Swampiness in Michael Dickman's Green Migraine

"I enter a swamp as a sacred place,--a sanctum sanctorum . . . A township where one primitive forest waves above while another primitive forest rots below—such a town is fitted to raise not only corn and potatoes, but poets and philosophers for the coming ages" -Henry David Thoreau, June, 1862 (1815).

Michael Dickman’s Green Migraine functions as a site where depths remain hidden, withheld, images jumping forward before the previous moment sinks in, life and appliances hopping in and out of the frame in typical postmodern fragmentation, creating a fluid and complex ecosystem. Green Migraine churns with swamplike productivity and decay, cycling back to prior moments, bounding forward into new spaces. Embracing opposites and connections like a swamp, Green Migraine evinces beauty and trouble in parataxis, in an ecosystem of headaches, insects, and beauty. Like swamps, Dickman’s poems teem with literal life--gnats, frogs, birds, snakes, and more--but the metaphorical connections go much deeper  (34-35).

In order to better illuminate the swamplike quality of Green Migraine, I will first describe features of swamps, then will relate swamp systems to information theory, showing how both swamps and Green Migraine tend toward disorder but find a balance to maintain an ecosystem as they unify opposites such as life and death, information and mystery.

Swamp Features

Swamps teem with life and generation, death and decay, remaining relatively inaccessible due to the soil saturation and hidden wildlife. Swamps are wooded wetlands, characterized by forest or shrubbery, with tidal waters standing or moving slowly, the water covering or remaining close to the top of the soil  (EPA, "What is a Wetland?" n. pag).  The water, swamps’ primary feature, comes from runoff, the flooding of a river, or heavy rain (Larson 32).

The black soil, dense with nutrients, functions as the basis of the ecosystem’s food web (EPA, "Functions" n. pag). As dead plants collapse into the water and decompose, they rot into detritus, becoming food for insects and fish, which then become food for “larger predatory fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals” (EPA, "Functions" n. pag). The highly fertile soil and generative food webs of these wetlands make them some of the most productive ecosystems in the world (EPA, "Functions" n. pag).  A swamp ecosystem can at times lose balance, which can lead or add to their repellent quality. Duckweed, a tiny plant that coats many swamps, algae in its roots, may reproduce so quickly that it crowds out other plants left to malodorous decay (Lisowski and Williams 54).  

Swamps have had a bad reputation despite their extraordinary capacity to generate life; partly because their danger and inaccessibility build their mystery. In Postmodern Wetlands: Culture, History, Ecology, Rodney Giblett writes that swamps’ fluidity in matter and motion has led to this perception as a foreboding place:

“In the patriarchal western cultural tradition wetlands have been associated with death and disease, the monstrous and the melancholic, if not the downright mad. Wetlands are 'black waters'. They have even been seen as a threat to health and sanity, to the clean and proper body, and mind . . . Part of the problem lies in the fact that wetlands are neither strictly land nor water. Rather, they are both land and water” (3).

As swamps symbolize liminal space by resisting strict dualities, wetlands defy the expected descriptions of places that people know well, defamiliarizing common landscape features such as water and trees. Because of their unfamiliarity, swamps face stigmatization typical of perceived otherness.

These negative views of wetlands have been part of western consciousness for hundreds of years. Dante had a swamp in the Inferno, and Beowulf’s monster, Grendel, lived in the fen. Even the EPA mentions on its website that swamps have inspired horror (Wetland Classification and Types," n. pag). And rightfully so: communities near swamps may face alligators or crocodiles, disease-spreading insects, and floods.  A swamp in its natural state resists colonization. To be colonized or cultivated, it must be drained, destroyed.  

Ecosystems and Information

The quantum chemist John Scales Avery writes in Information Theory and Evolution that the connection between life and information relates to the second law of thermodynamics: the universe has a tendency toward chaos and complexity, a tendency known as entropy (79). Information can be used to increase order and decrease entropy (Avery 82). Avery writes, “free energy contains information . . . it can thus be seen as the source of the order and complexity of living systems” (79). The Sun provides the free energy powering life on earth; its energy carries the “thermodynamic information” that allows organisms to survive by minimizing their entropy (Avery 95).  “As the thermodynamic information flows through the biosphere, much of it is degraded into heat, but part is converted into cybernetic information and preserved in the intricate structures which are characteristic of life . . . This is the process which we call evolution, or in the case of human society, progress.” (Avery 97). This information passes through the metabolisms of organisms in the food web, keeping them “far away from thermodynamic equilibrium (‘which is death’)” (Avery 97).

