Nathan Brown, The Limits of Fabrication: Materials Science, Materialist Poetics

Nathan Brown, The Limits of Fabrication: Materials Science, Materialist Poetics (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017) 312 pp. £30.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780823272990

Nathan Brown’s The Limits of Fabrication is based an analogy between poetics and material science. These practices are united, in Brown’s view, by a shared concern with ‘fabrication’ and material limits: in their most experimental forms, both poetry and materials science are drawn 'into a common terrain of formal, constructive, and ideological problems attendant upon experimental practices of making’. Brown claims to treat 'poetry and technoscience as two modalities of [the] encompassing category’ of fabrication (12). Although Brown claims to be interested in practices of materials sciences, his accounts of those sciences are based on existing written accounts, and he handles his poetic materials with much more confidence than his explications of science. Where his criticism of poetics concerns the use of scientific concepts, images and practices by poets, however, he shows exemplary seriousness and attention to specific technical detail. If his book is not entirely convincing in giving parity to poetics and materials science, then, it is nevertheless an often-admirable, critically tactful example of how serious attention to science can inform readings of poems. 

The book opens with an introductory chapter which situates Brown’s views of a materialist poetics based on concepts of fabrication in relation to work by Walter Benn Michaels and Daniel Tiffany. It is then is organised into four studies of poets, sometimes accompanied by scientists and engineers, whose poetics have been significantly shaped by interests in the limits of fabrication. In the first of these chapters, Brown defends the distinctiveness of Charles Olson’s ‘objectism’ within the post-war American modernist tradition. Brown explores objectism as a way of apprehending human bodily experience as a mode of physicality which is kindred to other physical processes—of treating the body as an object. This reading aims to defend Olson against the claim that he is an organicist, by showing the depth of his engagement with non-Euclidean geometries and the philosophy of AN Whitehead. It also leads Brown to lovely, delicate readings of Olson’s works. In Brown’s reading, Olson’s poems assemble events from particulars drawn from all scales, from the cosmic to the quotidian, which can give a description of a dripping tap an insistency and urgency, make it a cosmic event without requiring it to symbolise anything beyond itself. Brown shows how Olson juxtaposes cosmic forces and the universe’s ‘congery of particles’ with a tender encounter with a stranded, whirling-pawed, star-nosed mole. Brown summarises the 'tentative imperatives' of Olson’s poetry as follows: ‘our localism cannot be parochial in its gradations of relevance, because there is no certain scale to which our actions are appropriate. […] We have to intervene in our encounters with care, and with whatever irreparably perfect awkward instruments present themselves so delicately to the occasion’ (97). I would have welcomed comparison with the wider genre of modernist and romantic animal encounter poems, which might have brought out Olson’s distinctiveness with somewhat greater clarity. 

The second reading relates Buckminster Fuller’s involvement in the Black Mountain college  (where Olson would become Dean) and the use of Fuller’s geodesic forms by pioneering nano-scientists in describing the structure of C60, which were named Buckyballs. This discussion runs alongside a discussion of Ronald Johnson’s poem ‘Ark’. Here the critical legacy which informs the book becomes clearer. Brown notes the central importance to Johnson of Hugh Kenner, the mathematically adroit modernist critic who famously compared Ezra Pound’s poems to both fractals and Fuller’s structures, and who wrote extensively on geodesic geometries. Brown brings out the ways in which the failed examples of previous long-form American poems inspired Johnson’s conviction that he was going to complete his own edifice, and how an architectural notion of design and pattern helped him to do so. Where Olson’s objectism emerges into an aesthetic of fragmentation and unfinishedness which allows it to account for the delicate particularity of material events on all kinds of different scales, Johnson’s design-influenced scheme covers the world over with poetic structures modelled, in part, on Fuller’s geodesic domes. 

Brown’s sense of how poetic language speaks with and against the limits of matter is brought out most arrestingly in the first part of the book’s fourth chapter, which opens with a discussion of Graham Cairns-Smith’s speculations about the crystallographic origins of life, and moves on to a reading of Christian Bök’s collection Crystallography. Bök’s poetry, which deploys puns, anagrams, and psychological experiments to expand the scope of what language can do, through analogy with crystallography. To describe a poem as possessing ‘crystalline perfection’ is a critical cliché—Brown pursues Bök’s interrogation of the analogies between poems and crystals, which draw on concrete poetry, puns and anagrams. He situates Bök in a tradition of playful quasi-scientific absurdity which commences with Alfred Jarry’s pataphysics, drawing specific links with Christopher Dewedney’s claim that language had evolved as a system autonomous of humans, and possessing an 'econmpassing sentience [which] far exceeds the limited purchase of human consciousness’ (160). The whole chapter is framed as an encounter between the ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ sides of material science—the second half is a reading of Caroline Bergvall’s ‘Goan Atom’. Bergvall is read as a queer feminist inheritor of a version of Olson’s objectism (though Brown does not assert any direct poetic influence of Olson on Bergvall): she is also the only female poet in the book, and the discussion of her work is the only place that questions of gender and sexuality figure at all. Brown’s claim that her work and Bök’s end up in something like the same place as a result of their common concern with fabrication and their linguistic playfulness would have been strengthened by a more sustained and symmetrical engagement with questions of gender.

The last of the detailed readings concerns the engineer turned poet Shanxing Wang’s 2005 poem Mad Science in Imperial City. Born in Shanxi province in China, Wang was involved in antistate activism during the late 1980s, before coming to the US to study for a PhD in the early 1990s. Part of the story which Brown reconstructs from Wang’s poem is as follows. When he started to write poetry, Wang was told by a tutor who was heavily informed by the Poundian tradition of modernist poetics that his work was too abstract—that it lacked material specificity and sensory immediacy. Wang’s poem stages his doubts about whether such images can suffice for the multiple ways in which abstraction figures in his personal history and political life—from his 'abstract wounds with no definite shapes and locations’ (231), to the use of mathematics in his work as an engineer, to his longings for truth and justice, which were shattered by the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Brown reads these passages with critical tact and sensitivity to the specificity of the technical concepts which Wang invokes, and persuasively links them to Gaston Bachelard’s notion that science is continually decomposing its intuitive images through increasing mathematical precision and empirical observation (241). He also links it to Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s notion of ‘real abstraction’, according to which cognitive structures ‘are correlated to and indeed produced by the structure of abstraction proper to the capitalist exchange relation’ (224). In this chapter, the book’s framing in terms of material limits is most convincing, in my view: significantly, it is about the limits of how poetic aspirations to material concreteness are complicated by scientific practices, rather than the other way around. 

On the level of its individual readings and as a critical account of a series of poets in their dealings with material science and notions of fabrication, then, The Limits of Fabrication is a serious and critically acute book. Attentive readers with a sympathy for modernist poetics will learn a lot about abstraction, pattern, objectism, and different material scales figure in a number of exemplary poetic works, and how these can be related to practices in engineering, chemistry, and other aspects of material science. Its overall framing is provocative, if not always entirely successful, and its attention to questions of politics, power and gender only intermittent. Many readers will be unfamiliar with at least some of the poets here, and Brown makes a compelling case for why they should be read by critics with interests in the intersections between literature and science. 

Matthew Paskins, London School of Economics