Poetry for the Apocalypse
“Thinking of writing a poem is not a poem,” says Maurizio Ferraris in Documentality: Why It Is Necessary to Leave Traces, tr. Richard Davies (Fordham UP, 2015).
On the other hand, Darren Wershler-Henry’s conceptualist classic The Tapeworm Foundry (2000) is a prose poem that consists of a relentless stream of robust and fecund thinking about various poetic, literary, and artistic projects. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning:
compose a love poem called charged particles in which each line consists of a single word ending in the suffix ion andor stick a stamp on your forehead and then pull a mailbag over your eyes before you begin to recite andor work on a poem attempting to emulate gansers syndrome wherein a person responds to emotionally difficult questions with evasive answers andor address the united nations with your intentions andor write an encyclopedic novel about a whale but maintain throughout that the whale is a fish not a mammal andor write a series of haiku about barrett watten and bruce andrews and lyn hejinian but sign it using the pseudonym lang po
The Tapeworm Foundry is a brilliant book that, indeed, presages my 2012 Cutting Time with a Knife: “write a prose poem for each element on the periodic table and then assemble more complex texts by combining them in a manner analogous to the molecular structure of your favourite compounds.” I could have used that quote as an epigraph.
Wershler-Henry also presages Christian Bök’s The Xenotext Project, surely one of the most rigorously interdisciplinary poetry projects in recent memory: “scrawl graffiti all over someone elses liberal utopia andor encode it in a helix of dna.”
“Poetry for the Apocalypse,” my review of Bök’s The Xenotext: Book 1 (Coach House, 2015) has just appeared today in the digital edition of the July/August issue of American Scientist. This is how it begins:
Affectionately nicknamed “Conan the Bacterium,” Deinococcus radiodurans, a so-called polyextremophile, has an uncanny ability to rapidly repair damage to its genome. As a result, it can resist the most hostile conditions, from drought to radiation to acid baths to a Martian atmosphere. And if Canadian conceptual poet Christian Bök has his way, it will compose verse that will outlive our Sun.
Bök has earned a reputation for conducting extremely difficult poetic experiments and executing them with technical wizardry. In his award-winning 2001 bestseller Eunoia, for example, he uses only a single vowel in each chapter, a constraint that produces a form known as a univocalic. The first section is composed of words that include no vowels other than a, the second includes no vowels other than e, and so on. To build an appropriate lexicon for this demanding work, Bök read through Webster’s Third International Unabridged Dictionary five times and spent six years writing. His latest poetic challenge takes him into trickier and more technically specialized territory. Taking on the very perishability of text, Bök has devised a novel solution: In composing his verse, he is employing the medium of life itself.