Joseph Tabbi reads both the book and the hypertext version of Strickland’s True North.
A Migration Between Media
A Migration Between Media
Frequently in True North, Strickland makes reference - and hypertext may be, even in poetry, primarily a medium and method of annotation - to Muriel Rukeyser’s 1942 biography of Josiah Willard Gibbs (1839-1903). From this source comes the narration of an incident, of a sort to help posterity recognize a man “of whom,” says Rukeyser, “so few stories have been told” (224):
Gibbs spoke only once
in a Faculty Meeting, during
protracted, tiring debate on elective courses:
should there be - more English, more Classics? More? Or less.
They were astonished to see him rise, after thirty-two years,
though familiar with the high, pained-sounding voice: a man of snow
assessing. Not to be distracted, or dispersed into longcuts,
not to be turned from the whole entire empty mist
hanging in the cold air, not to miss - or
intrude on the nothing that was
in every emotional way,
Gibbs, hidden at home, creating the loneliness
he needed to assume just one responsibility - for which no thanks,
much complaining of it, some wonder. Lost, in the clouds of snow gathering
in CT over Transactions amp; Proceedings of the local Academy of Sciences,
the one un-evasion he accepted: shortcutting elegance by uncouth
statement that is efficient in every respect. The reward for
getting past the failings of language? To be found
un-readable. Gibbs rose. He said: Mathematics
is a language. And sat down.
(True North 61)
“Never married, never moved from their Family Home,” more at home with ideas than with people: like another recurring presence in True North, Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830-1886), Gibbs would seem “As alive,/ or more so, in the grave as out of it” True North 48). Dickinson writes of dwelling in possibility; her persona, characteristically speaking in “The clipped and polite cadence of a caller’s speech” (Rukeyser 175), can be heard in True North as if from “across the garden/ fence of the grave”:
…Speaking in the tomb, of the tomb, as of a ride,/ /
one of many, every poem one of many, No-name inquiries -
(True North 48)
A poem takes a singular form on the page or on the screen, but meaning depends on redundancy and the repetition of patterns internally and in other poems, both written and unwritten, published and (in Dickinson’s case) “stitched into” private notebooks (True North 40). Thread to Marta Werner on Dickinson, “The Flights of A821” Having few stories to tell, at the risk of unreadability, poetry approaches a generality usually reserved for the non-referential arts - music and mathematics. Gibbs’s “700/ equations/ /…set up in type at last/ by shopkeepers’/ subscription” (True North 40) approximate the state of a thermodynamic system not by describing the system itself or narrating its actual history, but by reference to all possible states, the various ways in which its elements arrange themselves as the system evolves. A prediction was never more than an approximation, to be corrected and re-drawn through continual comparison with the real state of the system (meaning “any portion of the universe which we choose to separate in thought, in order to consider it” [Rukeyser 235]). In Connecticut, “they/ Make Do”: the mode of publication, the material form by which the work of Gibbs and Dickinson was given to their initial audiences, establishes a pattern that - so far from being incidental to the “meaning” of a poem or equation - in some sense determines the possibility of all future meanings, as the poem or equation finds various and usually unanticipated material instantiations.
