Thursday, February 28, 2008

Wonders of the Babelfish

Who remembers the Babelfish from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which translates every language when inserted into a person's ear? Today's circuitous route of wordplay began when I logged into and read a story about an exchange student who became malnourished while overseas. The boy's father suspected Stockholm syndrom. I didn't know what this was, so I looked it up online. I found a block of text where the content was emotional but the tone very dry and clinical. I wondered about the text's potential for transformation.

When I was in high school, I was friends with a couple of exchange students from Germany and France. I loved listening to them speak because their near fluency caused them to use English words in uncustomary ways that made literal sense but were not colloquial. They seemed to refresh the language.

Juliana Spahr used the Altavista Bablefish while composing her chapbook about Hawaii, things of each possible relation hashing against one another. She wrote poems in English, then translated them into other languages and back into English. Since the translations are literal, word order gets mixed up. Syntax is skewed. Some nuances are lost and others created.

This is a way of using chance to refresh language, one of the many ways a writer can mitigate her tired language assumptions. What I did, after translating my block of text into Russian and then back again, was to pick out the best, most surprising lines and arrange them into a poem. Maybe I didn't completely "write" it, but I did make artisitic decisions in arranging it.

strategies for to remain living

They focus on kindness’s captors. As a result,
victims know much about captors, less about themselves.
An honest reaction to the destructive working,
victims are encouraged to begin
psychological characteristics pleasing to captors.
Both feel the fear also as love in these high anxiety acts.
Victims from the existing versions
know the impossibility to act, decide, think, etc.
Perceiving their victimizers as omnipotent,
victims fasten psychologically to captors.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"my own unnecessariness"

I direct you today to the website of the Poetry Center at Smith College, which provides many opportunities to hear poets read in the Northampton area. Next week, Tony Hoagland will be reading. I was unaware of his work until today, and I've really enjoyed reading the poems provided, written as they are in a plain, unadorned style that conveys sincere emotion and humility. My favorite of the three poems is Mistaken Identity, which begins, "I thought I saw my mother / in the lesbian bar..."

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

What Language Can Do

Note: An updated version of this essay appears at

There’s quite an amazing installation on display now at Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA. Jenny Holzer’s “Projections” casts the text of poems by Nobel laureate poet WisÅ‚awa Szymborska across a bare, darkened room the length of a football field. Walking through these projected poems is at first like half-listening: you catch fragments of words but can’t put them all together. Then, if you take the time to stand at either end of the hall, you can read each poem clearly as it appears. The lines arrive more slowly than the time it takes to read them. Having a poem gradually fed to you allows for each line to really register.

Reading a few poems in this unconventional way is one thing—but that’s only part of the exhibit. Walk to the far end of the hall and you’ll find another room, smaller and more like a regular art gallery. Here, Holzer has displayed huge canvas reproductions of declassified documents detailing plans for the invasion of Iraq. The simplicity of the words— protect, isolate, detain, free, destroy— contrasts with the mess that’s actually happening in Iraq. What’s also shocking is how the writers of the presentation seemed to genuinely believe that 1) there were WMDs to be found, and 2) that a successful new government could be in place within a mere 135 days.

Upstairs from this gallery is the third part of the exhibit that serves as the very visceral and disturbing punch line. Again, reproduced in macro scale, Holzer has hung an email exchange in which two American soldiers debate the uses of torture, and beside this is a “Wish List” of aggressive interrogation techniques.

What’s amazing to me about this exhibit are the juxtapositions Holzer has created. The second and third galleries show the use of language that is institutional, political, and abstract—it has clearly led to widespread and, in many cases, futile human suffering. In the first gallery, where you are bathed in the light of a poet’s words, language is something very different—it is particular and personal, and while it can’t make sense of suffering, it documents it determinedly and with heart-wrenching beauty.