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Crystallography : Book 1 of Information Theory (1994)

by Christian Bök

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1191171,582 (4.31)3
Published in 1994, Crystallography was a gem of a book, an instant hit that was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award. It has been unavailable for an ice age, and Coach House Books is proud to bring it back. 'Crystallography' means the study of crystals, but also, taken literally, 'lucid writing.' The book exists in the intersection of poetry and science, exploring the relationship between language and crystals -- looking at language as a crystal, a space in which the chaos of individual parts align to expose a perfect formation of structure. As Bök himself says, 'a word is a bit of crystal in formation,' suggesting there is a space in which words, like crystals, can resonate pure form. Lucid, sparkling, a diamond of a book: Crystallography is a crystal-clear approach to the science of poetry from the author of Eunoia.… (more)

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[The following review is abbreviated. The full review, with images, is at http://writingwithimages.com/?page_id=342]

At the moment, Bök is probably one of the two most-read conceptual writers in English; the other is Kenneth Goldsmith, who is thanked in the book. "Eunoia" is a more consistent book, but raises some of the same issues.

Four reactions to this book, arranged pseudo-scientifically, like Bök's arrangements, leading from local to larger-scale issues.

1. The ghost of Escher

From an art historical or art critical point of view, it's a bad sign that the book begins with a page-long quotation from Escher, who has invariably been a sign of a certain misunderstanding of modernisms and postmodernisms. Escher is popular with chemists—he still appears in introductory textbooks, which is appropriate for this book—but not with people engaged with current possibilities of the image. From an expressive standpoint, the epigraph signals the likelihood that Bök will be engrossed in structural games, and that those games and rules might owe more to Escher's kind of compulsive mathematized imagination than to concerns that stem from Oulipo or conceptual poetry.

There are a number of passages in the book where Bök's games seem compulsive in Escher's particular, emotionally stunted, myopically neurotic, algorithmically limited, aesthetically adolescent fashion. Even in the graphics—especially the mylar graphic—it's not possible to imagine much other than an author unreflectively obsessing about the placement of X's in page-layout software. (What is the difference between Escher's unpleasantly narrow experiments, which have exiled him from the narratives of modernism, and Roussel's wonderfully narrow experiments, which have put him at the center of stories about modernism?)

2. The role of crystallography

I come at this book with some knowledge of crystallography: I know Haüy, Bravais, birefringence, and crystal classes. I'm aware that bringing a specialized knowledge to a book that does not demand that knowledge of its readers is risky and usually irrelevant. (I'm also aware that the book isn't about crystallography.) But this knowledge does yield several things that are pertinent to a general reading.

(a) I can see how, in some sections, Bök is trying to find verbal equivalents to crystallographic facts, and fails. The way he fails is significant. In the poem "Birefringence," he tries to conjure interference colors by comparing them to stained glass, "gasoline rainbows," "iridescent / insects," and several other things. The result, for someone who knows the colors, is insufficient; and for someone who doesn't, the result is scattered in an illegible fashion: that is, the illegibility appears to be rule-driven and its obscurity related to language games, but actually it is caused by limitations in the author's descriptive power.

(b) In the poem on Miller, Bök makes what I experience as a half-hearted attempt to conjure Miller indices (comparing them to the Dewey decimal system): what matters is that I can see this is half-hearted, because of the impossibility of conjuring something like Miller's system: Bök knows the attempt is tepid, but that he doesn't need to be more precise because his readers will not judge that aspect of the book—but poems like the one on Miller demonstrate how loosely he regards his crystallographic master metaphor: a looseness that is not at all projected by the book. I wonder if the book could have been even stronger if he had found a way to signal the looseness of his attachment to his non-poetic sources.

(c) Specialist knowledge is also pertinent because the book's appeal should not, even from Bök's point of view, depend on the hundreds of polysyllabic technical terms: their exoticism and opacity can't be the central strength or indispensable strategy of the book. When those terms aren't opaque (for readers who know some crystallography), they reveal themselves more clearly as inexact references chosen in accord with very loose criteria: they are used to suggest global parallels with some poetics, or to provide Greek- or Latin-sounding obstructions to the text.

