Given the specialized nature of education, it should come as little surprise that many poets possess knowledge of the sciences that is foundational at best. We’re familiar with results and outcomes of scientific procedures, but like the end-user who types terms into Google, we’re largely ignorant of the processes—the complicated webcrawling and indexing, the interlinking of relational databases and the countless hours of complex programming—that turn terabytes of raw data into a neat list of search results.
For my part, I’m very interested to see exactly how art incorporates the concerns of science, given the long history of acrimony between the two disciplines. Stephanie Strickland’s Zone: Zero focuses specifically on information technology and uses computer programming language as an analogue to poetry.
Computer code, writes Strickland in her essay “Dovetailing Details Fly Apart,” proceeds by a series of commands, and these commands “write behavior…write control…write simulation.” As I read the series of declarative statements that comprise the code that is Zone: Zero, I was left with the persistent feeling that something was missing. At first glance, I thought this absence might be caused by the spatial elements of the book: its lines are mostly short and its generous use of negative space creates pockets of silence around which lines of poetry lie dormant, waiting for a reader to activate them. “Violently quiet,” as Strickland says.
This escalating sense of foreboding continues in the section entitled “Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot,” which tells of the story of two characters. Each page of the poem is divided into two sections entitled 1 and 0. The figures of Soot and Sand are reduced to the logic of binary code, in which the value of one is described as 1 = not 0.
Harry Soot believes he is watching.
Harry thinks he is in Times Square.
He is. She is not.
(“Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot”)
The isolation suggested by a world in which a person is defined in strict relation to what she is not, borders, at times, on pathos. The discomfort I felt upon reading it was perhaps because this solitude too closely approximates the human condition, which is a site of shifting identities and floating cultural borders, whose boundaries are fluid and whose definitions are constantly under revision. This struggle with self (and its provisional definitions) continues throughout Zone: Zero:
I…I…say it. Say I. I cannot deflect
the stagger in my limbs when the voice
that mounts me breaks: or before
possession takes, the pall of cool
and ragged darkness—leg rooting to
the ground, numbness thinning out
your mind: the descending loa will
accept your body, as her own, in her own
time. Erzulie comes—to stake
(“Absinth 1: /”)
In this passage, the “I” is an invasive presence, one that inhabits us much as the loa assumes control over the body of the adherent in Haitian voudoun. A person whose body is occupied by spirits is said to be “possessed,” and possession, though temporary in this case, is a form of control.
If poetry, like computer code, exists as a series of commands, then what effect is achieved by these accumulated stanzas? Is Zone: Zero, like a piece of software, simply code waiting to be executed, conveying to us a series of instructions? And are we, as readers, little more than machines whose task is simply to activate the code and allow its effects to be realized?
This raises some interesting questions about Strickland’s book. Are the “coded” instructions it provides advice for living? Are they an argument being advanced? Or is Zone: Zero simply another in a series of avant-garde experiments, whose organizing principles are more interesting than the writing that results from them?
The CD-ROM that accompanies Zone: Zero provides some possible answers. The disc recreates two poems included in Zone: Zero (“Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot” and “slippingglimpse”), only it pairs them with embedded visual elements. “Ballad” contains small insets that compliment the text, while the order in which the stanzas are read is determined by the reader, in a fashion reminiscent of Michael Joyce’s afternoon, one of the early examples of hypertext fiction.
More interesting by far is “slippingglimpse,” a poem whose text is backlit by footage of coastal eddies and currents. Carried along, like tidal debris, the words of the poem drift, cohere, destabilize, and break apart again. The movement of the text is dictated, we’re told, by an algorithm that approximates the motions of the tide itself.
While viewing this arrangement of “slippingglimpse,” I found myself transfixed by the natural patterns of the waves themselves, so much so, that for long periods, I completely ignored the text floating in the troughs of the waves. I felt a little like Frank O’Hara must have when faced with the choice of reading a book of American poetry or going to the movies. In most cases, I’d rather watch the tide come in.
There were other complications: the text in “slippingglimpse” was written in a font that made it difficult to read against the changing background of the waves, and the words, in constant motion, would often drift together and become illegible. After a while, I came to think that the words held no meaning at all: Strickland could literally have substituted any terms for the ones in “slippingglimpse” and the oceanic imagery would still have dominated my reading of the piece. The words of “slippingglimpse” were objects emptied of meaning, like the currents themselves. The words had, in effect, become free-floating signifiers: linguistic signs able to take on—but unable to sustain—any fixed meaning. Much like the sea, the poem’s prevailing currents keep it in a constant state of flux.
Overall, I found the arrangements of work on the CD-ROM much more provocative than the printed text. In light of this, I wonder if Zone: Zero might not have been a stronger work if it were produced as a free-standing CD and not as a book (I’m thinking here of Krupskaya’s publication, a few years back, of Norma Cole’s Scout). For the kinds of issues that Strickland engages, the CD format seems better suited to such multi-disciplinary experiments.
Much like the code it resembles, Zone: Zero is a work whose effects can only be revealed when the code is executed. But the effects of Zone: Zero, unlike those of code, are far from replicable, and different readers will surely interpret Strickland’s project in disparate ways. Just as code is written in tandem, by a number of different authors, Strickland’s narrative strategies ensure that no amount of user-testing can predict what its effects will be.
Chris Pusateri is the author of eight books and chapbooks of poetry, most recently Anon (BlazeVox, 2008) and North of There (Dusie, 2007). Recent work appears in American Letters & Commentary, Jacket, Or, Poetry Wales, and Upstairs at Duroc. A librarian by trade, he lives in Denver, Colorado.