Nikki Sheppy on Gillian Savigny’s Notebook M

Notebook M, Gillian Savigny. Insomniac Press, 2012.
Review by Nikki Sheppy

Winner of the 2013 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, Gillian Savigny’s Notebook M explores the poetic dimensions of the scientific imaginary. Drawing on both the empirical and the invented, the poems consider nature a form of intelligent art and science an impassioned creative inquiry, as troubled as it is ordered by its dedication to method and objectivity. At times, the writing exploits the absurdity of this all-too-subjective pursuit. “The Scientific Method” teases:

This is the equation for separating the observer

from the observed.

Cut off your nose. (83)

The collection takes its title from one of Charles Darwin’s manuscript notebooks. The scientist’s 1838 Notebook M bears the subtitle “Metaphysics on Morals & Expression” and collects his thoughts about the metaphysical and imaginative implications of his scientific observations. In it, Darwin speculates about such topics as baboon metaphysics, pleasure and shame in dogs, and evidence that orangutans sometimes cry like naughty children. He wonders, “Why do bulls & horses, animals of different orders turn up their nostrils when excited by love?” (71). In other words, he strays into a creative mode at play with the abundant variety of natural life.

Like its namesake, Savigny’s book pursues questions that walk the borderland between science and conjecture, nature and art. It also adopts the heterogeneous form of a notebook that collects miscellany, logging observations and considering contradictory hypotheses. Without turning scientific language into a fetish, the poems also delight in their lexicon. In “Tails, Pits, Beaks, and Wings,” etymology emerges as a form of linguistic descent that playfully puts our understanding of anatomy into historical context.

Coccyx is a white-coat word,

Greek for a cuckoo. Coccyx squawks

because an anatomist thought

the bone at the base of the spine

looked like a sort of bill. (87)

The poems are finely built and stealthy. Without the clarity and elegance of Savigny’s writing, it might be possible to overlook how deliberately and effectively her work mines the formal and thematic potential of Darwin’s work. Instead, the book invites us to consider evolution as both memory and erasure, invention and revision: history genetically transmitted to the future, and species naturally selected and de-selected, each biological inspiration subjected to the test of its usefulness.

The collection opens with the sequence, “Journal of Researches – Patagonia,” which extracts poetry by erasing Darwin’s travel notebook. The evolved text is one that survives through not natural but literary selection, culling from the journal Savigny’s own observations, like the unexpected discernment of heredity among disparate creatures: “One is tempted to believe each individual appears independent yet all may be bound together by a tree” (25). The sequence is inflected with the intrepid spirit of the nineteenth-century research expedition, examining the trials and tribulations of travelling (the crew overwhelmed by flies in foreign lands), and also their conjectures about animals and “monsters” both alive and mysteriously exterminated.

A second section, “An Autobiographical Fragment,” draws on Darwin’s personal papers to tell the story of his childhood adventures in nature. These poems capture his curiosity and early laboratory work with his grandfather, Erasmus, as well as his later thoughts about the nature of memory. Some of the writing in this section is beautifully simple, yet the imagery is strikingly original. In “Three Studies of Fruit,” a footnote transforms the memory of a cut into a meditation on the evolution of tools—especially our language and narratives (an idea emphasized formally through the paratextual use of citation):

a cow rushes past the window,

startling me so I startle the knife,

and it bites2 my thumb

between the knuckles. (44–5)

The footnote invites the reader to think of memory as the evolution of experience, re-framed in language (in the tooth, in the mouth):

I use the verb to bite here not in a metaphorical sense. A knife may be thought of literally as an evolution of our teeth that has taken place through the mind. A knife is a tooth we carry in our hands. (45)

Such clever double-dealing is characteristic of this book. For example, two back-to-back poems, “The Sleep of Leaves” and “Paper Birch,” speak directly to one another, the first noting and the second playfully disposing of our tendency to personify nature. In the former, the speaker observes that the leaves respond to the ratio between sunlight and shadow, opening or closing according to this number: “It’s not the darkness that excites them / but arithmetic” (65). Later,

Only the shy ones

close altogether, folding themselves

along the midrib, the petiolule

into a contra dance of margins. (65)

Flipping the page, the reader turns to an altogether different viewpoint in “Paper Birch,” when the narrator cautions against projecting human emotion onto other species:

It’s not fair to the tree if you only see yourself in it.

