Poetic Voice and Materiality / Material Evidence for Poetic Crimes of the Future / Zoe Bursztajn-Illingworth

A still from David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future (2022).

Reading Poetry as Autopsy

David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future (2022), a sci-fi body horror film where a mother smothers her child within the first five minutes, may seem an odd place to look for new perspectives on lyric reading and poetic materiality. But, as Seo-Young Chu argues in her research on science fiction and mimesis, sci-fi often literalizes lyric figures; for instance, apostrophe, the poetic calling into presence of an absent person, becomes literalized in science fiction as telepathy while the animation of non-living objects literalizes personification.1 While Chu constructs a broader theory of science fiction and mimesis, this essay builds on her insights to consider how one specific science-fictional literalization provides a new vantage point for thinking through poetic materiality. In Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, the interpretive practice of close reading finds an unexpected literalization that underscores the materiality of reading poetry: the public autopsy of a mutant child.

In the film’s dystopian future where humans have begun to grow unexplainable new organs, two performance artists Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux) try out an edgy new piece; it is the autopsy of a murdered boy whose bereaved father has given his son’s body to the artists, hoping to reveal the newly evolved organs inside of him. The boy’s organs have evolved into a digestive system that consumes plastic. Like the dead boy, the artist Saul Tenser also grows mutant organs in his body, all of which his partner Caprice inscribes with a tattoo that outlines their shapes, documents in a notebook of drawings, and removes from his body in front of an eager audience. In a world where growing mutant organs and removing them is an art, a plastic-based digestive system constitutes the intersection of art and technology; or, it is a de-evolution of humanity reaping the consequences of its environmental destruction. But before Caprice performs the boy’s autopsy, she performs something recognizable to any humanities scholar, but especially to those studying poetry: a close reading that focuses on diction and etymology.

As part of her performance and the close reading of so many poems, Caprice offers an etymology. It is an etymology of the word “autopsy,” discussing its origins as the Latin autopsia, an “act of seeing with one’s own eyes” and suggesting that the filmed autopsy will allow the audience to see the effects of pollution as it seeped into the child’s body, altering his genetic code.2 While the investigation of word choice and etymology is a typical feature of close reading any text, Caprice explicitly describes her autopsia as one that figures the child’s corpse as a poem and herself as a professor of literature. “Let us like professors of literature search for the meaning that lies locked in the poem,” Caprice says, before her machine begins its mechanized incision into the cadaver.3 Thus, Caprice, a former trauma surgeon turned performance artist, literalizes the figure of a “professor of literature” leading students through close reading a poem.

The investigation of a text’s diction through etymology is such an ingrained part of the practice of reading poetry in classrooms that Stanley Fish’s formative essay in reader response theory, “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One,” begins with his students interpreting a list of names on a chalkboard as a poem by “concentrat[ing] on individual words” and their roots in Hebrew.4 But, like the best close readings by “professors of literature,” this one yields a surprise. The child’s mutant plastic digestive system has been replaced by normal organs, bearing the mark of a government cover-up: bad, clichéd tattoos. Taken all together, the sequence literalizes an etymological connection of its own; the child’s corpse becomes one poem in the performance artists’ larger corpus, “a body or collection of writings or the like,” but exceeds the artists’ own sense of the art object’s meaning.5

In this sequence, Crimes of the Future literalizes a key problem in the study of poetry and poetics, namely: is poetry a set of special formal features or a reading practice? Recent scholars in lyric studies have sought to answer this question by describing features typical of lyric poetry as Jonathan Culler does in his taxonomic Theory of the Lyric, or by suggesting that our notions of the lyric are a historically conditioned set of reading practices as Virginia Jackson argues in Dickinson’s Misery. Diana Fuss’s work on the consolation elegy has even metaphorized poetry itself as corpse; be it a zombified one: “[T]he speaking corpse operates as a figure for poetry itself, a dead voice that refuses to remain silent, a spectral genre that continues to speak and walk abroad.”6 But Crimes of the Future offers its own theory of the lyric when it literalizes the study of the lyric poem as a corpse undergoing autopsy: a poem is a textual body bearing meaning through the word that performance and the act of looking closely with one’s own eyes, especially at the materiality of language, renders available to an audience.

