Pabulite Poetics: On John Pætsch’s Ctasy, —of shapes off-shore by Barrett White

The NOVA documentary “Reef Rescue” follows teams of marine scientists around the globe working collectively to address the quickly accelerating catastrophe of coral bleaching. As oceans warm, heat waves kill the algae required for coral life, leaving skeletal calcium carbonate remains where vibrant, kaleidoscopic reefs once flourished. These reefs support a quarter of marine life, and the narrator heralds “a desperate race against time” to save them. As the camera soars over barrier reefs in breathtaking aerial views, we are starkly warned with a time-lapse comparison that by the end of this century coral reefs could be lost.

“Corals appeared 500-million years ago. They may look like rocks, but corals are in fact animals. Each tiny coral creature is called a polyp. The polyp is, essentially, a mouth, with tentacles used to trap floating food, but most corals also have another source of nourishment.”[1] The additional source is symbionts, or algal cells that allow coral to photosynthesize. This critical aspect of coral life, which confounds its distinction between animal, plant, and mineral, is what is most at threat by unstable ocean temperatures. Without the symbionts, the reefs bleach, die, and so too the ecosystems built around them. Coral are highly adaptive creatures, but they cannot keep up with the current rate of ocean warming.

Such a radical problem calls for radical intervention. Researchers have turned to the practice of assisted evolution to help corals more rapidly adapt. Methods such as strategic regeneration and spawning, genetic hybridization, heat conditioning, as well as special artificial reefs have been attempted, all with mixed success. Recovery is rare, and celebrated as miraculous. Ultimately, the data shows that studies featured in the documentary were only partially successful. Some lab-grown super corals have thrived in the field, but surprisingly, one researcher discovered a few corals that survived a recent bleaching in Kiribati did so due to switching to heat-resistant algae naturally, without human intervention.[2] Alongside science’s earnest attempts to save it, coral, against incredible setbacks, appears determined to save itself.

Ctasy, lost between two images of nature, who are you —& what are yr images? One: in each drop of matter, infinitely many beings; the other: unique substance radiant beyond measure. Who is Ctasy? & where are you—when you’re it?

 So ‘begins’ Ctasy, —of shapes off-shore, the most recent book by philosopher and poet John Pætsch. For context, the publisher’s synopsis esoterically offers: “Perhaps trashing a proteiform plenum, self-valorizing substance, or manifold surface will pattern new ways of thinking with Nature rather than merely of it. At the least, it might ensnare us in a labyrinth more disorienting than any image of Nature.” Pætsch’s Ctasy accomplishes both objectives: it embroils its readers in a disorienting labyrinth of language while also positing deep ecological and philosophical questions about how we absorb (and refract) the biological and textual worlds around us.

Pætsch’s poetics, rich with structural accumulations and symbiotic tonal diversity, reflect a polyphonic sensibility as seen in coral life. Further, Ctasy’s modulating voices, weltered with fragmentation, pressurization, and semi-digestion throughout, form a pabulite poetics, a term recently coined by paleontologists to identify fossils of half-consumed prey. Marine biologist Dr. Ruth Gates asked: “Can we help [the coral]? Can we accelerate natural selection? Can we accelerate adaptive rates?” Ctasy posits similar inquiries: how can language be accelerated, adapted, and evolved toward new rates of radical metamorphosis?

The book is split into five sections, an homage to the quincunx form, which is an important structural framework for Ctasy. An excerpt from Sir Thomas Browne’s 1658 Hermetic discourse The Garden of Cyrus, or The Quincuncial Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, naturally, artificially, mystically considered opens the book. Here, Browne exalts examples of the quincunx pattern appearing in nature, particularly in the form of elegant “Sea-Starres” and the dental sockets of “the Sea Hedge-hogge.” On the next page, this ecological perspective contorts into “that diaphanous ethereal coastline,” or the “off-shore” from the book’s title where the text gathers and populates. Here, Ctasy and other ‘characters’ exist within an eroding sonic landscape, caught in a swirling tidepool of broken phrases and mistranslations, suspended in sea froth.

a car(p) adrift in a heptagonal glass prism—& that varies without limit …. “& if you’re
flashing from
000000what will likely
000000grey?” Only one who’s likely to slip through a prism

