Ascension Theory, Christopher Bolin’s debut collection, is a negotiation between the poetics of knowing and unknowing. His sparse and often austere poems scrutinize the human drive to measure the world, to circumscribe both natural and divine mystery in order to neutralize them. Ascension Theory asks if anything can be understood at all, and if, in fact, a human-scaled calculation of the world might just narrow the kind of knowledge it sets out to acquire. “Salvage-weather,” for example, charts the process of calibration that reduces rather than illuminates:
Everyone assigns the bird, above
to cause or effect. They choose a
chart discoveries, in relation to him.
As in prehistoric or monotheistic origin stories, modern science assembles narratives to explain puzzling phenomena, and as often as not, these narratives are subject to the same inherent inaccuracies: assigning “cause or effect,” even “in relation” to a single bird, contains echoes of the origin of the universe, which of course remains unknowable. The fact that the scientist here is a reluctant muse, skeptical of poetic answers to measurable events, might lead one to assume that Bolin would champion poetry’s ability to approach the seemingly unknowable, to access the parts of existence closed to science. And yet, each poem finds that even language itself is merely an index of that same failure to get at the heart of things; it is always an approximation. Anything we discover, whether in mathematics or science or art, has the potential for revision and even retraction; even the accumulation of knowledge, as in “Squall,” is shaded with apprehension: “what will we know tomorrow?”
The awareness of language’s inability to apprehend the world is the subject of a number of Bolin’s poems. In “Rising,” Bolin weaves a contemporary examination of not only traditional tropes, but the use of those tropes throughout the history of poetry:
from the old
All human experience is automatically “stylized,” reaching all the way back to the initial biblical interpretation of the birth of existence as a “Word.” Bolin’s lineation enacts the fragmentation of experience—and language—that was the real punishment for acquiring knowledge. Unexpectedly, accepting the impossibility of direct experience “releases” the poem from the desire to cohere, which allows poetic language to approach unknowing.
Fittingly for a poet whose main concern is the limit of human knowledge, some of the book’s strongest poems, such as “Updraft,” “Stained Glass,” “Icelandic Summer,” and “The Continuation of Earth through Light,” suggest that all scientific theories and technologies have already, at their core, surrendered to the unknowing that Bolin finds in the Christian god. Similarly, the title poem “Ascension Theory” illustrates the human impulse to know the divine, rather than to dwell in its inherent uncertainty:
smuggled onto unmanned crafts, moves away from our corrections:
so that banking, in any direction,
or veils the face of God
His moving parts in cloth.
“Dress[ing] nothingness” in poetry is, perhaps, the closest one might come to proving the divine negative, to apprehending not the thing (or no-thing) itself, but the outline of it. Ironically, on those occasions when science does, in fact, dwell in uncertainty—it has even made a Principle of it—poetry steps in to reconcile speed and position, to “drape” and thus (paradoxically) fix the “moving parts” of the mysterious. At its height, this kind of language temporarily connects us to the kind of grace from which we have been divided. Take, for example, the simple magic of “Economy”: “And a word for chimes / needed not exist.” For an immeasurably short moment (a moment already, here, in the past), poetry’s “draping” is the thing it drapes; the face of God is visible because of its veil. In the long run, though, the effort is doomed to fail, to “move away from our corrections” made in an already fallen language.
At times, Bolin’s focus on language comes at the expense of fresh images and surprising constructions. There are still ways to use birds, the sky, the sea, trees, and stones in poetry (I might, however, argue for at least a decade-long ban on vaguely “Asian” images that border on fetishizing the Zen-like, wood-hutted, rice-bowled peasant life), but “Sentinel,” “Moss in the Shape of Boards,” “Cartographer’s Mood,” “Say Feast,” and “Brittle Latch” lean too heavily on the associative or self-consciously “poetic” beauty of these objects to say anything really remarkable. A generous reading of the repetition of these tropes might suggest that Bolin is trying to “say” them back into being, or that he is attempting to make new patterns with the fragments of emptied language. After the third bird in as many poems, though, such objects feel more like poetic crutches than fully considered images.
The theory tested by Ascension Theory is whether the relative nature of human knowledge can, after all, ascend to some kind of truth. Like scientists, artists poke and prod and measure and categorize the universe. What differentiates art and science is that in art, the energy generated during that inexhaustible striving toward truth crystalizes into a new object in the world that adds to, rather than safely demystifies, the world’s store of the unknowable. “Equation for Cresting,” one of the most elegant poems in the collection, effortlessly captures this new object’s condensation into meaning:
This is the world’s reenactment of today,
and of this moment,
and of continuing on—
with the flags of thin material gaining symbols in the wind.
About the Reviewer
Rachel Abramowitz holds a B.A. from Barnard College and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa; she is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English language and literature at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Her essays, reviews, and poems have appeared in The Colorado Review, The Kenyon Review Online, The Oxonian Review, jubilat, POOL, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. She teaches English literature at Barnard College, where she is an adjunct professor.