Dewdney, Christopher

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DEWDNEY, Christopher

Nationality: Canadian. Born: London, Ontario, 9 May 1951. Education: Attended South and Westminster Collegiate Institutes, London, Ontario; H.B. Beal Art Annex, London, Ontario. Family: Married 1) Suzanne Dennison in 1971 (dissolved 1975), one daughter; 2) Lise Downe in 1977, one son. Career: Associate fellow, Winters College, York University, Toronto, 1984; Éminence Verte, Society for the Preservation of Wild Culture, Toronto, 1987; poetry editor, Coach House Publishing, Toronto, 1988. President, Forest City Gallery Artists Association, 1978, 1979. Awards: Design Canada award, 1974; Canada Council grant, 1974, 1976, 1981, 1985; CBC prize, 1986. Address: c/o McClelland and Stewart Inc., 481 University Avenue Suite 900, Toronto, Ontario M5G 2E9, Canada.



Golders Green. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1972.

A Paleozoic Geology of London, Ontario. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1973.

Fovea Centralis. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1975.

Spring Trances in the Control Emerald Night. Berkeley, California, Figures, 1978.

Alter Sublime. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1980.

The Cenozoic Asylum with Spring Trances in the Control Emerald Night. Berkeley, California, Figures, 1982; The Cenozoic Asylum published separately, Liverpool, Délires, 1983.

Predators of the Adoration: Selected Poems 1972–1982. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1983.

Permugenesis. Toronto, Nightwood, 1987.

The Radiant Inventory. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1988.

Demon Pond: Poems. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1994.

Signal Fires. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 2000.

Recording: Video Marquee. Toronto, Coach House/Music Gallery Talking Books, 1990.


Hand in Glove with an Old Hat (produced Toronto, 1982).


The Immaculate Perception. Toronto, Anansi, 1986.

Recent Artifacts from the Institute of Applied Fiction. Montreal, McGill University Libraries, 1990.

Concordant Proviso Ascendant: A Natural History of Southwestern Ontario, Book III. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, The Figures, 1991.

The Secular Grail. Toronto, Somerville House, 1993.

Last Flesh: Life in the Transhuman Era. Toronto, HarperCollins, 1998.

Editor, The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality, by Derrick De Kerckhove, Toronto, Somerville House, 1995.


Manuscript Collection: McLennan Library, McGill University, Montreal.

Critical Studies: "Strata and Strategy: Pataphysics in the Poetry of Christopher Dewdney" by Steve McCaffery, in North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973–1986, Toronto, Nightwood, 1986; "Manifold Destiny: Metaphysics in the Poetry of Christopher Dewdney" by Alistair Highet, in Essays on Canadian Writing (Toronto), 34, Spring 1987; "Give Yourself Up: Christopher Dewdney's Poetry" by Robert Lecker, and "As If Paradise Renewed a Tangible and Immaculate Perception: Dewdney's Textbook" by Bruce Whiteman, both in Sagetrieb (Orono, Maine), 7(1), Spring 1988; "Radiant Inventories: A Natural History of the Natural Histories," in Canadian Poetry (London, Ontario), 32, Spring/Summer 1993, and "The Word Entrances: Virtual Realities in Dewdney's Log Entries," in Studies in Canadian Literature (Fredericton, New Brunswick), 18(2), 1993, both by Christian Bok.

Christopher Dewdney comments:

It is a warm, gray afternoon in August. You are in the country, in a deserted quarry of light gray Devonian limestone in southern Ontario. A powdery luminescence oscillates between the rock and sky. You feel sure that you could recognize these clouds, with their limestone texture, out of random cloud photographs from all over the world.

You then lean over and pick up a flat piece of layered stone. It is a rough triangle about one foot across. Prying at the stone, you find the layers come apart easily in large flat pieces. Pale gray moths are pressed between the layers of stone. Freed, they flutter up like pieces of ash caught in a dust devil. You are splashed by the other children but move not.

*  *  *

Critics of Christopher Dewdney's poetry have most often felt compelled to preface their readings with acknowledgment of the work's inherent difficulty. Indeed, Dewdney's books of poetry and prose poems can be daunting in their overt cerebration, their use of scientific nomenclature, and their immersion in such seemingly arcane worlds as paleontology, brain anatomy, and information theory. Equally common among Dewdney's commentators, however, is the enthusiasm with which they have responded to his body of work, both for the vitality and richness of its poetry and for the elaborately suggestive cosmology the poet has envisioned.

