The Polymers, Adam Dickinson. Anansi, 2013.
by Rachael Wyatt
This book attracted me, initially, with its use of polymer plastics as a conceit for drawing a collection together. Even before opening the book, possibilities abound: chemical structures are a beautiful, alien language and polymers are ubiquitous in everyday plastics as well as biologically, right down to our very DNA. The concept allows for focus that invites wide-ranging association, and in the case of this book it is Dickinson’s extraordinary playfulness and lightness that kept my attention. Between being amused at the interjections Dickinson makes into usually scientific conventions, forms and language, and being enthralled by the occasional breath-taking metaphorical leap that extends far deeper than the surface level lightness, I couldn’t put this book down once I’d opened it.
The Polymers (Anansi 2013) begins with a clear plastic page on which Dickinson has printed a poetic statement and abstract for the book entitled “Cellophane”, and is prefaced with a quote from Barthes that stakes out plastics as a poetic medium. Dickinson invokes the metaphorical power of polymers: they are both other (synthetic plastics that pervade all aspects of our lives) and self (DNA, RNA, protein). He chooses to focus on artificial polymers, on foreign, manmade chemistry with the inescapable tenor of unnatural permanence: landfills full of plastic and chewing gum that lasts decades pasted to sidewalks.
This book is both sensitive to its readership’s likely lack of background in chemistry and entirely insensitive to it. Even within the introductory section, just as Dickinson lays out the stakes, and articulates the compelling metaphorical power of polymers from DNA to plastics, he moves to an entirely different poetic space with the playful list of “Resin Identification Code” which neither identifies resins nor provides advisories, but instead invades the space of bureaucratic labeling regimes with his enigmatic realm of poetic association:
Dickinson uses a characteristic mix of colloquial register (the domestic space of mattresses and jam) and biological, mathematical and chemical diction (matrices, aromatic rings and amnion) throughout the book. Sometimes this playfulness seems to be only a way to confront contrasting lexicons against each other in evocative ways, using alliteration and rhythmic phrases (as above) to carry the sentences in unexpected directions, while elsewhere he uses metaphorical scaffolding to guide this confrontation of scientific with domestic in an enticing invitation to a deeper understanding of the world:
Here, Dickinson uses DNA as a scaffold for an Escher house, where the helix stacks ‘stairs’ of acidic subunits that link family and domestic space to the mind-bending translation of a one-dimensional code to a complex and three dimensional human being. The glimmer of this metaphorical power behind the poetry in The Polymers shines through in a clearly legible manner every so often, but elsewhere becomes an echo that is obscured by what can either be a difficult interpretive puzzle or a playful evasion of encompassing or guiding metaphors.
Which brings me back to my claim that this book is both sensitive and completely insensitive to an audience with little chemistry-savvy. Do chemists read poetry? Do poets read chemistry? What happens when we collide these two worlds, and what can each side come away with from the experience of reading this collision? Dickinson asks important questions of our science and of our poetry. He toes the line between comprehensible metaphor and incomprehensible stream of association, veering to one side or the other throughout this book: the result is evocative, but fundamentally unstable.
A poem like “Classical Conditioning” (52) maintains a single sustained situation: a set of experiments on conditioning where there are two actors, the doctor and the dog, and the series of plastics that connect the two of them into the apparatus of the experiment. This is rare: more often the sentences have a life of their own and swing from one realm and set of actors to an unexpected and surprising destination: in “Hormones” (50), a single sentence extends from “cities built on shock / waves of concentric booms” to “children / reading hand sanitizers into the / endocrine glands of dropped calls” (22-30).