It’s not a pond or a mirror.  It doesn’t miss the leaves

or shiver in winter. (66)

The speaker is actively wondering about—and also debunking—the psychic life of plants. In the imaginary terrain of Darwin’s metaphysical speculations, science is contentious and full of mystery. Together the two poems debate the issue. Do trees have consciousness? If trees had consciousness, might they express themselves through features resembling what we call personality?

Yet another piece explores the poetic potential of the arboreal world to make a point we might call meta-poetic. In “Petrified Forest,” a metaphorical museum enumerates the botanical dead:

the forest, no one ever seemed to see […]

the wrong tree, that fell

to silence so much barking

stump speech

root words

the new leaf, tuned too many times over and over (70)

The poem anatomizes the parts of a forest (roots, stumps, leaves) and the types of language with which we might strive—or fail—to describe it (silence, barking, stump speech, root words). Such canny wordplay describes two forests, one literal and one literary (or at least, linguistic), and suggests that each is the product of heredity (genetic, cultural, social), and subject to change or extinction.

Savigny’s formal experiments are at once elegant and playful, elucidating her Darwinian themes with what seems like casual aptness. “Type Specimen,” opens with an epigraph from Jost Hotchuli’s Detail in Typography: “Our letters have grown slowly. Over time, they have adapted to various writing techniques and tools, to the materials to be written on, to production techniques and prevailing styles…” (73). The three concrete poems that follow serve as a typographical bestiary in which the glyph (always the titular M) is a creature subject to evolution, adapting to “lettristic” fashions even as they reflect the technological conditions of their time.

While taking their materiality literally, as typefaces expressed on stone, paper or plastic (through incision, calligraphy or mass production), the letters also punningly prove to be taxonomical “types.” They are categories of linguistic beings freighted with physical characteristics, historical origins and cultural baggage. The Roman M taken from the Coliseum is a tough and precise mammal “with a chisel for a father / and a rock for a mother” (74). Built to last, it is the bearer of cultural memory. But a contemporary sans-serif m sampled from a sign on Yonge Street is “phenotypically plastic, / ecologically competent, a generalist” (77). It’s everywhere: a practical, ephemeral animal, made to proliferate. Savigny suggests that both are aspects of survival, playing the odds differently. If the Roman strain endures, the 21st century type mass-replicates.

As a collection, Notebook M is intelligent and well crafted—one might say, eminently rational—but like any creature produced by nature, it also partakes of the unexpected. Unlikely adaptations and charming oddities cohere to serve the project as a whole. So the poem “Theatre of Memory, an Inventory,” seems an apt microcosm of the book itself. Its left-hand column lists body parts: skull, eyes, trachea, lungs, and mammary glands… Its right-hand column itemizes the curiosities discovered in each part of “the author’s body”: for instance, a dragon tree, a mammoth tooth, “three litres of melancholy, and a sense of humour” (43). There’s plenty of play here. The pelvis contains “a botanical encyclopedia, which has been watered so the pictures of the woolly fern and Drosera grow,” (43) while the vas deferens secretes “unfinished sculptures attributed to Michelangelo straining to escape their marble” (43). Do such contents add up to a physiognomy? To memory or a body of knowledge? Or do they suggest the extent to which the object of observation remains somehow unassailable or unjudged by the tools of scientific inquiry?

Savigny makes no ultimate pronouncements, though her questions are unsettling enough. In her poems, science is a discourse that colonizes as much as it instructs, that imagines as much as it observes, and that willingly embarks upon adventure, not to know the world, but to strive to know it—using the only tools available to us: our physical perceptions, those bodies propelled by subjectivity, extended by the prostheses of instrumentation, and susceptible to the erroneous and imaginary. “Before the world can be civilized, we must tame wonder,” one poem declares (84). Yet in Notebook M, the wondrous wild resists as much as any colonial subject. The laws that define nature can be theorized, it suggests, but also misunderstood, transgressed and rewritten.

As an exploration of science and art, the collection makes one point abundantly clear: the imagination that must be controlled for the sake of unbiased observation is precisely the faculty that propels scientific inquiry. After all, Darwin’s Notebook M is itself a catalogue of wonder and conjecture.


IMG_7917_lhNikki Sheppy is a poet, editor and arts journalist. Her poetry chapbook, Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite, won the 2013 John Lent Poetry-Prose Award and will be published by Kalamalka Press in the spring of 2014.