Avery describes a thought experiment by nineteenth century physicist James Clerk Maxwell that shows the relationship between information and entropy in a system: “where disorder increases, information is lost” (Avery 82). In other words, an increase in information creates an increase of order. With the sun’s thermodynamic information powering the replication of genetic information, an ecosystem maintains a certain level of order in spite of entropy.  

Thermodynamic information also moves through computer systems in the form of an electric current (Avery 97). Avery compares bacteria with computer viruses' transmission of information, and finds that the distinction between organic and inorganic activity is surprisingly blurred: “There are examples of bacterial spores existing in a dormant state for many millions of years, after which they have been revived into living bacteria. Is a dormant bacterial spore alive? Clearly there are many borderline cases between non-life and life” (97).  

This uncertainty around the dualism of life and death is reminiscent of Margaret Fuller’s discussion of fluidity in her “Woman in the Nineteenth Century”: “male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But, in fact, they are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid” (1710). The fluidity of male and female, like the fluidity of life and death that Avery discusses, parallels the fluidity of thermodynamic information as it transfers through a biosphere from organism to organism. 

The swamp is a paragon of this “radical dualism,” unifying opposites in its liminal space of fluidity and sturdy woodiness (Fuller 1710). Even the thermodynamic law of entropy operates on the dualism of order and disorder, mediated through information, entropy mitigated through life’s expressions of death and new life.

Swampiness in Green Migraine

Many features of swamps appear in Green Migraine thematically, including the cyclical exchange of death and life becoming each other, and the difficulty of comprehending a liminal space when we may only have inadequate terms that lean too heavily on opposite poles of an idea. The poems even work together forming their own ecosystem; the volume a larger poem in its own right.

Dickman’s opening poem, “Bee Sting,” begins, “Crying in the cosmos that doesn’t sound like you / Crying in our arms / in the cosmos / in our arms” (3).  “Crying” evokes darkness, while “the cosmos” suggests one’s place in the larger whole, a universal ecosystem of mystery and darkness (3).  The line “that doesn’t sound like you” also betrays uncertainty,, ambiguity of presence (3). The subsequent repetition of “crying,” “cosmos,” and “arms” creates a cyclical motion, a fleeting and returning moment, a rocking back and forth like an infant in one’s arms, needing comfort (3). This newness at the beginning of the poem contrasts with its images of morbid end: “invisible death’s head / turning on and off / in the dark (5). The close proximity of life and death suggests a zoomed-out view of time, a cosmic hugeness, with ecosystems of life rolling on in continual change. The bee drifting “from flower to / flower” stays in motion through the poem, “dusting the earth” and ready to “sail on” (4). The poem adeptly switches from the atomized level of pollen to the level of the cosmos: “I’ve always wanted / to bump the stamen and start / the universe swaying” (4). This statement suggests the extraordinary agency each organism could have in creating change in a highly active and complex world.  On the other hand, the poem also uses defamiliarization and mystery to suggest the small capacity each organism has to comprehend the bigger picture of our existence, mentioning “some riddle from before we were born that sounds like a river and spreads on toast (3). The “riddle from before we were born that sounds like a river” suggests a primordial state, an unknowable past, an unseen environment, wet with a river, perhaps a wetland (3). The fact that this riddle “spreads on toast” defamiliarizes the sometimes mundane task of food preparation while also suggesting that the matter we eat is part of a long history of lives' thermodynamic information exchanging in a chain we can never know (3).

In Dickman’s next poem, “Dog Vertigo,” a pattern of language, recurring but changing slightly with each use, parallels the natural variation of life, balancing constancy and constant change. It begins, “some teeth down there / some hair and gray gums / some grass and dirt / down there some gristle / and whimpers / All stupid grinning death running around the yard making a little child cry with each busted grass blade” (6).  The repetition of “some” and “down there” also conveys mystery: How much is “some”? What is “down there”? (6). This motif continues through the poem, and returns in the poem “Green Migraine” as well (35).  The longer line that begins “all stupid grinning” also recurs in variation through the poem, as do several other motifs (6). The “grinning death” and “little child” once again juxtapose death and new life in a single system, as swamps do (6).

