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POETRY: Bacterium experiment produces poetry

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/9/2015 (1854 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Christian Bök's The Xenotext, Book 1 (Coach House, 160 pages, $20) frames a poetic project that could double as the plot of a science-fiction novel.

Bök, already renowned for the internationally bestselling, Griffin Prize-winning Eunoia, will encipher a poem into the DNA of a bacterium that might live until the sun explodes. Additionally, since "Whatever lives must also write," this living poem would write a second poem, encoded in a protein.

Bök's ambitious project has, amazingly, already succeeded in E. coli, although the intended host for the poem, D. radiodurans, is proving resistant. Until Book 2 appears, the experiment continues.

The highlight of the collection is Colony Collapse Disorder, a translation of Book IV from Virgil's Georgics, which is effectively a poetic treatise on beekeeping. Bök resurrects Virgil's lines to express current anxieties over the potential extinction of bees (and, thus, humanity), adding dark foreboding to images like "the windchimes of Cybele, summoning / all the bees to slumber in their cradles."

Extravagant, melancholy and beautiful, The Xenotext, Book 1 takes as its subjects nothing less than the biochemical mysteries of life and the inevitability of our solar system's death.


The poems in George Murray's Diversion (ECW, 72 pages, $19) all have wry hashtags for titles and their lines are pithy, depressing missives. #HeroesAreMadeNotBourne contains a line that serves to condense Murray's project: "You are the disease and I am the curation."

Murray jostles between rage and comedy. He also offers philosophical maxims ("Being is the wound and the body its scar"), all within the same poem.

Murray doesn't simply mimic online chatter. Each line is self-contained, but also scaffolds its poem. Diversion may seem tailor-made for devotees of social media, but it's actually for people who hate social media. If you love how Zach Galifianakis never tweets anything funny, these are the poems for you.


Patrick Lane's Washita (Harbour, 80 pages, $19) is an impressive collection with moments of startling power: "I have brought out my dead. / They stagger down the beach, a spare snow spilling from their eyes."

Lane excels especially at coupling lines that offer complex, evocative imagery that manages straightforward shock: "The doe grazed among fallen apples in my yard. / When I shot her she hung for a moment in the sky." Washita often presents Lane at his best: meticulous and stunning.


Elise Partridge's The Exiles' Gallery (Anansi, 106 pages, $20) is her third and final book; she died earlier this year. The collection sparkles with small treasures. The speaker of one poem thinks of the moon and sees "Armstrong / bounding across its crust, / boldly gone."

So much is packed in this Star Trek allusion, from amazement at this cultural achievement to disappointment in how it hasn't had a real effect on anyone's life.

In another poem, a speaker from 3,000 years in the future wonders if a swimming pool was a sacrifice pit whose drain "caught blood."

This comical confusion bears the weight of today's environmental disasters, human rights issues and western exploitation of the "third world." Dense but airy, The Exiles' Gallery is a major achievement.

 

Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanballcom) lives online at www.JonathanBall.com, where he writes about writing the wrong way.

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History

Updated on Saturday, September 26, 2015 at 7:47 AM CDT: Formatting, adds book jacket.

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