Excerpt from “Science Poetry and Jim Johnstone: A Lyric Essay” by Shane Neilson*,**

*As a close friend of Johnstone, I am a partisan when it comes to his work. I recognize my bias!

**This excerpt comes from the middle movement of a larger, >5000-word essay that begins with a historical sketch of “science poetry” in the West, moves to this excerpt (which was helpfully framed by the foregoing material), and then moves on to a final consideration of how a scientific identity might inform the production and reception of poetry in contemporary culture. So readers of this excerpt are being dropped into the middle of an argument that’s halfway through and not done, which is my absolute favourite place to be as a reader myself.

Equations and Chemical Structures

On page 8 of The Velocity of Escape, Johnstone’s first book – and before “Escape Velocity,” the first poem in the book, which appears on p. 9 – is the following equation:

The equation denotes escape velocity, and it has been over ten years since I could pretend any kind of hermeneutic skill and true understanding of what this formula meant on a cognitive level, now possessing no “feel” – something true scientists have when managing equations in their respective fields, a bodily and intuitive knowledge – either. To boot, my familiarity once upon a time would only have been at the undergraduate level. Thus I humbly resort to Wikipedia to bring you this explanation: “Escape speed at a distance d from the center of a spherically symmetric primary body (such as a star or a planet) with mass M is given by the formula, where G is the universal gravitational constant (G ≈ 6.67×10−11 m3·kg−1·s−2).” I emphasize the humility here, not to draw attention to it, but to point to it’s wisdom, for why pretend to know a thing I don’t know? The ignorance will only declare itself. I know poetry, but only partially; I could pass a familiarity with the equation, but not even close to well enough to pass a Turing test with a conversant scientist.

In 2011, I wrote a pamphlet on Johnstone’s work called Equational Love (Frog Hollow Press) that presumed to interpret the above equation in terms of Johnstone’s work in The Velocity of Escape, also venturing into Patternicity for additional equation poems to analyze. (It would take until 2017’s The Chemical Life in order for chemical structures to appear in the poet’s work.) My argument then was speculative and somewhat silly, largely a confirmation of my own seekingness in the world, that love might be everywhere, that care detected there might be for me.

More specifically, however, I argued that Johnstone’s equations actually had a metaphorical basis for being the epigraph or frame for their following poem body; that poetic work (in terms of sense) was done by the equation. I think (without humility) that the close reading I performed was competent, and I managed to develop cross-linking themes across poems that semi-systematized my readings; but you can imagine what results from such a systematic reading project: dullness, deadness. Understanding comes, but at what cost? Here’s a laborious snippet of meaning-making from the pamphlet that considers “Escape Velocity”:  

The equation is simple: ve = square root (2GM)/r. This means that for an object to escape the earth, for example, it needs to have a constant multiplied by the force of gravity and the object’s mass divided by its radius. The poem uses these principles without explicitly naming them – assuming we’re conversant. But more on that later. The poem begins,

inside this roll of film
I discover photographs
where I don’t exist
moving between thin
grains of light
towns, cemetaries

Thus we’re moving, it seems, backward. But the equation is more than just kinetic energy; it’s how much energy is needed to escape. Where is he trying to get away from?

Although I know,
(I was there)
this is home,
tall bleached rocks
a white room without doors
or voices

So, the poet can’t go home again because he’s trying to escape from it. This is a remarkable instance of autobiography, as many first-time poets shamelessly trade personal history for a good poem; all Johnstone does is channel the otherworldly, a “white room without doors or / voices.” His home is empty, at least the idea of home is empty now to him; and there is no life in it anymore, it doesn’t teem as it did in his childhood.

That critical science-exegesis enterprise was always wrongfooted because it bent equation to poem and poem to equation, and had nothing to say about the strange in-betweenness of poem and equation. It didn’t think of the poem as multitudinous. Nor did I know much about the history of poetry then save in a haphazard way, and certainly little about the special niche area of “Science Poetry”; nor was my enterprise, again, informed by any hard-won and deep knowledge. By the ‘feel’ of the mechanical engineer and physicist.

