The Dream of Self:  Perception and Consciousness in Dewiney's Poetry

by Allan Hepburn

At the conclusion of The Renaissance, Walter Pater, contemplating the perpetual flux and instability of the world, claims that "at first sight experience seems to bury us under a flood of external objects", which ultimately dwindle to a group of vague impressions in "the narrow chamber of the individual mind."1 Pater eloquently continues: "every one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of the world."2  To begin a consideration of Christopher Dewdney's poetry by invoking Pater may seem unlikely, but given the fragmented texture, and the frequently unfamiliar material that Dewdney folds into a poem, no point of departure for Dewdney's work seems more improbable than any other. Any random beginning may, in fact, maintain something of the unexpectedness inherent in Dewdney's verse. Pater's appearance however is not entirely arbitrary, and might provide an initial toehold into Dewdney's poetry. Whereas Pater's interests may be intrinsically aesthetic, and Dewdney's may be ostensibly scientific, they share an appreciation of perceptual experience as a primary constituent of the individual mind. Both Pater and Dewdney seem convinced that the mind is its own place, sensorially connected with, yet independent from the world, and only marginally accessible to others. Dewdney also proposes that our interpretive judgments can crowd upon our apprehension of the world, until mental reality begins to direct external reality. The boundary between the mind and the world does collapse occasionally in Dewdney's poetry, allowing an interfusion of outside and inside, but at other times that boundary remains firmly intact. Stan Dragland has helpfully commented "that breakdown in Dewdney is also, or may be, a breakout from the confines of a narrowly defined universe/mind."3 Nevertheless, one should perhaps ask whether such breakthroughs are communicable, or whether the percipient mind, temporally and spatially situated within the phenomenological world, remains a solitary prisoner within "its own dream of the world." As Dewdney claims in the "Author's Preface" to A Palaeozoic Geology of London, Ontario, "a man's entire experiential memory exists only unto himself, is fractionally communicable and chronologically ephemeral."4

     Despite grounding his poetry in such extra-literary discourses as natural history, astronomy and neurochemistry, Dewdney can be considered a poet of consciousness,5 fundamentally concerned with perceptual epistemology, memory, the linguistically determined possibilities of conceptualization, and the self-mystifying movements of the mind. I do not wish to suggest that Dewdney confines his poetic inquiries exclusively to an investigation of the limits of consciousness and the phenomenological impact of the external world on the mind of the percipient. Rather, these are single yet intertwined motifs in the complex weave of Dewdney's work that have been previously neglected. Criticism of Dewdney's poetry customarily calls attention to its newness, or its otherness. In an incidental comment on Dewdney, Robert Kroetsch mentions a "new cosmology, located in science," that dynamically emerges in A Palaeozoic Geology of London, Ontario (1973) and Fovea Centralis (1975).6 Stan Dragland claims that Dewdney releases "a thoroughly realized alternative cosmos out of certain dormant seeds in our own."7 One should perhaps suspect the alterity of any cosmos that issues organically from our own, especially when that literary cosmos so clearly resembles the world we inhabit.

     Kroetsch responds to the novel deployment of natural history in the early works, and Dragland identifies the foreign, dreamlike world that unfolds particularly in Spring Trances in the Control Emerald Night (1978) and The Cenozoic Asylum (1982). However, Kroetsch's reference to a "new cosmology" and Dragland's theory of an imaginary extra-human cosmology perhaps unnecessarily make Dewdney's poetry seem more alien and inaccessible than it actually is. I detect a contrary pull in Dewdney's work. Beneath the strata of natural history and the sober rationality of science, the poetry documents the solipsism of consciousness, and the primacy of the subjective individual. The sedimentary layers of limestone metaphorically approximate the memory layers of the mind, and the use of science is a restylization of the self in an objective mode. Kroetsch and Dragland correctly diagnose a particular characteristic of the poetry, its preoccupation with the non-human and the visionary. But the poetry also dwells emphatically on the mechanisms of the mind and the problems of perception.

     In the six volumes of poetry and prose poems already published, extending from the earliest work, Golder's Green (1972), to Alter Sublime (1980), the decentration of point of view, the fractured syntax, and the persistent derailment of expectations — those features which mark Dewdney as an eminently postmodern poet — confound all metalanguages constructed out of the poetry. The particular success of Dewdney's works is their resistance to univocality. The works, taken together as a textual field, proceed dialectically, balancing contraries without necessarily resolving them into syntheses. By blurring or even eliminating the distinctions between self and world, literary and scientific discourse, poetry and visual art, poetry and prose, and between sense and non-sense, Dewdney teases the mind insulated by the "opaque logos,"8 and armed by habituated thinking, into unfamiliar regions of awareness.

     Once it has overcome the initial barrier of newness and otherness, the criticism of Dewdney's poetry usually grapples with the difficulties of orienting oneself within a cosmos of "pure random" (p. 103), where identities are not fixed, and things seem guided by remote control. Frequently, this criticism rehearses the orthodoxies of linguistic hierophantism, which have become so prevalent in the last decade. In a review of Alter Sublime, Paul Smith remarks that the volume depicts "our inevitable collisions with the glassy surface of language."9 Applying Saussurian and Derridean principles to A Palaeozoic Geology and Fovea Centralis, Steve McCaffery somewhat dogmatically claims that "it is precisely the 'suspectness' — not only of Dewdney's own prose, but of language itself — that is the poet's central purpose."10   By treating words as fossils, analogous to a signifier detached from the absent object it endeavours to signify, McCaffery views both volumes as metalinguistic probes which deny the communicative transparency of language even while they use language as a medium of communication: "It is this sense of language rejected as vehicular instrument and critically challenged as suspect environment that is the embracing framework of both books."11 McCaffery expresses some disenchantment with Fovea Centralis for its lack of "structural cohesiveness". Perhaps because Fovea Centralis moves away from the obvious linguistic concerns and metaphorical geological structure of A Palaeozoic Geology, it fails in McCaffery's opinion.12

     Similarly, in "Dewdney's Science", Keith Garebian concentrates on the linguistic irregularities of Dewdney's work, with an emphasis on the large scale importation of scientific terminology into the poetry. He complains that in Dewdney "we discover a poet whose work is made largely of a piece with science."13 Perhaps outmoded reading conventions coerce Garebian into stating that "the contrary dictions of science and lyricism have different ends."14  Garebian presumes that a certain decorum is appropriate to the writing of poetry. In this view, poetry is an ideologically conservative enterprise, which is not what Dewdney hopes to promote. To decide that science and literature are incompatible is to patrol the hermetically closed discourse of poetry, and to eliminate whatever is "improper" from it. Garebian implies that Dewdney does not possess a "content and technique" that "allow for communicative power and efficacy."15 This may be true, but the conjunction of science and poetry might also assist in healing the dissociated sensibility which has too rigidly divided the world into discrete discourses.

