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This article is taken from PN Review 256, Volume 47 Number 2, November - December 2020.

Has Chance a Choice?
On Novel Coronavirus, Poetry, and the Pastmodern
David Rosenberg
Perhaps we can now call evolution a poem. Most often it has been portrayed as a meta-narrative, the Tree of Life story. Darwin had left it open and latecomers until recently have attempted to close – that is, shape – the tree as it overgrows itself, visually unwieldy.

Poets, however, have thought for some time that evolution is more of a rhizome. In Christian Bok’s review of Darren Wershler-Henry’s Nicholodeon (London, Ont.: Open Letter, 1998) he describes that book as ‘performing a radical autopsy upon the corpus of bpNichol, dissecting the ganglia of his influence, “the rhizome of an author-function in mourning”’. Nichol himself was reading Deleuze and Guattari, ‘for whom the rhizome was a metaphor of the complexity of the world in general’.

Of course, this was not long after the death of authorship’s heyday, if not the death of history’s. We have since learned somewhat more: the rhizome of evolution carries human history along with the literary version. There is no building on Chaucer and the Bible, as if they were lower branches. And now we are reminded there is no leaving the viruses behind:

Viruses are actually the most abundant biological entities on the planet. There are at least one and probably two orders of magnitude more virile particles on Earth than there are any kinds of cells. Further, at least half of our human DNA genomes consists of sequences derived from virus-like elements. Actually, the entire history of life is a history of virus-host interactions.
          (Eugene Koonin,, 3/23/2020)

Suddenly, the viral world is more interesting than narrative trees. It is very much with us – many suffer, many die – yet it also gives rise to a transcendent thought: since viruses precede us, they did not need us as hosts. Not the human ‘us’, that is, but the supposed cellular origin of all life on earth. We archaic cells had to fight them off, at least the DNA versions of them, perhaps less warlike than a dance. The preceding RNA viruses may actually have goaded our proto-cells into existence, needing to be more safely encased in membranes – embodied, as it were.

It is surprising to find that Koonin’s The Logic of Chance: The Nature and Origin of Biological Evolution (2011) has more to say to poets than vice versa. Chance is operative in all forms of poetry, but reading Koonin tells me that the larger chances of how the world works on the mind has long underlain modernism. A great reminder is Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody’s new translation, The Idea of Perfection: The Poetry and Prose of Paul Valery (2020), which includes selections from the notebooks on ‘the construction of the mind’. Clearly, for Valery no less than Freud, so much depends upon W.C. Williams’s ‘red wheel barrow’ chanced upon by ‘the white chickens’ – that is, chance may be gazed upon so intently that it approaches science.

We can see now, however, that postmodernism has ironized chance to the point we must chuckle as we read John Ashbery or bpNichol. Can hard science itself be funny? It takes a postmodern scientist to prove it, a great writer like biologist E.O. Wilson in The Diversity of Life (1992) or the evolutionary biologist Eugene Viktorovich Koonin, whose many papers and YouTube interviews reveal him to be an interesting English stylist (and a grandly Kafkan ironist).

Lately, Koonin’s focus on viruses and the origin of life has applied to the family of Corona viruses. It is riveting to watch chance become intelligent at the origin or pre-origin of life on our planet (and probably other planets). Did chance have a choice? No more than New York School’s James Schuyler’s poem, Hymn to Life (1974) could choose to be cold sober.

Koonin may not have been reading such poets, though certainly there is Mayakovsky and Mandelstam in his background. In his The Logic of Chance, he tells us ‘The title of this work alludes to four great books [including] Paul Auster’s novel The Music of Chance (1991)’. Not many scientists can be expected to know of Auster, no less than poets evidence a reading of biologists (at least we know Dr. Williams had to read up on E. coli)

Has there been a more apposite definition of postmodern poetry than Koonin’s ‘this crucial relationship between chance and necessity. I make the case that variously constrained randomness is at the very heart of the entire history of life’?