As the language within the poems is polyvalent and striking in its weird, mutated juxtapositions, so too do the stanzas of the poems cluster, clutter, and disintegrate expressively. Fragments of dialogue slurry together with heavy use of ellipses and italics. At times, however, the poems concretize into longer stanzas that translate more as prose than lyric. Sequence and serialization are hinted at with sections such as “Raoul II” and “coyl III,”  but the utility of these sections are dubious. Overall, the collaged nature of the poems challenges typical readability, instead offering a charged assemblage of polyps that are not so much in harmony as eating themselves five times over in a constant, objectiveless growth.

Then shatter next biome, why not
000000let it wash away this anyway arid present …. “How can the next metamorphic charge be past due when it’s coiled already at present?” If nothing flashes across yr gauzy
alterior biome
just roll down yr window a crack for us. We’ll peel in, now & forever …. He’s
whispering urgently through the air-vent:

the tension in the field of force that rages around [inaudible] first transforms it into a
five-segmented figure …. The figure is a sound evoked by the wand of a termenvox and it
coos in a sphere oversaturated with wave processes. It is the envoy of a living
thunderstorm that rages permanently in the universe

The characters inhabiting Pætsch’s poems have a tricky mutability to them; their perspectives and tones shift from lush description to hysterical outburst, garbled with abbreviations, slang, and chatspeak. Often the characters lament, albeit indirectly, frustrating aspects of a late capitalist lifestyle (malfunctioning and/or burning ATMs make frequent appearances, as well as frustrating car rentals). The characters seem post-human, changing, morphing states and affects freely, and while their bizarre exchanges may read humorously, they can also feel alienating. Or, more optimistically, readers may find the admixture in which the individual identities meld a liberating Deep Dream from a defined self. Like the barnacles, urchins, and starfish of the aquatic off-shore, the characters are defined by their collective, constellating language space. The ‘protagonist’ Ctasy (the name is easily associated with “Stacy,” ecstasy, but also “sea to sea”) is just one small part in a linguistic siphonophore: a complex, aggregate colony of tiny clonal organisms that form into the hydrozoan ghosts of the deep, slimy with mesoglea. Throughout the text, we see names morph and devolve into different formulations (Ctasy becomes Ctace and Ctsy; Treat, Trye, Trey, and Tripp appear interchangeable). Georges Bataille writes, “​A sponge is reduced by pounding to a dust of cells; this living dust is formed by a multitude of isolated beings, and is lost in the new sponge that it reconstitutes. A siphonophore fragment is by itself an autonomous being, yet the whole siphonophore, to which this fragment belongs, is itself hardly different from a being possessing unity.”[3] A hand-drawn graph on the inside cover flap further illustrates this complex, looping the five ‘main characters’ together in different combinations, accompanied by a handwritten note: “along the solid line; a non-linear reading would flow, in any order, along the dashed and solid lines…” Despite the constant nods toward structure and form, Pætsch encourages his readers to experience the work outside of the typical linearity of a poetry collection. Likewise, recurring characters vanish in a collective miasma of text: each a small symbiont in a greater network, with lively new growths and vocalizations appearing only to retract back into the noise of the page. The crisis of the coral is easily transmuted into the hectic language of Ctasy.

what oceanic visitor wouldn’t fan out to get focused in a kind of prism just beneath the
surface … yet still its quality depends upon detritus floating up from the epipelagic, no,
the abyssopelagic zone—Ctasy
000000a raw pelagic biome in this life (bios) or another, just a desert compared to drone
others, a lichen spore
000000no, fungal echo in a tide focused so far ahead
000000waves lurching into closeout have nothing on us …. Last thought: patch my
secrets over an aqueous future grave … let it know what it is to feel lonely

Pætsch incorporates text from a diverse array of sources, spanning periods, genres, and subjects effortlessly. Will Alexander, Ovid, Wittgenstein, Octavia Butler, Spinoza, Louis Zukofsky, and J. Gordon Faylor are just a few names invoked in the “Certain Sources” acknowledgments. These source texts are so dutifully webbed into Pætsch’s poems it is at times difficult to differentiate, especially considering the disorienting sonic registers the poet regularly employs (segments from more antiquated texts are easier to sense). Careful integration of the source material, as well as its diversity, further demonstrates Pætsch’s objective for an open ecology of inspiration and reference. Alongside the poetry and philosophy invoked, Pætsch makes use of quotations from mathematics textbooks (regarding algebraic topology, for instance), criminology, as well as nature and science writing. Despite the variation, this seems to be an element in which Ctasy particularly succeeds: unifying disparate voices into a functional amalgam, hybridizing texts in a compositional strategy reminiscent of the way many cnidarians (and therefore coral reefs) form.