A “hotword” in hypertext at once identifies an emerging pattern in one system and allows entry into another; three such words appear in the paragraph just concluded: system, prediction, history:
Although it takes us too far from the subject at hand here, I would contend that there are a number of distinct and indeed incompatible historicist trajectories in Marx’s own work. Many of these historicist projections turned out to be wrong. But that was precisely the point of them. In the difference between the trajectory plotted by a historicist theory and the wayward movements of history itself lies a method which allows for a constant writing and rewriting of the pleasures and dangers of the future. (McKenzie Wark, Virtual Geography 223-24)
The introduction of the new in poetry - the ‘really new,’ as T.S. Eliot might have said - requires a re-adjustment of all the mental categories by which we have come to know and recognize poetry as such. (Eliot’s word for the set of categories facilitating poetic re/cognition was “tradition.”) Strickland’s poetics of indirect citation, annotation, and recombination creates affinities with a distinctive (and mostly American) tradition that reaches back through Dickinson to Jonathan Edwards. Her willingness to court abstraction and a minimalist language (at the risk of occasional unreadability) opens what should be a fruitful conversation with the Language Poets, one element in the Electropoetics thread while the recognition awarded True North by the judges for the Sandeen Prize ensures that her work will be welcomed into the domestic spaces of contemporary social realism no less than the more public-minded collectivities represented at meetings of the Modern Language Association and the Society for Literature and Science (where Strickland has given readings). A contemporary of Gibbs whom Rukeyser, for some reason, identifies only as “Kraus,” gives the most useful appreciation of the particular mix of intellection and materialist attention in Strickland’s poetry. A member of the Yale Department of Physics, Kraus left in its archives an evaluation of an early invention by Gibbs, “a new type of governor” constructed locally in the outlying shops of industrial New Haven. What Kraus writes concerning a scientist known almost exclusively for his contributions to theory is equally suggestive for readers with an interest in the role of theory in literary invention:
Until we have come to know that Gibbs was endowed with a mind which possessed a keen appreciation of and interest in things physical and practical, his life and works remain a profound mystery. Possessing intellectual powers of the highest order, as much at home in pure mathematics as in physics and chemistry, Gibbs constantly exercised his will to direct his thoughts along lines that lay within the framework of material phenomena. (cited in Rukeyser 144-45)
Gibbs’s media, and the sociological meaning of his work, were given to him by the ruling industrialists of the last third of the last century; his theory is materialist not because it reduces the world to brute fact, but rather because its abstractions find expression in processes and inventions that would only later be actualized, through a material world that on closer inspection increasingly “mists away into mystical refinements” (A. R. Ammons, Garbage 25). I suspect that, behind Strickland’s decision to publish True North as both a conventional print collection and a hypertext, lies something of this desire to exercise power by directing language and thought through the time’s defining media (and, through models that are never more than approximations, to rewrite our understanding of “the pleasures and dangers of the future” [Wark 224]). Two-part publication does not mean that Strickland simply put the print version of the manuscript on disk (as in those CD-ROMs, published by Norton and others, whose engagement with the medium is purely quantitative, the next step after it becomes impossible to make the paper in anthologies any thinner). Electronic publication should never be a simple process of conversion. Strickland’s achievement is to locate the poetic possibilities inherent in the new medium, such that imagination might find expression in tags and numbers and nested programs no less than in words. ^1 On her motivations for working in the new medium, Strickland writes, “I think that I was seeking to write hypertext - not knowing what I was looking for then - all the way back as far as trying to deal with Simone Weil’s life and thought, a case where she had no authority over publication of her own work. One was faced with making do with a variety of false, because madly partisan, accounts - the interpretive paradigms are at such odds with each other, but all apply. True North explores guidance and navigation/orientation when these are very much up for grabs. All the candidate answers however use some basic bodily metaphors in their language, and pregnancy, which gets read as containment, embedding, self-similarity, subsethood, etc. in different contexts, is certainly one of the basic metaphors explored in TN, a central mother-lost category as pregnancy becomes removed from the body to the laboratory vessel” (private correspondence, December 17, 1998).
Making do with materials that stand ready to hand, “American Artificers” find “Articula[tion] Among Us” and a distinctively “American Speech” (to cite, somewhat inaccurately, three titles in the section of True North featuring Gibbs and Dickinson). In a hypertext poem whose lines can be linked together unpredictably into suggestive patterns, the line itself - as a figure - becomes a primary source of articulation:
seep into melting snow and gray afternoon;
long strokes on the pond; Emily
inside the clear glass of her window.
In this Valley, neighbors
- sustain - hidden fervence, run Underground
railroads; Images and Shadows
in Edwards’s notebooks, flint
stitched into Dickinson’s, 700
of Gibbs’s great paper set up in type at last
subscription: in CT, they
Make Do, but they tore
the house, the home on High Street, Gibbs’s - born
and died there - down.