Frank O’Hara, who made much of ‘process’ in his essays on art (but who was ticked off by his contemporary Charles Olson’s philosophizing on it) might have unwound and been delighted by Koonin’s more recent assertion of our ‘transition to a postmodern view of life. Essentially, this signifies the plurality of pattern and process in evolution; the central role of contingency in the evolution of life forms (‘evolution as tinkering’)’. O’Hara may have deemed Jackson Pollock a major tinkerer, but only now, were he alive, would Frank (I never heard anyone refer to him as ‘O’Hara’) be satisfied to know his views applied to all life forms.

If Koonin had read Frank’s major poem ‘Second Avenue’ (1960) he would have called the rise of prokaryotes on earth ‘an action poem’:

This is a large poem to maintain without a narrator; but, on the other hand, the situation removes the ego of the poem [or poet] from the process of the poem and then allows a multitude of gestures to run in at all points. It could be called an ‘action poem’. Like Pollock, who created a procedure of it.
     (Butterick and Bertholf, Poetry Foundation)

On the other hand, I would wrap the viral world today into more than an action painting and call it ‘species consciousness’. There are more species of viruses than fauna and flora on our planet. If we are conscious of this fact, we become more aware of our human dependence on natural processes, namely replication errors in evolution that are inherited and allow for new species like our own. We can thank heaven, both for errors and their evolutionary otherness, though they are rare. Other people seem to us quite common, which may be why it’s harder to appreciate them in their individual otherness.

However, we must now understand we are each a cosmos of species, our bodies made up of hundreds of interacting species of microbes. While our ability to interpret the invisible is perhaps unique among mammals, we have miles to go before internalizing this awareness. Meanwhile, the mass of humanity still tends to believe what they see or hear. Most of us are aware of the interplay between fictional representations of verisimilitude and the selling of a product in advertisements, yet many are today challenged by competing narratives (political, scientific, etc.) in the reportage of the novel Corona pandemic. News and entertainment grow indistinguishable in their narratives without a contextual awareness of narratives, which can resemble advertisements for ending the pandemic with a wish. Wishes, or thoughts, are something the late poet Kenneth Koch – building upon Freud’s 1900 dream book – characterized in his poetry textbook, Wishes, Lies, and Dreams (1970). That is, not to simply wish a thing gone but to vaccinate the wish in a poem that, in Emersonian terms, allows us to become cosmically aware of the thinking self.

Similarly, as most evolutionary scientists wish, along with Koonin and many of us, we hope to eventually find ‘how chemical systems on the early Earth might have provided the precursor molecules necessary for self-replication’. As even archaic poets knew, however, ‘self-replication’ has always been our human poetry, no matter how totemic. Supernatural representations of us replicating into (or from) an afterlife are hardly different, yet modernism can seem to relegate them to wishes, lies, and dreams – or more longingly, ‘presences’, as emphasized in a new translation of Yves Bonnefoy’s essays.

I have quoted Koonin’s description of the Tree of Life (the evolutionary model) as a meta-narrative, a consciousness of narrative. Was this as true of Eden represented by the Hebraic poet in Genesis? Of course. No one was taking dictation from Satan wrapped snakishly around the Tree of Knowledge; we accept it as a meta-narrative, as a poem.

However many interpretive mutations come down to us, the Garden of Eden is immutable as a Genesis text. While Covid-19 (the disease) is likely to mutate, and we are still needing to interpret not only the latest one but many more in the Corona family (for instance those that cause common colds) Corona is immutable, inhabiting far more animal species than our own. If we can accept Corona as part of our selves (as if within the poem of our selfhood) it enlarges our knowledge of natural selection, by which our human species was naturally created.

Nevertheless, ‘natural selection has no analogy with any aspect of human behavior’, wrote the late Francois Jacob (‘Evolution and Tinkering’, Science, 1977), who exerted a strong influence on Koonin. ‘However, if one wants to play with a comparison,’ writes Koonin, ‘one would have to say that natural selection does not work like an engineer works. It works like a tinkerer – a tinkerer who does not know exactly what he is going to produce but uses whatever he finds around him whether it be pieces of string, fragments of wood, or old cardboards; in short, it works like a tinkerer who uses everything at his disposal to produce some kind of workable object.’ (The Logic of Life, 1991).