     Robert Lecker's "Of Parasites and Governors: Christopher Dewdney's Poetry" examines several poems within a framework supplied by Dewdney's pseudo-scientific essay on language, "Parasite Maintenance Lecker's argument revolves around the binarism of the "Parasite", which generates "novel configurations" in poetry, and the "Governor", which mechanistically controls conceptualization, and restricts language to a conventionalized, cliché-infested idiom. Lecker states that "the fundamen tally conventional yet 'complex battle' between Governor and Parasite . . . lies at the heart of his work."16  Lecker's formulation of the Parasite's guerilla warfare against the regime of the Governor settles the poetry into a narrowly limited and limiting doxa to borrow a term from Roland Barthes.17 By fleshing out poems with extra grammar and syntax (admittedly, a difficult thing to avoid with Dewdney), Lecker restricts the novelty of the configurations; the play of meaning is made univocal and enclosed. One suspects that Lecker overlooks some of the tongue-in-cheek humour of "Parasite Maintenance." If one endorses Dewdney's ideas on language, as they are advanced in "Parasite Maintenance," it would perhaps be fruitful to ask to what extent the Parasite can evade the regulations of the Governor without itself establishing general rules that prohibit conceptualization. Are not "novel configurations," as linguistic formulations, always already marked by the duplicities and governmental prohibitions of all language? Must the poems always dismantle themselves in order to prevent any single, targetable centre of meaning from appearing, in order to escape the governmental regimentation of language? When Lecker traces the binary opposition of Parasite-Governor through various poems, he decreases their charge of multiple meaning, and encloses them within a conceptual box, which unwittingly maintains the efficient operation of the Governor.

     It is true that Dewdney radically interrogates the function of language, particularly in such poems as "Transubstantiation" and "Coelacanth" from A Palaeozoic Geology. However, Dewdney's oeuvre-in-progress yields other traits, which Stan Dragland has hinted at in his "Afterword" to Predators of the Adoration. Dragland remarks that "Dewdney's work unfolds, often in the clean dreamlike mode of apparent non sequitur"; elsewhere, he refers to the poetry as "a territory more like a dream than anything else I presently know."18  Dragland also describes the "inside" world of Spring Trances and The Cenozoic Asylum as "a maze, a dream, a 'hyper-personal theatre.'"19  "Dream" is a word that certainly figures prominently in Dewdney's lexicon, and its presence signals a continuing fascination with the apparatus of consciousness. Robert Kroetsch, in another passing remark on Dewdney, identifies his gathering concern with epiphenomenology and apperception: "Chris Dewdney is far into the testing of a new dream vision located in the mind where the mind literally dreams."20   Kroetsch's two incidental references, taken together, plot coordinates for Dewdney's work. The passage from "a new cosmology" to a dream vision in which the mind literally dreams, marks a movement from an apparently objective scientism, to a documentation of interiors. Dragland argues that Dewdney's work "throws humans off centre stage to give other creatures their moment in the limelight"; "the decentralizing of ego is analogous to the attack on anthropomorphism that in turn reflects the dwindling importance of earth-centred consciousness."21 The shrinking significance of consciousness does not seem entirely reconcilable with the regular recurrence of dream, which is phenomenon localized in the mind. This perhaps alerts us again to the unresolvable ambiguities of Dewdney's poetry. Dragland has admirably traced the decentralizing of ego in Dewdney's work, but what of those other crosscurrents that both Dragland and Kroetsch hint at, the elevation to prominence of the perceptions and apperceptions of the mind, and the oneiric movements of consciousness?

     The physiologically and neurologically based essay, "Parasite Maintenance", carefully distinguishes between the mind and the world:

It's not as if the outside world is funnelled through a homunculus in the centre of the brain & then displayed on the neo-cortex in some kind of phrenological cinema. There are sub-stations & relays so profuse they confound the neuroanatomists of today.
     Remember always that there is no homunculus; 'I' is an illusion.22

No cortical homunculus exists. No phrenological cinema exactly duplicates the outside world in the mind. No perfect correspondence subtends interior and exterior reality. The mind reconstitutes the world in the act of perception. As Dewdney argues later in "Parasite Maintenance", perceptual experience filters through the neurological circuitry of the brain, where it is modified by the interpretive cortex and the speech cortex. The intertwined interpretive and speech cortices monitor sensory data, and alter it to conform with their epistemological and ontological programmes:

     The interpretive cortex, the other area "uncommitted' at birth, is devoted to the interpretation of present experience in light of past experience. It is also proximal to the speech centres. As it assumes its function of analyzing experience and establishing the individual's place in the world, the interpretive cortex is modified by the speech centre, to which it refers for concept materialization. In this manner, the strong and alien circuitry of the speech centre floods into the interpretive cortex during its formative development and mutates its circuitry. This is the beach-head of the Governor. The section of the brain which presents reality to consciousness is insidiously distorted. (AS, p. 84)

That the twin cortices of speech and interpretation insidiously distort reality tacitly implies that two realities exist: an internal one and an external one. Dewdney also insists that the act of articulation transforms the world through language. Similarly, the elaborate analogy between a parabolic antenna and the induction of information into the mind that Dewdney constructs in "Parasite Maintenance", suggests that sensory data passes through the language cortex before reaching the mind. According to this model, language mediates between mind and world: "Metaphorical objects & models are precipitated by synesthesia into mimics of the very adjuncts to reality out of which the human perception arranges itself" (p. 137). We do not know reality but adjuncts to it that are conditioned by perception, language, and its corollary, interpretation. The external world then is a perceptually, linguistically and hermeneutically determined reality when it appears to human consciousness. The mind, hinged to the external world, exists at a liminal interface with the world of objects, and interprets the world through language. In Spring Trances, "the secret harmony of life unfolds in silence and without witness" (p. 59), but "there can be no highlights if there is no point of view" (p. 141) in The Cenozoic Asylum. The presence of a human consciousness always involves a point of view. The world might exist without human presence, but the world exists for us only as we construe it. Dewdney assumes a phenomenological via media between object and subject by delineating the interaction of perceptual consciousness with landscape, neither of which seems entirely autonomous.

