poetics.ca issue #8
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Going ‘Round the Outside: Adam Dickinson

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Paul Valéry 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 made?

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 pictures to
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 compacting.

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 he fancies:

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 infinite O.

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:

First buffalo gal go ‘round the outside
‘round the outside
‘round the outside (you know it)
Two buffalo gals go ‘round the outside

...and 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.

Traditional 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, older stone
that has been passed down like spring seeding, a family blanket, patched and
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 inhabit.

Works Cited

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, 2002.
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.



(1) 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.

(2) 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 wonder.”

(3) 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).

Tim 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 recently, Whatever Happens (Insomniac Press, 2006) and, with Stephen Cain, The Encyclopedia of Fictional and Fantastic Languages (Greenwood, 2006).

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