This sounds like a poet, doesn’t it? Not simply the poet defined by a book on prosody, but a kind of blind watchmaker with infinite time on her hands. Homo sapiens have always lived within the confined time and space of civilization as self-domesticated animals. So, if our culture, now under stress by the novel Covid-19, can learn to study ecosystems (in which microbe species far outnumber visible ones) ‘a new anthropological transition will take us out of the Neolithic mentality toward a new type of psyche’. (How We Became Sapiens, Silvana Condemi and Francois Savatier, 2019).

Condemi and Savatier suggest their ‘new type’ of psyche will be digitally wired, yet they were writing just before the pandemic. We might say now that it will be determined by virtual tech, allowing us to let more land become ‘re-wilded’, as these anthropologists wish. First, however, we’ll need our psyches also to be re-wilded, in the sense of re-studying our ecosystem origins, merging natural history with, for instance, the ancient literary history of the Garden of Eden.

Hebraic poets wrote that Garden epic – what do we know of them? Further, what do we know of the origin of poetry? My guess is that it began in the trees. Think of Howler monkeys, for whom vocal communication forms an important part of their social behavior. Further, they can smell out food (primarily fruit) up to two kilometres away. John Lloyd Stephens described the howler monkeys at the Maya ruins of Copan as ‘grave and solemn, almost emotionally wounded, as if officiating as the guardians of consecrated ground’. To the Mayas of the Classic period, ‘they were the divine patrons of the artisans, especially scribes’. Maya or Hebraic, molecular or evolutionary biologist, the poetry of sound and genes conveyed a history of origins.

Even when our computers and AI become breathtaking watchmakers with their processes ever more invisible, the countless invisible species of an ecosystem precede us, including the first forms of life, viruses, ‘which allowed us to become who we are’, as Alexander Van Tulleken phrases it in a recent TLS review (8/21/20) of books on the current pandemic. Will we need a new psyche to hold equally in mind disease and creation, or could a future poet’s Darwinian translation of Genesis suffice – a poet whom I would suggest might best be called pastmodern?

Having spoken of the evolutionary tree of life should also suggest the original Tree of Life, among the two unique trees at the center of the Garden of Eden. Likewise metaphorical, it’s not until now that the tree beside it, the Tree of Knowledge, has helped us to uncover a theory of the origin of life. To scientists, their version may seem to be more compelling, even moving, than the supernatural version. However, it lacks for now the luster of the miraculous, something that suggests to a poet like the late Yves Bonnefoy, ‘the truth of the instant in opposition to the timelessness of scientific formulas or the experimentations of play’ (trans. Rudolf, in Yves Bonnefoy: Prose, 2020).

Such an instant, Bonnefoy might say, is Eve’s bite into the apple, a specific moment in time (he equates it with a ‘gaze’, such as the serpent’s upon Eve) that makes it historical on the scale of myth, transcendent. It was necessary to who we are, Koonin would say, that Eve chanced upon Lucifer by the tree, an irrevocable moment of ‘presence’ in Bonnefoy’s terms, though in Koonin’s terms, ‘I make the case that variously constrained randomness is at the very heart of the entire history of life’.

It is rather uncanny for Genesis and trees that, pace Koonin, ‘although no single tree can fully represent the evolution of complete genomes and the respective life forms…these components can be revealed through the analysis of the Forest of Life (FOL), the complete collection of phylogenetic trees for individual genes’. Perhaps even the FOL might be contained within Eden’s Tree of Knowledge, while genomics could be represented in a cosmic poem as a combination of content or words (genes) and form (genome). Still, Eve was already breathing, as was the serpent in order to speak to her, so that he, Lucifer, inhabits the place of an author, a small-c creator.

For the time being, the question of whether Lucifer or other angels breathed oxygen in heaven is moot; likewise, the old idea that viruses were only ‘non-breathing’ parasites is now roughly equivalent to saying that poems are parasitic forms that rely upon content for life. According to Koonin, the opposite is true: without form, there would not only be no poetry, there would be no content. It suggests that poetry gives life to the verbal language that characterizes our species.

