Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Reading Jenn McCreary’s doctrine of signatures, one might expect that the immediate association from McCreary’s text would be in the direction of Chris McCreary’s The Effacements. The two are married, co-editors of Ixnay, and their texts even share a common binding, having been published yin/yang style by Gil Ott’s Singing Horse Press. Yet the book that kept popping up as antecedent in my imagination as I read signatures was former Philadelphia poet Pattie McCarthy’s bk of (h)rs, Like McCarthy, McCreary makes great use of ye olde texts & concepts, employing them as a framework through which to examine contemporary life.

The doctrine of signatures itself is a concept that underlies most forms of herbal medicine, the notion that plants have specific medicinal destinies & that these can in turn be divined by the “signature” of the plant, if only one knows how to read it. The classic example is the use of hepatica for ailments of the liver because the plant itself is shaped roughly akin to a liver. One can find variants of this in Islam & in ancient China &, in the West, Galen made reference to such theories as early as the second century. German cobbler & mystic Jakob Böhme popularized the idea in 1620 with the publication of Signatura Rerum. As astrology is to the stars, the doctrine of signatures offers a strategy for reading the botanical kingdom in such a way that it is all about us.

My sense is that Jenn McCreary uses this doctrine neither as an adept nor an apprentice, but rather the way Jack Spicer once used baseball: as a lens through which events come into focus or are refracted, & as a discursive horizon. It’s a strategy that enables McCarthy – like Spicer before her – to compose a lengthy serial poem that is deeply personal & to some degree private in such a way as to convey its cohesion – & its deeper concerns – to an outside reader who might well never have met the author.

On the surface, the poem as a whole is divided into five sections, each of whose titles are bounded by colons, a device that calls to mind Simon Perchik:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>:pre script:
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>:whistling in the dark:
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>:humors:
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>:receipts:
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>:a doctrine of signatures:

Roughly speaking, these sections are what they say they are. Yet, at a deeper level, the structure of doctrine is very different from this five-part scheme – rather, the poem strikes me more as being built out of two halves. The first half contains the first four sections combined, while the second, slightly longer half is composed of only the final section. At one level, I see the first four sections as setting up the second half, especially since it contains one of the longest runs of great writing I’ve come across in some time. Yet, in fact, some of the very best work in doctrine occurs in the “:receipts:” section, so even as I type this I’m conscious that my description fails to do the poem justice.

:whistling in the dark:” to my reading is the theory section, literally the statement of a thesis or problem, how to communicate from here (where I am) to there (where you are). “:humors:” – the one section of the book I’m not completely sold on – appears to stalk out a range of options, cataloged precisely by the humors: blood, bile, choler & phlegm. It’s the most descriptive section &, as such, feels the most restrained. “:receipts:” just takes off – I read it initially as a series of overheard (& one-sided) communications – it’s the passage that brought Spicer’s serial poetry to mind. But there are recipes here also, droll commentary, moments of horror, allusions to Charles Olson. It’s among the richest six-page sets of writing one can imagine.

Until, that is, it gets just blown away by the range & majesty & depth of the second half, the title section of the poem. Consider these two passages:


he said, you write like I cook – or try
to cook.        I promise you a poem of domesticated

purslane, of lettuces & lemons. I promise you
a poem as perfect as a potato

is perfect, that tastes like valium
feels & turns the sky to honey

& lavender.


we’ve important work
to do:   cataloging, giving
things names, putting to order
an unruly home –
a kitchen in the choirloft, a bedroom
in the belfry.  a grotto,
in the most proper
sense of the word, juniper berries crushed
underfoot & all that moss
spread out, creeping
velvet lichen.

we like to be compelled
by things & the things
compelling us here
are true:         the first was hung
by her hair; the second
had her hair set afire
& asphyxiated
on the smoke & flames. that’s two
deaths by hair this week – which means
something, but we know
not what.*

Both the passages themselves & the broader contexts they throw into sharp relief work at every possible level: as sound, as intellect, even as drama. At one level, one could characterize a doctrine of signatures as a love poem, a rare thing in these postmodern days. At another, it’s a treatise on communication. On a third, it’s a remarkably detailed portrait of a society, one that both is & is not our own. On a fourth, it’s a meditation on the interaction between our own world & the nature that lurks in signature. On a fifth . . . well, you get the idea.  There’s an enormous amount of stuff going on in this poem, so effortlessly written that the experience of reading it feels like the consumption of a text far shorter than what is actually here, even given the small page size of the Singing Horse edition

* You can find four other passages of this section in the excellent DCPoetry Anthology 2002.