Scientific Materialism and Poetics: An Interview with Eleni Sikelianos

Eleni Sikelianos

I think maybe I’m an animist at heart. I know I’m an animal, and am part of a lineage of animals. I tend to see commonality and exchange between species and beyond (say, rocks and bones) rather than demarcations.

 

“Language is simply alive, like an organism… Words are the cells of language, moving the great body, on legs. Language grows and evolves, leaving fossils behind. The individual words are like different species of animals. Mutations occur. Words fuse, and then mate. Hybrid words and wild varieties or compound words are the progeny.” — Lewis Thomas, “Living Language,” The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, (1974, 1984), 106.

 

Introduction and interview by Megan K. Fernandes

 

Let me begin with two examples.

 

During an archival trip to London last year, I searched through hundreds of documents, notebooks, and lectures of the 19th century scientist, John Tyndall. Tyndall was most famous for his work on water vapor and his experiments on absorption, contamination, and radiant heat. While leafing through his work over a period of thirty years, I saw such remarkable changes in the way this great scientist imagined the possibilities of the world and the realm of avisual, sub-perceptual phenomena. Tyndall often confessed wonder. His conclusions sometimes troubled him. He pondered what Darwin’s work meant not only to his science, but also to his Irish Catholicism. He changed his mind. He drew “molecules.” He imagined them agenic and vibrating. He imagined frequency. He imagined the ordinary and optimal life of matter we could not yet visualize.

 

Recently, I composed a series of translations of René Char, a French poet who had joined the surrealists, but eventually broke with the movement to write some of the most convincing war, environmental, and political poetry of the 20th century. Camus hailed him as France’s greatest living poet. Char was difficult to translate, often because he began in an iron lake on Jupiter and ended in a bedroom in southern France. Or sometimes he began at a mill in his hometown and ended in extra-terrestrial space, seducing a goddess figure by removing her “infinite gown.” What I soon realized was that Char’s ability to move from the celestial to the earthly, to employ astronomical imagery, to link mythology to gravity, had everything to do with scientific imagination, the ability to imagine the planet in relation to space, to invoke the language of physics and minerals, to scale and span the universe in just a few lines.

 

What I’m saying is that science matters for poetry. It matters for imagery, for notions of subjectivity, for how we conceive of time and space, for Stein’s “carpet steak,” for poetic address, and for breaking and playing with the tradition of lyrical poetry. This has been one of the central concerns of my research.

 

In a forthcoming essay entitled “Transgenic Poetics,” I examine a series of poets (Matthea Harvey, Jorie Graham, Anne Carson, and Eleni Sikelianos) and their commitment to scientific materialism executed through a new poetic idiom. While theorizing contemporary transgenic culture and its obsessions with the potential mythologies of recombining, crossing, foreignness, speciesism, surrogacy, and posthumanism/hyperhumanism, my work hopes to illuminate how the scientific imagination has everything to do with the way we use figurative language and in turn, how to “figure” a body, a subject, and a lyric.

 

I was first introduced to Eleni Sikelianos’ work in Paris in a small, intimate workshop in Ménilmontant. A friend read parts of her book, The California Poem (2004), and I was struck by its range of biological cultures. The text was empirical, topographical, and observational on the one hand, but also impressionistic in its fossilizing and taxonomizing of objects. This led me to read Eleni Sikelianos’ more recent collection of poems, Body Clock (2008), which looks more like a laboratory notebook rather than a formal book of poetry. It is full with hand drawings, scratches, graphs, fragments of hybrid imagery and invented creatures and body parts. The book, detailing the odd sensations of her pregnancy, summons a strange constellation of sea urchins and chromosomal anxiety, multiple utopias and robot wombs, and the language of growth, nutrition, and asymmetry. I sent a draft of my essay to Eleni, asking if she would read the work and answer a few questions about her interest and use of scientific language. She wrote back a thoughtful, beautifully articulated account of her education as a biology major, some advice from Anne Carson, an homage to Olson’s Projective Verse, species in translation, and a range of important scientific theorists and figures in her life as a poet.

 

FERNANDES: I was wondering if you could talk broadly about your interest and fascination with scientific matter. In your work, The California Poem, the scientific rhetoric is often descriptive, almost as if you are invoking a 19th century science of careful and empirical observation, categorizing, understanding the relationship between native and foreign species. I am curious about a different kind of scientific language in Body Clock, one that seems to me, more about the movement and agency of avisual, sub-perceptual scientific matter (genomics, etc).