     Perhaps one should backtrack to A Palaeozoic Geology of London, Ontario in order to pursue some of the implications of the statements made in "Parasite Maintenance", and to "see" how some of those formulations devolve. The verb "to see" is used designedly here, for we use the verb of vision almost synonymously with the verb of comprehension, "to know". Although the empirical equation between seeing and understanding generally holds in A Palaeozoic Geology, Dewdney increasingly tests the validity of equating the two, most noticeably in Alter Sublime, just as he questions the tendency to correlate "sense" (one of the five senses), and "sense" (having meaning). Dewdney makes the ambiguity of the term explicit in "October" with a typographical joke: "I do not consider the waves empty/in your sense.(s)" (p. 115). The poem, "Glass", adumbrates an empirical stance, in which the senses attempt to make sense of the world:


What is beneath    benthos
is only hinted at.
Winter develops a pump in a forest clearing.
Each shadow is accounted for, the
fossil of a lady with
indefinite articles in her purse.
We cannot see around
the way through ourselves.
Every man finds his shaft
articulated, indefinite.

The mind is a cavity in which
sensitive plates, exposed to
unimaginable radiation
dance over blind flowers.

There is a cold hexagonal fire
in the insect's eye. (p. 27)

"Glass" is, I believe, a poem about the limits of object knowability as that knowledge is regulated by perception. What is beneath or beyond the surface perception of an object is only hinted at, because we apprehend only one surface, or visual horizon, at a time in our scanning of the world. The isolated position of "benthos" at the end of the first line reinforces the dichotomy of two dimensional surface perception, and the intuited three dimensionality of objects. Benthos, the flora and fauna that live at the bottom of the sea, hovers remotely beyond the reach of the eye. The spatial detachment of "benthos" from the line exaggerates the distance between percipient and the thing perceived. Benthos hints at its submarine presence, but because one cannot see it clearly, it is not readily understood. In this instance, seeing is believing. Similarly, the articles in the lady's purse insinuate their existence, but remain indefinite because they are not visually apprehended. "Each shadow is accounted for" by the objects that cast those shadows; however, a shadow, like a fossil, is a substanceless form. The image of a woman strikes the retina only as a two dimensional "fossil", as an image with a distinguishable shape, but not invested with the solidity of an object.

     In "Fovea Centralis I", Dewdney uses a comparable metaphor, a tube, to define the two dimensional impression of visual data on consciousness: "Take the concept of linear time. Each three dimensional object projected along this linear axis would describe a kind of tube, its outline in some way exactly corresponding to the shape of the object" (p. 31). Fovea centralis — "that part of the retina with which we look at things. The point of attention on the retina itself' (p. 186) — witnesses the three dimensional object as a hollow shape, having form but no substance. Within "linear time", in the single act of observation, we see a two dimensional plane, possessing height and width. The image implies depth, but we do not see depth in the isolated moment of perception. The effect is photographic or filmic; one visually records the contours of the object, not the object in its three dimensional entirety. Our intuition of depth results from previous experience, by regarding the object from alternate perspectives, and summoning our memory of those alternative perspectives. The act of "recognition" is the act of knowing something again, of substantiating knowledge, of "re-cognizing". In Spring Trances, Dewdney claims that in linear time, only one image at a time strikes the eye: "Events occur linearly so densely they are viewed as simultaneous" (p. 60). In fact, vision articulates only one event or visual plane at a time to consciousness. In The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues that a "human gaze never posits more than one facet of the object, even though by means of horizons it is directed towards all others."23 That is, at one moment of time, we perceive only that plane which appears before us; we apprehend the object as "real" when "it is given as the infinite sum of an indefinite series of perspectival views in each of which the object is given but in none of which it is given exhaustively."24  It requires the presence of a synthesizing consciousness to assimilate these perspectives, and to confirm to itself the authenticity of the object. The lady in "Glass" is therefore both a fossil and a lady, a substanceless form when perceived synchronically, that is, in linear time, yet also an identifiable entity when perceived diachronically, through the lens of memory. One presumes there are articles in her purse, because memory, the repository of perceptual experience, dictates that there should be articles there. The articles remain indefinite, however, because they are not perceived. On the other hand, given Dewdney's sense of humour, one should perhaps not absolutely discount the possibility that "indefinite articles" also signifies a grammatical part of speech.

     The subject-dependent enterprise of perception preoccupies Dewdney in "Glass", but he also asserts that the outside world does in fact exist. The precise division between subject and object may oscillate, but the position that Dewdney adopts is not a Berkeleian one, in which matter has existence only when it is reconstructed in the mind of the viewer. "We cannot see around/the way through ourselves", because the corporal self exists as a spatial object. The phrase juggles the cliché of "seeing through someone", which presumes a corporeal transparency, and a visibility of the mind and its intentions. In this case, the mind obstructs sightlines: either we cannot see around our ways of seeing/understanding, which assumes a tangibility of mind, or we cannot penetrate through the amorphous, invisible shape of our mental constructs, precisely because of their lack of substance, and unlocatability.

     The "articulated, indefinite" memory shaft of every man resonates with Dewdney's formulation of experiential memory as "fractionally communicable and chronologically ephemeral." The "articulated, indefinite" shaft also remembers the "indefinite articles" in the lady's purse, and "the shafts / by which we remember" in "The Memory Table I" (p. 19). The shaft, cutting vertically through sedimentary limestone strata, recurs in Dewdney's poetry as a metaphor for the accumulation and stratification of memory. This may partially explain the cryptic presence of a pump developed by winter in a forest clearing in the first stanza of "Glass."

