Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Poetics of Liveliness: Molecules, Fibers, Tissues, Clouds by Ada Smailbegović

Watercolor abstract, cover image for Zimmerman's Poetics of Liveliness
Poetics of Liveliness: Molecules, Fibers, Tissues, Clouds. Ada Smailbegović. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021. Pp. 352. $95.00 (cloth); $30.00 (paper); $29.99 (eBook).

© 2023 Johns Hopkins University Press

Lisa Robertson’s 2001 book The Weather is a classic of the post-pastoral, in which the “architecture” of constantly shifting patterns of clouds and vapors supplants the nostalgia of landscape. A note at the end of the book tells us that it resulted partly from “an intense yet eccentric research in the rhetorical structure of English meteorological description.”[1] BBC shipping forecasts, William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, William Cobbett’s Rural Rides, and the cloud sketches of John Constable were among Robertson’s sources, as was the delightfully titled Essay on the Modification of Clouds by the nineteenth-century amateur meteorologist Luke Howard. First published in 1832, Howard’s book gave us the terms for cloud formations still in use today: cirrus, cumulus, stratus, cirro-status, cumulo-nimbus, etc. For Ada Smailbegović, these terms, particularly the hyphenates, resemble as well as describe the processual, constantly modifying materiality of clouds, functioning as a “soft taxonomy” that “can remain responsive to processes of transformation in the phenomena they are attempting to order and classify” (23). Robertson’s text constitutes a similar feat of “cloud-writing,” which according to Smailbegović “sets up fields of synchronic and diachronic relations, in order to produce descriptions of change that attempt to convey the activity of the changing sky in another medium, in this case poetic language, with its own distinct capacities for lively dynamism” (238).

The avant-garde writers discussed in Poetics of Liveliness practice what Smailbegović calls “haptic poetics,” a term suggestive of the kind of synesthetic connection between language and materiality that has been a preoccupation of modern poetry since Rimbaud’s “Voyelles” (29). Smailbegović investigates this connection through the lens of poetry and science, hybridized as much by scientists’ use of metaphor as by poets’ investigation of scientific methodologies of observation and experiment. An example of the former would be the science studies theorist Eva Hayward’s coinage “fingeryeyes”—a term invented to describe the encounter between a human finger and the tentacle of a cup coral (53). As for the latter, it unfolds across Smailbegović’s readings of Robertson, Gertrude Stein, Christian Bök, Jen Bervin, and other poets whose work detonates what Robertson calls the “soft bomb of potential” (257). Their work negotiates the collisions of human and nonhuman sensoria, without one being erased by the other; their poems imitate the material-semiotic events of a “poetic cosmology” that seeks not only to heal the ancient breach between science and poetry but to challenge the dualistic habits of thought by which language and materiality stand estranged from one another.

Smailbegović’s poetic cosmology—a phrase that suggests something closer to an assemblage than an argument—wagers that the “liveliness” of language in some way resembles or parallels “the dynamic unfolding of living entities” (14). As such her project is itself poetic, a form or fund of metaphor. Robertson’s “soft” poetics “continuously skirts this edge between the material and the figurative in hope that poetics can act as a kind of chiasmic site that moves across the material and the semiotic without abandoning either of these dimensions” (263). There is something appealing about this equation of Robertson’s poetics with hope, as though Smailbegović’s book itself were less descriptive of an existing poetic movement than a conjuring of it. To conceive of such a poetics as “a kind of chiasmic site” marks its difference from representational nature poetry; the phrase evokes Robert Smithson’s concept of the ”nonsite,” a “logical picture” that “rarely looks like the thing it stands for.”[2] In this case the logic followed is one of reciprocity, enabled by the softness that is one of Poetics of Liveliness’s keywords.

Poets, like scientists, specialize in description; a poetics of liveliness depends upon a thickening of that description so that the liveliness of nonhuman materiality cannot be disentangled from the liveliness of language itself. We are asked “to imagine a stereo system with a volume dial which, when turned all the way up, would ‘thicken’ the materiality of language until it assumes more of an opacity of material ground in itself rather than operating in a referential register to the world beyond language” (77). Turned the other way, of course, “language would operate more as a transparent pane of glass, which unobtrusively reveals the world beyond itself” (77). A poetic of liveliness oscillates or vibrates rather than presenting either itself or its descriptive object as an opaque or static entity. The image of the oscillating dial is one of Smailbegović’s figures for nondualistic practices of thinking and writing, which by virtue of that nondualism are more sensitive to registering encounters with the nonhuman world than the “hylomorphic tendency to extricate form from content” (12). To this project Smailbegović recruits such thinkers as the physicist Karen Barad, who “insists on an entanglement of matter and meaning” (16), and the philosopher Elizabeth Grosz, who rejects “either a Platonic dualism or an Aristotelian hylomorphism” in favor of a conception of “’the incorporeal’. . . [as] the subsistence of the ideal in the material” (16, 274). The thought of these and other feminist thinkers associated with the so-called New Materialism—which as Smailbegović points out “is not really new but presents a renewed interest in a long-standing materialist philosophical tradition of figures such as Lucretius or Spinoza” is extended and tested by the poets Smailbegović discusses (19). These avant-garde writers, who might otherwise be philosophically associated with the late twentieth-century “linguistic turn,” here operate as “poet-naturalists” within the materialist domain of science, whether it be rooted in scrupulous observation (Stein, Robertson) or something nearer to laboratory experiment (Bök, Bervin).

