Wednesday, December 17, 2008



Zone : Zero by Stephanie Strickland
(Ahsahta Press, 2008)

Pink Acid Cloud and Digital Love:
The Slipstream Worlds of Stephanie Strickland’s Zone : Zero

As a reader/writer with a new baby, my perception being deflected and refracted through the senses of someone just learning to use them, I'm positioned differently in relation to things I read. Previous to parenthood, I consumed reading materials by way of tools honed to maximize an output of applicability to my own writing, which meant marking these materials with reference points by which I could "make sense" or decode these materials. I would understand what I read by way of things I had already read, and so could categorize and interpret according to rules of categories and interpretations generated by reading what I had experienced or read in the past. This is a very commonly-taught way of reading: read for patterns and then apply what you learn about those patterns to the next thing you read which displays those patterns. And in my case, I was particularly interested in how to torque an interpretation, or take advantage, of what I read for the purposes of something I was writing.

But having a baby has changed all of my machinery for categorizing and applying the rules of categories to objects and phenomena. For instance, while at the bagel shop across the street this morning, I walked with my baby toward a door stop that was mounted on the wall adjacent to the women's bathroom. My baby didn't point out this doorstop to me, or make bodily motions indicating he wanted to be nearer to the doorstop. But because I was holding my baby, and trying to do whatever I could to occupy or interest him, as I always do, some part of my mental functioning, of which I was not totally aware, told me to walk the baby over to the doorstop and point out the doorstop to him. The doorstop was mounted at waist-height, and was a rubber-filled metal ring. I thought surely the feel of the rubber and the 3-D aspect of the doorstop would interest him. And it did. The doorstop turned into a baby-point-of-interest for the morning.

So, my goal in reading the doorstop as a new mom was shifted from what it was as a non-mom. Specifically, as a reader going about in the world among things and people, I am now not only reading phenomena in order to understand them and apply that understanding to other tasks (such as writing, or opening doors non-destructively), but am functioning as a facilitator of someone else's reading of these phenomena. I have a role in producing the readerly experience for someone else.

It seems my openness to this new understanding of the shifting function of doorstops required first having a baby. That poetry can make such shifts in its readers' perceptual frameworks is taken for granted by readers and writers alike, including myself. But these shifts in the reading experience don't actually come along all that often, and when they do, they feel as noteworthy as my doorstop experience (which is to say quite noteworthy!).The Wordsworthian free-verse lyric (whose rhetoric uses print-poem techniques which have been around for a long while) is going strong. But when a poem tries out some new technology, lays out new sets of terms and tools for its readers, actually producing new uses and meanings for the act of reading, is when poetry really feels like it's doing its poetry thing. This is how poetry defines itself. And this is how poetry as a practice is renewed as relevant, applicable, accessible, and understandable: when it opens readers' own mechanisms for reading language to a slightly unprecedented but shared capability.

Stephanie Strickland's Zone : Zero enacts and constitutes this shift. The language and structure of the book arches its ingenuous eye toward an interrogation into what poetry does. Initially this happens via the question of how poetry is contained; the book is segmented into five zones ("ZONE ARMORY WAR, "ZONE MOAT ELSE" "ZONE DUNGEON BODY," "ZONE RAMPART LOGIC," "ZONE MOTE ELSE") the language of which (with the exception of "MOTE")* describes these zones as enclosed defensive structures which may or may not act on each other and which may or may not supplement each other's work. These are distinct enclosures/containers, not to be confused with acts of a drama or with personal narrative segments conjoined by a unified lyrical voice. Zone : Zero's structure maps out five parallel disjointed territories. The zones are enclosed places, each zone performing its own work across the fabric of a plane parallel to other planes. What the zones of the book share, in addition to a sense of pre-occupation that results from each section's intense focus, is the fact of their purposeful activity. Each zone performs work that none other could perform.

That said, there are strong threads of linguistic texture crossing through and linking up the ecosystems of each zone, which work together to pull the reading activity into the reader's body: there's sand, dust, colors, crystals, shadows, faiths, lyrics, roots, myths, and histories all skirting each other parabolically. The language bestows real tangibility to the experience of the poems. While the business of the poems and their sections progress, there's also a palpable sense of levity from a lack of the neurotic dialogic double-backing that plagues some lyrical free-verse modes. In a way, Zone : Zero has the best of both poetic-tradition (the one it creates, and the one from which it is born) worlds.

