canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Natural History
by Christopher Dewdney
ECW Press, 2002

Reviewed by J.M. Smith

The author of a number of books of poetry and cultural criticism, Dewdney has a well-established literary reputation in Canada. He is capable of intelligent and careful work (his conundrum poem “Idea,” for instance, has been by far the best of the otherwise mediocre poems I've seen displayed on TTC buses and subway cars over the last three years). The Natural History puzzles me. It’s a book I very much wanted to like, since its subject ostensibly is the natural history of southern Ontario, and of humans in that place. Dewdney’s aim appears to be to celebrate the inseparability of the natural and cultural realms. It displays a great deal of (not always very well digested) local knowledge, and I would like to honor that knowledge. 

I admire the sensibility of a writer who can say: “I have learned to love / the noctuid moths.” (28) I relish his listing of the local places: Caledon, Grimsby, the Huron and Erie shores, Point Pelee, the Niagara escarpment, Elora gorge etc. I am thankful that Dewdney does not pretend that humans are not natural. I am delighted by his imagining of trilobites – extinct now some 200 million years – in ‘Ontario’s’ waterways, or by his conceiving of nighthawks as the “surveillance” system of the nighttime world. 

There are a few fine moments in the book, when sharpness of perception meshes with carefully constructed, nuanced sentences:

September is August enthroned. September
is August parentheticized. (25)

XXXXXXXXXXDrops of semen deliquesce
in the naked morning spectra. (30)

But there are also many passages as bizarre and ugly as the following:
A light Modigliani orange as June evenings
are a pastel rainbow of dreams and
mercury vapour lamps, like giant mantids,
just coming on over the shopping plaza.
The violet and pink light setting tanned
skin aglow. Each muscle a new surrender.
The quiet village streets technologized
by our telephoto insignia. Lush nightfall
still after a summer shower. The expectant
interglacial period gardens, their scale-speed
hierarchies squandered by darkness. Stars
arbitrate the carnivorous writhing
of cycads.
The writerly quality of the above (and other passages as awful) inclined me more than once to toss the book in the waste-paper basket and have done with it. So let me be blunt: The Natural History is mostly dreadful.

First of all, Dewdney seems to take it as a point of honour to use verbs as rarely as possible, with the result that the reader gets verse paragraph after verse paragraph of choppy sentence fragments. (Dewdney, however, is not the only Toronto poet who appears to believe that verbs are passé.) It is a strange stylistic tic in a book that attempts to capture the dynamic and evanescent qualities of the natural world.

Even when the quality of the observation (“cries of gulls and children blend / in the wind…”), or the thought (“August / a certain Aegean light through us all”), or the construction of the phrase (“their advanced hominid wisdom”) is good, the overall composition suggests scraps of notebook observation that the poet can't quite be bothered to work up into something more sturdy:
a certain Aegean light through us all. The
beach a commotion of light and waves,
cries of gulls and children blend
in the wind. Honeysuckle vines redolent
of evening, a dusky corona of ruby throats.
Surprising articulation of children's backs,
their advanced hominid wisdom. Wild
cherry gum on raw copper. The dull gleam
of tin roofs. Field of hydroelectric power
flickering in the darkness at the bottom
of the lake.
The passage above is free verse that sometimes seems to drift over into strong stress 4-beat lines; just as often, however, Dewdney’s long poem is indistinguishable from prose. That is not so unusual in much recent verse. One has to suppose the poet knows what he is doing.

My confidence, though, is shaken by sentences only a notch more poised than a museum display's, and often less precise:
A cephalopod washes up on a grey Silurian
beach. There are no land plants and little
oxygen in the atmosphere. On the sandy
riverbanks pebbles of edible beige
limestone are frosted with fossil crinoids.
The sand granular orange from ant
excavations sliding, drying in the sun.
The lazy non-parallelism of the second sentence dismays: “There are no land plants and little / oxygen in the atmosphere.” The sand is “granular orange” but it does not have these qualities because of the ant excavations, we can presume. The ants have caused the granules to slide and dry in the sun. The writing, from sentence to sentence fragment, is just not very careful or accurate.

