As if the Genome Wasn’t Long Enough

Having discovered it while browsing the medical literature, I am beginning to read Gillian K. Ferguson’s The Human Genome: Poems on the book of life. Although I expect to read some of it now and then, I do not expect to read all of it. Ferguson may be the only person to sincerely read all of it–all 1,000 pages. The blog version strikes me as a bit heavy on the “extra-features”. Ferguson writes quickly and doesn’t appear to look back. Consequently, everything gets plugged into the “manuscript” – notes, favorite quotes, definitions, the whole box of research papers (minus those that the mice ate). Her poetic style suffers likewise – rather than finding the one turn of words that best does the job, she will redo the job several times before she let’s it go. For example, the poem “Does God Remember” (2 May 2008) focuses on the chemical nature of life, but does so immediately following a prior poem which imagines the creator as a chemist “Who Breathed Chemicals into Life” (1 May 2008). The redrafting continues within poems as well. “Does God Remember” begins:

Does God remember the defining;
shining organic coalescence, time

when the first cell settled
– the wondrous chemistry.

What follows is a series of riffs each doing their best to imagine God’s alchemy. The poem ends, however, with little for the reader to carry away. In fact, one wants to return to the top of the poem just to recall what was to the point for taking the flight to begin with. Here’s a bit more of a micro-view of the redrafting I am complaining about:

Even God thought it was a miracle

when He had made it possible,
dreamed them into existence –

imagined the matrix, Word,
to call from Periodic Table,

list ingredients, principle, into life –
held his breath that it would work,

this calling to matter of pattern,
this holy glueing; good practise

for his trick of body and soul,
joining of irreconcilable stuff

only a god could possibly pull off –
like a magician with a miracle, or

two up his sleeve; bouquets

I think that could be profitably reduced to about 5 lines. I like the glue and the periodic table, but that should do it. And by all means, one should avoid the double reference to “miracle”. It’s kind of silly to think of God as “like a magician with a miracle”, but even worse to use this as way of describing a God imagined to be surprised by the creation: “Even God thought it was a miracle …”.

Like I said, I’m beginning to read this poem, so there’s still a chance that it will grow on me. It’s a fascinating project and I applaud the Scottish Arts Council for deciding to spend their money on such an ambitious attempt to bring import and meaning of contemporary science into the cauldron of verse. (May 2, 2008)

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