‘The stone with the music’

On Michael Golston’s ‘The Science Fiction of Poetics’

The Science Fiction of Poetics and the Avant-Garde Imagination
Michael Golston
The University of Alabama Press, 2024, 243 pages, $39.95, ISBN 978-0-8173-6100-6; E-ISBN 978-0-8173-9468-4

In a chapter on Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger (1975) in his most recent critical monograph, Michael Golston proposes to treat the enigmatic figure of Sllab as “pure science fiction,” an approach that, so far as he knows, “has not been taken before.” A pertinent question would be, “Why not?” — for Dorn made no secret of Sllab’s genesis in Stanley Kubrick’s “main deific principle” in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), “the stone with the music.” Do critics of avant-garde poetry tend to shy away from science fiction? Golston is discreet here, simply pointing out that reflex denigration of the genre as “fatally popular, secondary, minor,” etc. has been dispelled by “decades of serious scholarship” and getting on with his principal objective: the delineation of what forms a science fiction avant-garde poetry — as opposed to one taking structural cues from current science, e.g. Christian Bök’s Crystallography (2003) — might take.
 

For a working definition of science fiction (or sci-fi, or sf), Golston draws on Darko Suvin, who in 1979 gave “cognitive estrangement” as a core sf principle, while Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (2008) and Robert Smithson’s “Entropy and the New Monuments” (1966) provide inspiration for Golston’s own “Rube Goldberg” investigative machinery, which will track vertically (up into outer space and down to the Earth’s core) and horizontally (along the Earth’s surface) such stock sf motifs as new technologies, a sense of wonder, types of entropy, and alien languages. Relevant also is Seo-Young Chu’s Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? (2011), which argues that sf concretizes metaphor, aiming thus to realize its own “elusive referents … within a narrative universe.” Golston is not narrative-averse, albeit some of his poets are; but both he and they are interested in exploring worlds that are “estranging” principally through their “torqued” linguistic texture. Enter thus William Burroughs’s Nova Express (1964), a novel structured to enact word and electronic image as parasitic control mechanisms via the cut-up as antidote. Bear in mind, though, Pierre Macherey’s caveat regarding “what a text has to say in order to say what it wants to say.” Nova Express accommodates itself at least to the genre trope of alien invasion and its accompanying cast of good-vs-bad-guys; how much ecopoetry, which rarely presents itself as science fiction, is carrying on the richly generative legacy of Frankenstein (1818), that of the invention that runs amok, bringing retribution to its hubristic creator?

 

 

 
Golston begins most chapters by deftly situating his chosen texts in a broader cultural context. To substantiate his contention that Mina Loy’s “Human Cylinders” (1915), with its panting “automatons” coupling in “the enervating dusk,” is “the first true sci-fi poem,” he visits various contemporaneous forms of mechanical agency and the humans they quasi-assimilate. The latter include Marinetti, at the time one of Loy’s lovers, yearning to be taken up into hurtling metal; and Princess Langwidere in Frank L. Baum’s Ozma of Oz (1907) — unexpected choice! — who spends her days trying on for the mirror the various heads she has had struck from the shoulders of other women. Golston pegs her as “a cold image of commodity collapsed in upon itself” — unsurprising, perhaps, given Baum’s day job as Fifth Avenue window-dresser, where he choreographed living mannequins to entice prospective customers into the store. Loy’s “automatons” are also recognizably human in reflecting the fuller emotion they fitfully grope after in their impulse to “Destroy the Universe / With a solution.” As Golston observes, the “gender polemic at [the poem’s] base is nixed by the neutrality of cosmic indifference to all things human.” Bleak — and a new world. Bored, peremptory lovers are not new; a figurative vocabulary of along (into mechanization) and up (into the stars) to give them extension is.

Nova Express, where “every science fiction trope” is pushed to grotesquely hilarious extremes, is introduced via reflections on Breton and Soupault’s surreal prose work The Magnetic Fields (1920) (not quite sf, a kind of “prescience fiction”; although arguably, “the nonreal [world] that sci-fi indexes” reaches into personal/cultural id, not least through dream elements). We learn that Gunslinger takes its place in the tradition of the “science fiction Western,” featuring as it does such stock figures as the saloon Madam, an Indian sidekick, a poet, a talking horse, and others of different outlooks, talents, and species, a typically sf assemblage. The gunfighter here is an extraterrestrial whose “unmatchable Speed” comes from having “eliminat[ed] the draw”; he shoots not to kill but to “Describe” (cut through appearances, demystify); Golston details how Olson’s proprioception is here given an sf rationale. The sf Western also has a characteristic eye to natural resources; The Phantom Empire, a film serial from 1935, ends with the futuristic Earth’s-core city of Murania being destroyed, uncannily enough, by its own “atom-smashing ray,” leaving enough “radium” under singing cowboy Gene Autry’s dude ranch “to make us all rich.” The itinerary of Gunslinger and his party therefore evokes Spanish and Anglo incursions into the Southwest, the Apache Wars — and New Mexico’s “history of resource extraction.” Golston’s careful decipherments reveal Sllab to be at once a technical term from plate tectonics (slab) and an entity transmitting radar data from outer space about cracks beneath the Earth’s surface vulnerable to fracking by the poem’s evil genius Howard Hughes. In the climactic showdown the bad guy beats a retreat; “the glory days of wildcatting” are over and his fracking plans thwarted by absence of water in the San Juan Basin. Gunslinger, after brief summative farewells to each of his companions, departs for his home planet “along with the [faster-than-light] tachyon showers.” But he will be back, Golston allows, “as the various Westworlds, Star Wars, and Fireflys testify” — not to mention the meticulously pointless 2012 movie, Cowboys and Aliens.

