Wednesday, June 28, 2023

How Contemporary Poets Use Science Today

 Jennifer K Dick proposes 5 categories for the ways in which contemporary poets are using science today :

(this list is a sketch of only a few examples which I am sharing here as an invitation to others to think about this and other ways poets now or poets you know or you as poets are using science in your work. This list was compiled in 2017, so has not been updated)

1) As metaphor or exploration of language to name with precision

a.       Stratification/use of combining words, images, metaphors & scientific concepts with colloquial/everyday language—all the books in this handout fit here, too, but these are additional ones that really rely on this technique:

Archipelago, Arthur Sze

In Memory of My Theories, Rod Smith

Reproduction of Profiles, Rosmarie Waldrop

Norma Cole’s works— especially Spinoza in Her Youth, but also Metamorphopsia

            Etym(bi)ology (Omnidawn, 2002) by Liz Waldner

            Perhaps the origin of this is derived from Gertrude Stein’s explorations. As Kimo Reder explained in The arc of our ark: Bio-poetics over the DNA rainbow, « Gertrude Stein’s experiments in grammar, using a non-ritual repetition to pressure units of language out of their assumed, denotative meaning, bombarded a word’s semantic nucleus and rendered it capable of new syntactic mutations. Similarly, bio-poetics play on the protean complexity of subvisible microbes and their dizzying variety of ontological admixtures. In one such work, “ewe” as sheep plays on “you” as pronoun and palindromically gestures toward our bestial past and post-species future at once. »

b.      Nature/body metaphor; biology and microbiology and the science (i.e. uses of litmus paper, etc) as metaphor or as an answer to “Oh yes, we have words for all this” (Dorothy Lehane, Ephémeris, 22) is prevalent in works by numerous authors, including—

Ephemeris, Dorothy Lehane (editor of Litmus magazine, UK)

Dummy Fire, Sarah Vap

Tender Girl, Lisa Samuels (above all explored through a biological transformation)

Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil: “I wanted to write a novel but I wrote this [Hold up charcoal in fist.] I wrote the organ sweets—the bread-rich parts of the body before it’s opened then devoured. I wrote the middle of the body to its end.” (19)

And on a lesser level, in combination with questions about language and the world as iis/describable, explorable:

Facts For Visitors, Srikanth Reddy

Bravura Cool, Jane Lewty

Gender City and Anti M by Lisa Samuels


2) to speak about illness—either literally or metaphorically (for example, where man becomes the virus which is an infection/plaque upon the earth)

a.      Body/illness (& death)—

Tory Dent, HIV, Mon Amour

Schizophrene Bhanu Kapil

            Pneumatic Antiphonal, Sylvia Legris

Post-stroke, Juliet Cook

Also An Essay in Asterisks by Jena Osama, but her other works may be stronger examples to look at.

Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil:  Politics and the injured/sickened body: violence against the body that stems from a political event, enters the body, its biology, transforms it: “The roar of the race riot dims. Ban is crumpled like a tulip: there. A wetness, that is, with limbs. There are subtle movements: ventral and dorsal (muscular) twitches. This is the sensorimotor sequence. This is voltage: the body routed through its sounds: groans, murmurs, shouts.” (48)—in her end-notes, she thanks Sarah Roder for conversations on cranial-sacral bodywork which led to Bhanu’s twitching descriptions (see p 87 of the book)

Technical terms and unpacking them for schizophrene: “For years now, I’ve been thinking about schizophrenia and disgust. How the capacity of a schizophrenic to recognize disgust in another person’s face, the person looking at them, is actually the thing that is workable. You can train the schizophrenic to recognize other facial expressions based on their ability to recognize that one. Anhedonia, for example, the negative symptom of schizophrenia, is ‘the abyss between sentences,’ as Gaill Scott writes. Decontextualized.” (58)

b.     Man as infection of world :

The Xenotext book 1, Christian Bök

Juliana Spahr Transformation

Brenda Iijima, Around Sea


3) To explore nature/biology & human interactions

a.       In ecopoetic works: (too many to list, but here is a random taste of some I like)

Brenda Iijima, esp Around Sea & her most recent book on animals

Gale Nelson, Ceteris Paribus

Gale Scott’s poems and writings on Schizophrenia

Tender Girl, Lisa Samuels

            The Xenotext book 1, Christian Bök (& the ongoing  project)

Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation, using biology and in particular the plant “the maracujá vine” : passiflora use and discovery by a Dr in 1569 in Hawaii to parallel the experiences of the immigrant arriving on that island & issues of infection— questions of understanding what they were on a political and race level (related to biological origin differences) mixes with politics and extinction level event fears (flus, but then this becomes a 9/11 book in which she develops the issues already present in her poetry collection This Connection of Everyone With Lungs and thus explores the issue of what is carried on the air and breathed into the body, even from afar.)