We could say the poetry of evolution interprets the world similarly, by the incessant chances of words or genes folded into a formal membrane enclosing the content of a discrete form of life. That is, a membrane of music enlivens a cell filled with protein content. But the music can’t start until viral forms (‘outside’ genetic material) play upon it.

The virus upon which Eugene Koonin gazes in a 21st century computer, however, is a presence at the origin of life. Whether it was a supernatural origin, as in Genesis, or a creature of chance, its creation was necessary – as much so as is ours, verified in our gaze upon life as necessarily being there. When we see the virus magnified it unfolds less of its presence than the mathematical gaze of computational biology, where its presence unscrolls from its RNA origin. Or further back: ‘the principal lineages of viruses and related selfish agents emerged from the primordial pool of primitive genetic elements, the ancestors of both cellular and viral genes,’ in Koonin’s words. Although he copped the word ‘selfish’ from Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, Koonin is more ironic. His ancestral ‘genetic elements’ of life, being less selfish, are even greater presences. All the more so because they can’t be seen, but only gazed upon as if supernatural. Let’s take it a step further and call that ‘primordial pool’ poetry, as Gertrude Stein would, so that we become poetic creatures, created out of it like poems chanced with no narrative beginning or end – or at least, not necessarily so.

For Koonin, it’s a cosmic poem, just as chance is absolutely necessary for natural selection, the driver of evolution. In ancient myths and religion, the gods or God is the driver of creation, a necessity equal to chance. Like chance, the gods are beyond unpredictable, they represent the unknowable. So we have to acknowledge a supernatural unknowability behind chance that resembles the cosmic poetry of ancient texts.

‘All presence of the self is, moreover, a unity,’ writes Bonnefoy on Giacometti, ‘transcending the material aspect of eyes, nose or mouth, to release a face. But these components are also something material, an outside where nothingness loiters, and likeness is therefore a trap: we must look for its invisible background, we must destroy likeness as well as question it….It is here that Giacometti is modern – because the myths that used to sustain the experience of presence have collapsed.’ In place of the pre-modern myth of likeness, we have the chance results of questioning, just as the art of photography questions likeness for the invisible instant of time – or what Bonnefoy calls ‘presence’.

Neither Freud nor Bonnefoy had yet encountered the quantum indeterminacy of evolutionary biology. Koonin describes it as postmodernist:

Whatever one thinks of the postmodern philosophy, its worldview certainly emphasizes the richness and extreme diversity of the processes and patterns that constitute reality. Such is the complexity of these multiple trends that, to some philosophers of the post-modern ilk, any major generalization is anathema. In today’s evolutionary biology, the plurality of processes and patterns is arguably the main theme; if we want to speak in paradoxes, it could be said that ‘the main theme is the absence of an overarching main theme.

Instead of poetry preceding science, we may now hope that a silver lining to Koonin’s The Logic of Chance is stimulated by the novel Corona, so that poetry may loosen up its resistance to cosmic creation (big C or little c), as in no less than Milton: ‘Was I deceiv’d, or did a sable cloud/ Turn forth her silver lining on the night?’ (Comus, 1634). The question of deception for Milton here was one of creating a masque as anti-masque, very antimatter-ish. And very natural of him to soon engage the Garden of Eden on a cosmic scale. While Paradise Lost has a basically moral dimension in its depiction of human creation, in tune with the Hebrew, the intervention of Satan leaves us forever open to chance in the war of good and evil. I’d say the same for the war between virus and antibody, though certainly we must survive in order to praise our humanity. Does Nature, no less than God, have a say in this? Perhaps only a poet can say today, if he/she follows Koonin back to life’s creation in prehistory.

