Everything remembers equally
A review of Jennifer K. Dick's 'Circuits'
Jennifer K. Dick’s third collection of poems, Circuits, tells us on the title page that it is a “rereading/revisiting of George Johnson’s In the Palaces of Memory,” a 1993 work of popular science. But the result is not an analytical kind of poetry. Circuits is a reminiscence of Dick’s adolescence and early adulthood, when she was learning to be a scientist, a career path that she would give up for literature — which means that scientific conceits provide the awkward and heated language of first loves and first abuses: “‘You’re getting along with science,’ her lover claimed, faded, ‘You want touch’” (73).
Behind Circuits is the idea that obsessed Johnson when he was writing In the Palaces of Memory: “Whenever you read a book or have a conversation, the experience causes physical changes in your brain. In a matter of seconds, new circuits are formed, memories that can change forever the way you think about the world.” Circuits is not about biology. It’s not about the relationship between our daily selves and our cellular selves. Dick makes no distinction between the substrate (brain or chip) and the experience that’s supposed to be inscribed on it or by it or through it. Neurons and dendrites have the same status and even the same “size” as the people and dishware of our memories. Everything is outside the body, soaking up an emotional charge:
Tubes measuring crackers, white flour, keeping like she, turning back to the clotting of blood cells called dislike and smooth hook. Together change occurs — is increased. Erythrocytes evolved in their cafeteria counters where students didn’t feel hungry. […]
Later — into the world, the other door band-aided sobs outside. Who knew she’d dine in the institutional hall? Through the tiny capillary? […]
“The A-cell is not a solid 40-weight motor oil,” she would say. “Language came. Was.” But then, waiting outside, she wrestled to bandage the skeptic looks of silver forks. Spoons’ ability to change openings. (4)
So a capillary can be walked through, erythrocytes can be stacked on tables, and a door can be band-aided, spurned and sobbing. The elements of the body join our landscape, a landscape that is, in turn, continuous with our bodies. Every object, being sensitive, is capable of knowing and remembering. Dick is not trying for strict metaphors. She’s giving all causes, from little to big, from physical to psychological, from inanimate to animate, from AI to I, the same scale and putting them on the same plane:
A neuron’s nucleus is located … Or perhaps a whole true central, genuine, as in origin, middle banded by beginnings, begging synthesized to produce the proteins, receptors, all the baseball diamond backgrounds over beers, country lanes, over you. (35)
Dick brings science down from Platonic skies, so that its content can get rained on or sunburnt like the people who make it. Science is done by humans, is a game of patterns played by humans. It comes from and returns to the human body:
Lynch’s lab once and for all staring at LTP in the Toronto Sheraton concocting the demise of the rival. No one was ready for theories yet — still in the if-then premise of a bit of irony, the coup de grace which could end its only winning hypotheses, inference by inference climbing a tower to nowhere. “We could be wrong,” he said one afternoon. (29)
The “We could be wrong” is one of Dick’s motifs, in a book where motifs act like enzymes, provocatively. The more I read over Circuits, the more it seems like a series of clues for a puzzle that cannot be enunciated. Facts are accepted because of pride, convenience, and, most crucially, intoxication. “Lynch wrote: implications for being able to focus. Lie” (39). The Lynch speaking here is named after the real-life biologist Gary Lynch, author of Synapses, Circuits, and the Beginnings of Memory. He pops up in a few poems, often to warn us that “one of the terrible things [is] to be selective” (27). He’s something of the mad scientist, the one who understands the dark corners of method: you can’t look closely at A without ignoring B. You can’t master C without letting D go to pot. And once you have your facts, then what? On this point, Dick is skeptical of any logic except the organic. If facts are lived and breathed, full of retribution and lust, then so is the logic that gets us from one fact to another. Details and half-stories sprout out or cluster, and the connection between them is sometimes as thin as a fiber. Because the organic is almost never linear, but a net or mass of the vaguely linear, Circuits is replete with passages, portals, gateways, diners, highways, restaurants, hotels. In this world, we are driven recklessly by the people we meet along the way. That is, if Circuits hasan organizing principle, it must be whomever we love at first sight:
“Why’d you choose now and not some other?” she asked, curled up candlelit by the tie-dyed, batiked wallcovers. In the first dead-head’s minivan, stoned, PCP-laced, fields pitched … More complex networks. “The synaptic frequency is graphed against the other, harder-to-analyze,” they explained. This live blonde, this lanky US Championship, everything I’d ever met. (13)
Circuits does not try to locate itself in one place or one time, because it’s never sure where it will go from one line to the next. Butit’s quite sure of how an event will be said. The book has an almost overwhelming lyrical voice. With that much drive, however, the eye can pass over some of the best lines without appreciating the details that make them brilliant. I suggest that the reader move upwards as well as downwards, randomly as well as conventionally, and take none of the networking for granted. I have called Circuits a lyrical book. What I mean is that it assembles all data points within desire. Memory might be the subject, but desire is Circuit’s logic and sine qua non:
“Tell me,” I said, “why light, as in toward night, masters emblazoned zones, enchanting theorists? Did the singing end?” (48)