Each of the major chapters referenced by Smailbegović’s subtitle focuses on the work of a poet who engages with scientific methodologies while operating in the materialist intellectual tradition of Lucretius and Spinoza. “Molecules” focuses on the early and later work of Canadian sound poet Christian Bök, best known for his Oulipian text Eunoia (2001). Bök’s work emerges from the Canadian “Pataphysics” movement, an offshoot of the playful parody of science developed by the French writer Alfred Jarry (the Canadians use double quotation marks while Jarry prefers a single one). Whereas his 1994 book Crystallography uses acrostics to recreate the atomic structure of opal and other substances in a nod to Lucretian atomism, Smailbegović is most interested in The Xenotext Experiment, an attempt “to encode a poem into the DNA of bacteria, hoping that the bacteria will act as his ‘post-human collaborators’ to produce a second protein poem based on the expressed sequence of the original DNA poem” (27). After more than twenty years and thousands of dollars of grant money the experiment has yet to achieve its goal, but for Smailbegović this difficulty “testifies to the irresolvable complexity of material-semiotic engagements” (144). For her, Bök’s project does not completely escape what she calls the “hylomorphic” tendency to privilege the semiotic over the material. A more successful biosemiotic collaboration is described in “Fibers,” which focuses on Bervin’s Silk Poems, which centers on the body of a silkworm performing “interspecies translations” (158). Her work attempts to communicate the Umwelt or “world” hypothesized by Jakob von Uexküll of the silkworm, not only in poems that derive a “haptic” quality from their form but by collaborating with Tufts University scientists to write a poem inscribed on a silk biosensor designed to monitor blood chemistry—a collaboration between silkworm, scientist, and poet.

Where Bök’s and Bervin’s projects engage on the experimental side of science to attempt biosemiotics directly, the “Tissues” and “Clouds” chapters focus on the more observational, taxonomic poetics of Stein and Robertson. “Tissues” is particularly valuable for its focus on Stein’s extensive scientific training, as opposed to the more usual association of her work with Cubist visual art. Smailbegović argues that Stein’s comprehensive attempt to describe every single possible type of human being and to reveal “bottom nature” of human beings in The Making of Americans is rooted in the morphological studies of brain tissue she conducted as a medical student at Johns Hopkins University. A brain is dissected into two-dimensional slices, from which the anatomist must then project its three-dimensional structures; similarly, “Stein’s descriptive method in The Making of Americans is almost sculptural, evoking a spatial quality similar to the sense of volume present in her descriptions of the morphology of neuronal tissues” (215). Finally, in “Clouds” we return to Robertson and her claim that “description is the imagination of matter,” a Lucretian idea by which “description does not operate representationally, as a transparent layer through which phenomena are observed; rather, it operates additively, as a mode of decoration, which elaborates the surfaces of entities” (266–67). A poetics of liveliness adds to or amplifies the phenomena it describes, communicating the activity of materiality to the reader; to return to Elizabeth Grosz’s idea about “the subsistence of the ideal in the material”: “Such a position suggests that ideality is immanent in materiality so as to provide the framing conditions for a nonreductive materialism. In other words, it seeks to ‘frame, orient, and direct material things and processes,’ allowing matter to become other than what it is in the present and to assume meaning” (274).

Smailbegović’s gamble follows that of Jane Bennett, who argues that “a touch of anthropomorphism . . . can catalyze a sensibility” that reveals “‘isomorphisms’ across what had previously seemed to be ‘categorical divides’” (164). In other words, her project is to break down reified discourses of materiality by means of a poetics as lively as the nonhuman things it describes, or decorates. It is a significant, serious, yet playful account of how, in the hands of these poet-naturalists, metaphor can be used strategically to liberate readers and their reading matter alike.


[1] Lisa Robertson, The Weather (Vancouver: New Star Books, 2001), 80.

[2] Robert Smithson, “A Provisional Theory of Nonsites,” holtsmithsonfoundation.org/provisional-theory-nonsites, accessed March 11, 2023.