A basic premise of The Natural History is that a vision of geological time, and evolutionary process, will involve the constant perception of ‘sex’ happening. The ‘erotic’ lens will, at a stroke, so to speak, fuse the various vocabularies of science and individual human experience into a visionary history of earth (hence “the history”). And so everything is like a dream, or an erection, or an orgasm. In case we don’t get it, on the first page the word “dream” occurs four times: “August's amniotic haze is our dream/ aether, our lens of distance”; “Limestone corridors inside stone libraries / dream the hot, grey rainless days of August”; “Luna moths / cluster in a corner of the pond, fading / into the dream's edge”; “...lunar mottled eels stir like dreams in shallow forest water.”

It is a visionary-lite history (“We have always made love this way, down through all the ages.” (32)). Behind the facade of scientific awareness and theoretico-cultural savvy, Dewdney’s thinking is more than a little wooly. (“The body is a slow fire, an infra-red jungle / Of thermal contours.” (24) Or: “The forest roots a semiology / we barely comprehend.” (43) Or worse still, sounding like the slowly-receding voice of Carl Sagan: “Fierce array / of the spring foliage, we are strange / progeny of three billion years of solar / irradiation.” (26).) I too am attracted by the idea of Dionysian impersonality – who isn’t? –, but Dewdney’s unstrenuous, quasi-scientific version of it cripples the book’s overall conception as a cliché does a metaphor.

Not coincidentally, The Natural History is hurt by low-level clichés as much as by high-level wooliness. Consider, among the many scurrying around in the book’s understory, the following:
XXXXXXXXXXNorse gold forged
in orgasms and sun, her face vigilant
in the first humid cobalt June storm wind.
The unforgivable cliché here – even if it makes a nice sound with the first syllable of “orgasm” – is “forged”: he means the woman’s (“gold”) face in some sense has been cast into its present shape by the sexual past of her ancestors, in the way that 19th c. writers used to speak about a race's destiny being "forged" in the furnace of such and such a past. Or maybe he thinks that the relative abundance of orgasms actually shapes an individual's bone structure through her life?! (There are lesser infelicities in the passage too: what, for instance, is the relation between “humid” and “cobalt”? Her face is “vigilant” against it – this implies the touch of wind on skin. “Humid” instead leans toward the element “cobalt” as if to melt it.)

Then there are passages that combine clichés with higher-level obtuseness:
XXXXXXXHer touch a thrilling
cellular wind racing through my nervous
system. (41) 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXOrgasm-shivers flash
neuronal like foxfire through our single
body. (67)

It’s a realm of erotic-scientific hybridity. Theoretical energies are “thrilling” and “racing” and “flashing” around in our bodies. But the big idea gets sketchy.

The theoretical terms could perhaps be taken on if Dewdney showed much awareness of their origins and resonances. He doesn't actually use many Anglo-Saxon words; his diction is limited in this way. It's enlarged by scientific markers (Eocene, Silurian, etc), and by the names of plants and animals. But these words are never truly absorbed into his poem at the level of discourse. It’s as if the poet were to say: ‘these polysyllabic words; they all mean the same thing in the end. The history of life on the earth, you know, has been one great orgasm!’
absorbs remote momentums. Surges linger
in dreams a phantasmic waveform. Her
children, the lake claimed by dreaming, lay
waste the armoured spinal cord.
A delirious rush of invertebrate orgasms
in the implacable recall of the ocean.
It's hard to know exactly what the poet is talking about here: our bodily sensing of the waves on a lake, and of the simultaneous ‘waves’ of time perhaps. Dewdney is at pains only to underline repeatedly that this is a DREAM we're talking about, so of course it's vague. Then again, notice the words of Latin and Greek origin piled up with any sign of the poet’s awareness of their histories, or of the counter-histories of words like “dream,” “lake,” “waste,” “surges.” Dewdney’s imprecisions leave his metaphors still-born. In the passage below, in the absence of real metaphoric inter-relation, he invests his mock-theoretical comparison with a rising rhythm. Choppy fragments peppered with latinate adjectives conspire to produce a dactylic effect that makes the passage sound ‘poetic’ (“cricket fields phasing,” “transparent molasses,” “insect voyeurs”). The metaphors, however, do little more than provide awkward atmosphere (how exactly is an insect a “voyeur”?):

Dusty milkweeds at the roadside. Summer
cricket fields phasing a pointillistic audio
plane. Waves of wind transparent molasses
in the leaves. Insect voyeurs.