Dewdney's concerns and ability are fully evident in early poems such as "The Memory Table" and "Transubstantiation" (from A Paleozoic Geology of London, Ontario). In the latter the poet deftly achieves a characteristic resonance of imagery:

   Devoid of perception the
   blind form of the fossil
   exists post-factum.
   Its movement planetary, tectonic.
   The flesh of these words

Here explorations of the physical world at once ascribe to that world an existential autonomy—a "blind form"—and reveal a correlative function of the poetic process, an autonomy of its own but also a fossilization in the movement from perception to form.

This correlation of the poetic to the prehistoric is a postulate throughout Dewdney's work, and the metaphoric substratum from which the two assert their influence is designated as the "memory table," whose "shafts / by which we remember / are called / 'wishing wells' by some." For Dewdney, then, "what is beneath … / is only hinted at" ("Glass"), and one of the functions of poetry is to embody "a primaeval history uncorrupted by humans," to insist upon its own incarnation as a living memory of that "blind form," radical and liberating in the face of perceptual and linguistic convention. This is the sense of "Anecessity" (from Alter Sublime), in which the poet asserts, "There is no oral tradition. / There is amoral tradition." Wordplay is not entirely déclassé here; rather it is embraced by a poetry concerned to expose the commingling "haloes" that irradiate the taxonomic "kernels" of words to reveal the fleshy texture of language. In "Anecessity" Dewdney displays his poetic mastery at conjuring this texture of language with adroit turns of thought, crisp imagery, and a delicate sense of line:

   Instinct. A sense
   of concentric liqueurs
   mutually arriving at their
   respective levels.
   That's a moral. A thorn
   breaking off just under the skin.

In the world of "amoral tradition" and in the service of a subversive logic of "anecessity," the poem is a necessity, a memory lodged by the poet beneath the skin—"Barbs relying on / your movement / to work their way in." For Dewdney this process is sacral, and the movement of these poetic barbs is comparable to the tectonic movement of fossils.

The tension between a blind primeval order and a linguistically codified human consciousness, a tension that consistently manifests itself with startling variety and complexity, informs the whole of Dewdney's work. It is its motor, the purpose of a poetry that eschews and undermines the very languages of purpose. In this sense, then, Dewdney's poetry sets itself a task that is at once destructive and self-destructive. "The poet hosts a parasite," we are told in "Parasite Maintenance" (from Alter Sublime), a fascinating and fun treatise that is at once a scientific discourse and a metaphysical conceit. Here Dewdney envisions an autonomous "living language" that exists symbiotically with human consciousness and imposes upon that consciousness a "governor," a barrier to "certain higher forms of perceptual reasoning." The parasite, then, is the condition peculiar to the poet, the means by which the governor may be engaged in battle. The spoils of this contest "are those bits of information from beyond the limits of science and madness." In this light Dewdney's conception of the role of poetry might be seen to have its direct predecessors in the romanticist and surrealist movements. But the relationships Dewdney has articulated between nature and poetry, between the physical and the linguistic, bear decidedly original characteristics.

If the tensions that engender Dewdney's poetry appear conspicuously intellectualized in description, the substance of his poetry is consistently visceral and luminous. Given the sheer power of Dewdney's imagination, the reader has almost always a sense of confronting the uncanny. In "The Drawing Out of Colour" (from Fovea Centralis), for instance, "the voice of cicada" in "the silent radar forest" becomes "… the long sustained note / of an indeterminate philosophy / in a court where the evidence / neither confirms nor denies its testimony." And while the confessional voice is refreshingly alien to Dewdney, one nonetheless has the sense that throughout his poetry there is a great deal at stake, a reverence, often with an indeterminate syntax to give voice to the "indeterminate philosophy." Witness these lines from "United" (in Alter Sublime):

   I am surrounded by unendurable beauty
   endless a succession of this truth.
   Manifold destiny. May the cradle of the ocean
   spawn our likeness in years to come.

Though limited in its appeal by the particular rigors of its cosmology, Dewdney's poetry evinces a rare combination of postmodern intellectual concerns with a spectacular imagistic and verbal freshness. He is rightly considered one of Canada's most important avant-garde writers.

—James Caton