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Pickle Me This

April 6, 2010

Bloom by Michael Lista

“Something that has bothered me enormously as a reader of poetry is the failure of poets—especially the so-called avant-garde—to pick up on the formal complexity of the world as revealed by the various scientific disciplines. Biologists have shown us the double-helix, the root not only of physiology but also of behaviour, cognition; chemistry gives us Bach and personality; and physicists are proving we’re more math than matter. And yet so many poets give us a world that looks profoundly out-dated; disordered, solipsistic, self-made, random, positively 20th century. I think a more honest book is one in which the spontaneity of personality is set within the strict—and ancient— clockwork of the world.” –Michael Lista, from “Not Every Gesture Is a Manifesto: An Interview…” by Jacob McArthur Mooney

Say I’m making it
for making’s sake, as humans must
when put before an erector set
whose pieces spell out
Please for the love of Jesus
do not dare assemble us

–from “Do. But Do.”

how when an atom’s centre smashes and cracks
new light explodes from the matter’s collapse
–from “Lotus Eaters”

Michael Lista’s collection Bloom comes with a guide map as an appendix, which might suggest its a book that takes us into unventured territory. And while I’m not sure that Lista’s book is necessarily more “honest” than those of the “so many poets” he mentioned in his interview, this is a fascinating collection nonetheless, in its premise and its execution.

Los Alamos, New Mexico is the guide map, and Bloom tells the story of Louis Slotin, a Canadian physicist working on the Manhattan Project. Exactly nine months after Slotin’s predecessor, Harry Diaghlian, was killed in an accident while “bring[ing] a core of nuclear fissile material as close to criticality as possible”, Slotin himself has an accident, and though he manages to shield the other scientists in the lab from radiation, he dies nine days later. An essential twist in the story is that Slotin died training his replacement, Alvin Graves, who was having an affair with Slotin’s wife.

I don’t know what “close to criticality” means, and neither have I read Ulysses, but even still, I was able to be captivated by Bloom. Each poem in the collection takes another poem as its source material (by poets as various as Ted Hughes, the Pearl Poet, and the Velvet Underground, by poets as cotemporary as Karen Solie, Robyn Sarah and Nick Laird, and plenty of [undoubtedly famous] other poets to whom a reference might bely that I’ve actually heard of them), and Lista refers to his work with the original poems as “English to English translations”. By which he means that his source materials are building blocks, modified to suit Lista’s poetic purposes and the purposes of the story.

Not a thing is original here– just as Slotin’s experience is a copy of Diaghlian’s, and Graves’ was the stand-in in Slotin’s marriage, each poem is a variation on something that has been written before, each of these poems refers to allusions and other texts (as well as a pivotal part of a 1989 movie projected onto John Cusack’s shoulder). And while the product of such an experiment is a little confusing and overwhelming, it’s also navigable and pretty fabulous to contemplate as a whole– the cacophony, so many voices, and such variation is entirely readable.

I am not this book’s intended audience, presuming it was only ever meant to have just one. But I am pleased to now understand how literary remixing could be an art onto itself and not simply plagiarism ala Opal Mehta. The incredibly illuminating Torontoist interview I refer to above (and yes, I was unafraid of cutting and pasting for this review) notes that Bloom is controversial, that readers could resent Lista’s rearrangement of beloved or iconic works (and I wonder too, if his variations might look paltry in comparison?). Interestingly, however, because my knowlege of the source material was so incredibly minimal (indeed, the only poem I’d read was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight back in Major British Writers, and I’m not sure whether to blame the University of Toronto or myself for this) none of these problems existed.

Lista’s poems refer me not to something that’s old, but something that’s entirely new, which was the opposite of his intentions, but it’s a distinctly original result.

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