Our Not-Yet-Realized Almanac of the Future: On Veer Books’ “Corroding the Now” Anthology

David Shipko reviews Veer Books’ new anthology “Corroding the Now: Poetry + Science/SF.”

Our Not-Yet-Realized Almanac of the Future: On Veer Books’ “Corroding the Now” Anthology

Corroding the Now: Poetry + Science | SF by Francis Gene-Rowe, Richard Parker, and Stephen Mooney. Crater Press. 290 pages.

IN CORRODING THE NOW: Poetry + Science|SF (Veer Books, 2023), editors Francis Gene-Rowe, Stephen Mooney, and Richard Parker compile essays and poetry that explore the complex relationships between science, science fiction (sf), and poetry, as well as the roles these genres play in contesting what Gene-Rowe’s introduction calls “The World We Officially Ended Up With,” a contemporary lifeworld that often seems like “a tawdry work of dystopian science fiction.” Identifying the science fictionality of the official (supposedly realist) world provides the volume’s contributors warrant and procedure for investigating how science, sf, and poetry maintain the current world while also providing the potential to change it. In fact, this world, itself a discursive and aesthetic construction requiring constant maintenance through repetition and revision, remains fragile, contingent, and changeable, no matter how much it dissembles. As Gene-Rowe suggests, “corrosion is about forcefully wrenching ourselves from a normality that’s always-already been a violent, extractive falsehood.”

Countless colloquial commonplaces—“there is no time like the present,” “seize the day,” “YOLO”—endlessly valorize the now. Advertisements, New Age gurus and life coaches, television and movie plots, and a multitude of empty memes all command us to be present and live in the moment. The now thus haunts the present, but now is unavoidable. Hegel shows in The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) that, as a mere universal of time, “now” names a particular moment that it never fully achieves. When one speaks of now, that now is past. Always torn between what-has-been and what-is-becoming, now can never fulfill its promise, can never be true. And yet, along with “here,” a mere universal of space, now forms half of this, the fundamental symbolic act of pointing upon which language and thinking depend. The intractable contradiction between promise and failure enables all thought, including the recognition that this now remains changeable—but first it must be corroded.

For Corroding the Now, corrosion is achieved through both content and form. Although readers may be tempted to seek a single through line, the book’s construction is best understood as an example of the parataxis Fred Carter examines in Wendy Mulford’s poetry: a “paratactic instability, difficulty, and illegibility which renders her poetry germane to thinking through the disorienting experience of thick time in the Anthropocene.” Carter’s insights work as a theoretical reappraisal of how parataxis provides a strategy to comprehend and combat contemporary common sense. Arranging ideas side-by-side, parataxis can bring together concepts from different periods and places into one constellation in one moment, revealing important relations obscured by overwhelming immediacy, reorienting us in time and space.

Parataxis resists the forward momentum of the assembly line, which is valorized in the kind of ahistorical thinking that seeks simple cause-effect chains rather than wider relational networks. Paratactically composed, Corroding the Now presents each essay and poem as a recursive iteration, an attempt to undertake the book’s whole corrosive endeavor. In some general sense, these essays and poems are interchangeable, and yet each stands utterly singular. The differences between these works provide an opportunity to understand the diverse writings in both their concrete convergence and abstract particularity: what they say together and what they each say individually, spinning off towards conceptual horizons distinct but united.

Corroding the apparent inevitability of any single historical horizon has always been a unique forte of sf in general and sf poetry in particular. The historical origins of sf poetry remain somewhat contested, but Andrew Morse argues that most critics agree “that speculative poetry was not recognized as a distinct genre until the twentieth century.” The term “science fiction poem” entered usage in the 1920s and 1930s; the first dedicated anthology of science fiction poetry, Holding Your Eight Hands, was published in 1969; and 1975 saw a speculative poetry movement that led Suzette Elgin and others to establish the Science Fiction Poetry Association in 1978.

As sf theorists and practitioners have noted, sf and poetry are natural allies. Samuel R. Delany identifies a close connection between sf and poetry grounded in the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky’s notion of how poetry breaks the algorithmic and mechanical flow of routine in order to revivify our sense of life, to make the stone stony: “It is just this basic concern with thingyness that makes me insist that the initial impulse behind sf, despite the primitive and vulgar verbal trappings, was closer to the impulse behind poetry than it was to the impulse behind ordinary narrative fiction.” While Shklovsky’s theory of “ostranenie” is usually translated as “defamiliarization,” given the capacity of ostranenie to dissolve the mechanical rigidity of the present, one could justify calling it “corrosion.” With corrosion revealed as the initial impulse of both sf and poetry, sf poetry becomes their ideal instantiation: “sf as a corrective to poetry’s occultation, poetry as a corrective to sf’s precorporation [into commodification],” in the words of Gene-Rowe. The sf poetry tradition itself demands the attention to corrosion that this volume undertakes.

Some of the essays in the collection foreground the formation and effects of sf poetics. Naomi Foyle, Josie Taylor, Fred Carter, and Peter Middleton explore, respectively, the potentials of sf poetry for reimagining planetary society, reconceptualizing fossil fuels, confronting Anthropocene “thick time,” and “projecting divergent modes of subjectivity.” Robert Kiely reflects on form in sf and poetry, the “calculus of living and dying,” and the position of sf and poetry relative to “social and physical totalities,” concluding that discrete genres and modes, “strange limit cases,” account for only a narrow range of all possibilities.