In “Yellow Migraine,” life and decomposition are yet again in the foreground. The opening line features the boldness of nature in bloom: “Daffodils / shimmy / in the dilated onion grass / their hearts out” (21). The beauty and joy of such a yellow vision quickly shifts to a less pleasant image: “urine left in the toilet all day simmers under halogens” (21). This switch to the septic precedes an antiseptic image, or at least one of an attempt at cleaning: “Time to wipe down the refrigerator with a handful of ibuprofen and a bandanna soaked in tonic water” (21).  Flowers, grass, urine, germs--the imagery shifts the tone every couple of lines (21).  In this poem, as in others, Dickman uses recurring motifs, creating a cyclical feel; the daffodils and onion grass return as they would in the wild, a gust of wind throwing seeds down the hillside, into the undergrowth (21-23). The poem also includes “families of worms,” an image of decomposition and the food chain; worms create soil for new life, just as the decay of swamp detritus generates new life (23). The end of “Yellow Migraine”  hearkens back to imagery in “Bee Sting”: “Pollen / lies down on everything / it just lies down / sun the color of / photosynthesis and / that’s fine” (23).  It is as if the first bee has traveled through the book ahead of the reader, leaving its trail of pollen for the reader to follow.

In “From the Canal,” Dickman returns to a water-based ecosystem full of mystery (30). “Small fistfuls / of green lights hang / from your every / word / An alphabet I can’t read” (30). Like green sphagnum moss hanging, the “green lights hang” from an unintelligible sign system (30). While light has connotations of information and understanding, the “green lights” here are left obscure (30). This poem, more than others, feels like a swamp. There are box turtles “balanced above the water,” there are rubber trees (a plant common in swamps), there is a “muddy bank” and fish and insects--a noisy, swampy ecosystem of energy and slow churning (30-34).  This poem also includes language of destruction and transformation in the lines, “I would like to chop down my shoulders into flowers,” and “Giving birth / you give birth to steam / and maggots / Strange new butterflies” (31). These images of the natural world demonstrate the fluidity of life and death when seen from the perspective of a larger ecosystem. Dickman’s poems play with and shift concepts of continuity and dualism as the scale zooms in and out from the cosmos to a single insect. Similarly, the poems form a semi-solid primordial groundwork that contrasts with images of modern life creeping in like the “floor after floor / of air conditioning / and glass” or the “high beams / in the rubber trees” (31; 34).  In this way, the visceral, primal nature of swamps’ biodiversity serves as a foil to the sterile icons of city living such as concrete, steel, bricks, cars, and glass--though they encroach upon each other in a fluidity that undermines the traditional dualism representing these worlds.

While swamps’ depths hold quaking activity, the water coated in sphagnum or duckweed shows only a surface to be skimmed, leaving a viewer to look further, unable to see deeper down. Just as eyes can trace a landscape--here, the still or slow-moving, fresh or brackish waters of a swamp--a reader may float across the surface of Green Migraine, marveling in wonderment at what may remain unseen. Images in Dickman’s writing resist memorization, ephemeral, moving on quickly, there and gone in a fleeting moment. Like a swamp’s continuous cycles of life and death, recurring images in Green Migraine flourish at an atomized level, vigorous yet in slow motion, swirling up and back on themselves. Even a migraine suggests a stillness; the desire to close eyes, stop and lie still through a headache.

Swamps and Poetics of Information

Joshua Clover’s “Once Against (Into the Poetics of Superinformation)” evokes the interactions of multitudinous organisms in a swamp and the connectedness of the various images and motifs in Green Migraine. Clover writes of superinformation as a network, a web, an ecosystem of “actual life and its frantic dissimulation” just as a swamp swarms with buzzing “collective consciousness,” (Clover 163). For Clover, “the day has integuments,” like exoskeletons or fruit rinds, protective layers that superinformation tries to seep into (163). He goes on: “Superinformation is always trying to fill them, to live without dead space,” an image like waters creeping up on soil as a swamp fills up, like life swelling up against the rolling death fueling its rise (Clover 163).