     The second stanza of the poem arrests the mind in the moment of apprehension, by detailing the interaction of mind with world. The mind, though reliant on and interconnected with the brain, exists as a "cavity." Like a fossil, it has no tangible substance, yet is confined to the cranium.25  Almost painfully, the mind exposes itself to the perceptual encoding of experience; the "unimaginable radiation" of sensory data indelibly imprints itself on the mind, as the atomic metaphor suggests. If the focus of the second stanza is steadfastly fixed to a perceptual and mnemonic interior, and the flowers in the external world are "blind," implying a lack of perceptivity, the third stanza abruptly enlarges perceptual horizons by calling attention to the "cold hexagonal fire / in the insect's eye." This eye, endowed with life, presumably has its own, and different, experience of the world. The insect's eye counters the human eye, and opens up another perspectival range within "Glass." The recognition of alternative, non human ways of seeing unbalances the privileging of human perception and consciousness implicit throughout the poem.

     "Glass" revolves around the problematics of object knowability as that cognition is regulated by perception. Only the sensory can conduct us to an apprehension of the world; what is beneath is only hinted at because the unassisted eye cannot penetrate to the bottom of the sea, nor, for that matter, can it pierce indefinitely into the cosmos. The limits of perception circumscribe the frontiers of understanding. The glass (an eye? a telescope? a microscope? the mind?) through which we glimpse the world permits cognizance, but that glass also divides us from the objects of our scrutiny, and carefully curbs understanding.

     Because perception always occurs at the intersection of one place and one time, perception is always finite. Dewdney often stations his poems within the meshes of time or place: "October", "August", "That Night at Lake Huron", "Byron Bog". "The Drawing Out of Colour" affirms that "the forest translates itself / into each perception generated / by the meeting of heaven and earth" (p. 75). As we know from "Palace of Fear", "We humans are a friction between heaven and earth" (p. 86). Because we are captive in the time-space matrix, each perception generated at that point of friction must also be temporally and spatially determined. A deep unrest between the finitude of perception and a desire to reach the "panavistic surface" (p. 55), as the plateau of all-seeingness is called in Spring Trances, haunts Dewdney's work. "Break a man's neck / and he can see / in all directions" (p. 81), "Opium 4" advises. But this means of attaining perceptual omniscience does not prove attractive or viable. "On Attaining Remote Control" more realistically accepts the limitations inherent in perception: "always the two directions knowing damned well / that everything cannot be monitored" (p. 103). Dewdney reiterates the problem of finite perception and the yearning for panavism in "The Fish Machine":

When a person is in another room, whether that room be across the hail, in the next town, or around the world, you do not know what that person is doing. You may know that person well enough to predict, or even invent, a series of formulated ghost reactions, but the act is outside. It is this precise lack of omniscience, taut in the face of immaculate knowledge, that reduces all desire & the manifold directions of philosophy into one pure and simple religion. (p. 79)

The predicament is a Socratic one. To know that one does not know is the true form of knowledge. One may speculate upon what is not immediately apprehensible, but what occurs beyond the range of apprehension remains purely hypothetical. Although Dewdney does not specify in "The Fish Machine" what is the one pure and simple religion to which all desire and the multiple directions of philosophy are reduced, he does specify that this religion springs from the recognition that perception is inadequate, because it is temporally and spatially bound. The sombre understanding that we lack perceptual omniscience provides a threshold for understand ing. Acknowledgement of ignorance compels the seeking mind forward, in search of "the panavistic surface" where "our voices dissolve" (p. 55).

     Spring Trances and The Cenozoic Asylum seem to evade temporal and spatial boundaries by migrating freely through multiple time layers and numerous locales. The plastic, dreamlike compaction of the prose poems, and their assimilation of heterogeneous details, give them a sense of defying the conditions of time and space. Memory, which houses the record of sensory data, also seems to bypass finite perceptual experience, as it becomes layered and textured with signification through time: "Space solidifies into limestone each time the sum perceptual memory of a life-unit becomes trapped in the sediments" (p. 59). Particularly in A Palaeozoic Geology, the limestone seems animated as these fossils release their memory vapour into the atmosphere, causing the past to erupt into the present. As Dewdney claims in the "Author's Preface" to A Palaeozoic Geology, "THE FOSSIL IS PURE MEMORY." "The rain of sensorium erodes the barriers of past and present, "exposing memory" (p. 138).

     This geological fantasy of the breakdown of past and present disguises a contradictory conception of memory that centers not on the landscape, but on human consciousness. "The physical residues of previous occurrence are the only concrete manifestations of memory" (p. 62), because psychic residues cannot be traced. Perception does not evaporate, but is retrieved and stored in "memory jackets", as Dewdney "demonstrates" in the quasi-scientific essay, "The Memory Table," in Fovea Centralis.26 Wilder Penfield, who seems to have exercised some influence over Dewdney, observes that the brain, when correctly stimulated by electrodes, unleashes a flow of memory. This engram of conscious experience "makes possible voluntary and automatic recall of past experiences, and it includes those things to which the individual paid attention, nothing he ignored. One can only conclude that conscious attention adds something to brain-action that would otherwise leave no record."27 Notwithstanding Penfield's remarks, which after all result from neurosurgical observation rather than everyday circumstances, the mind remembers what it wishes to remember. As Dewdney postulates in "Radio Symmetry," "the held image mutates in memory" (p. 157). That is, what we perceive and what we subsequently think we perceived are two quite different things. "The evidence constantly reassembles itself" (p. 60), according to what we wish to see. We exist then in a constant perceptual present. Memory recuperates the past in the present, but it is only another kind of perception, for memory is how we perceive things to have been.

     An epistemological assumption, which has resonances of Lockean empiricism, underlies much of Dewdney's work, particularly the poems in A Palaeozoic Geology and Fovea Centralis. In Locke's analysis of perceptual experience, "Perception is the first Operation of all our intellectual Faculties, and the inlet of all Knowledge into our Minds. . ."28  Dewdney more tersely and rhetorically poses the same issue in "Fovea Centralis II":

And when
the vision is obscured
what goes past?
The tumblers
when the odds
are even
      you need
two eyes. (p. 32)

The dogmatic empiricist must obstinately question what transpires when vision is obscured. One needs two eyes, even if those eyes are "never quite open enough for the detail" (p. 59), as Dewdney wistfully comments in Spring Trances.

