by Peter Milne Greiner
The poet David Wojahn has made the distinction between the poetry of stuff and the poetry of wisdom. The former, he claims, is the deployment of references in often pell-mell fashion; it does clutter so much poetry today, especially that of younger writers. Imagine an under-read T.S. Eliot with a YouTube fetish and a lot of spare time. Wojahn doesn’t care for it. Nor do I. The poetry of wisdom perhaps speaks for itself, defined by what it embodies not by what it contains. It’s often slower, though, I would add, not always. And if the poetry of wisdom refers outward in some cases—relentless cataloging of Walt Whitman, for example—it does not do so from the stance of po-biz spectacle but of connection, the pull-one-thread-and-you-pull-on-all cosmography of a John Muir, say.
I bring up this distinction because a superficial reader of Peter Milne Greiner’s debut collection, Lost City Hydrothermal Field, will find a lot of stuff in it: virtual-reality extinction classrooms, allusions to Rachel Carson and Clifford Simak, electron microscopes, “the hydrochone [that] glistens in my blood/like shoals of piranhas.” And because the work is syntactically challenging and often operating at high velocity, it would be easy to miss the threads—no, too weak: the sinews—that muscle under all this poetry and prose. Greiner’s methodology may seem like deployment but it’s really accretion, like the accretion disk of a black hole, pulling the contents within its gravitational field into faster and faster spins. Here, though, the trip toward the singularity isn’t deadly, though it is often fierce and lonely. Greiner’s book of speculative poetry and prose is a formal tour de force and a paradoxically unsettling and comforting way station of the Anthropocene.
Formally, there are short, more somber personal lyrics. There are short, cryptic more external lyrics. There are rangy, high-velocity longer poems. There are fabulist prose tales, essays and more narrative SF. He is at home in all these modes, and the book brings them together in just the right doses at the right time.
Of the more personal lyrics, “Connecticut Coast in Deep Time,” “Remedial Exoplanetology,” and “A Drake Equation for Laura Roslin” all stood out. In the latter, the central question of the search for extraterrestrial life (an obsession in the book) is brought to bear on human lives here and now. The Drake Equation famously sets out the parameters for the likelihood of intelligent, technologically advanced “alien” life. Throughout a book in which science and science fiction would seem to the superficial reader to be a shiny surface only, Greiner keeps returning to the quotidian heartbreak we all feel but, in his case, this sense of loneliness is embedded not only in human relations but the cosmos itself and its very, very long deep time history and whatever comes next. He writes out of “my millennia-feeling minutes” (a phrase I won’t forget) and in another lovely shorter and more personal poem titled “New York Eternity” of how “Every year is a lab in which I innovate past/transgressions…” He is “peering out from this bright but vacant rune//called what I accept as being right now.”
Greiner’s formal mastery moves him into some cryptic, short, surreal dispatches (a touch of James Tate?), such as “Catastrofeed” and “Fhloston Paradise,” which reads in full:
Put to rest real
and this body,
repurposed and reliquary
Raise the frail luxurious disc
That which does not advance, advances
Song, prophesy, finite regress
Discrepant Day observed every calendar fleeting moment
I’ve taught you to expect Hard Science
Well here it is asshole
Greiner mostly eschews punctuation in his poetry but not humor. And this dark compassionate snark flashes through at just the right intervals though at times, for some readers, he may press it a bit hard in lines like “At Moog Fest this year I meant to give my lecture/called ‘MIDI & Rhinometry: The Sinus Cavity as//Performance Space’ but I just I dunno flaked I guess.” That line is from one of a smart series of poems pairing concepts in a title equation that always ends with “what,” as in “Spiral Arm Plus Synthesizer Equals What.”
I found the longer poems, such as “Tristan da Couch,” “Agnes Martin’s Dragon” and “Contact” (there’s SETI again), among others, some of the best work, with the sedimentation of perception and rumination leading to moments like this: “Fossil that records the subtle traumas of speciation/Sunlight off the sea fades the wallpaper…” In “Contact,” late in the book, he continues to surprise with startling imagery and apt, strange diction and transformational lineation: “The world rotates on its axis like a slow, torturous gif” and this:
There is a type of grief that can be upcycled
Into just feeling kind of shitty-chic
On its anti-epic slalom we are
Heirs to the isthmus that repairs
The next to never rate of Reason
Back when every hayseed savant
Could rebuff say gravity
Back when there weren’t no phones
Back when you’d never hear from a person again
I was in my prime then
The book also contains outstanding prose pieces, so much so I hope that Greiner might devote himself to a collection of off-beat natural history essays. The essays reminded me of Amy Leach as well as Loren Eiseley doing a mild hallucinogenic.
The science fiction prose moves from fabulist to more plot-driven. There’s the Ballardian “Cecily,” in which hurricanes don’t move, and “The Women from Asylum,” which has two chapters, the first a post-apocalypse tale moving from eldtrich mountain top communities that have escaped the worst of climate change illegally courting possible technological saviors from an orbiting space station. Chapter 2, a one page poem, was for me a bit of let-down, because Chapter 1 was compellingly drawn in terms of plot and character. I hope that he might extend the story into a collection or even a novel. It’s that good.
I believe that Greiner’s ability to smear across place and time is one of the important reasons why this book succeeds so readily. He is not trapped in the contemporary moment, though he writes in it and out of it. He is not beholden to the past, though its echoes are correlated, like faint transmissions arriving at a radio dish. He is certainly a citizen of the uncertain future, not a Captain Kirk sort of citizen but more of Kris Kelvin citizen, he of the novel Solaris, the psychologist who arrives to investigate the strange doings on a space station where its occupants are haunted by physical manifestations of guilt.
Donna Haraway in “A Cyborg Manifesto” speaks of the blurring of such boundaries as the animal and human and the human and machine. Techno-leftists such as myself would also like to point out that she urges us to take pleasure in this and to take responsibility too. I keep wondering when we’ll be street-hacking crops, turning them into climate-change-resistant freeware. Anyway, Greiner is a temporal cyborg. I call this mode “polychronography,” the use of broken and free-form syntax, sound and references/imagery to blur one’s occupancy of simple time into the multiple modes of time.
The book is a major contribution to Anthropocene literature, a triumph of wise speculative work. Greiner is full of stars, an Anthropocene Ashberry, America’s poet laureate of the Ballardian. With some of the most deft figurative and science fictional language I’ve seen in years, with syntax like staying on top of all the tracks left by the byproducts of colliding particles, with traces of his influences—Russ, Delaney, Le Guin, Lem, Ballard—this book is a heart-felt postmodern SFnal epic memoir and an anthropology of the present and the various futures we might make or inherit.