As much as science and literature need each other, it’s appalling how little these disciplines engage. Much blame seems to lie in the increasing proliferation and subsequent isolation of academic departments. ‘Interdisciplinary’ and ‘comparative’, the old buzzwords, have become conventionally dull. Comparing apples and oranges is something, but in the end you are still in the fruit business. Who is comparing apples and Lagrange points, capsids and prose poems? Here is Koonin on the protein capsid that surrounds a virus and reminds us of an organic cell’s necessary membrane:

Viruses with the largest genomes encode a panoply of diverse proteins involved in repair processes, membrane trafficking, a variety of metabolic pathways, and, in some cases, even translation system components.

Apart from sounding like a text in linguistics, consider the metaphorical ‘membrane trafficking’: the virus as drug dealer, or what is called ‘the man’ in junkie parlance. And then, in explaining one of several theories, ‘viruses were once part of the genetic material of host cells but escaped cell control and later evolved by pickpocketing genes via horizontal gene transfer (HGT)’. The little criminals! Incidentally, HGT is genomic-speak for rhizome. And further texture: ‘a fully fledged membrane’; ‘translation machineries’; ‘motors for DNA or RNA packaging’; ‘omnis virus e virus, a play on omnis cellula e cellula.’

These instances of metaphoric appropriation suggest as well the embedding of human evolution in a much deeper history – events awaiting their pastmodern poems, along with those events in our cultural evolution: imagining the poets behind the Homeric and Sumerian Odes, for instance, or lyrical urges of the poets in the Bible’s Book of Proverbs. Some embryonic pastmodern contemporary poets I would cite, in the sense of their experimental translation projects, include Alice Oswald, A.E. Stallings, Anne Carson, Gabriel Levin, and Sarah Ruden, as well as instances of the Gilgamesh epic’s appropriation that Michael Schmidt turns up in his Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem (2019). An early pastmodern work still flying below the canonical radar, bpNichol’s lifelong poem, The Martyrology (Toronto, 1969) proposes its own cosmology of saints and supernovae while reaching back to Biblical and Akkadian texts, and creating as well a mythopoetics that ranges through Freud, Wittgenstein, Apollinaire and Philip Whalen, to name a few. Frank Davey’s lifelong engagement with that poem and its late poet, Everybody’s Martyrology, has just appeared (Toronto, 2020).

Were Harold Bloom still alive to note that all the death and despair in The Waste Land incorporates the aftermath of the 1917 flu pandemic, his contemporary students might shake their internal heads, more likely assuming it a misreading (or missed reading) on both Eliot and Bloom’s part of Das Kapital. On a more personal note, it was the contemporary poet Grace Schulman, still teaching poetry at CUNY, who pointed out the 1917 flu influence to me, alert to it via her late husband, a pioneering virologist. I’ve also had the luck to be married to a research scientist long working in HIV studies and now immersed in novel Corona parallels (or lack of them). It was she who first sent me to Koonin, mindful of my having written in the past on cosmic chance in The Lost Book of Paradise (1993).

Meanwhile, the evolutionary path leading to Homo sapiens is constantly being repaved. Case in point: we have modernly understood that one of our human markers was the sexual innovation known as the missionary position. However, African lowland gorillas, coming millions of years before us, have now been documented as missionary position specialists (thanks to a Smithsonian filming project). I don’t know if any of the surviving great apes will accompany the human ape explorers into deep space in the future or how meager our Noah’s ark will look in comparison to the diversity imagined by the Genesis poet. Nevertheless, each animal and plant on earth is an ark unto itself, harboring a multitude of codependent species within.

More than that, we are each a library of life, documenting its history back to the origin. Evolutionary scientists like Koonin can read it back to ‘the process of virus-host interaction [in which] viral genes might be left behind and incorporated into the host genome, or host genes might be taken up by viruses and become integrated into the viral genome’. Will such evolutionary knowledge save us? The ‘might be’s’ in Koonin’s sentence are a marker for chance, and I’d bet on a poet’s prior interpretation, Mallarme‘s ‘Un Coup de des’ (1897): ‘Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard’ (‘A roll of the dice/ never will abolish/ chance’ – trans. J. Clark and R. Bononno, 2015). Still, chance has no choice but to play within the poem of evolution.

This article is taken from PN Review 256, Volume 47 Number 2, November - December 2020.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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