     However, the never sufficiently alert viewer is confronted by another dilemma. According to Locke, a symbiotic relationship develops between perception — primarily visual — and judgment. Habituation of judgment interferes with perception. Immediate and routinized interpretations press upon and condition perceptual response:

This in many cases, by settled habit, in things whereof we have frequent experience, is performed so constantly, and so quick, that we take that for the Perception of our Sensation, which is an Idea formed by our Judgment; so that one, viz. that of Sensation, serves only to excite the other, and is scarce taken notice of it self....29

Dewdney recapitulates this empiricist argument in "Parasite Maintenance": "The instinctual brain, characterized by its tendency towards habituation, passively resists creative human intelligence, which is seized like chaos from the heart of order" (AS, p. 89). Dewdney extends this Lockean argument by linking the tendency towards ritualized thinking to the linguistic Governor, which he describes as an "adamant limit beyond which, even in the loftiest flights of the intellect, it is impossible to conceptualize" (AS, p. 83).

     If understanding diminishes to preformulated judgments and occluded sensory reception, an epistemological problem ensues. The mind com prehends its own imprisonment within the senses and its interpretive frameworks that organize the data of experience. But because the mind acknowledges its own fabrications, the self divides from itself. It is aware of living within illusions that are sustained by habit and language, yet punctures these self-originating and self-authenticating mental fictions. How does one circumvent the senses, which are the primary inlets of knowledge into our minds? How does one evade the fictitious codifications of the world that have been manufactured to make sense of the world? In Alter Sublime, Dewdney focusses on the misapprehension of reality by the five senses, and interrogates the status of predetermined judgments. "Perception is mostly inference" (p. 80), Dewdney states in "Opium 2", and inference is subject-dependent. Dewdney increasingly doubts the validity of making inferences about what one perceives.

     The title poem of Alter Sublime raises these problems through the central metaphor of an optical illusion, the virtual image. The "Glossary" to Predators of the Adoration defines the virtual image as "the perceived location of an object as seen in a mirror or reflection (relative to the observer)" (p. 188). The photographs and accompanying diagram of this phenomenon in Alter Sublime (AS, pp. 13, 69) more adequately illustrate the virtual image as an optical illusion in which an object is distorted by the reflection or refraction of light. An object under water, for example, is a virtual image. In the example that Dewdney gives, the illusion involves a lit and an unlit candle separated by a pane of glass. The virtual image causes the unlit candle behind the pane to appear lit. This visual deception jeopardizes empirical epistemology by attacking it at its most vulnerable point, visual perception. The poem opens with rhythmic and verbal echoes that unmistakably recall Eliot's poem of disillusionment and despair, "The Hollow Men":

           ALTER SUBLIME

Between the shadow
and the reflection between
(between) the shadow
and our eyes
the virtual image
Once opened a crack
and the stars came pouring through

Hovering over the febrile narcissus
of your after-image
the Word surfaces in cruel cisterns.
Our memory seizures expended
in the last ripples of
     the virtual shadow.

As if perspective
cutting along the lines of focus
were progressively less & less adroit
in the articulation of creation.
A bloodless coup
in the military junta of the Vampire. It

It is this miraculous fire
which he has made for himself.
the device of ice-crystals
to inscribe the pools' clear fascination.
Do you know him?
The image falls crashing to his feet
again and again.
Each time a world reduced
to smooth glowing shards.
     (pause, reset)

Divine anaesthesia
correct everlasting.

It is the, it is
like a hole
that runs through everything.
it is altered.
it is broken.
Strange herald,
predator of the adoration,
it is the mind
eating itself. (pp. 149-50)

A misrecognition of reality always occurs in a virtual image; the senses betray actuality. The conspicuously poised verb, "lies", in the first stanza of the poem, amalgamates two meanings of the word: "to be situated", and "to deceive". To realize that the virtual image is an illusion is to cast doubt on the reliability of the senses. Seeing is not believing. The equation between seeing and understanding breaks down. We are doubly aware that what we see (the flame of the candle) is real, yet we also know that this is really an optical illusion (the candle is not lit). If the senses are deceivable, and the senses are the primary inlet of knowledge into the mind, it is possible that knowledge is founded on misinformation. How can anything be known if one disbelieves the senses? Empirical epistemology splits open; "Once opened a crack / and the stars came pouring through." "Alter Sublime" raises the possibility that all knowledge may be constructed on an illusion.

     In the Fourteenth Canto of Don Juan, Byron asks, "Nothing more true than not to trust your senses, / And yet what are your other evidences?"30  A century after Byron, the supplicant in Kafka's "Conversation with the Supplicant" yearns "to catch a glimpse of things as they may have been before they show themselves to me."31  Dewdney collides with the same quandary in "Alter Sublime." To dismiss the senses on the grounds of treachery creates an epistemological vacuum. How does one apprehend anything without the use of one or more of the senses? Paradoxically, one cannot trust the senses, and yet there is no alternative but to trust the senses. Furthermore, if one doubts the senses, then memory, as the receptacle of sensory information, also risks incrimination. The relin quishment of memory similarly causes a mental vacancy for the memory-permeated mind: "Our memory seizures expended / in the last ripples of / the virtual shadow." Because every perceptual act has been shown to be a possible deception — including the visible "proof' that the virtual image is an optical illusion — perspective becomes "less & less adroit / in the articulation of creation." Unable to rely without reservation on the senses, one grows progressively more uncertain about what one sees and what one thinks is seen. Significantly, the term "articulation", which combines the dual meaning of the ability to make perceptual distinctions, and verbal enunciation, figures largely in the Alter Sublime volume.

     The use of the virtual image as a basis for undercutting what the senses dictate, entails an uncompromising examination of habitual, preconceived judgments. These patterns of thought become standardized, stereotypical projections onto the world, "the febrile narcissus! of your after-image," that dictates the way one sees the world. We glimpse only reflections of ourselves in external reality: the "miraculous fire" in stanza four of "Alter Sublime" is self-created, and the "pools' clear fascination" is perhaps nothing more than the narcissistic, wilful reflection of the self in the world. The "Log Entry" that glosses "Alter Sublime" refers to the "handfed illusion" of the world as "Virtually what we had / (had) expected" (p. 181). That is, what we expect to discover in reality is what we will find, the handfed illusions that the mind creates and sustains, the necessary fictions by which we live.

