Proximate cosmologies

A review of Ada Smailbegović's 'Poetics of Liveliness'

Photo by Kaitlin Moore.

Poetics of Liveliness: Molecules, Fibers, Tissues, Clouds

Poetics of Liveliness: Molecules, Fibers, Tissues, Clouds

Ada Smailbegović

Columbia University Press 2021, 352 pages, $30.00 ISBN 978-0231198271

At the beginning of chapter 6 of Poetics of Liveliness, titled “Clouds,” author Ada Smailbegović engages in an “experiment of description” aimed at enacting the “vaporous dynamics” of the Blur Building, a temporary media installation that drew up the waters of Lake Neuchâtel to spray into being an architectural structure composed entirely of water vapor and mist.[1] Smailbegović’s experiment is respiratory, a tidal form of positive feedback intensified through a litany of movements, forms, and visuals that partake of the hazy encumbrances and billows of a planetary atmosphere, a “dynamic site of gradual transformation” (198) that affectively embraces the instability and transience of cloud: “The vapor begins rising again from the left corner of the frame, filling and filling the space until no discernment is possible between the shape of the cloud and the sky” (228). Smailbegović’s description is an inspiration, a word I use with intent to both credit Smailbegović’s animation and to participate in a shared inhalation, to partake of and breathe in concert with the tidal textures, entangled forms, and heterogeneous cosmologies with which Smailbegović contends.

I am an astrophotographer. For me, the task of cosmological inquiry has often landed me behind the eyepiece of a telescope or next to a slow-spinning SkyGuider, my camera, shutter open, turning to counter to the planet’s axial rotation as it peers through dust and frozen carbon monoxide in search of stars. This search recently took me to a waterlogged length of sand on an island far south of the equator, my stargazing spot a sheltered estuary resembling a long, hook-shaped sandbar bordered by a tidal creek on one side and the sea on the other. The creek bed had been littered with the detritus of a bygone timber industry, plankton and algae clinging to the logs and lending the crystalline glacial melt a blue-green color. The creek flowed into the sea, and two sets of waves, moving in opposite directions from the two countercurrents, met at the tidal flats below the sandbar; they interfaced in neat little diagonals, quilt squares tacked together with threads of foam and ripple. Ridges of black basalt carpeted in kamahi and crown ferns, whose colors and textures in daylight were precise and sharp, by night were wrapped in shadow, little more than vague silhouettes at the far edges of the beach.

Shining through breaks in the clouds, the bands of white created by the glow of interstellar gases and unresolved stars close to the galactic plane were so bright I cast a shadow on the sand, while in the shallow sea oystercatchers and shellducks shuttled through mattes of bioluminescent plankton, creating luminous blue explosions and sprays of liquid light. Constellations above and below passed through each other like an encounter of two tides, starlight split and set to shimmering by high cloud and faint ocean fog, spray unfurling from the crests of waves, glistening stones and pearled necklaces of red seaweed gathered at the foamy edge of the water.

Mine is a decidedly astrophysical (and arguably limited) perspective on cosmology, an inclination to look up toward the stars rather than down at the sandy bore sucking at the legs of my telescope: the tidewrack world of tapioca kelp bulbs and tower snails with their delicate, high-spired shells. But that particular beach, on that particular night, invited a consideration of spaces that bled and spilled and osmosed across their borders, temporalities that traced recursive spirals within their causal orders, dynamical patterns of organization and emergence whose scales increased from an epicenter only to return again, one circle removed.

