The triumph of those scientists who just encoded a textbook in DNA got me thinking about Christain Bök’s latest project, The Xenotext Experiment. Unfamiliar with Bök? Let me google that for you: his over-the-top efforts at constrained writing really are something to behold. Eunoia may be nigh unreadable, but it will in all likelihood remain a revered example of the sort of gems English can produce when placed under extreme pressures.
Xenotext is something else entirely. It takes words and letters and transposes them into the genetic code of an organism — in this case, Deinococcus radiodurans, a bacterium, in Bök’s words, “resistant to inhospitable environments.” Because simply encoding a poem into a microbe's genetic structure would be so one-dimensional and easy, Bök has challenged himself such that the encoded text will transform itself from one generation of the microbe to the next. That is, each generation-one letter will exchange strictly for another. In this way, each new generation of the bacterium will swap the the two twinned texts, back and forth, into eternity. How’s that for immortal poetry?
Obviously, there are only so many text strings that can be so threaded. But identifying them all and picking out the coherent ones would be hopelessly time-consuming. So Bök employs a computer program and sifts through all the potential transformations, selecting those that are appropriate for his vision. Without that program, Xenotext would require more time than a normal human, poet flaneur or otherwise, has allotted to her on this earth.
Which makes the whole enterprise of encoding a poem into the flesh of a living thing so…strange. Because it is made possible through powers that are, essentially, extrasensuous: they are computational. And, friends, computers and their algorithmic non-thinking operate in ways very different from our own primate brains. These poems are the stuff of silicone; they are so fixated on a certain iteration of a conventional structure (other silicone fixations include perfect, California-style tits and lips) that, through the use of technological enhancement, they freeze time and defy its erasing graces. Xenotext, if it were completed, would hypostatize the spelling conventions of 21st-century (Canadian) English forever in the genetic structure of a wee beasty.
Until it evolved, anyway. Metaphors of an evolutionary palimpsest anyone? Bök has already claimed the bugs were “censoring” his work.
This brings us to another poetry of the flesh. Former US Poet Laureate Robert Hass often deals with fleshly things (see “Privilege of Being”), but he remains unafraid of problems of epistemology and language, and how both relate to the genesis and continuation of convention. But he ties these deceptively rarefied topics concretely to our senses, situating them in our messy manipulations of the world. Consider “Meditation at Lagunitas.” The poem begins with a certain anxiety about the inadequacy of explanations of how a word can apply to a specific thing, and ends with the sense that this anxiety is ludicrous.
The move from anxiety to acceptance is achieved with the name of a fish. Pumpkinseed: the name itself contains the basic structure of the entire project of human interaction with the world. The act of recognizing that this or that aquatic creature resembles the seeds of a plant, and then giving it a name that fits, is analogous to recognizing any sort of likeness and codifying it in a way that can be communicated — sometimes in euphonious collections of words, sometimes in the genetic makeup of radioresistant bacteria.
The mind, the flesh, hungers after likenesses, and sometimes tongues can share them.
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