(Incidentally, there is a similarity between Bök's taste in crystallographic illustration and mine. When I first read this book I suspected he had taken two illustrations from a book of mine, "Domain of Images," which has a chapter of crystallography, which is also, like this book, one of the few texts on crystallography that is not intended as a contribution to science. Bök reproduces two very obscure images I also have in my book on pp. 119 and 129. But Bök's book was published in 1994, before mine, so it's evidence of a similar sense of what counts as an interesting crystallographic image.)

3. Emotional passages

There is one section of the book, "Diamonds" (p. 64), that is self-contained and different from the rest of the book. "Diamonds" purports to be about the author's father, a diamond cutter. It is affectively direct, and scientifically minimal. It isn't a flaw, in a book about flaws, to have a section that's separate: but it is problematic to have that difference consist in directly emotional and even confessional prose, and to have that direct appeal to feeling be tied to a dilution of the scientific poetics, because that means the other sections—most of the book—require science in order not to speak directly about emotions, and that, I think, is not Bök's purpose.

4. Self-imposed rules

The fundamental issue in all these points (1, 2, 3) is the role played by self-imposed rules: the master trope of crystallography, and the many smaller rules that govern how individual concepts and people are articulated as poetry. My concern here is the irregular application of those rules, and the kinds of occasions and contexts where Bök permits himself to bend or suspend the rules.

As in "Eunoia," the rule-bound construction of the book is continuously undermined by clearly aesthetic choices, freely made, which are themselves almost always the result of specific late-romantic and modernist allegiances. Sometimes Bök sounds like Celan ("Bleeding away / ages of images," p. 30), sometimes Bachelard ("A crystal is the flashpoint of a dream intense / enough to purge the eye of its infection, sight," p. 37), sometimes A.R. Ammons or his admirer the chemist Roald Hoffmann ("A word (like love) has a high refractive index," p. 37). Much of this material is late romantic, including typical romantic natural science interests like abyssal creatures and invertebrates ("lammelibranchs, coelenterates. / the lost animalculae from alien seas" (p. 47). The specter of Escher returns whenever the rules appear to be constructed by the author in order to articulate his own repetition compulsions: "any path that you take / breaks from its route / in the way that a root / word, when said, gets / tangled in its ganglia" (p. 44). This is rum poetry, driven by a nearly autistic sort of compulsion, much like the long lists of supposedly similar things in Roussel's "New Impressions of Africa." All these non-rule-bound emulations and aesthetic choices distract from the book's rule-bound, self-proclaimed metaphoric purpose. As in "Eunoia," I wish he had either presented these as also rule-bound ("I choose Celan because he is the poet of the crystal fragment," etc.) or purged them from the text in favor of echoes and allusions that remain illegible. ( )
1 vote JimElkins | Oct 29, 2011 |
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Christian Bökprimary authorall editionscalculated
Brown, MalcolmCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Published in 1994, Crystallography was a gem of a book, an instant hit that was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award. It has been unavailable for an ice age, and Coach House Books is proud to bring it back. 'Crystallography' means the study of crystals, but also, taken literally, 'lucid writing.' The book exists in the intersection of poetry and science, exploring the relationship between language and crystals -- looking at language as a crystal, a space in which the chaos of individual parts align to expose a perfect formation of structure. As Bök himself says, 'a word is a bit of crystal in formation,' suggesting there is a space in which words, like crystals, can resonate pure form. Lucid, sparkling, a diamond of a book: Crystallography is a crystal-clear approach to the science of poetry from the author of Eunoia.

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Published in 1994, Crystallography was a gem of a book, an instant hit that was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award. It has been unavailable for an ice age, and Coach House Books is proud to bring it back.

‘Crystallography’ means the study of crystals, but also, taken literally, ‘lucid writing.’ The book exists in the intersection of poetry and science, exploring the relationship between language and crystals — looking at language as a crystal, a space in which the chaos of individual parts align to expose a perfect formation of structure. As Bök himself says, ‘a word is a bit of crystal in formation,’ suggesting there is a space in which words, like crystals, can resonate pure form.

Lucid, sparkling, a diamond of a book: Crystallography is a crystal-clear approach to the science of poetry from the author of Eunoia.

(Coach House Books)
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