(True North 39-40)
This poem - “American Speech” - elaborates a network of curving lines and stitched threads but ends in a single downward stroke, recalling Gibbs’s return to his seat after speaking up at the Yale faculty meeting. Whether presenting a formula for the phase transformation from ice to water (which happens as the boy Gibbs describes literal lines on ice while skating), following the thread of Dickinson’s sewing needle, or tracing a network of individual flights from racial and political oppression (“American Speech” begins with the line, “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God” [ True North 39]), Strickland is generally reflecting on the poetic ‘line’ and its potential inscriptions (i.e., how it gets written down) in print and on disk.
“It’s Easy,” Strickland writes, “at the South Pole. There every / direction/ is true North…. every,/ and so easy,/ at/ /the nadir” (True North 83). Actual techniques of determining true north using stake, shadow, and turning ground are detailed in a series of five one-page poems that come between sections, facilitating transitions among them. (The five titles are colored true blue in the hypertext; the electronic links both forward and backward from each inter-poem to the poems collected in sections, make this mediating function easier in hypertext than in print.) In seeking control and direction, and by asserting force (“… anyone/ coming forward to speak/ is using force ” [ True North 15]), a network of feminine possibility (which “can only/ stand waiting, here/ on earth, where// there are no/ straight/ lines” [ True North 15]) collapses in a downward and Southern reduction, ending (for the transcendentalist Edwards) in a single act of perception, a marriage of subject and object in the presiding male consciousness “at the breast of the whitening world” (True North 53):
In CT, waves of wet snow, in waves
of gravitation. Receiving the vision,
Mathema-physics, Locke’s psychology,
the Universe Organized around
an act of mind: the knowable confined
to the reach of lengthening instrumentation
and the mind’s self-knowing and their inter-
penetration. If God had left off speaking,
once code was stated, briefly,
then Rhetoric should too. The tangible
world intaken: intelligible. The fact
of experience, a shadow of God: the act
of cognition a moment of fusion in which
a thing finds its concept - and is found.
This is a mind of snow in Connecticut.
This is a Snow Mind knowing as if None
knew. Exhilarated. Brilliant. An eagle
at the breast of the whitening world.
(True North 53)
The emotional reduction that Gibbs the Puritan made of his life, and the material reduction that defines his abstract, minimalist, and eventually forceful science, are both ways of cultivating a “Snow mind knowing as if None/ knew.” An unassuming man by nature, Gibbs succeeded in creating an abstract science largely, according to Rukeyser, by keeping to a minimum the number of assumptions made about the physical world. It would be left to later generations of scientists - most dramatically, Planck, Einstein, and the computer scientists - to bring out the power inherent in the 700 equations summarizing Gibbs’s lifework. The theorist offers orientations only; discerning practical power in the theory is slow work indeed, involving constant comparisons and approximations that Strickland compares to a journey across the earth’s sphere. “[O]n earth… //there are no/ straight/ lines” (True North 15): but at the South, the nadir, “the breast of the whitening world,” every direction is potentially a longitude, a great circle path north. There is imagined fecundity in potentia - until one takes the first step: after that, as potential collapses into a single actualization, the explorer must compare her position with the place where she started, exchanging self-reliance for a dependence on measurement - in this case, using the simplest, most sustainable technology available, a stick and its shadow. Later actualizations, employing more complex technologies, not even a Gibbs could have predicted.
Each of the five major episodes [of mass extinction]… represents a drastic net loss of species diversity, a deep trough of biological impoverishment from which Earth only slowly recovered. How slowly? How long is the lag between a nadir of impoverishment and a recovery to ecological fullness?
(David Quammen, “Planet of Weeds: Tallying the losses of Earth’s animals and plants” 58)
The feminine stitchwork in a book’s binding, though seldom noticed, adds a rotational dimension to the act of reading, making codex technology less obviously “linear” than one might think. By the same token, reading poems has always evoked a kind of flickering or oscillating attention that hypertext reinforces, by foregrounding formal connections and verbal juxtapositions, and by inviting readers to jump to another poem as readily as they might go on to the next line in the poem they are reading. Clickable links which display on command (using the ctrl key) connect every poem to as many as six or seven other poems, and colored words suggesting subliminal connections, keep within the reader’s consciousness the many levels at which meaning must work. Reading Strickland, I am inclined to read around in the collection and, eventually, to go outside it - to books such as Rukeyser’s that Strickland cites (and so renews), and to books and articles that, while perhaps unknown to the poet and incidental to her line of thought, at some collective level help to realize potentialities arrived at privately and recorded in the poem.