Through Dickinson’s fast paced sentences, each poem gathers together, if not a series of identical units (as a polymer does), then at least a series of chemical units pulled together by sound, by rhythm and syntax. His lexicon collides the political and social with the strangely alien chemical:
Having gumshoed a
way through peer-review, its deductive air ducts have resolved
into the beckoned law of thermodynamics, so ice cubes don’t
panic, so cold drinks don’t boil in patio feedback. (90)
and his poems analogize everything from the weather to psychology with polymer chemistry:
Freud first speculated
that the compulsion to repeat
is both magnetic and parasitic, flourished
with a polychromic bowtie
that is really a camera. (84)
Dickinson uses chemical structures as tables of contents, giving each section a polymer backbone, and assigning each poem to an atom. The composition of the sections, despite their varied lengths, seems remarkably similar (except for the final section), though not restricted to the entitling polymer. There is one poem in each section that consists almost entirely of a chemical structure or atomic representation. There is also at least one poem in which the language or syntax has been constrained in some manner.
In the first section, “Caution” (15) is formed of a series of sentences with the syntax of warning labels or signs (“Risk of drawing”, “Consult a metaphysician”) that connect in obtuse ways. In the second section, “Coca-Cola Dasani” (42) is a found text reorganized into alphabetical order, beginning with “a a a alps”. Both “Holy Shit, Ruby, I Love You” (75) and “Crossing a Bare Common in Snow Puddles at Twilight” (85) in the penultimate section are syntactically charged: in the former, each line contains a prepositional phrase using ‘in’, while in the latter, the poem goes no more than three words before being interrupted by ‘and’. These linguistically charged poems treat language as macromolecular, as words and syntax connected into a whole by a very concrete set of rules.
The rest of the poems in these sections fall into a characteristic rolling free-verse, where the sentences tend to go on for one or more qualifications more than expected, or shift actors and setting often enough that their continuity is more ephemerally built on sound, rhythm and driving syntax. The style of these poems is also performative of a macromolecular poetics: each idea is drawn into the structure of the whole by the syntax of the sentences, and yet retains its distinctness from the whole:
We practiced our own substitutions,
acting out ghost stories, declaring allegiance
to phantom limbs
while playing high-kick soccer,
awarding exaggerated penalties
and forced to pirate copies
of hoof-and-mouth disease
for overseas quarantined manicurists. (61)
In this sentence of “Call to Arms”, I read three sections: the first with ghost stories and phantom limbs, then from limbs to the second section to soccer and handballs, where the penalties result in being “chicken-winged”, and then to the pirated copies of diseases and quarantines manicurists. The playful lines of connection in this sentence guide the narrative thread through unexpected transitions, just as the magnetism between certain chemical groups will draw disparate molecules together to form a continuous whole.
Both the chemical structures that (de)organize the table of contents for each section and the poems that make use of chemical structures are an essential part of a book using polymer chemistry as its basis, but the move into another language is a gutsy one. Chemical structures are graphical representations without a coordinated sonic level: we can’t really ‘pronounce’ a structure (we can name it in an informative way, but that’s very often a complicated business: see “17-(4ethylhexyl)-13-(4-ethyl-3-propylhexyl)…. etc from “Polyfederalsiloxane” that takes up three lines of text and has more than twenty numbers).
I was able to figure out that the structure in “Honed Security Procedures Following the G-20 Toronto Summit Protests” (76) is a representation of Kevlar because I recognize the amide (the N-H next to the =O) and the benzene ring: I can then Google benzene amide, and if one of the structures that turns up is the same, then I’ve found it. But there are many variations of benzenes combined with amides, for example the structure of the poem “Che Guevara Delighted to See His Face on the Breasts of so Many Beautiful Women” (41), which is complex enough that I can no longer name enough of the structure to be able to search it. There is no Google translate for chemical structures.
Without knowing anything about the chemicals invoked by these structures and where they might be found, I’m left with visual metaphors: in the case of “Che Guevara Delighted to See His Face on the Breasts of so Many Beautiful Women”, there are pairs of benzene rings which I’m invited to see as breasts, and then organizations of nitrogen and oxygen atoms that could be construed as faces or figures:
Perhaps the titles describe each structure as an image, as well as connecting somehow to the material that the given structure forms (which the reader will not always have access to). In the case of “Honed Security Procedures Following the G-20 Toronto Summit Protests”, the Kevlar structure is very organized and repetitive, and consists of hard-linked chains of benzene rings linked to other chains by softer links: ultimately it looks like lines of shields, with the structures in between the benzene rings presumably representing the police holding them.
