invokes the “circle of consternation” one faces when
contemplating a sea shell (135): its dissymmetrical pattern is
typical but each shell is irreducibly unique. The aesthetic consistency
suggests a made thing, perhaps a maker, while the individuality
of each shell affirms no such thing. Fond as they are of notions
of watchmakers and pandas capable of hitchhiking, creationists
are unable to countenance the prospect that they themselves are
part of the natural world that they observe. Valéry studies
the shell as Hamlet does the fool’s skull:
Nothing we know of our own actions enables us to imagine what
it may be that so gracefully modulates these surfaces, element
by element, row by row, without other tools than those contained
in the thing that is being fashioned . . . Our artists do not
derive the material of their own works from their own substance,
and the form for which they strive springs from a specialized
application of their mind, which can be completely
disengaged from their being. (132)
So much the poorer “our artists,” if this is true;
but is it? If human beings are in no way removed from the natural
world in which one finds shells on a beach, of what is their poetry
Insistent on marrying abstraction to the literally sensible, Adam
Dickinson’s anaphoric “Density” offers the reader
shells to trade with Valéry. The poem so forthrightly maps
out a creation story (of sorts), an evolution by revolution, that
it might be mistaken –perhaps not altogether unprofitably–
for a theodicy.(1) Certainly
it has the features of a manifesto, or at least a proposition,
rather in the way that a Wallace Stevens poem enacts, in its unaffiliated,
maverick way, a revolution. Stevens sings the praises of
the vast repetitions final in
Themselves and, therefore, good, the going round
And round and round, the merely going round,
Until merely going round is a final good,
The way wine comes at a table in a wood.
“Density,” the introductory poem to Dickinson’s
2006 collection Kingdom, Phyllum, invites us to see ourselves
as part of these repetitions. Just as “planets form as spheres”
because of the force of gravity whose specific strength is largely
determined by the mass of that ur-planetary matter, so too is
life itself governed by circles of consternation. Appetite and
desire go round (“Wolves encircle deer”) while history
“repeats itself” and “the sun makes a wheel
in the sky.” So without, so within:
So the brain was once a stem
before we crowded it with wonder.
. . .
So the brain has spheres, so the mind wanders from room to room
trying to feel at home, rearranging the furniture, tilting the
various angles of down.
There’s a Metaphysical strain to all of this; the sort of
smooth seduction by trope that may employ elements of the “natural
world” in an argument to give credence to some philosophy
or, more heatedly, to obey some biological imperative. When the
poem ends with the declaration, “So I have always loved
you,” the word key word “so” might be taken
for “thus,” if such a birds-do-it-bees-do-it theme
were in fact the only or even a dominant theme. In fact, this
turns out to be a superficial and unsatisfying reading, since
“Density,” as its very title indicates, is not about
discordia concors (metaphor demands distance) but rather
concentration, how ideas and things and people are always
Shells are things, and so are words. All of the words in this
essay are borrowed from somewhere else – you might say I
found them on a beach. Noting that “water will cross over
itself,” Dickinson too combs the beaches and picks up what
Two trailer park girls go ‘round the outside.
So I love you. I love you; a stutter
is desire balled in the mouth, pure roundness, language of the
italicized line, a note at the back matter of Kingdom, Phyllum
reports, is taken from Eminem’s song “Without Me”
(2002). Notes are only hints at narratives and it is worth digging
at this spot. “Without Me” has the usual, often wearisome
histrionics –the performer repeatedly asserts his superior
masculinity, while denigrating the talent, age, and sexuality
of others– but the history of music in which Eminem ironically
centers himself (or his alter ego, Slim Shady) is divertingly
complex. “No I’m not the first king of controversy,”
he sings, “I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley / to
do black music so selfishly / and used it to get myself wealthy.”
The paradox is that “without” Eminem, the musical
world is “empty,” but Eminem is by his own admission
the shameless exploiter of the music of others.
Malcolm McLaren’s 1983 foray (let’s be generous) into
the world of rap, “Buffalo Gals,” has a stammering
electronic drumbeat overlaid with no end of record-scratching
(a woman’s voice interjects, “Boy, that scratchin’
is makin’ me itch”). McLaren at that time even looks
like Eminem, another white kid in outsized clothes, clowning around
and bustin’ rhymes, sort of:
buffalo gal go ‘round the outside
‘round the outside
‘round the outside (you know it)
Two buffalo gals go ‘round the outside
so on, until four buffalo gals are in motion and are told to “dosie
do your partners.” The square dance meets the breakdance,
urban black culture meets agrarian white culture. McLaren’s
title is itself borrowed goods:
Buffalo Gals, won’t you come out tonight,
come out tonight, come out tonight.