     In the second stanza of "Alter Sublime", the divine Word suspiciously "surfaces in cruel cisterns." "Cisterns" in this case seems a sibling to the metaphor of the mind as a "cavity" in "Glass." The Logos surfacing in these mental cisterns is perhaps nothing more than a self-animated illusion that tantalizingly promises to rescue the errant self by virtue of its supposed externality to the self. "Cruel," the qualifying adjective attached to "cisterns," deflates the potentiality of the Word providentially to guide the mind incarcerated by the senses. The Logos is something of a soporific, a "divine anaesthesia" that momentarily diverts the mind lost in its own labyrinthine structures. The rigorously honest mind that creates and authenticates consolatory fictions ultimately subjects those fictions to self-scrutiny and self-revision. "The image falls crashing to his feet / again and again", but another eventually replaces it. The "divine anaesthesia / correct everlasting" may be everlastingly correct, or it may have to be corrected everlastingly. The ambiguous, abbreviated syntax allows for both alternatives to coexist. The self-mystifying and self-doubting mind, incapable of locating a referent that does not emanate from the mind, wheels homelessly through a series of fictions, seeking what will suffice, and knowing always that the supreme fiction that can incorporate the infinite projections of the mind into itself, is beyond its imagining. As "Alter Sublime" makes explicit, every attempt to negotiate into existence a transcendental signifier, a luminous Word, is already encoded with its own failure, for it is nothing other than the mind enshrining its own self-image. As Wallace Stevens acknowledges, the mind will "speak words that in the ear, / In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat, / Exactly, that which it wants to hear," in the quest for what will suffice. Only "sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly / Containing the mind"32 are adequate, or are adequate until that image of the world again crumbles into smooth glowing shards" as it does in "Alter Sublime."

     "Alter Sublime" pivots between perception and apperception, inves tigating an ontological problem. Even though it selects what it wills to perceive, the mind depends on the senses. If the senses deceive us, as the virtual image leads us to believe, knowledge, meticulously built upon perceptual information, may be nothing more than a fragile web of illusions. Because perceptual consciousness always assumes a point of view, there is no way of eluding the senses even though we disbelieve them: "There can be no highlights if there is no point of view. No reflections, no rainbows. The virtual image is subject dependent" (p. 141). Spring Trances and The Cenozoic Asylum describe a landscape in which there is a "glistening highlight continuous through all living creatures" (p. 57), and single perspectives collapse. However, Alter Sublime repeatedly encounters the complexities of perspectival limitation. "Alter Sublime" explores the terrible realization that consciousness itself may be an intricate fabric of self-mystifications, and the mind an existential abyss: "'I' is an illusion." Unleashed from a secure Logos, the mind endlessly pursues itself through its own mazes, condemned to search among phenomenological fragments for some certainty of itself: "It is the mind/eating itself." As Dewdney asserts in "Opium 2", "THE MIND IS A DEVIOUS PARASITE / feeding specifically on humans" (p. 80).

     The various reflective surfaces present or implied in "Alter Sublime" point to the infinity of distortions which surround the mind: the pools, the glass required for the virtual image, the smooth glowing shards. The reflection of the self in such surfaces portrays a unified, whole image, which nevertheless represents an imaginary other. Jacques Lacan argues that to identify with an external reflection as the true self initiates a radical sense of alienation and distortion, for the self is torn between its intuition of itself as fragmented and incomplete, and its identification with the unified, mirror-image, imaginary self. This imaginary form "situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual alone," Lacan claims.33 The self thereafter develops a narcissistic relation with the illusory, specular self, a "méconnaissance" or misidentification that affects all subsequent trans-subjective relations and one's tenuous grasp of the objective world. We cannot see around the way through ourselves, because we narcissistically project ourselves onto the world. In the privacy of itself, the mind dreams the world. Dewdney's reference to "A bloodless coup / in the military junta of the Vampire" in "Alter Sublime" perhaps admits the fictionality of our constructs, which, nevertheless, we cannot escape. The line recalls the concluding lines of Vampires" from the Fovea Centralis volume, which declare, "You're a joke in the context of your childhood / you'd never get" (p. 83). Vampires, according to legend and Hollywood films, have no mirror image. The coup then is directed against an unimaginably ideal world where the world is known before it is distorted by the senses, and where the world does not mirror the self.

     The prose vignettes that sequentially follow "Alter Sublime", dramatize the separation of self from self because of optical or aural illusions:

It is a warm spring night. A new moon is just setting above the glow of the sunset. You are walking home on a path through the woods. The leaves have just begun to open. You hear an owl hooting in a clear tiny voice that seems to emanate from within your head. You look up to see the owl. It is sitting on a long slender branch directly over the path. The owl is not a real owl but the caricature of an owl like a cartoon. It disappears. You are on your knees in the path sobbing and laughing. When it disappeared you lost your soul momentarily. (p. 151)

The distinction between what exists outside of the self and what emanates "from within your head" breaks down. It is not entirely certain from the dreamlike context of the passage whether the owl exists, or whether the mind has only imagined the owl and its disturbing disappearance. The line between what one sees and what one believes is seen, disintegrates. Not only the senses, but also the mind, captive in its dreams of the world, distorts reality.

     Another of the prose passages in the "Alter Sublime" sequence duplicates material that also circulates through Spring Trances and "Alter Sublime":

You are staring through a mirror at the human trapped in the room behind the mirror. In the second you failed to recognize your own reflection you separated. The human in the other room crouches & begins to approach your opening, eyes wide with fear. You are only dimly aware of your own irresistible motion towards the opening. The mirror is no longer silvered. The thickness coalesces into a binary scream, both of you screaming sound bending the room as your foreheads plunge through each other's symmetry. The room breaking into flashing white fragments. The world reduced to smooth glowing shards. (p. 153)

The separation attendant upon the failure to recognize the self reflected in the mirror resembles the momentary loss of "your" soul when the owl suddenly vanishes in the earlier episode. The mutually fearful approach and the shattering of the room into flashing white shards, launches the anonymous "you'' into an alien realm that does not mirror what the mind wishes to discover. The desilvered mirror disallows the distortions of self-reflection. Significantly, in the Spring Trances version of this looking-glass incident, "the room breaks into flashing white shards of inter-stellar nothingness" (p. 69). "Interstellar nothingness", the vacancy that lurks behind the self-reflexive image of the room, is conspicuously deleted in Alter Sublime. This perhaps signals that the shattering of the mirror into "smooth glowing shards" does not induct "you" into existential nothingness, but a territory beyond self-perpetuated stylizations of the world, beyond the narrow confines of perceptual consciousness.

