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
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
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
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,
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
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
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 inhabit.
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 wonder.”
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 recently,
Press, 2006) and, with Stephen Cain, The Encyclopedia of Fictional
and Fantastic Languages (Greenwood, 2006).