 

SIKELIANOS: I began my (unconventional) academic career as a biology major (at SBCC). I had a fabulous professor, John Matsui (who now runs a program at Berkeley to keep women and people of color in the sciences), who often brought literature and science together. As someone who read voraciously, who thought of being a writer from the age of seven, this marriage spoke to me. It’s funny to see you quote Lewis Thomas above, since we were assigned Lives of a Cell in Professor Matsui’s class. I haven’t read the text since, nearly 30 years ago, but the quote precisely describes my feeling of poetry, and of how poetry and biology are linked: “Language is simply alive, like an organism… Words are the cells of language, moving the great body, on legs. Language grows and evolves, leaving fossils behind. The individual words are like different species of animals. Mutations occur. Words fuse, and then mate. Hybrid words and wild varieties or compound words are the progeny.” “Living Language,” The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, (1974, 1984), 106.

 

My interests were in cell biology, zoology, and marine biology. I hadn’t gotten very far before abandoning those studies (a long story involving hitchhiking across Africa and Europe and a return to writing), but they have had a profound impact on my sense of how the world works, and a star-struck wonder in the face of it. My love of species identification keys and such is evident in The California Poem. It wasn’t till after Body Clock came out that I realized the drawings were influenced by the lab sketches we were required to do in zoology.

 

The California Poem is, of necessity, a broad-stroke poem, trying to encompass a whole mental and physical landscape with ranges of history, mountains, ocean, flora, fauna, etc., and playing with how we organize such a broad variety of things. Body Clock on the other hand is, by nature of the matter being considered, more interior and sub-perceptual, more “experimental” in the exploratory sense.

 

As a side note: the translator of The California Poem into French, faced with so many common names for plant and animal species, decided to consult with the scientists at the Musée national d’Histoire naturelle, founded in Paris in the 18th century. (I felt it imperative not to substitute a Latin name when it was a common name in the original.) With the aid of entomologists, botanists, and herpetologists, she came up with equivalents in French. I love the notion of a new swathe of animals appearing in the common tongue in French.

 

FERNANDES: You mentioned D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, the famous morphobiologist, in the epigraph for your book. Have there been any other figures of science (or pseudoscience) that have been important for you? Is your interest in Thompson’s morphobiology specifically about growth, shape, and space?

 

SIKELIANOS: I got into reading him from a piece by Harry Mathews for Lost Classics, a series in the Canadian magazine, Brick, in which writers are invited to choose and introduce a forgotten classic. I’d read bits and pieces of it long before I began writing Body Clock, and when those poems began to come about I was drawn back to Thompson’s work. It’s an amazing text.

 

Many other figures of science have been important to me, usually ones on the fringes in some way. Ed Ricketts, the largely self-taught marine biologist who co-wrote The Log from the Sea of Cortez with Steinbeck[1], and who was the model for Doc, was vital. His Between Pacific Tides, the first study of intertidal ecology, was critical for me. Lynne Margulis, who pioneered the theory of symbiotic evolution, is who I’ve been reading for the past few years, and she’s guiding me through some poems.

 

Basic lay-texts, like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and books by Stephen Jay Gould have often fueled me, though they haven’t been as catalytic as Thompson’s, Margulis’, and Ricketts’ work.

 

Language is often muddying (“My writing is clear as mud, but mud settles and clear streams run on and disappear,” said Gertrude Stein, who began her training in the sciences.)

 

FERNANDES: Could you talk a little bit about the book as a visual object? The lineation, grammatical and parenthetical choices, drawings, graphs, and different font types and sizes make the collection look more like a laboratory notebook rather than a formal book of verse. Is there something about the “residual” aesthetic of the visual that reflects the lyric?

 

SIKELIANOS: Yes, as I mentioned there is definitely the sense of a lab book here. I also wanted something that reflected contingency and process at least as much as product. In Olson’s notion of Projective Verse the page is a field on which the energy of the world and the poet is enacted. In The California Poem, the book had begun to be a kind of installation space, in which visuals provide non-languaged thought-poems, and a reader may move through various rooms of the site. Robert Smithson proposed the world (or a specific place in it) as “the site” and his sculptures that might relate to that place as the “non-site.” The non-site is a kind of enactment of the ideas and dream of the site, and there is mental traffic between the two. Body Clock is perhaps also a construction site, where we can see the experience or thought being made (or unmade). I was interested in thwarting the “professional” space of the poem, as a part of my enactment of mush-mind.

 

Anne Carson once told me that she found drawing to be a clarifying experience in relation to the poems. That’s also a useful way to think of these. Language is often muddying (“My writing is clear as mud, but mud settles and clear streams run on and disappear,” said Gertrude Stein, who began her training in the sciences.) I don’t know that the visuals reflect the lyric, so much as provide another non-mimetic (in this case) approach to experience.