     The "Alter Sublime" sequence may intuit the remote possibility of an "immaculate perception", in which music would be "stripped pure of association" (p. 144), but it does not enter it. Subsequent poems in Alter Sublime do not define this potentiality either, but confirm the hall of mirrors which we mundanely inhabit. "Poem using lines spoken by Suzanne", for example, circles hypnotically around several key words that circumscribe "your" oneiric state.


What you feel as your body
is only a dream. The mind also
is a slave. You are asleep.
You are asleep, what you feel
as your mind is only a dream. The
dream also, is only a slave.
You are a dream, what you feel
as your slave is only a mind.
The body is also a mind. You
are asleep
in the gentle theft of time. (time) (p. 156)

Like a mathematical formula, the poem equalizes body, mind, dream and slave, and makes them all the property of "you", which insidiously incorporates the reader into the poem. Although a Cartesian dualism is drawn between body and mind, the body does not entirely subjugate the mind, nor does the mind triumph over the body. The mind is a slave to the body; the body is a slave to the mind. By deregulating the Cartesian hierarchy of mind's superiority to body, Dewdney situates "you" within an ontological double bind. The mind / body knows that it dreams its world through its arbitrary (mis)interpretations and judgmental impressions that attempt to stabilize the fluctuant, random world. This knowledge, however, does not release "you" from your dream, for this understanding too is a dream, a safeguarding interpretation that vainly seeks to make sense of the world. Nietzsche describes this as the dream of knowledge, and relates it to himself with a certain poignancy: "I suddenly woke up in the midst of this dream, but only to the consciousness that I am dreaming and that I must go on dreaming lest I perish —. . . . Among all these dreamers, I, too, who 'know', am dancing my dance."34 We knowingly forget that we dream in order to sustain our illusory systemizations of the world. We remain "asleep / in the gentle theft of time," by simply agreeing to dream the dream of knowledge. Refiguring the cliché, "this time the joke is on you", Dewdney succinctly sums up this Nietzschean predicament in "Radio Symmetry": "These time the dream / is on you" (p. 157).

     "Byron Bog" pursues the implications of the double-edged awareness that we dream and are conscious of our dreaming. "A man wishes to be / what he means to himself", the poem announces, suggesting that a man is not now what he means to himself. Moreover, exactly what he means to himself is perhaps not determinable. Desire to be can therefore never coincide with self-image because that pure image is merely hypothetical. The "I" of"Byron Bog" declares that "I lived a lie until it became the truth" (AS, p. 25). The statement recognizes both the falsity and truth of the lie; the self stations itself in the chasm between its fictionality and the consciousness of the momentary rightness of that fiction. "Brain Pan" claims that "Time makes us liars" (p. 162), which acknowledges that temporary truths cannot survive indefinitely, because they adequately encompass the mind only for the particular time and place in which they occur. There is however an interpenetration of truth and lie, for the lie in "Byron Bog" becomes a truth. The poem persistently dwells on such equivocal meta-levels:

I thought I was trying
to prove something.
I thought you said
you were thinking
to spite yourself. (AS, p. 25)

Thinking about thinking removes itself from thought in order to contemplate the act of thinking. A certain element of doubt intrudes in the metaphysical gap between "I was trying" and "I thought I was trying". Was "I" trying to prove something, or was the act merely considered? "I thought" destabilizes the certainty of the event, for the past tense temporally displaces the "I" who now speaks from the "I" who was trying to prove something. The two selves do not coalesce; the "I" is irremediably fissured, and cannot guarantee that any particular "I" is more authentic than any other. The poem unravels itself, decreating the idea that there is a single, unequivocal stance from which the "I" articulates itself. The self is not unified, but fragmented and dispersed among the multiple contexts from which it speaks.

     "Byron Bog" announces, "What you see is / what you get" (AS, p. 25), which may seem like a retreat to the kind of Lockean empiricism that marks Dewdney's early work. The cliché, in the context of Alter Sublime, perhaps circles back to the perceptual epistemology of A Palaeozoic Geology and Fovea Centralis, but with an advance in understanding of what it means to "get" what one sees. One can no longer make a leap of faith from seeing to knowing, because seeing is a méconnaissance, a misidentification in which the illusory self grafts its imaginings onto the world. Unless it is read ironically, the cliché, with its assurance of empirical stability, seems untenably platitudinous. One should also note that "Byron Bog" speaks primarily from the position of the unimaginable "I". The poem divides dialectically into "I" and "you". You get what you see, but the "I," knowing that such epistemological commonplaces are untrustworthy, undermines that stance.

     The arc of Dewdney's oeuvre passes from an investigation of perceptual consciousness and memory, to a skeptical disenchantment with perception as a means of knowing. The poetry then is a form of epistemological and philosophical speculation; Dewdney himself characterizes his forthcoming work as "biological philosophy."35  In Alter Sublime, this speculation extends to the illusion of consciousness. The mind bifurcates, knowing that the senses are prone to deception, and also knowing that only the senses articulate the world to consciousness. Faith in sensory perception dissolves as the self realizes that judgment and interpretation are concomitant with sensation, that the world exists only within the narrow conceptual boxes through which we glimpse it. Nietzsche claims that "the greatest danger that always hovered over humanity and still hovers over it is the eruption of madness — which means the eruption of arbitrariness in feeling, seeing, and hearing, the enjoyment of the mind's lack of discipline, the joy in human unreason. Not truth and certainty are the opposite of the world of the madman, but the universality and the universal binding force of a faith; in sum, the nonarbitrary character of judgments."36  The mind that cannot abandon the binding force of a faith retires into itself where it nurtures its dream of the world, and sustains the illusions out of which the self is constructed. Dewdney tries to loosen the clenched grip of our restrictive beliefs by admitting randomness into his poetry, and by suggesting that such beliefs are, in fact, arbitrary, even though they have hardened into dogma. The mind can remain incarcerated within its dreams, or it can relax and revel in its own unreason. The self that is aware of its own illusions agrees to dream the dream of knowledge; it makes and unmakes itself in response to the world. Pater also knows that philosophical categorizations are only dreams, and turns again to the world of the senses, in which the dream of knowledge and the dream of self begin: "It is with this movement, with the passage and dissolution of impressions, images, sensations, that analysis leaves off — that strange, perpetual, weaving and unweaving of ourselves."37