The poems of "ZONE ARMORY WAR,"* the book's first section, are wavelike and rhythmic, patterned after tides and speaking to the constancy and quietness (as in, the poem "Constant Quiet") of the most violently aggressive of human activities. Heroes and heroines, kings and commoners, rubble fields, holy wars, orange trees, pink acid clouds, birdsongs and bond-slaves all populate and penetrate the introductory section of Zone : Zero. These poems inhabit their space on a rise and fall of energy across and/or down the page that seems to have no origin and no endstop. Images of disintegrating lab equipment, trash pits raided by roving eyes, televisions left playing in the middle of the forest, biotic life in the chemical pool – all swimming their cycles in their post-millennial debris, suspended and buoyed by the cosmic rehearsal of ultimate inevitability. Sharp objects and toxic substances, floods and holy wars all come and go with the regularity of leaves on a tree, even if the immediacy of these events feels more or less apocalyptic.

The variable patterning of infinitude in this first section gives way to the book's "moat," the meandering "Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot." The back and forth playfulness of Sand and Soot, zeroes and ones, constitutes the kind of moat which is so loopy, it feels more like a stream. Very much a departure from the checkerboarded tit-for-tat tone of "War Day" in "ZONE ARMORY WAR,"* Sand and Soot's back and forth conversation is a song, a classical narrative of the passionate link between the pursuer (Soot) and the pursued (Sand):
Soot loves Sand. Every tree,
every wall, a target inscription, pierced
by Tell's weapon. Turn me on,
the swooshing sound Soot hears Sand
murmur. (32)

The hypertext version of the poem notes that the ballad's Sand and Soot refer to silicon and carbon. These are organic materials ("Biocompatible glass?" 39) matched in a game of digital-carbonic footsie. Rejecting traditional status as a purely passive love object, Sand's shapeshifting marks her as more of an interactive sort:
Sand's never the sameness fleeter than
anything Soot could get a hand, a handle,
on. Flickery swift. And yet. One finger
brings her crashing down...(42)

As a courtship narrative, "The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot" explores how digital and hypertextual technologies can degrade easy demarcations of active subject/passive love object and how the chemical, biological, and cosmological vocabularies which constitute digital creation can also be employed to describe a love relationship. And all the while, the Ballad remains, at essence, playful.
If a silly con were all Sand were.

                  If an ashy trash were all of Soot.

*                   *                   *                   *

That Zone : Zero can successfully ride these waves of gravity and weightless play is due in large part to a sense that the poems (and their specialized vocabularies) are carefully dipping themselves onto the page from their normal spheres (zones) of activity. I am not at all versed in fractal geometry, Austrian logic systems, or motion capture coding. I am not, as can be expected when reading poetry, reading solely for the consumption of this information, so in reading Zone : Zero, I get to gear up a different kind of cognitive machinery in making an experience for myself with these poems which do feature this type of information. These are poems that blissfully mind and conduct their own business, regardless of whether or not they have my go-ahead. In short, I am never, as a reader of 21st-century American poetry, being sympathized with by the activities of Zone : Zero. What I am given is the opportunity to create my own experience of reading the book, by way of handling various kinds of matter that I would otherwise be shunted from (by myself or by the discreteness of the categories of knowledge to which we all attain). Rather than describe this experience as an amateurish dalliance in things like Greek tragedy, virtual technologies, mysticisms, and math, I would describe the opportunity the poems give as a sort of nano-pricking or nano-threading of these knowledges onto or in and out of the surface of me. These prickings and threadings pick up flashes of memories and associations which then constitute a distinct sensation – one which is particular to me – of the experience of the book.

This pricking-ness, though, is the least of a factor in the third section of the book, "ZONE DUNGEON BODY."* If the poems in this zone are collectively represented by an underground cell or prison which also tangentially relates to the body, it would seem that these left-justified lyrical narrative poems are being described collectively as restricted, restrictive, hemmed-in, constricted, or contained. This is more or less a tautology about formal lyricism. (Which is to say: when your poems only come in a certain kind of package, they only come in a certain kind of package.) But that this tautology also relates to the body, to the limits of the body, creates a relation between this section of the book and the other sections of the book, which display lyrical, visual, and narrative freedoms most obviously in material and nonmaterial substances like silicon, sand, ones, zeroes, fuel rocks, gelatin-silver, and Caves. This section is a sort of departure from previous sections, or a landing back onto home turf:
Just a stone barn
and Rodney's music....

you couldn't even
figure it out, unless you
were told about it.... (53)

Stone barns and stories. In fact, "Stone Barn" includes a sort of commentary on the double-bind of material forms – how materials, being as they are materials, can be so easily hijacked for unintended uses: "...the engineer/mixed it funny, putting down/the piano entirely/when the voice appeared." But this surrender of control is also itself a sort of comfort: "Rodney says,/ that wasn't/ what he meant, but you can't/ be everywhere..." (54). Quite a sigh of relief it is to abandon responsibility for being everywhere.