I am inclined, for example, to look up the preface to The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, in which Norbert Wiener discusses Gibbs’s deviations from linear thinking - “the first great revolution of twentieth century physics” - in terms that should by now suggest a pattern of thought reminiscent of hypertext reading. Wiener writes:
…in a probabilistic world we no longer deal with… a specific, real universe as a whole [as in the Newtonian model of the universe] but ask instead questions which may find their answers in a large number of similar universes….Gibbs’ innovation was to consider not one world, but all the worlds which are possible answers to a limited set of questions concerning our environment. His central notion concerned the extent to which answers that we may give to questions about one set of worlds are probable among a larger set of worlds. (Wiener 18-19, 20)
Writing six years before Wiener, Rukeyser transposed Gibbs’s innovation into literary terms, so that the uneventful ‘life’ comes to us as one variation on many possible lives. Rukeyser, who according to Strickland “fought for his biography” against “cohorts of colleagues and family” (True North 41), does not focus on the isolation Gibbs cultivated, but instead narrates a series of relations, counterparts, and corresponding points. An amateur in thermodynamics writing too early to be influenced directly by computers, Rukeyser expresses both through a nested narrative; periodically, she allows the line of Gibbs’s life and thought to be broken by modular narratives of other lives and modes of thought that impinged on his: James Clerk Maxwell in Cambridge, the first to understand him; Henry Adams, William James, and Charles Sanders Peirce of Harvard University who, like Gibbs at Yale in 1871, founded disciplines by combining areas of knowledge previously thought distinct - experimental psychology for James, a dynamic theory of history for Adams, semiotics for Peirce, and, in Gibbs’s case, mathematical physics and statistical mechanics. This biography constructed of counterparts and correlations is far richer and ultimately more human than those biographies - standard today - whose authors insist on narrating a life as if it amounted to an intelligible “story.”
The universe that had formed him took shape in his mind as a reflection of his own unity, containing all forces except himself. (Henry Adams, The Education 475)
In True North, Rukeyser’s life of Gibbs is seen for what it wasn’t seen to be at the time of its publication, a new kind of history. It serves Strickland less as an information source or cultural reference-point than a model of Mind, and this becomes, in another of True North ‘s unravelling references, Wallace Stevens’s “mind of winter” aware of “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (cited in True North 61). In the electronic version of Strickland’s poem published by Eastgate Systems, clicking on this epigraph from “The Snow Man” takes me to the next poem in the section, titled “Natural Numbers” and subheaded with an empty set of parentheses: (). A pattern of nested parentheses - ((), ((()), etc. - is then developed in subheadings for each of the subsequent poems in the section (six altogether), ending in a pattern that contains in reverse order the first two letters of the section titles, “Natural,” “Integral,” “Rational,” “Real,” “(Imaginary)”:
(IM (RE (RA (IN (NA)))).
(The pattern reverses the order of poems, but this is the correct logical order for embedding numbers on the number line, where the category for “imaginary” numbers contains the “real,” contains “rational,” contains “integers” etc.) ^2 Strickland elaborates: “Also that pattern, becoming verbal and thereby changing levels, changes levels again when it moves from an acronym to a name, Im Re.Rainna: Im Re.writing (I’m Rerainna, I’m rewriting…) “She” is the author. Of what, the book, the hypertext, the endeavor? Or another lost mother who writes from the communal oral experiential side, shifting the levels? Or akin to Adam Smith’s hand?” (private correspondence, Dec 17, 1998.)
That’s one possible trajectory through the section - a linear reading that makes explicit reference to “embedded links that connect embodied experience with universal abstraction” (in the words of N. Katherine Hayles cited on the book jacket).