The remainder of the pamphlet went on to gloss other equations in Johnstone’s second book, Patternicity (Nightwood, 2010), including:

“Patternicity”                                                  pb>c

“Saturn’s Witness”                                         (P1 / P2)  =   (R1 / R2)3

“Cause and Effect”                                                        H2=8πGp/3c2 – k/R2

“Entropy”                                                                          ΔS = ΔQ/T

“It’s Been So Long”                                       f/ = f (v +/- vO) / (v -/+ vs )[1]

The case I made was plausible, but given enough time, practically any argument about poetry can be made plausible, dependent on one’s close reading tuner. We’re not talking falsifiable propositions here according to the scientific method; we’re talking about poetry.

Jason Guriel, my partner in the aforementioned pamphlet, didn’t take the equations at face value in his companion essay “Proofs” because he was specifically not asked to write about the scientific valences of the work. He did write that he couldn’t “figure out what these equations mean”, no longer having his “grade twelve physics by heart”, but that he enjoyed them as poetry itself: “I can enjoy how they look on the page; in fact, I’m pretty sure I enjoy them to the extent that they remain unreadable, like well-executed graffiti or characters in a different alphabet.”[2] This was canny, and, as you’ll soon read, I think space must be held for this exact interpretation, for it is quite generative, though one has to actually follow it up.  

Guriel was less wise when he pushed back against a scientific reading, stating that “those who can read Johnstone’s equations without having to consult some more learned source (like Wikipedia) are ill-equipped (which is to say not ignorant enough) to recognize the equations for what they really are: physical shapes that speak for themselves, or, what your grade eight teacher called, ‘visual poetry.’” After all, there are many ways to read poetry, and valorizing ignorance is foolish; though if his point was that only scientific integrity would be privileged above all else, ignoring the poetry and reading it solely as one would read Empedocles back in the day – well, one is surely missing the point.

What was left unexplored – a truly missed point – in our consideration of Johnstone’s work was the true function of the equations at the end of the day. Was it “visual poetry” as per Guriel’s shrug, or was it informing hermeneutic as per Neilson’s nudge? Was it “both” as the underwhelming academic game would have it, or is there more to be seen in the quantum realm here?

Before I answer that question, I wish to respect the remainder of the equations in Johnstone’s work by listing them from the book where they came from, freeing them from the determinism of the respective poem’s title and in this way making them a “purer” visual poetry save to all who have an intimate familiarity with the formulae.

Sunday, the locusts (Tightrope, 2012):

Dog Ear (Signal, 2014)

m1u1 +m2u2 = (m1 +m2)v

F*, C(f*) ≤ C (f) f F

Chemical Life (Signal, 2017):

L – 1/2 pv2 ACL

Infinity Mirror (Signal, 2022):

The first thing to note about Johnstone’s equations and chemical structures is their location at the top of the poems themselves – epigraph territory. As Johnstone himself has said in an interview with Canadian Literature, his poems are often “prefaced with mathematical formulae.”

By his own admission, it seems that the equations and structures are intended to function as visual epigraphs. Not exactly “graffiti” as per Guriel, but not not graffiti either. When asked by Chad Campbell to speak to the “incorporation of formulas in [Johnstone’s] work” during an interview in Maisonneuve, Johnstone replied: I’ve always liked [Guriel’s] interpretation, because the average reader won’t take much more from them than that. To me though, formulas are a form of attribution, acknowledging the kernel of thought that led to a poem. I consider the poems I’ve written this way to be parables that physically illustrate scientific principles.”

For their part, critics have vouchsafed this consideration. In Quill and Quire, Mark Callanan has written that “there is that dual quality provided by the epigraph – offering an alibi of ignorance to the average reader and an additional layer of shadowed, allegorical complexity to the specialist one.”

