One must have a mind of winter to write a book such as Crystallography, with its “Hagiography of Snow,” acetate of minuscule upside-down Ys, “graph charting the meteorological conditions necessary for the crystallization of poetic forms,” and poker-faced Borgesian arcana. Or perhaps one just needs to be deeply Canadian. The crystallographer in question is Christian Bök, né Book, a 37-year-old poet and teacher at Toronto’s York University, who tweaked the spelling of his surname, he quips, to avoid unseemly confusion with the Bible.
But there is no book quite like Crystallography, and no writer quite like Bök. He’s a jaw-dropping sound poet, for one: At the Bowery Poetry Club on December 9, capping three days of blizzard-inflected area readings, the clean-cut Bök launched into Dadaist Hugo Ball’s “Seahorses and Flying Fish,” a brisk kick of chronic engine trouble that nearly took the top off of everyone’s head. (N.B.: The Torontonian’s favorite film of 2003 is Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which climaxes in a swift cranial cropping.) He has written alien tongues for TV and made a book out of four-prong Legos, every line an anagram.
Most notably, his 2001 Eunoia, seven years in the making, became Canada’s bestselling poetry book ever—an incredible feat for such explicitly experimental writing. No comforting fluff here; in the main portion, each chapter employs but a single vowel (e.g., “Enfettered, these sentences repress free speech”), a univocalic constraint of the sort developed by the mad scientists of the Oulipo. Though it may be stunt writing, it’s never stunted. Bök weds such wry self-consciousness to gusts of gleeful excess: “Porno shows folks lots of sordor: zoom-shots of Bjorn Borg’s bottom or Snoop Dogg’s crotch.” Who’d not hoot for hot romps, shoot Bök’s book to top of pops?
Eunoia (the shortest English word with all five vowels) means “beautiful thinking”; from such a seedbed, it would seem a logical jump to Crystallography, deliberately misetymologized as “lucid writing.” But lucid writing actually precedes beautiful thinking: This is a major revision (or, in jeweler-speak, resetting) of Bök’s 1994 debut, “a pataphysical encyclopaedia that misreads the language of poetics through the conceits of geology.”
Which is more exciting than it sounds. Bök’s concise reflections on mirrors, fractals, stones, and ice diabolically change the way you think about language—his, yours—so that what begins as description suddenly seems indistinguishable from the thing itself. In “Euclid and His Modern Rivals,” the lapidary lines scan as axioms, sense and science trading places: “The last three letters of the alphabet/christen every single point in space.” The sentence “The word at the end of this sentence is meaningless” will send you, screaming, back to Gödel, Escher, Bach.
The stunning “Geodes” is a rock full of crystals, an ode to earth. Spelunk: The caverns become a body, fossils are “all the broken letters of the alphabet,” a bat resembles “a book with its binding unstitched,” and “spiked vocables in these caves/make a phalanx for the pharynx.” It’s all perfectly limpid. Then come to the mind-blowing end, where a key matches each letter-shape to a cave formation (a b is a “cliffside buttressed by boulder,” an r, an “overhanging shelf of bedrock”), and realize you’ve been making your way across not only Bök’s metaphoric terrain, but a miniature model of the rock-hard world itself.
Bök jokes that Crystallography is “the one with all the sighs,” and indeed the beautiful-writing quotient is high. The eight-page “Midwinter Glacaria,” with its sharply etched yet almost fungible winterscape, has more dazzle than most novels 30 times its length; the all-cap “Diamonds” is a memoir-intimate affair. But the precision throughout is uncanny, the beauty almost inhuman. Bök is a bachelor machine rigged out with snowblower and diamond saw, ready to play the glass harmonica at your winter wedding.