There is a dark irony in describing the corpse of a dead child as “a poem,” as well as considering the act of analyzing poetry in the classroom to be an autopsy. But this irony speaks to a new path forward for poetic reading. The language that describes the act, using a machine to cut open a corpse, is far from the act itself and what we find inside of the dead child is far from an enigmatic “meaning locked inside of a poem.” Instead, it is a morbid joke. Rather than a digestive system evolved to consume plastic, the audience finds typical human organs with clichéd tattoos, in this case, with the iconic and ironic word, “Mother”: ironically the child’s killer. If the child’s corpse becomes a poem through autopsy, “the act of looking closely with one’s own eyes,” it is telling that this discovery is a linguistic joke based on the divergence between signifier, the word “Mother”—and signified—the life-sustaining organs of a child killed by his mother.

Craig Dworkin’s recent work on poetic materiality offers a method of reading in line with my analysis of the literalization of poetic reading in Crimes of the Future. His goal stems from “a literalist insistence on material, but proceeds to understand the vitreous surface of the sign as the point at which prospect and screen interact, as opaque material becomes itself fully a part of the view.”7 In Crimes of the Future, the materiality of the human body and the language used to describe it literalize the act of reading poetry in the classroom, insisting on materiality as crucial to embodied and poetic knowledge. Unsurprisingly, Dworkin’s method often works at the level of the word. He emphasizes typography and proper names as sites where surprising new meanings may be found.8 Like Caprice’s close-reading as performance that traces the autopsy to its linguistic origin in autopsia, Dworkin’s readings operate through a material poetics, understanding the skin of a poem (its visual form, typography, naming, and diction) as an important hermeneutic organ.

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Reading Autopsy as Poetry

Outside of Crimes of the Future’s dystopia, in the real (sometimes dystopian) world of contemporary poetry, ethical problems of representation and consent arise from the literalization of autopsy as a figure for poetic reading.9 I believe the poetry performance described below to be a disturbing chiasmus of the science-fictional literalization discussed in Crimes of the Future: it reverses reading poetry as autopsy into reading autopsy as poetry. On March 13, 2015 at Brown University, the self-proclaimed “most boring writer to have ever lived,” white conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith, performed an autopsy report as poetry: Michael Brown’s autopsy, the autopsy of a Black eighteen-year old murdered by a white cop while Brown fled for his life in Ferguson, Missouri.10 Nine days before Goldsmith’s performance, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that the cop who shot Brown six times and left his body in the street for hours had been acquitted in their investigation into the shooting. Goldsmith’s performance took place in front of a projected photo of Brown from his high school convocation, an image of Brown frequently circulated on social media to commemorate Brown’s life as the poet dissected the material body of the real, deceased person with a family and loved ones that the photograph behind him indexes.11

As part of Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” practice, the poet removed much of the autopsy’s specialized medical language and re-organized the report to conclude with Michael Brown’s genitals.12 Goldsmith’s decisions demonstrate a willful obliviousness to linguistic and historical materiality. As Amy King states, “It is difficult not to associate this final note with the brutality also focused on the genitalia of black men during lynching.”13 While a poet and physician, who has performed autopsies like Brown’s, Ilya Szilak suggests that: “[Goldsmith] was unable to seamlessly appropriate the medical vernacular. This is not surprising. The language of medicine is difficult. It arose to exclude those bodies not privileged to learn it.”14 Goldsmith’s performance “cuts-up” Brown’s autopsy report, feigning ignorance of the white supremacist materiality and the dominant structures it reinforces.

However, responses to Goldsmith’s performance frequently employ the language of embodiment as a tool to criticize the structures facilitating Goldsmith’s decision to poeticize Brown’s autopsy report. Many of these responses call for a renewed attention to structures of privilege in American poetry and society, which are embedded in poetic reading. Collestipher Chatto calls for us to “[s]lice the body, bloom its innards, and dig deep to uncover the ailments and inflictions so the clues will lead to discussions about what can we do as a society to be more egalitarian and compassionate to one another;” while Layli Long Soldier describes Goldsmith’s act in the language of oil extraction and colonial settlement, connecting the human body to the earth’s “gut:” “I’m saying, Dear American Poet, who ‘massages’ ‘dry [BROWN] texts’ into ‘literature,’ I see you, know you already. Your name, a drill in the gut: Invader.”15 Uncannily resonant with the murdered, mutant boy’s autopsy as performance art in Crimes of the Future, the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo contends: “Goldsmith made explicit a slippage that we (and others) have been bemoaning for years: The Murdered Body of Mike Brown’s Medical Report is not our poetry, it’s the building blocks of white supremacy, a miscreant DNA infecting everyone in the world. We refuse to let it be made ‘literary.’”16

