The poems of Anatomic have emerged from biomonitoring and microbiome testing on the author’s body to examine the way the outside writes the inside, whether we like it or not. Adam Dickinson drew blood, collected urine, swabbed bacteria, and tested his feces to measure the precise chemical and microbial diversity of his body.
Structured like the hormones some of these synthetic chemicals mimic in our bodies, this sequence of poems links the author’s biographical details (diet, lifestyle, geography) with historical details (spills, poisonings, military applications) to show how permeable our bodies are to the environment. As Dickinson becomes obsessed with limiting the rampant contamination of his own biochemistry, he turns this chemical-microbial autobiography into an anxious plea for us to consider what we’re doing to our world—and to our own bodies.
Discover Anatomic and enjoy the poem below, followed by Adam’s thoughts on the piece.
Polybrominated diphenyl ether, # 47 (serum) 5.623188 ng/g lipid
The umbrella is the starting point for a larger obfuscation. A constant mist of tiny particles rains upward, like neck hair at the cicada sex of a smoke alarm. Children outgrow the behaviours of cats, but for many years they are derelicts of skin flakes, stair runners, and upholstery. The average carpet smokes three packs a day. The glassy bits scratching your throat are leftover deterrents to predators. Dust is a conversation happening just out of earshot, it’s the street talk of the Endocrine and Alderaan systems, a vector for the invectives of misdirection. Dust is a bunch of nickels your uncle gives you to get him another Goldschläger. My thoughts, like every other coagulation cascade, are made of melted lint and move around with the chirality of lost oven mitts. In the dusty barns of Michigan, the wrong bag of pale grit was mixed into cow feed. Nine million people ate Firemaster. My limbs tingle just out of broadcast range. Here come the industry standards to burn down the roofs of our mouths.
Anatomic is a book that responds to chemical and microbial tests on my body. In conceiving of the book, my intention was to look at how the “outside” environment, writes the “inside” of our bodies. Consequently, over a period of several years, I worked with laboratories and scientists to measure levels of various pollutants in my blood and urine, including pesticides, heavy metals, flame retardants, PCBs, and phthalates. I also sequenced my microbiome through stool samples and swabbed parts of my body to measure the abundance of microbes living on and in me. How did these chemicals and microbes get into me? How are they biologically active? What are their stories in the context of industrial, political, cultural, and evolutionary history? I decided to respond to these chemicals and microbes through poetry because their capacity to affect the metabolism of our bodies constitutes, in my view, a form of writing at the limits of writing—they interfere with or otherwise influence the exchange of hormonal messages in the body.
We are currently in the midst of a global pandemic. At this point it is fair to say that the spread of the novel coronavirus disease via transnational travel and shipping corridors is as much a product of global metabolism as it is a product of human metabolic susceptibility. We write our environment as our environment writes us. I hope my book inspires people to think about the kinds of energy systems we surround ourselves with and the kinds of materials, foods, and supply chains we produce from these systems, especially as we begin to transition away from oil. As it stands, I can peer into my blood and see the signature of multinational corporations such as Monsanto. “A Bromide” responds to the presence of Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in my body. The poem’s epigraph indicates the precise level of the chemical in my serum. These chemicals belong to a class of compounds known as brominated flame retardants. PBDEs leach from common consumer products like TVs and carpets. Household dust is believed to be the greatest source of contamination for humans.
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Adam Dickinson’s poetry has appeared in literary journals and anthologies in Canada and internationally. He has published three books of poetry. His most recent book, The Polymers, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, the Trillium Book Award for Poetry, and the ReLit Award. His work has been translated into Chinese, Dutch, and Polish. He has been featured at international literary festivals such as Poetry International in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and the Oslo International Poetry Festival in Norway. He teaches poetics and creative writing at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario.
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