Fred Muratori



Intertextu[re]ality

Stephanie Strickland
V: WaveSon.nets/Losing L'una
Penguin, 2002.
52/48 pages. $18.00, paper
Also at http://vniverse.com

Stephanie Strickland's print/hypertext fusion, V: WaveSon.nets/Losing L'una, may be one of the longest and oddest extended metaphors yet produced in poetry. A multi-dimensional work of (literally) astronomical intent, it is as much manifesto as poem, more experience than text, a philosophical discourse/demonstration whose form and content together explore the nature of systems: mathematical, mythological, linguistic, cultural.

How does a reader even begin to approach this invertible volume, with its
two printed beginnings and a middle—or is it an ending?—etched out in cyberspace against a backdrop of stars? Though the publisher has added a dose of predetermination by planting a barcode, a logo and the price on the WaveSon.nets side, thus arbitrarily branding it as the "back" of the book, the dilemma remains. I spent a good deal of time just pondering it—unopened— as I would an envelope with a bizarre postmark addressed in an unfamiliar hand, flipping the book end over end, warily noting the URL at its center. Its knowing opacity was intimidating. Uncertainly diving into the Losing L'una side, I found the author's own procedural advice on page 34:

               7.113
     Gentle Reader, begin anywhere. Skip anything. This text
     is framed
     fully for the purposes of skipping. Of course,

               7.114
     it can
     be read straight through, but this is not a better reading.
     not a better life. You are being asked

               7.115
     to move with great
     rapidity. As if it weren't there. As if you were a frog,
     a frog that since it's disappearing

               7.116
     thinks to ask,
     for the first time, in which element it really does
     belong. Leaping progress

               7.117
     will consist
     in considering this and closing the book. Anything
     else will represent a settled course.
                                              ["Errand Upon Which We Came"}

Narrative, either implied or apparent, is not a factor. The very expectation of linearity would brand the reader as "settled," conventional, unimaginative, a lame frog. Strickland was asking for much more than my attention—she was asking for my transformation into a different kind of reader, one who would not only follow the words on the page, but allow them to act as nodes of suggestion which, when connected with other nodes, would lead to the admission that we are indeed inhabitants of a new "element," one made possible by the fusion of digital technology with postmodern ideas of de-centeredness and fragmentation.

True, this is not an earthshaking revelation. Cable news channels are now motley pastiches of talking heads, crawling text, stock prices, weather maps and advertising blurbs. Web sites produce pop-up progeny that ask us to click, subscribe, vote our opinions, while we simultaneously scan the morning's e-mail, listen to music made from samples of other music and sip white mocha soy milk lattes. Meanwhile, our cell phones are ringing, and the kids are downstairs re-editing bootlegged downloads of Star Wars movies on their laptops or posting fan fiction rewrites of Harry Potter. Beginnings and endings erode into continuous streams of stimuli:

     Isomorphism, another name for coding.
     Words of others.
     Lists and strings are fluid data structures. ["WaveSon.net 45"]

And the structures flow everywhere, criss-crossing and overlapping into a global, virtual tapestry as varied and complex as the night sky. V—with nodes in both print and virtual dimensions—attempts to mimic the texture of this new, disembodied world by calling attention to its granularity and pervasiveness. For example, each individual stanza in each poem of Losing L'una is numbered in some way, signifying both its position within a predefined structure and its integrity as a modular unit that can be moved from one structure to another. These pieces can be seen as "Minute portions of the world precisely as complex // and organized as the large." ["WaveSon.net 41"] In essence, Strickland has "pre-digitized" her own work, that it might be re-distributed or recombined in a nonlinear, non-print medium. The online section of V, There Is A Woman in a Conical Hat, [http://vniverse.com] visually anchors the WaveSon.net poems to stars and constellations that take shape when one clicks on a particular star. Double clicking "releases" a WaveSon.net, first a tercet, then the entire poem.

Like Ezra Pound, Strickland's intellectual interests are encyclopedic in scope, but in her poetry she focuses on a handful of deeply mined specialties. If Pound's were the classical Greeks and Romans, the troubadours, and economic theories, Strickland's are the life and work of Simone Weil, mathematics, and the nature of systems. V is her second book to take Weil for its explicit muse (the first being 1993's The Red Virgin), and the much-lauded True North (Notre Dame, 1998) also surveyed the intersections of language, numbers and mythology, eventually spilling over into a hypertext version published by Eastgate [http://www.eastgate.com/catalog/TrueNorth.html]. Strickland's long-standing interest in the theory and application of hypertext is well established, and with 1999's The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot [http://wordcircuits.com/gallery/sandsoot] she produced a hypertext poem, combined with striking visual components, whose theme is "the passionate relation between silicon- and carbon-based life." The Ballad offers the option of reading each piece in its original order, in random order, or via links consciously chosen.

Nevertheless, the novelty of hypertext poetry has been waning, largely because —as many critics have noted —poetry is itself a kind of hypertext, relying far more on associative connections than narrative ones. The leaps a poem achieves in our minds are not necessarily lengthened by breaking the work up and hiding the pieces around the house like so many Easter eggs. Also, despite its supporters' claim that hypertext enlists the reader's participation in reshaping the text, the points at which one might veer off from the original order are themselves predetermined by the author. (A useful symposium on the conceptual issues surrounding hypertext—initiated by Strickland herself —can be found in American Letters & Commentary #12, 2000 [http://www.amletters.org/index12.html].)

My own reservation about hypertext poetry—illustrated I'm afraid by this review—is that discussions of form inevitably co-opt the content of the work, and while toying with recombinant poems can be interesting for a time, even surprising if serendipity comes into play, the point—which is often the familiar point about authorial/cultural control versus reader empowerment—gets made pretty quickly. Surprise entrusted to chance—as John Cage and Jackson MacLow have shown—is more a matter of mechanics than of art. We're still left to ask "Now what?" when all the clicking is done.

For all its adventuresome spirit, V is at heart an academic enterprise. Content plainly matters. Yet despite its dense allusiveness—obscure references to Weil, Diophantus, the Tarot, and Haitian goddesses abound—the work's formal self-referentiality ("I will thread/thee th[m]emes"), the question of why it assumes the form it does, takes precedence. The absence of glosses for specific references invite engaged readers to consult the list of books Strickland provides (e.g. Hamlet's Mill, Weil's Notebooks, Mandelbrot's work on fractals), but such enticements to abandon the text at hand again serve to enact her demonstration of intertextual form—that one should carry ideas generated by V to its sources and ideas from the sources back to the poem again.

Though my ambivalence toward hypertext poetry in general remains, it's clear that V is unquestionably an intriguing and inventive example of the genre—a "passionate" study of epistemological textures, if you will—and should inspire coffee house debates and doctoral dissertations in the years to come. Whether or not V constitutes a literary step forward is open to discussion, but it is most certainly a step outward.

 

 

© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review