To rely for a moment on the speciality of narratology for a moment, though, Gerard Genette offers four purposes for the epigraph:

  • a title-centric one in which the title is somehow refracted by the epigraph
  • a body-centric one in which the body of the poem is somehow refracted
  • The cited author is name-dropped to claim influence either ironically or with affinity
  • Genre-centric signalling

In this sense – forgive my systematicity here, which is entirely a scientific habit and in this particular case, entirely borrowed from a paper I will mention in a moment – Johnstone is using epigraphs in the first and second way, though the third could be applicable in that Johnstone could be claiming a relation to capital-S science that is formal (as opposed to the general case, which is cultural); I will develop this third valence in the next section of the essay.

The usage isn’t exactly similar, of course, for as Francis Bond and Graham Matthews might tell you in their article “Towards an Epic Epigraphic Graph”, epigraphs represent a web of literary influences across all of literature. The same can’t be said of Johnstone’s use save in the fact that the equations are developed by individual people and not their textual creations; furthermore, only on occasion does he attribute their use to said individuals; further than this, there doesn’t seem to be an intense identification with any particular physicist or physical chemist or psychopharmacologist in his work. There is just the material itself.

One can see poetry at work in the use of the epigraphs as I’ve outlined the practice. Johnstone’s epigraphic signposting is a clue, not meant to be didactic, but intended to play off of title if you like, of body of poem if you like, or both if you like. They literally exist in the place where my reading from 2011 didn’t go – in between. But they also exist as intentional guides to specialist readers who may differently experience the work based on their knowledge.

The next purpose of an epigraph I’ll analyze is in terms of the second sense again but in this case its cultural connection to a world where scientific equations and drug structures are increasingly becoming normalized. This is a return to what was happening during the early days of the rise of logical positivism, in which science became more truly scientific in the way we understand the word now and poetry became increasingly interested in scientific material in which to increase poetry’s hoard of metaphor and sound cupboard. The difference is, the encroachment of science culturally is even greater than it was, such that biomedicalization and algorithmic life are not as jarring as they might be. We’ll accept equations and chemical structures as graffiti without fretting too much about their additional organizing function. We’re comfortable letting unseen forces organize us without our knowing.

Finally, to give Guriel his due: the final purpose of the epigraph is to be too cool to be words, to indeed be “graffiti.” The equation and structure epigraphs are both material representation of forces and substances in the world (or celestial forces, as the case may be) but they are also oblique refusals, and this ambivalence is surely the main point. For example, the chemical formulas more strenuously insist on the signifier rather than what is signified; one could assume that any chemical formula would do in either of the three cases in The Chemical Life, putting the structure of nicotine in for venlafaxine, for example, but in actuality, they conform to the true representations in the world and thereby do constitute a complete sign. The equations, by being so beyond average mortals like Neilson (now) and Guriel (then), also adopt a purely signifying function, reaching towards a mental concept that simply isn’t accessible to most. Yet many of us would subscribe a familiarity with letters and numbers over the chemical formula, which still requires specialized knowledge to interpret double bonds and chemical groupings and the like. It’s in this way the rhetorical pressure to signify is reduced because we make fewer demands as readers.

The other necessary laxity comes in the fact that they are merely the first word, metaphorically, speaking, of the poem-entity that follows the title.  What comes thereafter constitutes the poem’s body, and the epigraph can act as backfill, reverse-informing the work as the work itself is apprehended, grown into, perceived by consciousness. In a way, the epigraph and poem co-inform one another, and become organically incorporated into sense simultaneously. One does not determine the sense of the other; they are mutually created. Just as Johnstone’s provenance as a scientist necessarily authors part of the work on offer. I shall now turn to his Scientist Identity to explain what it means to the work itself.

[1] In looking back at my rendition, I see I stuck to the simpler equations – wise, based on my lack of expertise.

[2] Just what enjoyment does Guriel mean about that vispo? Can it be put into words other than “I like”? I doubt it.