Other essays examine the relation of sf/poetry to science. Pippa Goldschmidt oscillates between personal narrative and philosophical reflection to recount her education and work in physics and astronomy, while Allen Fisher’s hybrid essay-and-poem-cycle uses scientific truths to ground reflective speculations on the mechanisms that construct perceptions of the universe at all scales.

The volume’s final essays engage with Afrofuturist theory and history. Sasha Myerson and Katie Stone stage a transcribed conversation with Sun Ra, made to speak through citation, exploring how “Ra challenges us to think beyond the intellectual systems and constraints that inform what we think of as possible and construct what we perceive as reality.” Matthew Carbery provides a rich historical and theoretical approach to the work of the Black Quantum Futurism collective, demonstrating how “[i]n the work of Afrofuturism and the BQF, Black lives, particularly those in the most marginalised contexts, are offered the imaginative tools to reclaim their narratives, and to project themselves into a future.” Individually, these essays provide unique insights and timely interventions relevant to a wide range of contemporary discourse on science, sf, poetry, poetics, history, and the power of language. Collectively, they reveal the myriad strategies by which artists, scientists, and theorists have undertaken the corrosion of our dystopian now. On a more particular note, given the author and theorist’s ubiquity within these essays, it is impossible to not come away from them with a renewed sense of the continuing power and relevance of the writings of Samuel Delany.

The themes established by the volume’s essays help make sense of the content and form of the poems. Perhaps most important is the construction of intelligibility—revealed as social struggle sedimented in signifiers and syntax—and its obverse, unintelligibility. This tension between intelligibility and unintelligibility unites the highly varied field of aesthetic strategies on display in the collection’s poetry, such as Astra Papachristodoulou’s graphic reconstitution of simple utterances (some reminiscent of David Bowie lyrics) within the form of some kind of mathematical plot; Sophie Sleigh-Johnson’s double presentation of the same page of poetry, printed as a scan of a typed page, a hole burnt through its center; Jonathan Catherall’s deployment of spelling, punctuation, and textual organizing reminiscent of computer code; Chris Gutkind’s neologism-driven signifying chains at once suggestive and baffling; and Kat Dixon-Ward’s use of nonhuman perspectives.

The experimental formal strategies of these and the other poems problematize the ways in which this now is made intelligible, and what possibilities might inhere within what it renders unintelligible. Forcing intense interpretive focus on the structures that enable the mediation of meaning, denying themselves the means to be easily understood, these strategies tension and tear the thin veil of frictionless communication upon which the endless continuation of the now depends. If, as Theodor Adorno argues in Aesthetic Theory (1970), “what artists can say they say only through the form,” then it is through formal embodiments and contestations of intelligibility that the volume’s poems reach toward another world, the unrealized “not-yet-existing.” The poets’ formal strategies testify that our not-yet potential better world lies always immanent in the present created by the foreclosure of the radically unstable and open now, even as the foreclosed present interferes with all attempts to think radical alterity. Contemporary ideology works hard to contain now’s radical openness, producing what Mark Fisher has called capitalist realism—“the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” If, as some have claimed, imagining the end of the world today seems easier than imagining the end of capitalism, this might be because imagining the end of capitalism requires imagining the end of the world. Imagining the end of the world is precisely what these poems attempt. Each reaches, through its form, for worlds beyond the end, “[o]pening the gate to gatelessness.”

At stake in the thinking of now is our capacity for comprehending what-is and what-might-be. The problem lies crystallized in the definite article. For the sake of a radically opening now, we must escape the now of settler colonialism, patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and every other oppressive structure supported by and supporting late capitalism. It is this now that looms over Gene-Rowe’s cycle of poems in which Elon Musk appears both as a particular person and a stand-in for the general global bourgeoisie, the now in which “white supremacist dynasty building is a kink worth / shaming.” Late capital’s racializing dynasty promises only a future endlessly repeating the now, a repetition in which, if you have been very obedient, you might find yourself in possession of a bit more money (always a paltry sum, no matter how great). Overcoming the now’s immediate anesthetizing power remains the precondition and task of political struggle. Only through such struggle might we gain a true future-as-radical-difference-from-the-present, a future which, like that of the Black Quantum Futurism of Matthew Carbery’s essay, “will not necessarily be bereft of trauma, but it will have learnt how to manage struggle from a long-storied history of traumatic events.”

In addition to those interested in sf/poetry and science, anyone with any interest or stake in the struggle for a world without capitalist devastation of our bodies, minds, lives, collectives, and planet—a world that lies on the other side of the now—will find in this volume thought-provoking and insightful interlocutors. In the spirit of the book’s paratactic construction, this reviewer recommends reading in any order and recursively, returning to the poems and essays multiple times, listening, in the space-time of their convergences, for the slowly emerging music of our other world, the impossible world we must win.

LARB Contributor

David Shipko is a PhD candidate in English literature at Johns Hopkins University. His dissertation examines the production and contestation of climate denialism in contemporary climate fictions across literature, film, and video games. His broader research interests include speculative fiction, critical theory, Marxism, psychoanalysis, revolutionary praxis, and creative writing.


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