Ctasy is in many ways a symbiotic text, where sections, characters, even clauses consume and contort one another amongst unstable tidal rhythms. A recent study published in the Swiss Journal of Paleontology presents the discovery of a surprising, multifaceted fossil form. Embedded in the Posidonia Shale, researchers describe an incredible moment frozen in time: the fossilized remains of an early crustacean, belemnite (squid-like cephalopod), and vertebrate (in this case a Hybodus shark) caught in the predatory process. As the crustacean was eaten by the belemnite, the shark attacked and began to eat the squid, forming a sort of nesting doll form of the early Jurassic food chain. The paper proposes the term pabulite (derived from the Latin words pabulum for food and the Greek word lithos for stone)[4] to identify the undigested fossilized remnants within the sample. This differs from ‘fall’ fossils, or the fossils of the consumed, as pabulites define “[a] meal when it never entered the digestive tract (difference to regurgitalites). Usually, pabulites are incomplete organismal remains and show traces of the predation.”[5] Scanning the pages of Ctasy as one would a layer of Jurassic shale, one begins to see how fragments of language fleck together into an elaborate, composite system. Pabulite poetics is a term to describe ecopoetical works functioning at the edge of legibility, seemingly incomplete or partially consumed by other texts, and collaging text from a vast variety of sources to formulate a fragmented “fossil record” of language.

The book is beautifully printed and typeset by Hiding Press with an appropriately algal green cover, featuring cover flaps with illustrations and notes inside. Additionally, typographical choices such as the use of ligatures and a unique spiral ampersand are suggestive of the circular, intertwining logic operating throughout the text.

According to Maurice Maeterlinck, “total annihilation is impossible. We are the prisoners of an infinity without outlet, wherein nothing perishes, wherein everything is dispersed, but nothing lost.”[6] Ctasy reengineers its readers’ relationship to poetry. Frustratingly complex, endearingly humorous, and conceptually multifaceted, Ctasy is a rare achievement. It is a speculative meditation on a completely different ecological structure for language that only poetry can permit. To paraphrase Dr. Gates: to do nothing is to risk everything, and Pætsch’s intense approach reflects this ethos. As the researchers of “Reef Rescue ” seek to intervene in a crisis of form, so too does the poetics of Ctasy. The result is a language ecosystem comparable to the spiral geometries and hybridities of coral forms, and poems seemingly composed from the pabulites of our contemporary linguistic environment. So much writing today feels bleached, empty of life, and enacting the structures of the recent past. Ctasy rejects such formulas for poetry, twisting its tentacles against the current, ready and willing to evolve, to survive.


[1] “Reef Rescue,” NOVA, PBS. Directed by Su Rynard. (link)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Georges Bataille, “The Labyrinth.” (link)

[4] Christian Klug, et al. “Fossilized leftover falls as sources of palaeoecological data: a ‘pabulite’ comprising a crustacean, a belemnite and a vertebrate from the Early Jurassic Posidonia Shale.” Swiss Journal of Paleontology 140, 2021. (link)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Maurice Maeterlinck, Our Eternity. (link)







Barrett White is a writer and artist. Since 2014, he has edited Tagvverk, a journal of digital literature. His creative and critical writing has been published in FLAT, Gauss PDF, Hysterically Real, Entropy, Full Stop, Fanzine, and elsewhere. Other works have been recently presented in New York, NY (Printed Matter); Troy, NY (Collar Works); Seattle, WA (Northwest Film Forum); and Los Angeles, CA (Roger’s Office). A graduate of Florida State University and the Bard College MFA Program, he currently lives in Florida, where he teaches.
May 26th, 2021|
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