 

On the one hand, they clarify experience in a non-linguistic mode; yet they also allow the process and product (the book) to resist “professionalization,” and to skirt a stance of total knowing. In fact, they bring the poem into a state of unknowing, and indicate the flux of research and study, of knowledge (and, in this case, body) coming into being, as do lab or field sketches in zoology.

 

FERNANDES: When I read Body Clock, I was interested in who you are reading, who you had read, and what writers have contributed to your aesthetic sensibility. Personally, I thought of Jorie Graham’s work when I read Body Clock, as she is someone who is able to suspend different registers of language simultaneously in the same poem. Other contemporary writers (Forrest Gander, Robert Hass) and past writers (Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Robert Herrick) have invoked the scientific imagination in their poetics, and I couldn’t help but noticing your “shout-outs” to Carson and Agamben. I guess I am wondering if you had any particular models for this book?

 

SIKELIANOS: I didn’t have particular models for this book, though I thought about William Blake’s fusion of poem and image. Cecilia Vicuña’s work probably came into play, subconsciously, in her sense of permeability between visual work and language. If pressed, I might cite Niedecker, who was an early and profound influence. She too read and used science in her poetry, and though her poems don’t include visuals per se, there is a visual aspect to how she uses language on the page, like the lapping of water.

 

FERNANDES: I have to ask. I know this is all very leading, but I was wondering if you could speak to your notion of “species,” since it seems that your oeuvre is very interested in the boundaries of the human, the organic, and how we define life.

 

SIKELIANOS: I think maybe I’m an animist at heart. I know I’m an animal, and am part of a lineage of animals. I tend to see commonality and exchange between species and beyond (say, rocks and bones) rather than demarcations. Yes, I apprehend the physical envelope and speciation differences, but I always loved the permeability of a cell’s walls, and understood the flowing osmotic nature of chemical structures to be more potent and real than the notion of static form. Niedecker’s great poem “Lake Superior” (to further her praises) begins:

 

In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock

In blood the minerals
of the rock

 

Lynne Margulis’ pioneering work in evolutionary symbiosis (endosymbiosis) speaks to this, too. In her view, evolution doesn’t happen only through gene mutation and natural selection, but through different organisms fusing. She was able to trace how our mitochondria and algae and plant chloroplasts came into being through a symbiotic relationship between cells and bacteria, giving us eukaryotic cells. She was long thought a renegade, but many of her views are now recognized in evolutionary theory. (It’s not surprising that a female evolutionist was thought to be a crackpot in the 60s and 70s; and it’s fitting that a woman discovered the symbiotic element of evolution.)

 

FERNANDES: The notion of “naming” becomes important in certain sections of the book, but you also invent a new idiom and imagery by stitching certain words together from different discourses (even different micro-cultures within biology). Could you talk a little bit about this process?

 

SIKELIANOS: Naming has always been in the purview of poets. But I think the passion for it also lies in the acts of unnaming and renaming. It’s not that the poem wants to “get it right,” but that it wants to point toward further possibilities in relations and arrangements among the things of this world (including all the activities of the human self). We might call it the creative act. Nate Mackey very beautifully discusses (citing Victor Zuckerkandl) the notion that music (or poetry) “bears witness to what’s left out of our concept of reality, or, if not exactly what, to the fact that something is left out.” Words and genes share recombinant possibilities for me, just as so many elements of what we call reality can be recombined or reconfigured in actuality or in the mind.

 

Body Clock (2008) explores notions of time and growth as they pertain to the pregnant body (and the fetus and child thereafter), and is again inspired by science, this time more specifically by the research of Scottish biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thomas. Sections based on a notion of the body as “home” (meditations on the growing body, and the growing mind and its linguistic acquisitions) are alternated with sections in the “world” (elliptical meditations on the state of the nation and public use of language). Included in the book are notebook sketches and poem-drawings, which serve several purposes.

 

[1] Though it is no longer published as they wished, with Ricketts’ bio-notes.

 

 

Megan Fernandes is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and holds an MFA in poetry from Boston University. She is the poetry editor of the anthology, Strangers in Paris (Tightrope Books), and the author of two chapbooks Organ Speech (Corrupt Press) and Some Citrus Makes me Blue (Dancing Girl Press). Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Guernica Magazine, RATTLE, Redivider, and Memorious among others. She currently teaches poetry at Boston University.

 

More Eleni Sikelianos:

Visit her website

Buy her books at Coffee House Press

Read Gina Barnard’s Po-Chop from Body Clock

Read Ron Slate’s review of Body Clock