Frequently, Dewdney will have a good thought, or discover a strong figure, and then be so pleased with himself that he keeps going and ruins it:

XXXXXXXXHer pelvis vaulted like angel
wings just barely surfacing in the smooth
tautology of her hips.
The luxuriance of mixed metaphor brings it all crashing down. The thought of a woman's pelvis as “vaulted” is fine. But “vaulted like angel / wings”? My imagination can perhaps reach to envision such a thing. But then the final clichéd and abstract prepositional phrase sinks the whole thing. It seems an amateurish failing to me, a poet enamored more with his own sonorousness than with the clarity of image.

Related to Dewdney’s problems with metaphor are other clumsinesses in sentence construction, his ‘hearing’ of words, and his discriminations among them:
So fair our green. Testicular sacs
of the oriole nest, winged persimmons
in her green vigilance. The honeysuckle's
buzzing insect aura. Sun sporadically
through hazy cumulus clouds, the lake
impenetrable with mist. Stiff, incremental
surge of growing trees. Forest light
is the perpetual, internal twilight of dreams.
I am the fisher king of my unconscious. (50)
One has to wonder, why the repetition of “green”? And “hazy cumulus clouds” as opposed to what? (Aren't clouds by definition hazy; or if he means that there is a haze nearby distinct from the more distant cumulus, wouldn't it be worth saying that? Or is it just haze – “the lake impenetrable with mist” – that is the ideal in this unfortunate poem?) The phrase “incremental surge” is quite a good oxymoron, but how is it helped by piling on the adjective “stiff”? The last sentence is a defiant braying after Eliot, I guess; either that, or a symptom of cultural amnesia. Either way, what function does it serve in the poem? (Does our author perhaps believe that he can pick and choose his dreams?)

Or consider the following:
Scarab grubs harboured in scrub oaks. We
merge in the windy forest, in the rushing
neo-silence of a hot August wind,
in the mute aqueous clamor of leaves
under the wild hush. (45)
The first sentence has nice effects, but the sentence that follows seems the opposite of inventive to me: the poet desperately resorting to adjectival layering. “Neo-silence” anyone? “Mute aqueous clamor”? If “mute clamor” is a strain, how would throwing another adjective into the soup help it? And there are worse moments of clumsiness and unintentional repetition, suggesting that the book needed but did not find a good editor: the “forest shade / almost colloidal...” and a few lines later, “her toes almost a Fibonacci sequence...” (39) Almost? “She walks almost / laboriously around her endowments...” (51). Or “the late afternoon Polaroid receding blue sky” (30) and again, “the sun torn / Polaroid blue and white Lawren Harris” (32).

If you can't pull off the role of earth-prophet convincingly, you can play it ironically instead to the Toronto avant-garde crowd, show oneself a language poet, and fret not at all about making sense. That is Dewdney’s gambit in “Grid Erectile,” which superficially resembles Christopher Smart's famous poem to his cat Jeofrey except that it has nothing to do with the world. Where, I wonder, do Dewdney's theoretical allegiances lie exactly? What motive could there be for making a serious effort to represent – as in the main poem of The Natural History – a complex ‘natural’ world if we are elsewhere already decided that human meaning is just an arbitrary arrangement of a machine-like code?

It was a deeply-considered claim in Wallace Steven’s work that language – particularly metaphor – might actually block our access to the non-human. Dewdney is no Stevens. But he won’t even stay loyal to his own vision of an imaginative-erotic ‘way out’ of the closed confines of language; instead, he hedges his bets in various current ways. “Permugenesis,” the last poem of the book, takes the lexical and imagistic elements of the first and second sections and rearranges them into different sentence fragments, to no obvious effect, since the same clumsy constructions, portentous tone, and weak metaphors re-appear – all too recognizably.

To top it all off, the ECW edition is cheaply made – printed on low-quality paper, with far too many words on a page –and its design is ugly, though not as hideous as some of the books put out by this small press. The curlicued patterns of scarabs and trilobites decorating the book’s section-heads should be lovely and distinctive, but are distorted here by crude production.

J.M. Smith is an assistant professor in the English Department at York University.







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