Is life what it seems to be? If it is, it is a variegated mold on the surface of the third planet from the sun. It can be described as an understandable thing. But in reality, as lived, life functions according to all sorts of emotion and irrationalism. The world is, on the one hand, a place. It is a laboratory. A laboratory is a room where you can control outside influences.
The world is where everything happens all the time, all on top of each other, spraying influences like a Gatling gun. Still, the world and the lab are both places. Things happen that can be measured and described such that someone at another time could make use of it, repeat experiments, make predictions, add subtleties. By definition, the world is more complicated than the lab.
We run into the lab with any interaction we can think of that we might be able to isolate and test. Usually we can’t think of any way to pull out of the chaos one specific, reliable influence, the one thing that makes something happen. For example, we don’t know why the rate of breast cancer is so high in the US. When we first noticed it, decades ago, we wondered if it was genetic, a result of the biology of our common ancestry. So we looked to see if today’ populations of women who immigrate here from lower-breast cancer rate countries continue to enjoy low rates. Turned out they very quickly start getting more breast cancer.
So not genetics. What then? At first we guessed diet, settled on a variety of fruits and vegetables over the years, broccoli, cauliflower, blueberries; meanwhile large, long-term, studies were conducted to prove the link. The studies, instead, found no link at all. No ratio of greens to beef helped anybody’s odds.
So what’s causing all the cancer? Now we’re thinking it might be a kind of chemical contamination, maybe from fire retardants in furniture, or maybe from plastic food containers, or maybe even what they spray on vegetables to poison insects. Could turn out eating all those vegetables wasn’t such a good idea.
Anyway, the point is that we don’t know what to guess, it could be anything. When science presents a relationship to the public -- this causes that -- it seems like the tough part was measuring reality, but the toughest part comes first. It is the choice to be concerned with a particular influence that might be making some phenomenon happen. Once you choose which thing you’re going to study, you have made the biggest decision you will make. A writer’s greatest act of editing is in plucking one subject out of the busy universe and placing it on the slab.
Would you like to come up to my lab and see what’s on the slab? I see you shiver with an tissa pation. That’s from a song. My age cohorts may chortle. I don’t know how many times I saw the Rocky Horror Picture show when I was a teenager because I saw it so much that I wanted to have a ticket stub from each show, but I didn’t start saving stubs with the first show and then to compensate for that I’d sometimes pick up ripped tickets found at the theater and add them to my collection. Really screws up the ability to keep track.
So let’s just say I saw it a remarkably large number of times. It was a theater on Long Island, and back in the day, as they say, you could smoke pot and cigarettes in this theater and no one bothered us at all, and kids sold marijuana cigarettes to each other on line, buck a piece. It was a place to go.
Anywho, as you can clearly see, the mind wanders and strange things influence our attempts to keep records. Life is not very lab-y. The importance of choosing would stop me dead if I tried choosing so instead I just unchoose almost everything and do whatever is still there, after I’ve rejected everything else, whatever’s still sitting on my desk and looking up at me like a baby that needs to be burped. Just before I reject the last thing, I say, this is mine, this is what I want. Grab it up in my arms and pat its back.
Poetry is the lab of labs. In the lab you control-out chaos and describe details of the world. Poetry is the roving lab-eye that speaks for the whole world, that takes the measure of the buzzing thrum of the world. We cast in all directions at once and take a plaster cast of the chaos and hum that is fact, feeling, and unfolding phenomena, all at once, all the time.
Do you love the word overdetermined? It means more causes than necessary caused this outcome. Why is Sue so angry, here in this dilapidated situation? Overdetermined. What do your dreams of being lost and frantic, night after night mean? Overdetermined. We actually got the word from Althusser who lifted it from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams.
Life is an interpretation of dreams. Newton actually has instruction on how to do science in the preface to his work on the Laws of Motion, and one of the laws of science is that you have to find a sufficient specific cause for something, you can’t say it rained because the clouds were heavy with moisture, and because I prayed for it to, and because it always rains when my aunt hangs out laundry. One effect, one cause.
Out here in reality, in the universe, everything is over and over and over in a fog of repetitions and ricochets, bumper cars, pinball games, disco balls, and dazzling refraction, over and over determined. I try to take measure. I go very quiet and listen to wherever my mind goes, following. I do not triumph, but I bumble.
The poet, then, is the buzzing bee, exuding honey? In a hive built in the ribcage of a lion killed by Samson, before he was betrayed by love and blinded, and got his strange revenge? Yes, friends, that very honey.
ps. David Lehman and Stacy Harwood, who run this site, are Sinatra fans and Sinatra was born and grew up in Hoboken NJ, where my husband John also grew up and so this weekend the four of us went to Hoboken and John took us on a Sinatra tour. It was fabulous. David and Stacey, we meant to send you home with the Cake Boss cannoli and biscotti. But rest easy they went to waist not waste.