When it comes to “Occupy” (20), however, the first of the ‘structure’ poems in the volume, I am less sure of way the structure is visually representative of the title. Only on returning back after carefully thinking about some of the other structures does this perhaps look like peaked tents interrupted by people standing, and even then I’m not entirely convinced by it:
The ‘peaked tent’ structure of zig-zagging carbon bonds is pretty ubiquitous in a lot of different chemicals: unsaturated oils pretty much all look like that. This sets up an immediate uncertainty with this type of poem on how to read it, an uncertainty that seems to echo some of the metaphorical uncertainty of the rest of the collection.
There are a few inconsistencies in the chemical structures used, and I question some of Dickinson’s choices. The discrete units for polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride and polypropylene are drastically smaller than that for polyester (the largest) or even polystyrene. So, in order to try and adjust for this, Dickinson has chosen two different styles of line representation: polyester is represented in a manner where the hydrogen atoms are not shown, and instead are implicit in the structure (this is probably the more common schematic), while the smaller structures use a representation which includes the hydrogen atoms as lines, in order to beef up the number of nodes that can be used for the table of contents. I certainly see the problem with using the same representation for all of the molecules involved (three very short sections or one massively long one!), but it brings me to question the consistency of representation. For most reading this collection, of course, this choice will probably be invisible, but for one reader this lessens the impact. In these section heading figures, Dickinson also doesn’t indicate where the repeating units would be connected to the next subunit, which in the case of Kevlar would look something like this (where the bolded structure is the repeating unit, and there are dashed lines indicating where the next monomer continues):
As these connections are the distinguishing factor between polymers and other chemical compounds, it seems to me an oversight to leave them out. Polymers are necessarily messy to draw, and the representation Dickinson has chosen gives a false sense of completeness that seems at odds with the way his other poems evade reductive narrative or meaning.
The section that, I think, best exemplifies both Dickinson’s playful attitude to his subject matter and most effectively melds the different timbres of the rest of the book, is the ‘Other’ section, headed by a single benzene ring and an exception to the usual mode of assigning each poem to an atom, instead listing the first two poems at the bottom of the page. This section also includes “Index to Modern Plastics (unsaturated edition)” (102), “Materials and Methods” (105), and “Additives” (which consists of the acknowledgements for the volume). Here, Dickinson commits himself largely to a prose form, but intersperses chemical structures, names, definitions and page references. This final section of the book is a brilliant collision of scientific prose-form interspersed with surprisingly familiar terms.
In “Polyfederalsiloxane”—where Dickinson has inserted ‘federal’ into the nickname for his invented silicone structure which spells ‘sight’ with its chemical line-structure—he claims that “The Magna Carta, The Abrahamic books and the Declaration of Independence are all derived form organic chemistry” (100): a claim which is both playfully ridiculous and also fundamentally true in a very abstract sense.
The chemical analysis of the ‘letters’ in Darwin’s The Origin of Species found in “Dartetraiodoallwinene” opens up a discussion about deterministic genetics, but pulls itself out of a too-serious statement by caricaturing the letter ‘I’ in a faux-serious analysis of C3I4, which has a “distinctive shape resembling the first-person singular” (97). Dickinson refers us to Genesis for more information about the energy involved in the polymerization process. Both Dickinson’s index and methods and materials section playfully invade the space of didactic knowledge-based texts with the associative and non-linear tenor of his poetry. His materials and methods section ends with a cheeky hat-tip to actual materials and methods with “This entire book was typed on plastic keys” (111).
This is a book worth reading in order to struggle with its alienness, to be confronted with its unfamiliar language and representations, and maybe even to be defeated, confused and lost in its play between serious sociological or environmental points and an evasive looseness of reference. The Polymers is a brilliantly conceived collection that confronts pollution, exclusionary scientific research, and our own social-political moment through the metaphors and language of polymer chemistry.
Rachael Wyatt is a poet and a recent graduate of Concordia University. You will find two poems from Polymers here.