Bridge Work

Bridge Work

2003-03-25
V: WaveSon.nets/Losing L'una
Stephanie Strickland
Penguin (http://www.penguinputnam.com), 128 pages; paper, $18.00

Form and platform are bridged in Stephanie Strickland’s “V: WaveSon.nets/Losing L’una,” a book with two beginings and a website to boot. Chris Funkhouser tests the load limit of this innovative, precarious structure.

Stephanie Strickland’s latest publication is indicative of “bridge” work increasingly apparent in publications by poets who seriously use computer technology to present writing in traditional and experimental formats. Strickland, who has published hypertext poetry on diskette and CD-ROM, is a leader among these figures and here works inventively with the printed form and its digital counterpart. This self-proclaimed “invertible book with two beginnings” has two particularly unusual features: the halves of the book are printed in opposite directions, so instead of reading front-to-back we read front-to-middle twice and proceed onward from there, as at the V of the book is a “link” to a Web site, http://vniverse.com. Atypical operations and questions face the reader: decisions must be made regarding how to enter the book, and readers must consider and establish a relationship between the parts of the book and the Web site, putting these formally disparate yet interconnected texts into play with one another. Strickland’s effort here is a successful, conscious hybridization of form and platform.

While numerous books have featured alternative materiality, public evidence of these explorations at present is minimal. That a publisher like Penguin has produced the book is among many signals that the accelerated graphical capabilities of the computer are influencing printed collections. Over the past two decades publishers have used digital technology for convenience; finally, publishers are recognizing its creative attributes.

V extends the concerns of Strickland’s earlier projects, particularly The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil (1993), and True North, poem collections published in paper and digital formats. (At its publication in 1997, True North was reviewed in ebr.) Strickland further illuminates, reflects, and deeply employs her passions and investigations into the structures of science and literature, presenting them with a deliciously playful textuality. V ‘s focus is intense upon “a wedge of our sky.” Strickland verbally and visually enacts a cosmology in this book, with engrossing pathways and a guided turbulence that passes through disorientation (romance and loss) and yet responds afresh, empowered. She is devotional to her female forbears, most prominently Simone Weil (to whom the book is dedicated); a potent feminist edge pervades. The poems are cultivated and dense with a balance of discursive and conventional modes.

Losing L’una employs a numbering system that is a mysterious indication of motion and splitting or separation. Since the poems are in a fixed order, numbers embody a periodical energy. Scientific, mathematical, and philosophical knowledge and their dimensions in the world are reflected. Fragmentation seems to be considered, as the stars are fragments of light? But, finally, there is a highly organized scheme. Strickland’s style questions the utility of disorganized particulate matter; disconnection is not celebrated. Her romanticism, which might seem out of place in such an unconventional text, is a reminder that within the universal calamity it still exists. In “TITA: The Incandescent Thought About,” Strickland conjoins the personal and expansive orders that reverberate throughout the book:

     5.79
   As the reed, torn from its roots
   and cut to a flute whose whole song is longing,
   so too
   the heart, made to be broken. Consent

     5.80
   to be broken is difficult
   to give, for we imagine
   ourselves

     5.81
   either powerful or powerless. Passion
   forgets
   the beloved, life, superdense

     5.82
   globular clusters, dispersing universe and the
   stars
   it harbors, a nuclear forge
   in the carried along scattering fall, multiversical

     5.83
   clones–or open clusters
   like the Pleiades, the motion of a starfish
   arm. Isomorphic?

Losing L’una ‘s title indicates a sense of losing “the one” or one losing, as well as cosmological (lunar) disorientation. A number and decimal are supplied for each stanza, moving progressively then regressively with quirky gaps. This works to uncoil and coil the text and overtly creates a type of space/time(line) dimension, a numeric momentum, while the content speaks to the flaws of Western mechanisms to regain the human primal. This split series of poems (each stanza is numbered, but every other poem reverts to whole numbers in linear order) is impish and poignant. In the wilder series we read:

     2.32
   A mind
   is trapped, Miss Mary Mack, by number,
   by the number of relations that can be simulta
   neously present,

     2.33
   while ignorant
   of thoughts which involve a greater number:
   unformable
   thoughts….

The “straight” poems are as deep and tend toward a more internalized expression, as in “Lovers”:

     1
   Lovers are never one.
   Narcissus
   is never two. Desiring

     2
   some thing
   is
   impossible: the true

     3
   desire
   is for nothing. Into
   nothing….

In later poems, such as “Simone Demystifies Mercy,” the motif of tension between Eastern and Western ontology is developed:

     5
   breaking. Mercy is
   strained, nailed between two poles.
   It is easier

     6
   for us to feel pity,
   mixed with horror
   & repulsion.

The WaveSon.nets embrace the idea of the sonnet rather than its canonical manifestation. It is an odd appropriation in some respects, presumably adopted as a way to challenge and underscore orderliness in literature. This set of poems could otherwise be read as a continuous narrative, if not essentially one poem, marked by marvelous wordplay, Strickland’s “heard herald world/ of word shaped.” Though the poems look and read differently than those in Losing L’una, the themes and luminous cosmology are similar but with a different type of verbal realization. They are also expanded to include historical and computer/technological examples or analogies, as in the first stanza of “WaveSon.net 25”:

   to imitate. Making a fake
   from grotto to crypt, to the pre-final form
   of stalactite and stalagmite, the Gothic
     cathedral,
   our Virtual CAVETM

One powerful characteristic in this sequence is that shifts in meaning transpire as new poems begin. For instance, “WaveSon.net 8” ends, “Fin(-ger) to finger, I shiver/ am calm: the reef embraces the water/ that wears it.” A completely other direction (entropic) in the narrative begins when the first line of “WaveSon.net 9” consists of one word: “down.” Strickland creatively uses the “end” of a poem or turn of the page at several junctures. These jolts are a reminder that the text - somehow a mind on the page - is an unpredictable, otherworldly journey.

Such turns are technologically magnified in V ‘s Web site, a fascinating expansion of WaveSon.nets that unites, fractures, and - literally - blurs its language. This Director project is a collaboration between Strickland and Cynthia Lawson; the interface is a starscape in the form of an interactive image that viewers scan with the mouse to view constellations (visual and verbal) contained therein. The constellations (drawn) emerge and link various poems to each other. A new surface - in the form of a single word for each star - appears. Excerpts from the poems associated with these thematic words unfurl in response to the viewer’s input as they scan the points on Strickland’s virtual sky. Clicking on these points brings forth sections of the poetry in various orders, fonts, and colors. Passages remain on the screen, colliding and morphing into other passages. Another method of reading is also given: readers can input a number between 1 and 232 to be directed to each “sample” of this Net Song.

In this grouping of texts, Strickland continues to show how passionate expression is permitted by print’s animated counterpart. It is a major accomplishment that Strickland has managed to interest a commercial publisher in such unconventional presentation. The way the materiality of the book is reconsidered in V is meaningful. Yet even so, the book is not beyond criticism and refinement, as superfluous material is included within the pages. For instance, why identical materials (advance blurbs, list of the author’s previous publications, copyright information, dedication, and epigraph) need to be included in both halves of the book (yet do not appear on the Web site) is not clear. This is a minor formal consideration that has little to do with the superior content of the poetry, however. The work in V is ruthlessly lyrical and deep. The pages and screens pass quickly along as you are drawn into its heady vortex.