Poetics of Liveliness lands the reader on similar shores, where/when processes of change and nonhuman communal entanglements might participate in a “dynamic relational dance with their environments” (19). My intention is for my descriptions to animate, like Smailbegović’s experiments at the beginning of chapter 6, the “cosmological arc” of Poetics of Liveliness:

a circular collapse of scales, which moves from the tiny worlds of molecules all the way to the vastness of atmospheric phenomena, even as such phenomena are ultimately just percolations of those same molecules, while the molecular worlds themselves, upon amplification, present whole complex topographies of shapes and surfaces of the cosmos. (112)

Poetics of Liveliness is an exercise in simultaneous zooming up and zooming in, scaling between microscopic, mesoscopic, and macroscopic cosmological realms even as, like the conservation of angular momentum, Smailbegović decreases her moment of inertia to probe at the fundamental organizational properties of the materials at the heart of her investigation: the networks of relation disclosed by the poems of her archive, as well as the poetic objects themselves. The book’s six chapters — “configured around the particular materialities of molecules, fibers, tissues, and clouds” (50) — as well as an introduction and a coda are broken across two parts titled “Textures of Change” and “Poetic Laboratories of Matter,” the two sections functioning not unlike the often-grouped materials and methods sections of a standardized laboratory report. The text’s speculative and provisional modes of questioning spin like a convective updraft from the treacly miasma of molecules to agar plates peopled by radiation-resistant bacteria, from tentacular clusters of roots, fungi, and chitinous, glistening millipedes to the whistles and murmurs of wind and the conspiration of clouds. From the updraft Smailbegović mobilizes three particular proposals: (1) poetry can be cosmological; (2) cosmology can be poetic; and (3) together, they can express more than either part represented separately, perhaps to ends that may allow a practitioner to “crack open an edge of the Umwelt of another organism even just a tiny bit” (6).

Investigations at the intersection of literature and science — and the mutual illuminations kindled by their meeting — are far from new or novel. Several of the thinkers upon which Smailbegović relies are household names in readings of poetry and science: her multiple and sustained references to the Epicureans, particularly Lucretius and his De Rerum Natura, as well the central role played by German biologist and biosemiotician Jakob Johann von Uexküll, place Poetics of Liveliness within “recent and emerging conversations in the sciences and the theoretical humanities, which seek to uncover how semiotic processes may permeate even nonhuman material worlds” (115).

Smailbegović’s reliance upon Uexküll’s Umwelt, which M. Ty argues “stabilizes the perspectival shifts toward the nonhuman,” scaffolds a text that slots neatly into ongoing studies of ecological systems and nonhuman animacies[2] as well as recent discourses that inquire how aesthetic forms and scientific methodologies might illuminate worlds inhibited and shaped by actors human and nonhuman, semiotic and material, living and nonliving.[3] Notably, Poetics of Liveliness operates, like De Rerum, scalarly, moves fluidly between the realms of the very small and the very large, revealing relationships between multifaceted, nonhuman material assemblages, while Smailbegović’s expertise in a variety of scientific fields buttresses the author’s ability to build the necessary information networks as she moves through the diverse levels of those relationships.

Where Smailbegović shines is in her ability to navigate what would otherwise be sodden scholarly ground without sinking into the old footprints in the sand. In her discussion of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans in chapter 5, “Tissues,” Smailbegović assumes the familiar task of tracing the similarities between modes of expression in scientific and artistic circles during the early half of the twentieth century. But where books like Physics Envy by Peter Middleton and Modernist Physics by Rachel Crossland lean heavily on a cosmology refracted through the specialized fields of relativistic mechanics, particle physics, and quantum mechanics, Smailbegović emphasizes Stein’s extensive medical training to argue that the project of description and classification Stein undertakes in The Making of Americans is not “mechanistic and deterministic” but capable of conveying “the liveliness of biological organisms as they continuously undergo change” (205). Like Smailbegović’s experiment at the beginning of chapter 6, the changes in Stein’s otherwise repetitive compositions of tissue description reveal themselves through minor variations and gradual differentiations, not unlike the signatures of the epigenome — the minute shifts in gene expression due to environmental factors.