Likewise, in Crimes of the Future, Caprice’s shocking performance is revealed to be an act that perpetuates dominant social structures. We find out that the boy’s mutant organs have been replaced with typical organs and given clichéd tattoos, like “Mother,” because the “artist” is in league with a corrupt government intent on hiding the reality of humanity’s mutation into a species feeding off its own toxicity. In the film’s science-fictional universe this life-sustaining toxicity is the plastic we have produced during the Anthropocene which now literally sustains human life as we’ve evolved organs to consume it. In the world that Crimes literalizes, the film’s dystopia echoes the ersatz edginess of the avant-garde sanctioned by institutions it pretends to critique. For a poet like Goldsmith feigning ignorance of linguistic materiality’s consequences and necessary ethics, the autopsy as poetry reading simply reinforces dominant social structures like white supremacy.

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Future Cinematic Methods for Poetic Reading

This essay takes seriously (and literally) what might seem a throw-away reference to poetic reading in Cronenberg’s most recent body-horror film and uses it to reflect on the ethics of this mode of poetry reading as autopsy and reading autopsy as poetry. Prevailing critical narratives of the relationship between poetry and cinema often cast their relation as one in which cinema uses poetry to “secure credibility.”17 But I would like to gesture towards a provocative path for critical engagement with poetry-savvy films, one which allows us to understand how these films present us with new modes of theorizing poetry. In doing so, I suggest that what might appear as pretension or the use of poetry for cultural capital, in fact, allows cinema to be a place where we may find new theoretical standpoints and reading strategies for poetry’s “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”18

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This is part of the cluster Poetic Voice and Materiality. Read the other posts here. 

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  1. Seo-Young Chu, Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science Fictional Theory of Representation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 11.  
  2. “autopsy, n.” OED Online. March 2023. Oxford University Press.
  3. Anthony Lane, ““Crimes of the Future” Could be Called “Themes of the Past,”” The New Yorker, June 13, 2022.
  4. Stanley Fish, “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One,” Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretative Communities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), 322.
  5. “corpus, n.”. OED Online. March 2023. Oxford University Press.
  6. Diana Fuss, Dying Modern: A Meditation on the Elegy (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 77.
  7. Craig Dworkin, Radium of the Word: Poetics of Materiality, (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2020) 9.
  8. Dworkin, 4.
  9. Fuss, 44.
  10. Alec Wilkinson, “Something Borrowed: Kenneth Goldsmith’s poetry elevates copying to an art, but did he go too far?” The New Yorker, September 28, 2015.
  11. It is an image that I both remember seeing frequently and the first image that comes with a search of the #michaelbrown on Twitter in a tweet from the nonprofit National Urban League to commemorate what would have been Brown’s twenty-seventh birthday, May 20th, 2023. The tweet states: “Today would’ve been #MichaelBrown’s 27th birthday if he hadn’t been killed by #Ferguson police almost nine years ago. We affirm the dignity of his life & honor the memory of what he meant to his loved ones. #BlackLivesMatter.”
  12. Rin Johnson, “On Hearing a White Man Co-Opt the Body of Michael Brown,” Hyperallergic. March 20, 2015. Artist Rin Johnson offers a firsthand account of the reading that includes these details: “Goldsmith turns to Brown’s legs, thighs, and eventually his genitalia. The whole description feels sexual. Goldsmith’s voice rises slightly in pitch as he reaches the climax of his 30-minute poem”: “All surrounding genitalia is unremarkable.”
  13. Amy King, “Why are People so Invested in Kenneth Goldsmith? Or, is Colonialist Poetry Easy?” VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. March 18, 2015.
  14. Ilya Szilak, “The Body of Michael Brown—a Response to Kenneth Goldsmith,” HuffPost: The Blog, March 18, 2015.
  15. CA Conrad, “Kenneth Goldsmith Says He Is an Outlaw,” The Poetry Foundation: Harriet Books, June 1, 2015.
  16. Since the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo’s website has been mostly dismantled, I rely on Wilkinson’s article in The New Yorker and King’s article in VIDA for this quotation, both of which are cited above.
  17. Mike Chasar, Poetry Unbound: Poems and New Media from the Magic Lantern to Instagram, (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2020) 9.
  18. Marianne Moore, “Poetry,” Others for 1919: An Anthology of the New Verse, edited by Alfred Kreymborg, (New York, NY: Nicholas L. Brown, 1920)