Buffalo Gals, won’t you come out tonight
and dance by the light of the moon.
music – a phrase that means its origins are murky, though
it is attributed to a blackface minstrel called Cool White (John
Hodges), who is thought to have written it in 1844. Eminem’s
amendment of “Buffalo gals” to “trailer park
girls” –a phrase which invites “white trash”
stereotypes– further complicates the “identity”
of the music.(2)
As weighty and intriguing as the political implications of this
tangled web of cultural and racial appropriations and renegotiations
are, I am not sure that they have direct resonances within Dickinson’s
poem and so will dig no further here. Indirectly, however, they
sound out the crux of the poem: this pattern of recycling, indeed
the very habit or capacity for discovering patterns, is for Dickinson
what unites humans and nature, is human nature.
Records spin, politics spin. A stutter is a spinning of words,
repetition with a difference. To ask someone to dance is to call
for a revolution.(3) In his epilogue
to Poetry of the Revolution, Martin Puchner writes:
What we can see from the vantage point of the early twenty-first
century is that the modern meaning of revolution as an absolute
break has itself acquired a history, that modernity should be
defined not by the figure of the break but by the break’s
repetition. . . . only by recognizing the poetry of the revolution
as a poetry of repetition that we can hope to make a choice
between different types of repetition in the first place. (259-60)
Although the phrase “first place” is definitely out
of place (here and in Puchner’s epilogue), the political
and ethical significance of an awareness of repetition-as-revolution
is exactly what Dickinson is probing. The recurring movements
in and of “Density” lead to no break, no illusory
telos or finish-line. (Even the irregular lengths of its
lines point to a dampening of the power and significance of “breaks.”)
The repetition of “so” leads us to uncertain possibility:
So chromosomes coil,
making each of us a fist, cupped hands, holding some smaller,
that has been passed down like spring seeding, a family blanket,
re-stitched; a telephone game where the message becomes confused,
So I have always loved you. I said I loved you.
The poem stutters, but it also offers the next word to us. So
what? That is a revolutionary question.
“Density” affirms that poems are works made of the
poet’s substance, that it must be understood that no one
and nothing is completely disengaged from what I’ve perhaps
rather loosely referred to here as “nature.” Dickinson’s
opening lines are lapidary: “All things desire / to be as
close as possible.” This poem, like the discovered and constantly
rediscovered shell, is the revolving and revolutionary world we
Azuonye, Nnorom. “Adam Dickinson and Poetry.” Sentinel
Poetry 19 (June 2004): <www.sentinelpoetry.org.uk/magazine0604/a.dickinson_interview2004.home.html>
Dickinson, Adam. “Density.” Kingdom, Phylum.
London: Brick Books, 2006. 11-14.
Eminem. “Without Me.” The Eminem Show. Aftermath/Interscope,
McLaren, Malcolm. “Buffalo Gals.” Buffalo Gals
Back to Skool. Virgin, 1999.
Puchner, Martin. Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos,
and the Avant-Gardes. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006.
Stevens, Wallace. “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.”
The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play.
Ed. Holly Stevens. New York: Vintage, 1972. 207-34.
Valéry, Paul. “Man and the Sea Shell.” Trans.
Ralph Manheim. Paul Valéry: An Anthology. Ed.
James R. Lawler. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977. 108-35.
The determinism of “Density” does seem to encourage
a misreading of the title as “Destiny” – but,
as I’ll explain, the poem’s ending does not suggest
the discourse of creation is complete.
In his video for the song, Eminem assumes a variety of disguises
and costumes, perhaps the most interesting of which is that of
“Rap Boy,” whose black mask, red and green tights,
and yellow cape are unmistakably those of Batman’s young
partner, Robin. Thus Eminem presents himself not so much as a
superhero as a superhero’s sidekick, a risible “boy
In a 2004 interview, Dickinson allows that his poetry is “very
political” but, to the suggestion that “poetry must
be resolving issues,” responds that poetry “does not
participate in the prescriptive economy of system in this way.
What poetry offers is a different way of thinking, it offers potential;
it offers us a way of questioning our relationships. This is where
all politics must begin” (Azuonye).
Conley is Assistant Professor of English Literature at
Brock University. His essays, fiction, poetry, and reviews have
appeared in journals in six countries. He is the author of, most
Press, 2006) and, with Stephen Cain, The Encyclopedia of Fictional
and Fantastic Languages (Greenwood, 2006).
[view printer friendly