In chapter 5, Smailbegović is attentive to the scientific and literary precedents informing a cosmological reading of a writer like Stein, with Smailbegović engaging these precedents as readily as the aesthetic object itself. What strikes the reader is the fact that, despite Stein being the earliest of the four primary texts with which she engages, Smailbegović does not relegate Stein to historical precedent or inception point for the type of concepts, theories, and phenomena emergent in the later literature. The temporal arc of Smailbegović’s archive, which includes — alongside contemporary titles like The Xenotext by Christian Bök, Silk Poems by Jen Bervin, and The Weather by Lisa Robertson — works like Bob Brown’s words and Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems, attests to Smailbegović’s willingness to confer upon earlier texts the agency and criteria of relevance to what are often thought of as contemporaneous conversations.

Smailbegović asks in her introduction: “How can language index or somehow register in its syntactic and rhythmic unfolding the temporal flux of materiality that makes and unmakes the rich variability of animal, plant, and mineral worlds?” (15). Like the aesthetic objects of her investigation, wherein cosmological inquiry emerges in the self-reflexive relationality between analogical illustrations and experimental configurations, between both form and content, Poetics of Liveliness is, too, staggered in a state of “temporal flux,” a state that includes the work in the archive itself, which may help to account for the scope of its engagement and the historical range of texts selected.

Smailbegović is attuned to both sites and strategies where “seemingly disparate epistemic and aesthetic strategies meet to offer an account of material entities without interrupting their kinetics” (14). In this regard, Poetics of Liveliness offers myriad points of entry into a contested and vibrant constellation of discourses in new materialisms and poetics. This constellation[4] has functioned dualistically as a panacea to the permeative focus upon language characterized by the linguistic turn as well as an investigative space “possessing the possibilities for indeterminate, unforeseeable unfolding,” where “the relationship between materiality and ideality, and hence signification and matter, may be reconfigured in nondualist terms” (15–17).

Here are scholars of Indigenous and Native studies most conspicuously absent from the book, however. The work of Native scholars concerned with actionable strategies that invest agencies, both human and nonhuman, with the tools necessary to disclose their sense of place in the universe, which in turn offer radical and restorative alternatives to the systems that entrench colonization, capitalism, and climate change, would offer Poetics of Liveliness an additional critical disciplinary vocabulary and constellation of concepts. This intersectional and interdisciplinary engagement would, perhaps, help to bolster efforts to move beyond frameworks that represent certain concepts in terms of inherent ontological properties and essentialist categories. Smailbegović’s argument regarding the dynamics of materiality and her ability to avoid the vagueness of the term cosmology by emphasizing the polyvalence of its meaning would have been strengthened by conversing with Indigenous scholars.

Instead, as previously mentioned, Smailbegović cites the work of queer and feminist scholars of the new materialisms school and their “way of working toward nondualist, situated understandings of material meaning-making and epistemology” (117). Elizabeth Grosz and her Bergsonian emphasis on duration anchor Smailbegović’s own consideration of matter’s open-ended emergent properties. Smailbegović’s formulation of “soft matter,” like rennet in milk, “coagulates” Grosz’s fluid proposal to “simultaneously hold on to the notion of provisionally differentiated entities while also considering how such entities are undergoing change as they move through time or as they enter into encounters that shift their textures and geometries” (49). In this “coagulation” is Smailbegović’s larger intervention most evident. In her chapter 3 reading of Christian Bök’s The Xenotext, a poem translated into a DNA chain and implanted into the genome of the extremophilic bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans, Smailbegović notes that the DNA nucleotides (adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine) render the poem into an ineluctable “biological materiality” that itself “begins to set the parameters of the constraints imposed on the form of the poetic text” (95). Smailbegović emphasizes that the complementary base-pair copy of a DNA strand, or mRNA, is responsible for selecting a corresponding amino acid, a biological process with a limited number of combinations and permutations (Deinococcus radiodurans limits the possibilities still further, since the extremophilic bacterium is highly resistant to mutation [128]), which allows Bök to create a cipher corresponding to a specific amino acid derived from three nucleotide bases in the DNA codon (123). The Xenotext therefore leaves open the possibility for an “interspecies collaboration” engaged in the act of “creating change and differentiation of forms” that is, nevertheless, attentive to the constraints of complementary mRNA and DNA codons (136–37).

