History repeats; nature repeats; poetry repeats. In this six-part collection, Hazel Smith’s formally experimental prose poems identify the crystalline structures of pattern-making that produce surprising rhythms in and between politics, history, nature, and art. Each section is broadly thematised, from writing and subjectivity to women and creativity. Stylistically eclectic, Smith’s book marries prose poems, lists, surveys, multi-column poems, free verse, and poems that run up the page rather than across. One of the most interesting pieces, entitled ‘Rank-a-Poem’, asks the reader to circle a number between 1 and 10 to rate their agreement with a range of statements, such as “The poem is a language poem” or “The poem is confessional”, leaving the reader to grapple with the innumerable possibilities that constitute the gap between this poem and ‘The poem’ (23).
Ecliptical includes poems titled as lucidly as ‘James Comey and Donald Trump: A Revenge Drama’, which scatter phrases and word fragments across the page, making both a mystery out of recorded testimony and a bebop style improvisation out of political affairs which exemplifies their existing absurdity. These pieces transform current events and news cycles into enigmatic performances.
Other poems use computer text generation or collaboration, including audio-visual (mainly audio) components available through hyperlinks embedded in the digital version of the text. Much of the audio is haunting, overlaying dissonant tones, striking brass instrumental snippets, and eerie recordings with sporadic, building dialogue. The collaborative nature of these elements complements the text’s interrogation of creativity and the degree to which creative undertakings are under the control of any given (single) subjectivity. Meanwhile, the poems find recourse, again and again, to a personal, even interpersonal, voice.
Most provocatively, Smith’s work pairs machine learning with nature’s transformations. Ecliptical asks whether and how computational accretion—“machine intelligence”—echoes the design of waves, tidal flows, or budding flowers: “Artificial flowers are not the same as artificial intelligence” (18). This may perhaps be because artificial intelligence grows out of the same mathematical patterns that shape the design of real, living flowers. Through such reflections, Smith prompts readers to ask: what figures follow certain formulae? To what extent poetry parallels these patterns? And whether it is a mimetic principle or a form of ‘natural’ growth? For example, in ‘Personhood: A Few Preliminaries’:
A poem pursues. An open purse. A poem perks up, makes swirling patterns in the rubble.(13)
Held high on a wet raft of calculations, numbers keep me warm. An intensity steams and smothers.
Loss. The birth of the oracular. Ought as a violation.
The sky narrows. A pink bud, stamen-sticky, opens out endlessly, as if reversing a slight.
Where are Adam and Eve? They have left us with a lot of gardening to do.
Everything is odd, uneven, fractious, even thinking.
In these lines, nature’s “oracular” visions are prophetic and epiphanic, suggesting a miraculous logic that governs growth. In other words, Smith’s reflections in ‘Personhood: A Few Preliminaries’ prompt readers to ask how both creative thought and natural growth may be subject to mathematical laws, which we may or may not recognise. Are we tasked with tending the garden or are we merely growing within it? Can these two states be reconciled? The poem claims that “even thinking” is subject to the algorithmic self-making of nature, such that even thinking is odd, is patterned but unexpected. Instead, for Smith even thinking is a source of surprise to the selves that are sedimented and patchworked together in her posthuman musings. These selves are recognisable and familiar, but they are not cemented, and the thinking “I” is figured throughout the text by fluidity:
When I wake in the morning I struggle not to reflect. I surf thinking, then sink it, but it quickly bobs back again.(‘Personhood: A Few Preliminaries’ 12)
Sometimes I am certain that I never was.
The poem as ice rink, writing as risk. My personhood stalks my body, unhinged.
This poem suggests that the ocean of consciousness may be skated across, floated upon, or let to run over. It flows in and out. An etching in the ice, just as writing only momentarily solidifies a glimpsed pattern in the process of much larger historical, evolutionary reworkings. In ‘Musing’, Smith explores psychological ellipses: thoughts that pass through us, lag behind, alter, and resurface. As gardeners of our subjective lives, we snip, plant, and weed; we create and attempt to solve problems:
I don’t always recognise people even when I have seen them several times before, he said. I think I must have that face recognition syndrome or a mild version of it.
It’s a challenge to match birdsong with birds. You rush to the sound file but by then what you heard has evaporated.
A lyrebird imitating a chainsaw?
It’s your particular way of solving problems, she said. Your dedicated algorithm, your way of managing the world: this person has created their own problems.(‘Musing’ 16)
Here, Smith points to the non-equivalence of conscious interior life and individual subjects, “[y]our dedicated algorithm” (16).
I found Ecliptical to be least effective when it came to social and political commentary on problems such as poverty and racism. While poems like ‘Street People’ and ‘The Lips are Different’ are explicitly critical of inequitable social systems that produce human suffering, they also unfortunately exoticise and objectify their subjects by metaphorising them. For instance, in ‘The Lips are Different,’ racialised experiences of being stopped at passport control are used to exemplify the complex multiplicity of all individuals: “but no one is identical even to themselves / let alone a photograph / If we are many, how can we appear as one?” (66). This kind of thinking may provoke provocative ontological questions, but it diminishes the social realities of racism and migration to universal phenomena from which they are, in actuality, distinct.
Ecliptical: ellipses, for moving on, trailing off, and linking up; eclipses, for moving in and out of view; and elliptical, cyclical but not circular rotations—the shape of ova, as the occasion of (female) creation. Ecliptical is generatively patterned in sync with natural rhythms in a manner that does not presume perfect cycles, but is primed for making audible just barely-rhyming surprises of all sorts of repetitions.