3 books by Thalia Field, all at New Directions: Bird Lovers, Backyard; Point & Line ; Incarnate: Story Material

Schizophrene, Bhanu Kapil

Ban en Banlieue, Bhanu Kapil: “Adorno substituted people for animals; I feel cautious and sad reading his words in the middle of the night, studying the body for Ban. /// Why?// To ‘reduce the living body.’ [E. Groz].///To reach the point at which: ‘life rubs up against matter, its inner core.’ And thus to analyze nudity in a text, as friction, the sacrifice gone wrong: but also: the normalizing contact with membranes of all kinds—plant, brush, nettles, ivy, asphalt, skin. What is the function of a non-genital nudity in a work of narrative? How can the body perform something in a new way—something that belongs neither to the scene nor to history? Note from the labyrinth: 2.b.”(59)

b.      EXTINCTION OF SPECIES:  (and of humans as well)

Thalia Field, Bird Lovers, Backyard

Juliana Spahr, The Transformation

                The Xenotext book 1, Christian Bök. D Luman explains in his book review: “One of the hinges of the text is a 52-part section that translates a part of Virgil’s Georgics entitled “Colony Collapse Disorder” which makes an allegory out of Virgil’s metaphor of armies to bees, drawing a parallel to the fragile state of bee populations in our real, extra-textual world—a kind of damage that we, as biological beings, have enacted on other biological beings largely through the product of systems of action brought into being by our own will in language. It is a conflict that, no matter how developed our concepts of meaning and signification become, condemns genetic structures to die; no amount of language can resurrect species subject to the forces of extinction or answer the question, as Bök’s translation asks, // [h]ow do we expiate our sins having sacrificed every beast upon every altar?” (in Found Poetry Review, Douglas Luman, )


c.       Cyborg identity—the body (biological), the hybrid body and the mechanical body: A.I.

Bhanu Kapil Incubation : A Space for Monsters

Jacques Sivan: Notre Mission (Al Dante/Presses du Réel, 2018)

Edging, Michelle Noteboom as well as her chapbook « The Chia Letters »


4) Work which is in the service of science—for a better understanding of science :

            The Xenotext book 1, Christian Bök

            Pneumatic Antiphonal, Sylvia Legris

            All the books by Amy Catanzano

            Darwin: A Life in Poems, Ruth Padel

            Mad Science in Imperial City, Shanxing Wang

            In a way, all of the works by Mari-Lou Rowley

Juliana Spahr : This Connection of Everyone With Lungs & Transformation

            The Character, Jena Osman & her hypertext work: The Periodic Table


5) As « biosemiotic » exploration of the world: 

Most of  these books also tend to pose numerous questions about the nature of the self through a sort of biosemiotic exploration of the world. The philosophical question « who am I » / “who are we” ? encounters potential responses or metamorphoses into an alternative query : « What are we » ?

Mari-Lou Rowley is actively implicated in this kind of exploration. She wrote on her blog that she was « struck by […] the biosemiotic tango of all living things in and within the dynamic flux of changing environments.” And she goes on to explain that “As an eco-science poet who has tumbled, quite gleefully, into the field of biosemiotics the questions that compel me are: What is the nature of poetic and/or creative emergence? What is the zygote and epigenisis of a poem or work of art? How does the poet read and interact with her environment, or semiosphere, in order to translate emotions, memories, sounds, smells, disconnected images, into the phonemes, syllables, words, lines and stanzas of a poems that resonates with the reader/listener. By what mechanisms does a poem or artwork evoke emotional or physiological response? Both Tammy and I believe in the concepts behind biosemiotics. Of course molecules, organisms and animals (human and non-human) communicate in and with the environment. We hear them. We are constantly on the lookout for signs.

The genesis of art, poetry and biological process involves multiple pathways and signals—which involves both an element of chance and of choice. (Transforium – notes on process; Posted on November 23, 2012 by Mari-Lou Rowley)

            In a reversal which poses the questions who and what are we—are we biology or man, we can add the experiment and the project The Xenotext by Christian Bök. In The Xenotext, July 5, 2011,, Allison Carruth wrote: “The Xenotext Experiment aims to create a procedure for the reciprocal, meaningful translation of poetry into DNA and DNA into poetry. // In his 2008 description of the project, Bök writes "Not simply a code that governs both the development of an organism and the maintenance of its function, the genome can now become a vector for modes of artistic innovation and cultural expression.” A future of ecological collapse underlies this techno-lyrical project. Bök goes on to cite cybernetic theorist Pak Wong's view that the use of DNA to encode messages in the highly resilient and adaptive cells of bacteria could serve to store cultural heritages “against planetary disaster.” How and who would later decode those messages—first written in American Standard English and then translated into a DNA sequence, in Bök’s project—is a question we should certainly raise.

[…] Akin to bioartist Eduardo Kac, Bök claims that the genome is today a foundation "for heretofore unimagined modes of artistic innovation and cultural expression.” In turn, he suggests, “poetry stands poised to become the conduit for life science research.”

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