But that’s not the thread I’m following at the moment, in this reading which is one of many readings that Eastgate’s software can capture and save for future recall. I am interested, instead, in pursuing the Stevens reference, insofar as it concentrates a number of themes already noted in Strickland’s winter migration. Lines in the e-text referring to a “storm/ in the night so great,/ so erasing the man” are not given as clickable links leading out to other poems in the collection. Nonetheless, traditional habits of reading suffice for generating resonances, affinities, and recurrences in any number of passages on snow in Connecticut:
Gibbs making found
what lies hidden, so deeply nested
is it within, so down
deeply pocketed, miles
from the icy, calm, notational
surface: making a line,
a lure, one symbol, one elliptical
expression, holding echo
upon echo, decoding
to a catalog: an infinite
as almost welcome and always
in the mind, like the cloud, low
and going to snow
in CT. Great still pool. Demoralized
desire that waits for
as if the snow were
(True North 51)
“Demoralise,” we learn elsewhere, is “…the one/ word/ /Noah Webster invented, of all those/ in his book” (True North 39). This one word, spelled with an English “s” by Webster but used with a current z in the later occurrence, is an example of the embedded and subliminal way that Strickland tracks history. “Demoralise” is a clickable link in the hypertext version, but clicking on it does not lead, mechanically, to the place where it recurs (as “Demoralized”). A hypertext poetics need not automate interpretation and had better not offer links in place of reading habits that can only be cultivated in the mind of a practiced reader. Poetry is better served through indirection. In this case, the hypertext link demoralise is tagged to the title of the opening section of True North, “The Mother-Lost World.” Once there, five or six poems into the section, a highlighted reference to TechnI.con(tm), “a patented genomic sac,” leads to a poem titled “Pregnancy,” while the word “stainless” leads to another poem that speaks of what “science/ creates.” Two other words, “fatal” and the last two syllables in “precursor,” are highlighted in the same purple as TechnI.con(tm). These also are tagged to “Pregnancy,” which speaks of cell migrations, undulations, and “layered movement” that science has yet to understand. In this context, technology’s own stumbling efforts at evolution, and science’s less destructive efforts at knowing, are themselves contextualized as elements in the poem’s organic and layered processes.
What is demoralizing about all this is the idea of how much has been lost by the many mothers in this poem. Just as much as the Puritanical ascetic abstract quest demoralizes (and strengthens) men such as Edwards and Peirce and Adams and Gibbs, there is demoralization in the lost potential embodied by the various women in the collection. Among all the lost mothers of the Mother-Lost world - Mother Goose, the old woman of Beare, Briseis “Found/ in bed, aborted” (True North 8), Eve, the Witch of Endor, and Dickens’s Mme. DeFarge (whose knitting, like Dickinson’s, holds structural secrets) - I have to include the author in the process of organizing the final text out of elements that had another life, in earlier publishing contexts, before they were deployed into the recombinant space of the Eastgate True North.
One way - a traditionalist way - of psychologizing these dichotomies between male force and female fecundity, technology and science, is through an implied tension between a desire and a lack. Throughout True North, an impulse toward naming (identified with a masculine fulfillment that collapses potential) and a loss of reference (conveyed, for the most part, through feminine associations of disorientation and Eve-like wanting to know), combine together toward the same downward thrust (made visible, this time, in the shape of the lines):
A lover who eschews force - anyone
coming forward to speak
is using force -
stand waiting, here
on earth, where
there are no
(True North 15)
For Stevens thinking about what it means to be human, consciousness and its powers of delineation emerge from precisely such an absence or a lack - a nothing that is both there and not there, an observed universe that contains all forces but the observing self. But Strickland, in her arrangement of lines, does more than recite the thought structures of a major modernist precursor. The differential basis of this structure, familiar in philosophers from Plato to Derrida, is the hierarchy between presence and absence, by which “presence is aligned with logos, God, teleology - in general, with an originary plenitude that can act to ground signification and give order and meaning to the trajectory of history” (N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 285). Are We Posthuman Yet? Between “the fact/ of experience” and “the act/ /of cognition,” the explorer - Edwards, Gibbs, Pythagoras in his quest for Real numbers - seeks a ground in which “a thing finds its concept,” and then, Godlike, he leaves off speaking (True North 53).
