On Failure, Recent

Rip the Wires Out

by Adam Dickinson

This essay is part of the series On Failure.

Photo credit: Thermal camera image by Gary J. Hodges.

As I was inserting my rectal thermometer, it occurred to me to wonder whether the rigors of touring in a world-famous rock and roll band made a drummer more or less sensitive to heat. Neil Peart of Rush had just died, and I was reading about his virtuosic commitment to the development and performance of a career-culminating drum solo. Failure was intrinsic to his creative method, honing and inhabiting polyrhythms and counter rhythms, seeking “unexpected nuance” in conversing patterns.[mfn]Neil Peart, “Neil Peart: my drum solo was a lifetime’s achievement,” Louder, 11 January 2020, https://www.loudersound.com/features/neil-peart-marching-to-the-beat-of-a-different-drum[/mfn] At the time, I was preparing myself for an experiment in heat stress. I had devised a plan that involved raising my internal body temperature in a laboratory. I wanted to find a way to write with and about heat in a warming world. What forms of writing might emerge when heat and its effects are invited into the compositional process? Despite my intellectual excitement, I was having doubts about the whole thing. How was I going to turn this into poetry? How was I going to survive the self-scrutiny?

This is familiar territory for me. A few years ago, I researched and wrote a book of poetry called Anatomic that responded to chemical and microbial tests on my body. Over a period of several years, I worked with laboratories and scientists in the United States and Canada to measure levels of various pollutants in my blood and urine, including pesticides, heavy metals, flame retardants, PCBs, and phthalates. I also sequenced my microbiome through stool samples and swabbed parts of my body to measure the abundance of microbes living on and in me. How did these chemicals and microbes get into me? How are they biologically active? Anatomic explores their stories in the context of industrial, political, cultural, and evolutionary history. In so many ways, I am the last person who should have undertaken this kind of work. I’ve always been a bit of a germaphobe with hypochondriacal tendencies. The intense self-scrutiny caused me to experience serious anxiety and obsessive behaviors. I lost a lot of weight. I stressed over the results of my testing. I became a father over the course of writing the book, which added to my fears, as I worried about my kids’ future. In addition to all the anxiety about my health, one of the most difficult questions I faced in writing this book was the question of form. What shape should I give to all this data? I had a lot of information to potentially convey; how do I do this in a manner that preserves the surprise, ambiguity, and melodic intrigue of poetry?

I won’t go into the details here, but decisions were made, paths were taken that foreclosed other possibilities, other futures for the book. (You can read about some of these decisions in this Jacket2 commentary). My feelings vacillated wildly between excitement about the result and feeling that I’d made a huge mistake, that I should have chosen a different formal direction. I know artists feel this way all the time about their work, but it’s always distressing and startling when it happens. My recent work on heat, while exciting to me, has only amplified my anxieties about how to integrate or translate data into poetry. It has also forced me once again to focus with uncomfortable intimacy on my own body.

Like Neil Peart, however, I have tried to think of failure and discomfort as a necessary part of my process. As Jack Halberstam notes in The Queer Art of Failure, “failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.”[mfn]Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), 2-3.[/mfn] Indeed, as an artist working with science, I take scientific methods seriously, but I am also intentionally failing at many of science’s systematic requirements and procedures in order to rebuild the information I discover into art. You could argue that science itself depends on failure, on the constant refining of theories and techniques through the discovery of error. However, “scientific” thinking is often associated with authorized and disciplined forms of knowledge. In many ways, my interest in science is an attempt to carve out a place of anarchic play in which I might involve the data and procedures of science, but direct them to practices and outcomes that shift signifying frames and scales in order to ask otherwise marginalized or unexpected questions. As precedents in this kind of endeavor, I look to the example of the situationists or to the practitioners of pataphysics and their détourned scientific procedures and imaginary solutions.

As my writing has continued to engage with science and laboratory experiments, I have become increasingly interested in making legible the ways in which the global metabolism of energy and capital has altered or “written” the local metabolism of human and nonhuman bodies. Industrialized food production, for example, has shifted our gut microbial communities and petrochemical pollution has interfered with our hormones. My recent focus on heat is one example of this work in what I call “metabolic poetics” (see my essay in Jacket2 for more information). I’ve designed laboratory and writing experiments that involve the thermoregulatory capacities of cockroaches (a species whose global distribution is tied to travel, trade, the history of slavery and colonialism) and, more recently, I’ve worked with heat stress on my own body. Through active and passive heating, I raised my internal body temperature by around 1.5℃. The active heating involved vigorous exercise on a stationary bicycle in controlled conditions of 35˚C with 65% humidity, which equals a humidex of 50˚C (122˚F). The passive heating required me to sit still for many hours wearing a specialized hot-water-piped garment that resulted in prolonged exposure to the critical wet-bulb temperature of 35℃, the point at which the human body can no longer cool itself by sweating—an increasingly frequent meteorological reality due to climate change. During all these trials, I wrote, took cognitive tests, and made regular measurements of my core temperature, skin temperature, blood pressure, CO2 uptake, and brain blood flow among other data. The goal was and is to generate forms of writing that engage with and respond to temperature extremes in a changing world. By the end of these heat trials, my discomfort was mind-melting. I felt incredibly anxious. I wanted to rip the wires out, throw the blankets off and stop the experiment. Is there something generative in this discomfort?

Below, I share one of the poems that has emerged from this laboratory work. The more I reflect on my experiences of hyperthermia, the more I think of fevers, bad dreams, and addled thinking. Global warming has already given rise to conspiracy theories and desperate, pressurized thinking as vulnerable populations themselves have become desperate and pressurized. This poem is part of an ongoing, sometimes failing attempt to reimagine the data from my experiments and the circumstances that produced the data.

Thanks to Dr. Stephen Cheung, Phillip Wallace, and Scott Steele for assistance with testing and analysis at the Environmental Ergonomics Laboratory at Brock University.


38.6℃ Internal temperature, 117 heartbeats per minute, Oxygen Consumption (Litres per minute) 0.29

Cognitive test: Do not turn the page until asked to do so. Describe as many details as you can from memory; Working Memory Overall Reaction Time (ms) 743.7

It’s late
in the experiment
the half-life
of a flushed
face brailed
with illicit
desires to be devoured
by an art school
of muscle relaxants
my daughter
wakes me
with her fear
of the dark
and the dark
as it kindles
the morning
and its keyholed
bird calls
the back doors
of dreams
in which dogs
tear her parents
limb from limb
she’s scared
of the brain-stemmed
on the street
where the glare
from windshields
provides cover
for the organ-
heavy flowers
that grow straight
up from their beds
through gallbladders
and lungs
to peer
from the eyes
of pedestrians
with deciduous
I tell her nightmares
are an immune
response the body
giving itself a needle
so that when
the real
thing comes
you will know
what to do
and the sweat
on my face
is a fogged lens

Adam Dickinson is the author of four books of poetry. His latest book, Anatomic (Coach House Books), which won the Alanna Bondar Memorial Book Prize from the Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada, involves the results of chemical and microbial testing on his body. His work has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, the Trillium Book Award for Poetry, and the Raymond Souster Award. He was also a finalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Poetry Prize and the K.M. Hunter Artist Award in Literature. He teaches Creative Writing at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada.