Like the Codex Seraphinianus: Unidentified Poetic Object by Brian Henderson

The Codex Seraphinianus, a 1981 homage to Voynich by Luigi Serafini, puns on its maker’s name: seraphim, burning ones. This leads me to Brian Henderson’s cleverly titled Unidentified Poetic Object, the poems of which offer a similar compendium of improbable, fantastical but real, and eclectic objects where words themselves are also objects pointing to other objects: “You could be composed/In encrypted tendril language/Or maybe not” (Imaginary Berlin).

Henderson’s book thinks through, obliquely, the nature of objects, with a glance at object-oriented ontology, a theory of being that seeks to decentre the human observor/correlationist and acknowledge the independent existence of dark noumena, including imaginary objects. The longer sequence “Imaginary Berlin,” alluding to the Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, plays with the fantastical, the angels, the burning ones, who appear to us early on in the film, listening to the readers and their ghostly bodies: “I’m thinking out loud in a language no one understands I’m / practicing / Listening to the voices of things.” The Codex Seraphinianus has a chapter documenting its own writing system, just as poetry is often language becoming aware of itself, revealing the material-fantastical nature of its own workings. As Henderson considers the cryptic word “Bsafe” scribbled on the flyleaf of the Voynich manuscript (“And what about the code word Bsafe how / Can we complete that at the checkpoint when / The storyteller is a wanderer in the landscape of language”), it is clear poetry is a coded language here, obscure; any search for meaning may yield glossolalia or what you will.

Other poems contemplate other objects: graptolites, phytochrome, CRISPR, Kirlian photography, Kara-Khoto, the “Black City” of Inner Mongolia circa 1032 AD. One of my favourites is “Trees for Instance,” for its imagining of the complex, interconnected being of trees:

You can only begin to imagine
How many lives are liquid here flowing
Up through the vowels of your bones […]
Inventing a whole person with hidden sugars
In a hardwood forest
Nourishing offspring with fungal root networks
Liquid until the light comes down for them.

Elements of language (liquid vowels) are drawn up through the “bones” of a tree; mycelian networks reach out to other trees; light and carbon molecules are translated into “hidden sugars,” sap flowing in the spring.

Another is “Ravens carry on their research into human thinking”: “What if we give them back the ball we lent Veronique through / which she knew the passing world from the train / Which life would be lived / Which switch would be thrown and how far.” The line alludes to a beautiful scene in La double vie de Veronique when Véronique holds up a translucid marble to the window of her train and sees her own image reflected on the landscape as it floats by upside down, disorienting, surreal. Some of Henderson’s poems function a bit like this too; each poem a marble held up to scry the world.


Kim Trainor’s second book, Ledi, was a finalist for the 2019 Raymond Souster Award. Her next book, Bluegrass, will appear with Icehouse Press (Gooselane) in 2022. She lives in Vancouver, unceded homelands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Skwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations


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