The comfort of the familiar linearity of these poems is very real. It's also linguistically luscious and even juicy and rich for the knowledge-seeking head. "Absinthe: The Twelve" is in part a survey of oft-overlooked women artists and ascetics from Salt Pillar and Sheba to Patti Smith. The "ZONE DUNGEON BODY"* poems very much reassure that the book as a whole, while engaged in a discussion of late technologies which have redefined what it means to "read," is coming from a place defined by a quote unquote simple love of reading and writing words that make poetry.

The experience of reading this third section leads to the question of what it means to read for pleasure versus what it means to read for something else. Is reading with the goal of learning something definitively not pleasurable? Is it the goal of poetry to create something enjoyable? Is poetry with references to fields of learning outside the realm of poetry less than poetry? Certainly one of poetry's initial conditions, in reading it, is that you come to it with a more or less open mind/eye/ear. You're coming to poetry, to paraphrase Strickland, to be taken through doors – closed doors, secret doors, and doors you don't know are there. Perhaps the answers to some of these questions about the job of poetry can be found by determining whether or not, as a reader of poetry, you want to take yourself through these doors, you want to be taken through these doors by something or someone else, or whether you can envision a system of reading, learning, and interacting with media which doesn't require such a harsh divide between activity and passivity, producer and consumer, writer and viewer.

Perhaps yet another way of looking at these questions is to wonder whether, as a reader (or, "viewer"?), you need to have knowledge to gain knowledge. To read/view about (or, by way of) motion capture coding, for example, do you need to know what motion capture coding is and how it is made? Or, do you actually need to acquire information about motion capture in order to read information using it? What if you didn't want to consume what you read, but would rather simply view? (And indeed, how is this distinction made?)

A rampart is an embankment of earth surmounted by a parapet which is present to defend a fort. Layer upon layer of defense. The "ZONE RAMPART LOGIC"* section of Zone : Zero begins with a prisoner and ends with a prisoner, and what separates one prisoner from another is the surrender of control of the defenses, or of data, for example, to a realization that "to/ assess / motion, one needs needs that standard..." (80). The mind is distressed in these poems, yet willing to come to grips with the fact of tripping over itself:
slalom total touch re-
currently inclining
crossing to one

voice more than another
like a small creek that stays clear
through numerous findings (75)

Hats are tipped to the work of 20th-century logicians, bridging gaps between Plato's caves and those utilized by 21st-century filmmakers. But the endeavors of logic-seekers and logic-makers, parallel to the work of layers of iron-clad defense, degrade to the touch and give themselves over to the skies:
Never mind that the watch failed to summon,
or did sound, unheard. Dawn,

itself, streak after streak in the big windows, could not
pry open our dreams.

What awaits in the skies, on the other side of the rampart, is the way out or around or beyond the problems of lyrical and experiential limit, beyond the logic of rhetoric and the rhetoric of logic. (And as will be discussed, what follows the release of prisoners from the ramparts of logic is not so much the heart of Zone : Zero as much as it is an accelerator for a way of reading beyond rhetoric.) But on the earthen side of the rampart, experience remains measured in time, space, life, and death: "flowers awaken,/ absorb energy/ to die./ Digits throb/ red alert./ Minutes speed forward only to spread/ apart...." In this dimension, there is one side of the equal sign, and then there is another. Working the sides out in poetry means that truffles and trifles can be equally manhandled in an argument and that as a reader, you are allowed to divest yourself from the outcomes of these arguments and just enjoy the show:
nougats to be made that can't
be toothed – or distoothed – within the Rule

                  but that will be stickily true, nonetheless:
                  a caution...(77)

The words of logicians are equally words and when reappropriated for poetry play, are slanted just enough to reveal their caves and shadows.

*                   *                   *

The final section of Zone : Zero is "ZONE MOTE ELSE."* The "else" in the section's title seems to designate a reaching past what's come before, such as, "I've tried all of these, but what else?" But as opposed to the "else" of "ZONE MOAT ELSE"*, this section's else wants to retain its attachments to what culminated in its fruition. If linear narrative lyric is being stepped away from in Zone : Zero, it certainly is acknowledged as part of the recipe. This is the section, though, in which my doorstop is re-imagined and by the reading of which all other sections become doorstops.

A clue to what else exactly is next comes in the "mote" of the section's title. A mote, as a noun, according to online Merriam-Webster's, is simply a speck, as in a mote of dust or sand. As a verbal auxiliary, mote is an archaic version of may or might, from the Old English "motan" meaning "to be allowed to." Mix all of this together and you get a sense that the poems in this section are infiltrators, interlocutors, getting into secrets areas and coating motionless objects more and more thickly as time accumulates. They have, of course, been given a certain amount of permission. So if the other zones are defensive structures, this zone presents the offender, perhaps invited, who can never be completely contained.