Clearly, Smailbegović is not parsimonious in activating the glossaries of physics, chemistry, biology, and meteorology to further her analyses; the book features everything from the hydrophilic and hydrophobic properties of phospholipids to the base pairs of double-stranded nucleic acids to the protein fibers of silk. Rather than hamstring her writing with the dry, analytic traditions of scientific investigation, its fields constituted by expert practitioners for an expert audience, Poetics of Liveliness holds some common stock with Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway (the latter referenced heavily in the former) in the fact that both writers’ arguments are grounded in and their claims substantiated by scientific study while maintaining the integrity of specific disciplinary insights. More, there is something of Barad’s “diffractive methodology” in the way Smailbegović reads “different areas of study through one another,” not in the aim of drawing analogical connections between various actors and scales of being, but in order to examine how these actors and scales are mutually implicated in the construction of one another and how their entanglements can perhaps best be canvased, according to Smailbegović, by various poetic practices.[5] But where Barad rides onto-epistemological wavefunctions fermented from the behaviors described by quantum physics, Smailbegović’s book is markedly absent of sustained meditations on physics, one of the specialized disciplines I might normally associate with the term cosmology.

From the perspective of an astrophotographer, perhaps the most striking thing about Poetics of Liveliness is the author’s intention to map a cosmology of a proximate material universe, to sketch an intimacy immanent within entanglements that are always emerging, dissipating, and reconvening at “nonhuman scales of sense” (154) that, nevertheless, participate in a strange inversion of the cosmological durations of space and time to which I have grown accustomed, trading lightyears for “ligatures of carboxyl and amidogen,” stars for silkworms, the telescope for the microscope, and the vacuum of outer space for the haptic intimacies of texture and tremor and touch.[6] The cosmologies of Poetics of Liveliness incorporate but do not remain committed to the strict topologies precipitated out of the astrophysical sciences, topologies that I have come to expect from my own cosmological encounters, although, as Smailbegović notes on numerous occasions, the realms of the very large and the very small have a recurring tendency to bleed into each other.

Therefore, Smailbegović proposes that as well as extraplanetary realms peopled by planets and stars, the concept of cosmology ionizes, aurora-like, planetary realms of potentiality and possibility and paradox, places that, like the complementary wave-particle articulations of light, refuse a collapse into ontological fixity. Cosmology simultaneously instantiates, incorporates, and dwells within the densities of fluid and fluctuating material networks sketched out by Smailbegović’s poetic archive. The texts are themselves cosmological artifacts as much as the artifacts they illuminate — a key takeaway from the book: a field theory of “poetic cosmology” may offer a means of realizing the “kinds of contact points between the materialities of perception, expression, language, and various bodies that occupy the material world” (227).

While it not always capitalizing fully on the frameworks and lifeways of kin, community, and nonhuman vitalities offered by more intersectional engagements, nonetheless, Poetics of Liveliness realizes a multifaceted constellation of meaning and signification in both “linguistic and nonlinguistic realms” (77). Smailbegović traces dynamic, ductile correspondences and commensurabilities, what she terms a “soft taxonomy of relations” (28), between living and nonliving beings, mathematical notations and material networks, nonhuman and human spheres, and ultimately scientific and artistic forms to consider “how the formal properties of aesthetic and particularly textual objects, existing within the purview of poetics, can reveal and attend to what occurs at scales that may otherwise be imperceptible” (232).

1. Ada Smailbegović, Poetics of Liveliness (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021), 229.

2. See Mel Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).

3. M. Ty, “Abolish Species: Notes toward an ‘Unfenced Is,’ Part I,” The Yearbook of Comparative Literature 64 (2018): 223.

4. See Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); and Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, eds., New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

5. Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, 24–25.

6. Christian Bök, qtd. in Smailbegović, 146.