A demonstration of this collaborative microscopy is found in ‘Learning to Read and Write’. Two poems are overlaid; one seemingly a script defining parameters for a data translation, the other a paratactic list of directives (‘Go / Busy / Sample Done / Shift Done / Raster / Pixel Done / X Carry / Fast / Unblank). A question arises: are these commands to be fed into the microscope, into the technician, or into the reader? Where does one end and the other begin? The laminating of these two ‘verses’ over one another invites speculative collisions – collisions that arise more from looking, than from reading. It would do this poem damage, I think, to try to voice it aloud (though it’s theoretically possible with two voices). Part of its ambition seems to be to draw together the idea of reading-as-looking with the scientific function of the microscopes as supreme lookers; great fathomers expanding the dominion of what is open to being looked at. After all, each of these individual machines charts a history of ever more intimate discoveries within human bodies – the identification of certain nerves in kidneys and hearts, their chemical composition and electrical function. What does it mean to say that the microscopes have seen into us more deeply than we are capable of seeing into ourselves? Their decommissioning represents an attrition of ways to look, a falling back into coded-ness of this specific visual vocabulary. Rich stuff for any poet: the onset of a blooming opacity, like a glaucoma, resigning this old style of sight (and of seeing us) to the past.
The past is the fixation of a different suite within How Things Work, entitled ‘Autobiographies (ETEC schematic 1, excerpts, in order of appearance)’. A series of index cards with thumbnail images clipped to them are headed with the initials of individual lab technicians (recorded as signing off the schematics in the documentation collected with the microscopes). The pictures show miniature men playing on microchips, being pursued by snails, surveying a building made of matches; tiny women buried to their hips in rosemary plants and jumping off dials. Beneath the different sets of initials appear fragmentary and fictive oral histories, some vignettes evoking memories of crime:
Bloodstains remained on the footpath for years. We religiously avoided that corner, fearing, sooner or later, we’d be next. […] All records were lost in the fire To date, no charges have been laid […] Nobody told us what actually went wrong. We do, however, have our theories.
The ruse of M. R. James’s 1925 short story, ‘A View from the Hill’ (collected in A Warning to the Curious, and Other Ghost Stories), is a pair of haunted binoculars that permit the protagonist to see back into a violent local history of boiled bones and swinging gallows as though those terrors were contemporaneous with the story’s present. Gibbins isn’t striving for the supernatural or Gothic in the ‘Autobiographies’, but as with ‘A View from the Hill’ these episodes recall the many ways in which looking down the microscopes is a means of temporally casting back, as well as materially zooming in. The microscopes presuppose a community of lookers scattered across the devices’ history, and so these objects are rendered technologies for imaginative time travel (so too, of course, the book itself, which speaks to a strew of future readers as yet unmet).
The ‘Autobiographies’ voice a social unit (the technicians) from a long dissolved workplace, speaking of youthful delinquency, nostalgia and regret – the collective pronoun ‘we’ peppers these fragments. One index card is titled ‘Axotomy’: the act of splitting a nerve, and a word that works to capture the mood in many of the fragments which are febrile, raw and confessional. The earliest microscopes functioned by means of reflection (inbuilt mirrors bouncing light to the human eye), and so too is the appetite here for reflecting – domestic and vocational contemplations both. Down, down, down. As Gregory Whitehead described, at the bottom of the machine, we find the body and its memories, its speech:
Churning through several generations of media, such digestion is never complete: dissect a radio, and you will find the remains of a book; dissect the book, and you will find the remains of a larynx; dissect the larynx, and you will find the skeletal trace of a twitching finger, lighting a match and sending a telegram; take the prints from the finger, and there you will rediscover the origins of radio.1
There is much to recommend Gibbins’s How Things Work, both as a stand-alone collection and as trace of a collaborative multi-arts practice – a creative technology enfolded within other technologies. The installations and artworks that made up ‘The Microscope Project’, including the audio Microscope Music also produced by Gibbins, would no doubt triangulate the poems in other interesting ways. But what strikes me most in the aftermath of reading the text is a surprising tenderness, a lightness in his approach to these disbanded medical instruments. One factoid from the exhibition catalogue stands out: in order to survive the vacuum and electron rays these microscopes deployed, the specimens fed into them had to be entirely covered with a thin meniscus of gold. That radiance – and the strangeness of a precious utility – energises the work that Gibbins has included here.
- Gregory Whitehead, ‘Holes In The Head: Theatres of Operation for The Body In Pieces’, Ubuweb, 1993, p. 2 ↩