This is the last of all instalments. Every five years or so for the past twenty there has been something new. Now, this is the end of it, the end, it seems, of a geological era. The Dewdneyozoic maybe. The Natural Selection: The Natural Death.
The project has taken two decades to write and may take two decades more to be knocked out of suspension.
It grew slowly the way a stalagmite grows up from the cave floor.
Dewdney’s long poem is a Canadian Paterson but without the narrative flow of William Carlos William’s epic watermusic and without the decoder ring.
In Dewdeny’s poem, the ancient coexists with the present and reading is always on the edge of a continuous past.
A landscape erotic, primal, primitive.
The pastoral erotic:
‘... Squatting patiently all night after
a rain as a large toadstool rises up into her
vagina. Orange toadstool of immense
budding insider her. Her molluscan pool... .’
The poem, necessarily, is both a natural history (in the sense of a history of nature) as it is also the history of sex. Everything in the poem is fertile, erect, entered, entering, aching with its genetic code.
At the same time, the past is made to exist, coincide, become coincident with the present. They both exist in a quantum superposition. The fossil fuel burned by a passing car becomes a Palaeolithic thought bubble in the present.
Dewdney is most successful when in the meat of the poem where as those poems that reaches for a clearer or unfocused lyricism fail or come off sounding shoddy. This was most clearly seen in his last book Signal Fires and in parts of The Natural History which are reprinted here, especially ‘The Bibliography of Creatures’ and ‘The Grid Erectile’ (sub-sections of Part IV). These poems step out of the accumulated structure of the poem and are made to seem ad hoc.
Subtle word and form games. A formal structure (irregular pentameter often with ABAB end rhymes) mixed with a carbon-fired phrasing. Part of the progressive energy of the poem comes through its constantly shifting sentences:
‘... The music stripped pure
of association. A heart igniting bittersweet
the dreams surrounding it. As if paradise
renewed a tangible and immaculate
perception. The fall from grace
is the remove itself... .’
If there is a narrative or higher theme of progression tying these pieces together, though, it is subtle to point of the anomaly. There is an ‘I’ and there is a woman (or women). She is nature. She is muse. She is active in her passivity. The poem as a whole exists in a meditative lyrical space where depth and progression is gained from every sally into it.
The poem doesn’t reach a climax or any sense of denouement in this final installation. Rather the poem, when read as a whole, achieves climax (literal) again and again. The poem may well be a narrative of primal urges, the erotic warp and woof of coming and going, touching, seeing, smelling, hearing. The expression of a polymorphous sexuality and sexual drive is in everything:
‘... The sky filled with sound,
furious insistent joy as she cries, aching
chorus of electroluminescent orgasm. Heat-
bleached August fields... .’
‘... Sperm on swollen lips in the full
noon sun. Cocks semi-transparent
in foliage of vein and translucent head
the cool vagina under camera tree... .’
‘... Multi-foliate her orgasms curl . . .’
I don’t know if the poem has precedence in Canadian poetry. In American poetry, yes; in Canadian poetry, no.
An un-natural selection. An unfortunate deletion from this final edition is some of the framing narratives Dewdney previously used with the originally published excerpts. For example, when Book IV was published in Signal Fires in 2000, it was introduced with a letter from a tornado survivor in Texas. The letter focussed the reader on the interaction between the human and nature and the amazing force of the latter. It also offered the reader a narrative hook (much like WCW used continuously in Paterson) into the lyrical complexities of the poem. We lose a lot of playfulness without these and the poem even loses some of its experimental verve without them.
The poem knows its ground, between London, Paris, Petrolia, Kingston and Toronto. The limestone shelf of the Palaeozoic period and the same shelf that, in a Kingston quarry, contains the world’s oldest animal markings etched into a limestone slab. It is a sort of literary and quasi-scientific Jurassic Park for Dewdney where the past is made to exist, coincide and become coincident with the present.
Of interest for bibliophiles: this original imprint by ECW of The Natural History will be pulped and reprinted. The book as it is full of typos, unwanted line-breaks and misaligned graphics.
In a way, The Natural History is a poetic Safari. The book is descriptive to the point of process. It becomes increasingly interesting to see how the poem will shift and move through its surroundings. Repetition, detail, become mantra.
‘... Mysterious nocturnal waves of lake
Erie on white sand, foam phosphorescing
in the moonlight. Montreal submerged
just beyond inexplicable childhood
memories. There is no season, there are no
ledges and the wall descends a storm
at night in our breathing. Serotonin drips
from the calculations.’