In effect, Gunslinger is a critical reworking of The Phantom Empire. But as clearly, Dorn is not trying to “subvert” the sci-fi Western as a narrative form; he shows considerable affection for it, fashioning his characters with gusto, their wisecracks and deplorably low puns often harboring sophisticated literary or philosophical allusions. Gunslinger teems with remarks critical of the culture, but Golston sets these beside Dorn’s “I am from the Midwest, which means I’m cynical.” Gunslinger himself points up the “fine play” of the poem’s increasingly wild and rough language: “and I’ll miss this marvelous accidentalism.”

Evelyn Reilly’s Styrofoam (2009) explores the “disastrous ecology” (Golston), in turn, of plastic disposal; the poem is not only present-oriented but largely science-based, composed of discontinuous phrases and bursts of bunched-up, often alliterative or sonically echoing words, arranged in chapters. Golston recognizes in this “net of nodes noded net of netted nodes” a formal mock-up of Styrofoam itself but is more interested in the sci-fi movies — The Blob (1958), Alien (1979), The Thing (1982) — that Reilly gives as providing one emotional template (the monster amok). Peter Nicholls’s blurb to Golston’s book notes the “dark excitement” with which it is “alive,” and nowhere is that more apparent than in these “plastic” pages: an “organ without a body,” the “Blob is not hungry: it is hunger, appetite as sheer [absorptive] presence …”

Styrofoam is the topic of the second part of Chapter 4, cued overall by Smithson’s idea of entropy as an “all-encompassing sameness,” the ultimate heat-death brought forward to figure post-WW2’s mass-produced landscapes. Golston stresses it’s a “highly literary” idea, envisioned in science fiction as either shapelessness (The Blob) or creeping petrification (J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World [1966]). Golston will complete the chapter with Bruce Andrews’s Lip Service (2001), one of whose concerns, Andrews comments, “might be sci fi — imagined possibilities of a future.” This is the first explicit mention by one of Golston’s poets of the arch sci-fi concern; heading into the argument’s home stretch, and since Lip Service will raise some complications, I want here to briefly bring in two other future-oriented poets.

Chapter 5 concerns artists — Amiri Baraka, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Sherwin Bitsui, and others — who embrace-to-transform the role of “alien” imposed on them by hegemonic whiteness, thus becoming, writes Golston, “alien aliens.” Ra’s use of sf to this end is the most thorough; as the Arkestra’s costumes combine ancient Egypt with futuristic glitz, and the music moves from “jazz standards of the past” to “music made of clash and dissonance” via much in between, so Ra’s poetry, as Golston details, makes sophisticated use of the subjunctive mood to evoke-the-past-call-out-the-present-exemplify-a-joyful-impossible-future all at once. This polytemporal synthesis that is, precisely, Ra’s “alien language,” differs interestingly from Clark Coolidge’s in Alien Tatters (2000). The one source Coolidge specifies is “recent accounts of the Abducted … a vast chatter”; he will use the sf trope of first contact (with aliens) in an effort to “shed limitations” imposed by that impulse to “Destroy the Universe / With a solution” that Mina Loy registered. Yet if nothing were recognizable, discernibility itself would fail; “the poetry’s strangeness appears at the level of vocabulary,” Golston notes, in “relentless non sequitur,” “but the bulk of its sentences follow standard English order.” Mysteries flicker, may appear to move toward a solution, are deflected, but often by delightfully unexpected turns … The result is a protracted, 194-page training in negative capability, preparation for a future itself alien because necessarily unknowable and as inviting as Ra’s polytemporality to full participation in the present.

As is Lip Service, Andrews’s “recasting of Dante’s Paradiso.” Here Golston finds sci-fi’s “distant patrimony in medieval romance and epic,” Dante as “arguably” our earliest prescience fiction writer, and that he and Andrews both “understand poetry … as a means for imaging what’s beyond imaging. Andrews’s poem is also, we recall, in the entropy gallery, conceiving as he does “of language,” Golston writes, “as an all-devouring parasitic body”; while line by line the work is “[u]nrepetivistic,” an enactment of syllabic gorgeousness “in marvelously impossible registers of image, idea, and syntax,” no Dantean advance is made, underscored by Golston in taking all his exemplary quotes from the fourth section, “Venus.” This “vocable ooze,” moreover, subsists within and overflows entropy’s other sf manifestation, as the crystallized — that is, the intricate scaffolding that Andrews builds from “Dante’s topics & tercets and punctuation.” Nevertheless, as early as his L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E days, Andrews saw his poetry in terms of (utopian) future-preparation; in “Confidence Trick” (1979), the watershed poem in his transition to paragraph-blocks, there were even instances of sci-fi vocabulary, likely owing to Burroughs. Is all of Andrews’s poetry science fiction then, even if that’s not always dominant? How varied and even unapparent are manifestations of what Golston calls “the science fiction impulse, whatever it may be” (note that Veer Books in England just brought out a valuably hefty anthology, Corroding the Now: Poetry + Science|SF)?

Let me not pretend to adjudicate such questions here but stress that The Science Fiction of Poetics and the Avant-Garde Imagination is the first volume (Stateside) that makes them possible to ask. Golston declares at the outset, “I intend to have fun with this book”; in no contradiction, his every critical resource — close reading, reading alongside a citation (and incidentally, touching on all its salient points), multiple observations witty, trenchant, and at all points, lucid — is dedicated to explicating these texts and their importance in this new context. He lays no claim to completeness; perhaps anyone reading this review could come up with other candidates for inclusion, not to mention further complications. But Golston has identified in “the science fiction impulse” a motivation for avant-garde poetry active now for at least a century, along with the lineaments of a potential new field of poetics. It’s nothing to sneeze at.