New Zealand poet Doc Drumheller’s new book, the trickily titled 10 × (10 + −10) = 0, is part conceptual mindbender, part highly-charged political rant. It is often the case that conceptual poetry is not meant to be read, and that political poetry barely needs to be read, but Drumheller has created something that is worth trying to read.
But it is not easy.
The book takes some explaining. 10 × (10 + −10) = 0 comprises ten individual volumes, some published separately, written over ten years. Each volume consists of twenty seventeen-line poems, numbered from 1 to 10, and then from −10 back to −1. The two ‘10’ poems are each palindromes. Additionally, the fifth and sixth volumes are entirely palindromic: the fifth is one long palindrome in twenty sections, and the sixth is twenty distinct palindromes. The non-palindromic poems all rhyme on one phoneme (e.g., –art or –ings). The lines get longer as each poem continues, then, at the ninth line, they shorten again. The poems come in a number of patterns. We are told that if we wish to cut all the poems out from their pages and paste them together they will look like (according to Drumheller) strands of DNA. Here are two examples:
You will notice that the poems are printed in different colours. These are the CMYK colours (printer’s colours), and they are also presented palindromically: the first four volumes are printed in C, M, Y, and K, and the last four in K, Y, M, and C. (The two middle volumes are printed in grey.)
So much for the (considerable) conceptual framework. In some ways it is simple enough for the reader familiar with experimental poetry. The self-cancelling equation of the title suggests equilibrium or entropy or futility or progresslessness. The DNA shape of the sequence hints at the natural inevitability of language, and its fundamental significance to human life. Indeed, perhaps language makes life possible!
These are conclusions you arrive at when you think about the structure. When you think about the content that makes up that structure, your thoughts may be less clear. The palindrome poems, of course, are nearly unreadable in the ordinary way.
Palindromes are written first to satisfy a requirement, a constraint; only second is sense, never mind poetic meaning, sought. There’s a reason that the Panama Canal palindrome is the only one that sticks in your mind. What meaning is there is similar to the meaning that you’ll find in interesting word-clouds; the syntax of palindromic poems is largely illusory, born of the reader’s need to make adjacent words relate to one another.
Fully one quarter of the book is palindromic, so this is not a small issue. But palindromes are at least unusual and madcap, right? Well, what initially seems anarchic in palindromes quickly becomes predictable. For example, in a palindrome, you know that ‘was’ is probably going to be ‘saw’ later, or that ‘vile’ and ‘live’ will dwell together, or—a Drumheller tic—that ‘some’ will transmute into sad ‘emos.’
But surely the already-determined-ness of this form is one of the points of working in it. Everyone who has bothered to write palindromes, from Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov to Perec to Bob Cobbing, has understood that the palindrome is circumscribed (as in literally written in a circle). The best that the palindrome poet can hope for is that he can somehow make his space pretty, like decorating the bottom of a well if you’re going to be stuck down it anyway. This ineluctable circularity is reinforced by the coincidence of shape between the poetic sequence and the double helix of DNA. The union of language and genetics also connects Drumheller’s book to Christian Bök’s conceptual magnum opus The Xenotext Experiment, in which a poem has been encoded within a sequence of DNA, inserted into the genome of a bacterium, and ultimately is supposed to be sent into space.
10 × (10 + −10) = 0 may be burdened by some of the problems inherent to its structure, but, as Drumheller not so modestly tells us in an afterword, ‘A project of experimental and innovative poetry on this scale has never been produced in New Zealand.’ Of course it hasn’t, Doc! It has never been done in (largely conservative) New Zealand poetry, but it hasn’t been done by the U.S. avant garde, either. It hasn’t been done, or thought of, anywhere. And for that reason we should pay attention.
The political content of 10 × (10 + −10) = 0, on the other hand, is very easily understood. All the more so because Drumheller explains his motivations in a long foreword. The years 2002 to 2012, during which the book was written, were the first ten full years of the War on Terror. During this time, in Drumheller’s telling, the media horrified us and distracted us in equal measure, at their pleasure. Thus the volumes of the book move from 2003’s ‘Fears & Fetishes,’ about war and the pornographic gaze, to 2010’s ‘How to Catch a Tiger & How to Set It Free,’ about the fall of Tiger Woods and ‘waking up from the American Dream.’ The mode is always investigative, castigating.
That Drumheller’s poems hit their end-words hard (on a single phoneme) makes them sound like both performance poets’ lyrics and epistrophic sermonising. And that is not surprising. Drumheller performs his poetry in an impassioned drawl that is informed by the cadences of both the South (he was born in Charleston, South Carolina) and the South Island. Drumheller also does, if you ask him to, an extraordinary American bollocks-and-brimstone preacher impression. The message is in the form. And the best is saved for last, the way the crack comes at the end of the snap of the whip. And whipping is a fair metaphor. Some poetry persuades. Some insists. And some, like Drumheller’s, wins the argument only with linguistic violence. But a win is a win.
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Even before I wrote this essay I had wanted to talk about a version of ‘palindrome’ that I think is very effective. It is probably a nonce form, but many great poems are formally sui generis. The poem is Auden’s ‘Leap Before You Look.’ It is what I think of when I think of a successful ‘palindrome poem.’
I won’t quote it here. The important aspect is the rhyme scheme:
ABAB BBAA BAAB ABBA AABB BABA
This is every permutation of two As and two Bs. The four outer stanzas rhyme palindromically, and the two central ones are ‘opposites’ of sorts. The beginning and ending lines, too, appear initially to be contrary (with the verb phrases ‘must not’ versus ‘have to’), but as the nouns ‘danger’ and ‘safety’ are antonyms the opposition vanishes. The resolution is that the crucial lines ‘The sense of danger must not disappear’ and ‘Our dream of safety has to disappear’ have nearly the same meaning. After the central message of the poem has been run through the palindrome machine, it emerges reflected in a slightly different arrangement, structurally altered but in spirit the same. This is excellent use of form.
Admittedly the constraint employed by Auden in this poem is not as difficult to work within as the ones Doc Drumheller has set up for himself, but that does not make his achievement the paltrier. And for the reader, working through Auden’s poem may not be challenging, but there is no reason why it should not be satisfying. It is probably more enjoyable for most people to solve a crossword than to fail to solve Kryptos.