Dickman’s poems resists narrative structure, its paratactic fragments in refrain as the familiar reappears then defers to strangeness, here and then out of sight.  The images and pieces of thoughts, while they may sometimes seem disconnected stanza to stanza, still contain a fluidity due to these ecosystemic themes that recur in the midst of poems, or across the poems in the volume.

While Clover describes fluidity in a network of information, Bob Perelman discusses “radical disconnection,” noting that continuity depends on a reader’s interpretation (Perelman 29).  Perelman theorizes that parataxis of “tangential” sentences allows readers more power in creating meaning (26). He writes, “Parataxis is crucial: the autonomous meaning of a sentence is heightened, questioned, and changed by the degree of separation or connection that the reader perceives with regard to the surrounding sentences" (Perelman 26). While on one hand, parataxis creates more opening for readers to participate in meaning-creation, sentences without connecting transitions may also leave readers to wade through swamp-like mystery, through a rich but possibly uncomfortable unknown. Dickman’s migraine poems lead a reader through a web of shifting thermodynamic information, collections of fragmented and paratactic images that function in relation to the wider network of imagery across Green Migraine, creating order, restraining the entropy seeping forward that nevertheless marches on.

Organisms and ecosystems depend on information to stay alive. As Clover writes, “Data is a phenomenon of life organized by survival; superinformation hangs out near where the waves of data crash against the seawall of the sublime, mixing metaphors in the infinite” (163).  The element of survival in Dickman's poems, the struggles and joys of life and death, beauty and the grotesque, are embodied too in wooded wetlands. The celebration of mystery and use of repetition are reminiscent of a swamp. Trees and brush lend a sense of sturdiness, protection, and cloaking, ever-changing with the unstable fluidity of saturated soil. Like swamps and information, the poems of Green Migraine function by transferring energy from being to being; with change, recurrence, and the uncertain future; with wonderment at the mystery of how opposites unite, separate, and shift back into each other in liminal spaces.


Works Cited

Avery, John. “Statistical Mechanics and Information.” Information Theory and Evolution, World Scientific, 2012. Google Books, accessed 10 Dec. 2016, pp. 79-102. <https://books.google.com/books/about/Information_Theory_and_Evolution.html?id=pnS6CgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false>

Clover, Joshua. “Poetics Statement: Once Against (Into the Poetics of Superinformation).” American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poets, edited by Claudia Rankine & Lisa Sewell, Wesleyan University Press, 2007, pp. 163.

Dickman, Michael. Green Migraine, Copper Canyon Press, 2015.

Fuller, Margaret. “Woman in the Nineteenth Century.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature: Early Nineteenth Century 1800-1865, edited by Paul Lauter, 5th Ed., Vol. B, Houghton Mifflin, 2006, pp. 1697-1719.

Giblett, Rodney James. Postmodern Wetlands: Culture, History, Ecology, Edinburgh University Press, 1996, EBSCO, accessed 8 Oct 2016.

Larson, Ron. Swamp Song: A Natural History of Florida’s Swamps. Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 1995.

Lisowski, Marylin and Robert A. Williams. Wetlands. Franklin Watts, 1997.

Perelman, Bob. “Parataxis and Narrative: The New Sentence in Theory and Practice.” Artifice and Indeterminacy: An Anthology of New Poetics, edited by Christopher Beach, University of Alabama Press, 1998, pp. 24-48.

Thoreau, Henry David. "Walking." The Heath Anthology of American Literature: Early Nineteenth Century 1800-1865, edited by Paul Lauter, 5th Ed., Vol. B, Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 2006, pp. 1803-1824.

United States. Environmental Protection Agency. "What is a Wetland?" Wetlands. District of Columbia: 28 Mar 2016. Accessed 8 Oct 2016. <https://www.epa.gov/wetlands/what-wetland>

United States. Environmental Protection Agency. "Wetland Classification and Types" Wetlands. District of Columbia: 28 Mar 2016. Accessed 8 Oct 2016. <https://www.epa.gov/wetlands/wetlands-classification-and-types#swamps>

United States. Environmental Protection Agency. "What Are Wetland Functions?" Wetlands. District of Columbia: 6 Oct 2016. Web. 8 Oct 2016. <https://www.epa.gov/wetlands/what-are-wetland-functions>

PoetryKatie Ancheta