Sally Van Doren’s ‘Adaptive’
With the latest improvements in the technology for creating cloned human embryos, the science fiction idea of human clones is no longer quite so speculative. (Cloning livestock is not only not speculative, it’s almost routine.) In the near future we will have the ability to create, with the technologies of genome editing and cloning, upgraded versions of ourselves – in other words, taking our adaptation to our environment into our own hands, rather than simply accepting what we’ve been handed by evolution.1
Changing the meaning of our DNA to make a new version of ourselves parallels the much less ethically dubious process of reading a poem by deliberately adapting its meaning to our needs and interests as readers. The analogy is not perfect, but the way I read a poem is typically involves a kind of adaptive process: I try out different ways of reading (variation) and stick with those that work (selection), ending up with a reading that is more rewarding and consciousness-expanding than the one I began with.
If we’re creating meaning for ourselves, what is the role of the author in all this? Here’s how this week’s poet Sally Van Doren explained her role as author to the St. Louis Beacon:
Newman: Writers, especially poets, never want to tell too much, but do you ever worry about cutting so much of the context or back story away that you render a poem too private?
Van Doren: I do have to confess that I write first for myself. I am aware that I can’t control someone else’s response to what I consider to be my private expression.
Because poems are such a private expression, most of us will rarely be able to catch, unaided, many of the allusions, influences, and conceptual connections that were the driving forces of a poem’s creation. If you read John Donne or Emily Dickinson, you have decades or centuries of scholarship to, in essence, spoon-feed you meaning when you’re puzzled by some phrase or obscure reference (and even that has its limits). We don’t generally have that resource with contemporary poets, but really, we don’t need it to find a poem compelling. Jorge Luis Borges put it this way:
The taste of the apple (states Berkeley) lies in the contact of the fruit with the palate, not in the fruit itself; in a similar way (I would say) poetry lies in the meeting of poem and reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on pages of a book.2
When I first encountered Sally Van Doren’s poem ‘Adaptive’ (from her recent book Possessive), the poetry (in Borges’ sense) that first emerged reflected the world I inhabit: I spend my days thinking about genetics, and many evenings reading post-apocalyptic science fiction. ‘Adaptive’ immediately conjured up a dystopian world of designer human clones (who still have occasional bad backs, and whose common warts are lined up next to scientific pores), and of survivors huddled in an air-conditioned basement, trying to recreate a past world that has gone up in smoke.
After this first pass, the process of adapting my reading of the poem began immediately. The process began with this observation: most works of poetry grab me at a macro level; they conjure up a striking image, work a surprising metaphor, or perhaps capture a fleeting emotion. Van Doren’s poems do that, but more than anything they reach me at the micro level – the level of the word. You can see this in the short lines of ‘Adaptive’, where every word can almost stand on its own.
This effect is deliberate, as we are emphatically told in another poem from Possessive:
“I like to flirt with words,/ to whore myself out/ to a vernacular, to suck/ up to syntax, to be/ the girl in the room/ whose shirt is see-/ through, whose lips/ lure the gentlemen/ from their genres.” (‘My Alphabet’).
The in-your-face stance of the words in ‘Adaptive’ contrasts with the ambiguity of their meaning. After my first read-through of the poem as a narrative, I began to draw connections between words in different parts of the poem. As I did so, words began to adapt their meaning to each other. The scientific pore “lined up” next the wart, but “up” gets deleted from the “last line of obligation.” We read “no one cared what it stood for” – but what is standing for something, the burning barn, the smoke, or the back before it went out? A person is cloned from a strand of hair, while money is reassembled in a basement which is blasted with cold air, while cold air did not come through the screen. We have a genetic bundle, and stacks of old credits, suggesting a parallel between genes and money – which of them is buying time?
I won’t walk you through the rest of my selection of readings; go ahead and start the process for yourselves.
Adaptive The scientific pore lined up next to a sentimental common wart and we all rushed out to delete “up” from the last line of obligation. To clone an entire body, a double- thick person from one strand of hair? The back goes out again as it did thirty-five years ago in the other spine, before the smoke, not the cold air, waltzed in through the screen. It was a campfire, not a barn burning down. And no one cared what it stood for. They huddled in the air-conditioned basement, opening cartons, reassembling money, and stacking old credits, watching their mentors fly off tables and land in purses. Time to buy time. Time to shred the receipt, receive the genetic bundle, the diagonal redemptive feeling the thing they call love.
‘Adaptive’ is reprinted with the kind permission of Sally Van Doren. She does all sorts of wonderful things for poetry here in St. Louis, including curating the Sunday Poetry Workshops for the St. Louis Poetry Center. Her latest book of poems is Possessive (2012), and her first collection, Sex at Noon Taxes received the Walt Whitman Award. Check out more poems at her website.
1. Whether it’s ethical to do so is another question… which will also no longer be a speculative one.
2. Quote in The Redress of Poetry, Seamus Heaney (FSG 1995), p. 8
Possessive cover (LSU Press, 2012) features “The Instant Decorator (Black and White Living Room), 2002, by Laurie Simmons
Author photo by Sarah Carmody