Sunday, May 31, 2009

Avery Slater on “Bullet Proof”

This poem began, as perhaps all poems do: as a problem. Rather, as several separate problems entangling themselves at saturation point. Sericulture was the first problem, a practice I’d long been fascinated and horrified by. I’d been haphazardly building a mental compendium of facts about sericulture for years, unsure whether it might produce a poem.

Immediately before writing this poem, two things collided. In my arbitrary attempts to understand various developments in the history of quantum physics. I encountered a description of vacuum energy, via the “Casimir effect,” named after its discoverer. Then, in a moment stemming from the sericulture interest—I discovered the first bulletproof vests were silk. One rather postmodern coherence sutured these two facts, in a coincidental confluence of unrelated readings: namely, that the first name of Revered Zeglen, the bulletproof vest’s inventor, was “Casimir.”

It is said one of the hardest English words to translate is “serendipity.” Apparently, only English expresses this notion in one word. This assertion of relative difficulty is patently unverifiable. Nonetheless, as an alleged fact it has stayed with me, as perhaps a more verifiable one mightn’t have. The idea’s indelibility could be rhetorical: ironic that “serendipity” is the word giving translators headaches. Yet “serendipity defies translation” might be more deeply tautological, a statement tantamount to “winter defies being summer.”

Writing this poem was a lesson for me in serendipity’s inscrutable nature—that which emerges from confluence, not correspondence. If translation makes sense of a thing by way of correspondence (worm = Wurm = verme), then serendipity is sense arising unexpectedly from convergence of the disparate. Thus, what I had in “Casimir” was not just a name, but a conspiracy theory—rather, a “happy conspiracy”: the synonym I will offer for the untranslatable “serendipity” (itself, serendipitously enough, a proper name, given long ago to Sri Lanka by Persian traders.)

Proper names are tacitly untranslatable words. Venezia,Venedig, Venice, yes, but only through error, or, more exactly, through inexactitude. Here I return to the so-called “problem” which is the ungainly clam shell of every poem’s hoped-for Aphrodite: how to make sense imprecisely. Not stupidly, not badly, not imperfectly, but . . . serendipitously? What the proto-poem presented me with was undoubtedly disparate. I first asked, how to treat facts not as facts, but as images?

Images are not identical to facts, nor yet are they supremely different. What difference? The conceptual divergence between particles of 20th century physics versus Democritus’s hypothetically indivisible atoms might demonstrate this difference. Images operate more as particles of modern physics in that they are not inert, exhibiting instead a kind of Brownian motion (seemingly patternless movement). To assert, metaphorically, a Brownian motion for the poetic image, I suggest something psychoanalysts and child-storytellers already know: the image is profoundly unsettled, anxious, hyperactive, mercurial, and never says “exactly” what it means. Better to let it scattershot about, it might lead somewhere—but whether to a poem, or to an island in the Indian Ocean is for the convergence of trade winds to decide.