The Polymers and Anatomic: an evening with Adam Dickinson

by Leslie Wexler

Adam Dickinson is Assistant Professor at Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario

Speaking on his Poetry Collections: The Polymers (House of Anansi Press, 2013) and introducing Anatomic (Coach House Press, 2018)

TORONTO – As Adam got up to speak, a screen flashed with a slide of an aquatic bird dead on a beach. The bird has been dissected in situ on the beach where the interior stomach is filled with garbage, some of it plastic garbage, and these are Adam’s chosen first words:

       Hello from inside the albatross
(with plastic lighters and Japanese police tape etc…)

The literal interior of this aquatic bird seems to run a straight-course towards a discussion on environmental aesthetics and maybe even action. However, the use of a word like albatross changes all that. The albatross in literary tradition is the bird of journey, extended journey, even journey beyond the pale. It is very prominently the bird of Samuel Coleridge, and no literary-trained poet could write albatross without thinking of his name. For Coleridge that albatross was a bird that evoked paradox, in the Greek sense of para (beyond) doxa (common belief). Coleridge’s albatross is murdered in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the aftermath of that death led the mariners into a place where a cosmic gamble with supernatural beings is played out upon a ship marooned in a coagulated sea of stillness. The mariners are starving and dying of thirst and are caught with life and death in the balance in a sea of caesura, and we are viewing an aquatic bird glutted with our world’s pollution, tainted by our miasma and laying dead. Coleridge knew that what we view in that moment, is dread and our own death at once.

       Hello from inside the albatross
(the space of death brimming with cheap plastic).

Adam asks you immediately to enter this uneasy space and co-mingle with all your discarded detritus that somewhere a bird is eating all the while asking: how can you possibly be free from the taint of your own pollution?
Dickinson’s book, The Polymers, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, the Trillium Book Award for Poetry, and the ReLit Award. You get the immediate impression from Adam Dickinson’s The Polymers that he is a playful guy.
He is clever and is going to request of you that you enter at least one aspect of his writing with the spirit of play. This play, however, has a dark underbelly as the topic under consideration is plastic. Plastic as a “tool and a physical and chemical pollution,” the miasma of our time…or is it out of time? He asserts that plastic is at once “outmoded and futuristic, colloquial and scientific, a polluting substance that is also intimately associated with our live.” This object spans time, space, natural and artificial categories.

Adam’s poetry is the experience of self and environment that truly enacts its knowledge through even the poet’s own body, especially as it was revealed in his new poetry collection Anatomic. The collection is what he describes as a “chemical autobiography” that lays bare the relationship between the outside and inside of bodies in our current ‘petroculture.’ What was an outward experience through The Polymers turn to the polymers themselves Dickinson found in his own body. It is through memorandum and medical notes related to his forthcoming book of poetry that speaks the biosemiotics of his own body. The intimacy of this kind of project required extensive medical lab work and disclosure of a level of personal information that surprised and intrigued me.

Adam placed this medical process with a microscopic image of his own blood cells as within the aesthetic range of Edward Burtynsky’s famous petrochemical landscapes. Adam conceives of his blood cells and sweat as another kind of manufactured landscape.  He stated, “The industrialized world, through toxic chemicals, is carrying out a kind of fantastic imaginary science project, on the bodies of its citizens, without consent.” This struck me as well-supported by the dystopic Romantic vision of Burtynsky’s images (Romantic, because Burtynsky’s photographs are often discussed from the standpoint of their parallel compositions with the Picturesque and Romantic landscape genres.) By mapping his own microscopic images of his blood cells onto this tradition in art history, Adam would seemingly be gesturing toward taking up this vision. But with a caveat, for him we have also entered the albatross, which is the place of filling excessive vials of blood until the veins ache, “blueberries” appear in tracts and he clamours near the end “drawing blood from both arms, and yanking the tourniquet with his teeth.” The desperation behind this poetry is deeply ambitious in its use of the language of desires, withdrawal, accumulation, accretion and the repetition of empirical modes set of record-keeping (as he is in the moment of both getting blood stored in vials and recording the amount of blood). The rhetoric of the record-keeping voice permeates the very expression and contour of this deeply profound by unsettling experience and its relation to the body. The University seemed piqued as well as “New policies,” upon Adam’s particular research, “were put in place” suggesting an even stronger regulation within the both the process and potentially the rhetoric.

There is a tipping point for this kind of work, however, for Adam reveals in a distanced and professional tone, “everyone has traces of Monsanto in them,” which is to say PCBs. He comments upon this factoid with deliberate distance never naming “pesticides” or explicitly saying “there are pesticides inside your body, it is a poison.” In the point-blank way that Adam stated, “everyone has traces of Monsanto in them,” I was reminded of an editorial by Michael Slezak, the editor for climate change at The Guardian. Last week, Slezak wrote about why he has left his position as editor of climate change. He begins his article with, “Until recently, like a sociopath might have little feelings when witnessing violence, I’ve managed to have relatively mild emotional responses to climate change.” He goes on to report that for the first five years he covered climate, he was able to maintain a professional wall and kept his emotional reactions behind them. “But in 2016, something changed,” he reports. What Slezak comes to is a tipping point into dread, then panic – a threshold that I sense that Adam Dickinson has also encountered.

In question period, Adam, upon asked about the emotional labour of his poetic practices and the devastating knowledge it might produce, spoke of learning medical results with full blown anxiety. He commented that he will be happy when this current project is “put on the shelf”, or in other words, he’s longing for it to be done. This sentiment of no longer wanting to engage with the sheer scale of threat and the vulnerable body is both generative and toxic in its poetic potential. For Adam its byproduct was anxiety, for Slezak it was panic.

The tipping point was a key insight for me regarding Adam’s work for it opened up something in its unfolding anxiety that registers as a reality. T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, “human kind / cannot bear very / much reality.” It seems to me, what Eliot was commenting upon is what happens in the face of extremely uncomfortable data, that includes very unpleasant bodily sensations (together with dread, fear, and mortality). For Slezak, he confesses a loss of numbness, dumbness, and even relief that the emotional reaction is at last true to the immensity and importance of the work’s message.

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