These poems employ a variety of techniques to demonstrate their elseness, including font play, variable (wavelike, really) spacing and enjambment, and the use of programming language to create lyrical "pool.littlegreen willytadpoles" (90). Most prominent in the section, though, is the presence of a 10-part interactive Flash poem, "slippingglimpse," which was made in collaboration with two other artists/writers. The poem is printed in the book (obviously, without the Flash component), is available on-line, and is also one of two poems (the other being "The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot') on the CD included with the book.

Without the interactive component, the poem reads like the busted-up record of a conversation between mathematicians, photographers, medieval farmers, and computer programmers. The truncated bits of dialogue, descriptions of artistic process, and loopy lines about how, for example, "the compositor composits it all" lend themselves to a sense you're witnessing clouds of information spinning from their origins around a projection screen in the sky and that the poem is constructed by its composer/compositor having snatched bits of language out of the ether and landing them on the page (94). This type of reading is fun but also limited, and leaves you really with just having glimpsed a part of a part of the larger activity of the poem.

What you're reading when you're reading the print version of "slippingglimpse" is information that has put you on the production side of the poem. The language here presented is comprised, in part, of samples, recombinations, and direct quotes from articles and interviews from many different sources and on many different subject matters. This print version lives in the interactive version as the scrolling text under various video images of waves and oceanic movements. And the print version of the poem is really part of the source material for the interactive version. In the interactive version, the poem-text overlays the images of the ocean's movements, having been assigned locations in the videos by motion-capture coding technology. So the text, the language of the poem, is just one part of the actuality of "slippingglimpse."

As a moving, rhythmic, interactive piece, "slippingglimpse" is about the cycle of things coming about or together and breaking apart, about the violence of this cycle (seen in video and verbal images), and about how despite this violence and the changes that result, systems have a way of reliably returning to patterns. This echoes the first section of the book and clarifies its violence/constancy couple. The poem's notes note the name for this type of pattern ("chreods"), a designation for a concept which allows for a consideration of transition and change in the midst of patterning. The motion capture coding of the poem-text gives the poem's language a sense of this kind of patterning by animating the text with shakes and murmurs, ascents and descents, whirls and wash-outs. The language of the poem as a whole does not represent a particular authorial position or perspective; but it has trajectory as a constantly-producing and -produced piece of interactive material.

What I want to say about "slippingglimpse" is this: the poem puts the reader in the position not so much as a consumer of the poem but as viewer of the poem (for obvious reasons) and as witness to how the components of the poem read each other. As you experience the poem, you see that it is created in the course of its reacting to itself. The text bumps around the waves captured in the video. The images of the ocean impart the understanding that the language comes and goes, and origins and endpoints are kind of irrelevant. All of these different seers or readers or consumers are performing their work which constitutes the poem, and you are witness to it. As opposed to the sort of moral dictum Wordsworth might provide (as he does in, for instance, the craggy rock section in Book I of "The Prelude:" "life and nature, purifying thus/ The elements of feeling and of thought..." 410-11), there is no moral to the story here. The poem is an invitation to observe your own trajectory, as it collides with the poem, and to take the poem with you in whatever manner you wish, wherever it is that you are going. The poem creates that space at the same time that it constructs itself as an example of how to utilize that space.

It seems important to realize that motes of dust are not only constituted in large part by us, especially indoors, but are also understood as constitutive of the universe. Here, the silicon of the digital realm coincides with stardust of the cosmic realm and the dust-to-dustness of the liberal humanist realm. "ZONE MOTE ELSE"* gives you permission to reside in all of these zones. The trick is to do so with an awareness of all of them, lest you privilege one realm over another and end up pigeon-holed up at one point or another. (I mean, to the chagrin of some animators, motion-capture is here to stay.) And the trajectory of this last section of the book lends trajectory to the book as a whole, and answers some of our questions about the job of poetry.

Well actually maybe not any one book will answer definitively any questions about the nature of the job of poetry. But from Zone :Zero, you get the sense that as a reader/viewer/producer, there is an acknowledgment that you bring to the page/screen your own baggage/interests/issues, and despite any one author's determination to take you somewhere specific, you will go where you are going. In other words, you don't need to acquire anything beyond your current and open self in order to read/produce Zone : Zero, although maybe you would need to do some research in order to read/consume/interpret. And if there is any moral to this story, perhaps it would be that you can take this readerly swagger with you.

[Editor's Note: The middle word in each of the zone titles feature the 2nd word to be typographically smaller than the first and third words -- something I can't replicate viz Blogger.]


Rachel Daley is.

1 comment:

  1. Another view is offered by Djelloul Marbrook in GR #20 at