  1. Walter Pater, The Renaissance, ed. Donald L. Hill (1893; rpt. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 1980), p. 187. [back]

  2. Pater, p 188[back]

  3. Stan Dragland, "Afterword", in Predators of the Adoration (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1983), p. 202.[back]

  4. Christopher Dewdney, "Author's Preface", in A Palaeozoic Geology of London, Ontario (Toronto: Coach House, 1973), n.p.[back]

  5. See "A Conversation with Christopher Dewdney", in Public Works (London: University of Western Ontario, 1985), p. 53. Dewdney states that "Palaeozoic Geology was about memory and consciousness, and Fovea Centralis was about consciousness and secret societies." Alter Sublime deals "with consciousness and the evolution of consciousness in terms of singularity — the illusion of consciousness, per se." It should be noted that Dewdney himself perceives a transition between A Palaeozoic Geology and Alter Sublime in his treatment of consciousness, from a combination of consciousness and memory to a consideration of individual consciousness and its illusoriness.[back]

  6. Robert Kroetsch, "For Play and Entrance: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem", in Open Letter, 5th Series, no. 4 (Spring 1983), p. 101.[back]

  7. Dragland, p. 191.[back]

  8. Christopher Dewdney, Predators of the Adoration, p. 146. All subsequent quotations from Dewdney's poetry will refer to this edition.[back]

  9. Paul Smith, review of Alter Sublime, in Dalhousie Review, vol. 61 (Winter 1982-83), p. 761.[back]

  10. Steve McCaffery, "Strata and Strategy: Pataphysics in the Poetry of Christopher Dewdney", in Open Letter, 3rd Series, no. 4 (Winter 1976), p. 46.[back]

  11. McCaffery, p. 56.[back]

  12. McCaffery, p. 54.[back]

  13. Keith Garebian, "Dewdney's Science", in Canadian Forum, vol. 64 (June/July 1984), p. 32.[back]

  14. Garebian, p. 33.[back]

  15. Garebian, p. 33.[back]

  16. Robert Lecker, "Of Parasites and Governors: Christopher Dewdney's Poetry", in Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 20, no. 1 (June 1985), P. 139.[back]

  17. Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), pp. 47, 70-71.[back]

  18. Dragland, pp. 192, 191.[back]

  19. Dragland, p. 205.[back]

  20. Robert Kroetsch, Advice to My Friends (Toronto: Stoddart, 1985), p. 58.[back]

  21. Dragland, pp. 190, 199.[back]

  22. Christopher Dewdney, Alter Sublime (Toronto: Coach House, 1980), p. 76. All subsequent quotations from "Parasite Maintenance" and "Byron Bog" will refer to this edition, and will be specified in the text.[back]

  23. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Cohn Smith (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962), p. 69.[back]

  24. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, ed. James M. Edie (Chicago: Northwestern University, 1964), p. 15.[back]

  25. See Wilder Penfield, The Mystery of the Mind (Princeton: Princeton University, 1975), p. 80. Penfield hypothesizes that the brain and the mind are two interdependent independent things. The mind cannot be explained only by neuronal action within the brain. Therefore the two are separable. Dewdney takes this a step further by asserting that the clinical study of the brain, using electro-chemical "chemitrode" stimulation, invented by Dr. Delgado, makes the brain a mere object of knowledge, another function of consciousness: "Before remora chemitrodes (calling Dr. Delgado) consciousness was a function of the brain, now the brain (calling Dr. Delgado) is a function of consciousness (p. 155). That is, the exact constitution of consciousness still eludes scientific knowledge, even though the brain can be studied clinically and objectively.[back]

  26. Christopher Dewdney, Fovea Centralis (Toronto: Coach House, 1975), pp. 67-76. The essay is not reprinted in Predators of the Adoration. [back]

  27. Penfield, p. 74. Dewdney is familar enough with Penfield's work, The Mystery of the Mind, to quote from it in "Parasite Maintenance" (AS, p. 84).[back]

  28. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch (1689; rpt. Oxford: Oxford University, 1975), p. 149.[back]

  29. Locke, p. 146.[back]

  30. Lord Byron, Don Juan, ed. T. G. Steffan, E. Steffan and W. W. Pratt (New Haven and London: Yale University, 1973), p. 471.[back]

  31. Franz Kafka, "Conversation with the Supplicant", in The Penal Colony, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (New York: Schocken, 1961), p. 14.[back]

  32. Wallace Stevens, "Of Modern Poetry", in The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage, 1954), p. 240.[back]

  33. Jacques Lacan, "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I", in Ecrits: a Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 2. Lacanian theory fortuitously elucidates Dewdney's poetry, particularly on the subject of the inextricable entwinement of consciousness and language. According to Lacan, the mirror stage, a psychic event in infant development, establishes an "Ideal-I" which is nevertheless imaginary. The later acquisition of language initiates a psychic self that is linguistically constituted, yet irreparably disjoined from the unified self, the imaginary Ideal-I, which it seeks to signify. The asseveration of signifier and signified has often been noted in Dewdney's poetry, but has not been related to the poetry's recurrent preoccupations with consciousness, memory, and perception.[back]

  34. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (1887; rpt. New York: Random House, 1974), p. 116.[back]

  35. "A Conversation with Christopher Dewdney", p. 54.[back]

  36. Nietzsche, p. 130.[back]

  37. Pater, p. 188.[back]

    Note: Dewdney's most recent volume, The Immaculate Perception (Toronto: Anansi, 1986), appeared too recently to be considered here, though it, too, seems to concern itself with problems of perception and consciousness.