos of personal experience to question the objectivity of science. Likewise, science’s interest in shared experiential truth (and the establishment of physical laws) can serve as a needed stay against the solipsism of the pure subject.
A science poem might try to assert something greater than the individual case. It might try to weigh personal experience against biological fact. In their enmeshing of fleeting anecdote and description of human experience with biology and the language of science, Dick’s poems create a dialectic between the poetic subject and science:
Molecular learning and the behavior of neurons—
tie to an aversion to words?
(Windowsill hiding close, your hand
grazes “don’t remember?” You call
another apartment building a “tilt and sink”.
Into the tile I tell myself I’m leaving in
the outside world inside the cell drawing
the “oui” drowning the you waiting just)
Pathways with a signal
electrochemical (“King of the Hill,” 64).
Here, the pairing does not make a one-to-one logical connection but rather suggests possibilities for comparison. This “tagging” cross-fertilizes our understanding: it pairs two compelling, but very different, means of making sense of experience, and so forces us to bear in mind at the same time two explanations that we usually separate and consider inimical.
The use of scientific vocabulary stands as another measure for defining a science poem. Open the book to almost any page, and you will find science words. A brief list from the first twenty-two pages includes “electrical engineering,” “biology,” “erythrocytes,” “platelet,” “capillary,” “membrane,” “hypotheses,” “axons,” “synapses,” “cortex,” “theorems,” “septum,” “chloroformed,” “neurons,” “schemata,” “output/input,” “graph,” “neuroscience,” “neurotransmitters,” “calpain,” “molecule,” “hypothalamus,” “striation,” “atom,” and “enzymes.”
Against the influx of atypical poetic vocabulary, other words will, like an electron stripped from the outer shell of an atom, pop out, illuminated, revealing how they can find a home in many lexicons. Again, a brief list: “provisional,” “process,” “multi-vitamins,” “spinal cord,” “brain,” “blood pressure,” “computer chips,” “vector,” and “network.” Read within the poems, these words accentuate the scientific flavor, and yet within a different context, these words wouldn’t necessarily feel that way.
Dick uses the scientific palette earnestly, and this too reveals preconditioning to poetic language: science vocabulary, or any other lexicon typically outside the poetic domain (the bureaucratic, for instance), first enters the poetic domain through irony. Trying to enrich poetic registers with new vocabulary is a valuable and difficult task, and using uncommon lexicons without irony seems to me a second stage in the rejuvenation of poetic language (beyond irony).
Lastly, a poem might use a scientific structure as a metaphor for its form: a poem in the shape of a crystal or double helix; or it might use a type of scientific thinking for its form—a geometrical proof, for instance. (Seeing that would really please me.) Here, Dick structures her poems not only in the scientific dialectic of proposition (hypothesis) and experiment (experience), but she also gives them a synaptic form. Gaps, jumps, and fragments abut more cohesive sections. And as meditation gives a person insight into thought’s radically fragmented, associative and generally unhinged nature, Dick’s poetic structure here mimics the nature of thought itself.
Poetry is, like science and philosophy, speculative. This book doesn’t undermine experience by presupposing, or privileging, biological fact, and thank God for that. (Despite what Zizek says, you can no more remove the subject from poetry as you can from science.) But its deep investment in using science as a powerful parallel mode of explaining experience shows that Dick doesn’t dismiss it either. If, like all utopian genres, the science poem must remain forever unwritten due to the irresolvable tensions inherent in its very idea, attempting to unite these “non-sister” arts shows itself to be one of the most challenging undertakings alive in contemporary poetry.
Jennifer K Dick is the author of CIRCUITS (Corrupt, 2013), ENCLOSURES (BlazeVox eBook, 2007), FLUORESCENCE (UofGA Press, 2004), and 3 chapbooks: BETWIXT (Corrupt, 2012), TRACERY (Dusie, 2012) and RETINA/Rétine(Estepa Editions, France, w/art by Kate Van Houten, tr. R. Bouthonnier). CONVERSION, A new art-chapbook is forthcoming in fall 2013 with Estepa Editions including art by Kate Van Houten. Jennifer teaches at the Université de Haute Alsace in Mulhouse, France, co-curates the Ivy Writers reading series in Paris and the Ecrire Art mini-residency at La Kunsthalle Mulhouse. She is a poetry editor for VERSAL out of Amsterdam, writes book reviews for Drunken Boat and a poetics column for Tears in the Fence (UK). Recent work appears in The Denver Quarterly and Color Treasury 003. More at: http://jenniferkdick.blogspot.com
Matt Reeck's poems have been published in five chapbooks, including the forthcoming The Necessary City by Konundrum Engine Literary Review and The Pastoral City in the Little Red Leaves Textile Series. Bombay Stories, his translations with Aftab Ahmad from the Urdu of Saadat Hasan Manto, was published in India by Random House last year and will be published in the US by Vintage Classics next spring. He co-edits Staging Ground magazine.