With this traditionalist formulation, I am perhaps ready to leave Stevens and take up the alternative thread through Strickland’s poem suggested by Professor Hayles, who sees new ways of thinking emerging in part from the development of electronic media and their grounding in information theory (whose practitioners have traveled some distance in the years since Wiener named the field cybernetics and identified it with the study of systems of control). Hayles characterizes the “new cultural configurations” as developing out of a simple “shift from presence/absence to pattern/randomness” (285). Such emergent form is evident everywhere in Strickland’s sequence of poems, but nowhere is it better illustrated, perhaps, than in the cover art for the print version by Joseph Cornell, titled Constellation (Project for a Christmas Card) (1953). Painted against a dark cardboard background are paper lines, straight and curved, and spattered points that perhaps resemble a snowstorm, a field of stars, or (looked at coldly) particle traces in a bubble chamber. Perched on one of the lines, also in white but with some of the dark background showing through, is a cut-out picture of a bird in profile, beak to the right. The human image (and the bird is drawn as only a human, most likely a child, would imagine it) emerges out of an abstract and random set of forces; it is a gnomon or orientation device in a directionless space, where the concept of ‘north’ is wholly abstract.
Such is the visual language of the poem. Verbally, in the poem’s own medium, we can approach the emergence of pattern from randomness in a line Strickland attributes to Gibbs’s father, “Josiah Willard, the Elder, Professor at Yale/ of sacred books”: ” Language/ /is a cast of the human mind ” (True North 46). The father’s words combine with the son’s singular declaration before the Yale faculty: ” Mathematics/ is a language.” Against the fecundity, passivity, and random noise of the Mother-Lost world, True North also delineates an intellectual progression in the development of abstract knowledge. Not a linear progression, and not an opposition among conflicting stances. Instead, the poem creates in the mind of the reader a disposition, while reading, to combine recurrent phrases in a sidelong or web-like fashion: Mathematics is a Language is a Cast of the Human Mind… Phrases already formed are likewise broken down and defamiliarized, as in the title, “Even Purits Forced to Re-Cog.” Cognition becomes a matter of cogs and counterparts. A modular mind of winter, consciousness is stripped “naked” so as to better combine with structures that emerge from background noise - from the electrical snow that is the only ground of meaning, the background source of any positive communication of information.
Language is a cast: it seeks fixity and gives shape through a set form; it also generates meaning out of randomness, as in the throw of a die. Or the flinging of a fishing line.
At the start of this essay, in passing, I identified literary hypertext as, in the first instance, a technology of annotation. One should not take this to imply a passive citation of an authoritative source. Rather, the hypertextual citation is a means of releasing the power of established forms by placing them in new contexts, where they may combine in ways (and through media) not necessarily foreseen by those who created the forms initially. In closing, I ought to perhaps mention one technical feature of True North that works to limit that propensity towards out-of-context citation and recombination. Eastgate has made it impossible to copy a poem simply by passing the cursor over the text, thus inhibiting the freedom of citation and Web circulation that hypertext ought to be encouraging. One can of course copy the disk onto other machines, in toto, but however wide its reproduction, the electronic poem is restricted to a single location - the publisher’s disk and the owner’s hardrive - more or less as the print collection is restricted to the bound pages of a book. If this prevents the text from escaping the control of the author and her publisher, nothing keeps readers from completing its recombinant aesthetic in the privacy of their own minds, as readers have done for as long as they’ve been singled out as consumers.
Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams (1918). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.
Ammons, A.R. Garbage. New York: Norton, 1993.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Infomatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Quammen, David. “Planet of Weeds: Tallying the losses of Earth’s animals and plants.” Harper’s Magazine (October, 1998): 57-69.
Rukeyser, Muriel. Willard Gibbs. New York: Doubleday, Doran amp; Company, 1942.
Strickland, Stephanie. True North. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1997. (Hypertext published in 1998 by Eastgate Systems
Wark, McKenzie. Virtual Geography: Living with Global Media Events. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Weiner, Norbert. The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (2nd edition). Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954.