This English-to-English translation collaboration between Mark Byers and John Challis examines the boundaries between critical and creative text, literary analysis and poetic practice. Mark’s short critical essay on Jo Shapcott’s ‘found’ poem ‘Electroplating the Baby’ provides the impetus for John’s poem ‘There may be thawing damage’. Echoing and reduplicating Shapcott’s own use of textual appropriation, the poem gathers and transforms language from Shapcott’s poem, Mark’s essay, and a third source: Robert Ettinger’s The Prospect of Immortality. Closing the circle, Mark interprets John’s poem through an act of critical erasure, creating a new text from the original and foregrounding its crucial themes of evolving identity, physical transformation, and the passage of time. Together, the three works dramatize the instability of the literary text, its tendency to proliferate, reproduce, cannibalise, and translate.
WATCH the reading
There may be thawing damage
Our inclination is to make do with imperfection.
This practice is derived from an article entitled
Several Types of Death. The rich alone are capable
of investing in the absurd and the impractical.
But we must be in no doubt of our direction.
Let us review the findings. Upon a patient’s death,
which we define as ‘clinical’, perforate the body
to assimilate the material. Enclose it in an envelope
of copper, bronze or nickel, of nitrogen or gold.
Dr Parkes defines the second type as ‘biological’.
If it is beyond us to resuscitate a subject,
he encourages experiment. This seems only logical:
our progress does not depend on any special
timetable. If practiced accurately, the patient’s blood
is substituted. The third and final type we fear
is sadly irreversible. We must work fast to prevent
the degeneration of the body’s cells. Such tragic
alterations temper a subject’s character. Or soul.
Although it is impossible to suspend the narrative
entirely, by storing the body at a very low temperature
deterioration is arrested. We grant ourselves
the chance to taste the wine of centuries unborn.
Unless instituted immediately, full recovery
of any mammal after complete freezing will continue
to be unattainable. But our insufficient processes
cannot stop our mettle. There is still much to achieve.
On ‘Electroplating the Baby’
‘Electroplating the Baby’ is the title poem of Shapcott’s first collection, published by Bloodaxe in 1988. Comprised of sixty unrhymed couplets, the poem offers a meticulously detailed description of modern mummification as practiced by one Variot, a French scientist whose proposals for electroplating the dead were widely reported in the 1890s. The language of the poem is derived (often verbatim, or nearly so) from an article entitled ‘How to Electro-Plate Your Baby’, published in the English magazine Science Siftings in April 1895.
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker regrets that ‘in our time the art of embalming / has not made much advance’, at least compared to the ancient Egyptians and their ingenious ‘antiputrescible baths’. This leads to a pair of rhetorical questions: ‘are our processes so imperfect / as to dull our inclination? // Or do we relish the privacy of dust?’. At this point, Variot’s ‘way / to obtain indestructible mummies’ is introduced, with step by step instructions on setting the ‘body of a child’ into an electrically conductive frame, spraying the cadaver with a ‘nitrate of silver’, submerging the frame in an ‘electro-metallurgic bath’, separating the ‘silver salt’ from its oxide, and finally immersing the frame in copper sulphate. The result: a preserved and metallised body with a ‘coating of copper’. At the close of the poem, the speaker asks what the ‘future’ of such a process might be, finding it ‘infinitely probable // that metallised cadavers / will never figure // except in small numbers / for a long, long time to come’.
The longest poem in Shapcott’s first collection, ‘Electroplating the Baby’ is distinctive of Shapcott’s early inclination towards bizarrerie and the surrealism of fact (including the facts of history and science). Rather than attributing metaphorical significance to Variot’s strange procedure, the poem gains traction from the glaring contradiction between the scientist’s rigorous methods and his absurd and impractical objectives. The rendering of the source text into orderly couplets (both open and closed) functions as a kind of formal reductio ad absurdum, underlining the irrational rationality of Variot’s grotesque experiments.
Shapcott’s debts to her source are such that ‘Electroplating the Baby’ constitutes a ‘found’ poem. However, Shapcott does make minor alterations to the original text. For instance, ‘In our time the art of embalming / has not made much advance’, appears in Science Siftings as ‘In our time, the art of embalming has not made much progress’ (8, emphasis mine). Similarly, Shapcott’s stanza, ‘are our processes so imperfect / as to dull our inclination?’, derives from a much more involved question in the source text: ‘Must we look to the imperfections of the processes for the little inclination that we seem to have for mummification or embalmment?’ (8). However, some stanzas are reproduced verbatim from the original prose, with the addition of a line break.
Shapcott’s alterations of the source text were made for several reasons. The substitution of ‘advance’ for ‘progress’ seems to have had a metrical motive: ‘has not made much advance’ makes a regular iambic trimeter line, even if the result is grammatically non-standard (unlike ‘progress’, ‘advance’ is a countable noun and should not, strictly speaking, take ‘much’). In other cases, Shapcott’s alterations temper the formal tone and address of the original fin de siècle text. For instance, the article’s arch (and conspicuously gendered) question, ‘Does he wish to know how Dr. Variot proceeds’ (8), becomes ‘Do you wish to know / how Dr Variot proceeds?’.
In an interview published in 1990, Shapcott noted that she encouraged her own workshop students to experiment with ostensibly non-poetic diction, including the ‘“language of expertise”’ (29). However, ‘Electroplating the Baby’ does more than draw upon specialist vocabularies, contributing to a genre of found poetry which has its roots in the early twentieth- century avant-garde, particularly the ‘readymade’ practices of dada. Shapcott’s poem is suggestive of the belated assimilation of experimental practices into more popular poetic production.
The poet sent her own copy of Science Siftings to Bloodaxe editor Neil Astley and the article’s illustration was used for the cover of the book. A photocopy of the article is preserved in the Bloodaxe Archive with correspondence between poet and editor. Corrected page proofs also show that Shapcott wanted to avoid the two-line stanzas being divided by page breaks.
Shapcott’s second collection, Phrase Book, was published by Oxford University Press in 1992. Her essays on American poet Elizabeth Bishop, co-edited with Linda Anderson, were published by Bloodaxe as Elizabeth Bishop: Poet of the Periphery in 2002.
‘How to Electro-Plate Your Baby’, Science Siftings (20 April 1895), 8−9.
Kay Parris and Jo Shapcott, ‘Language, Truth and Sheep’, Writers’ Monthly (August 1990), 28−9.