01 Oct 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

This third post finds me stepping on shaky ground. While the other posts have a clear and defined point, a telos (in its Greek sense, a post towards which we confidently stride), consider this post a tentative exploration or a furtive, still-developing movement. An outlier, an out-post, venturing into the foreign territory of outer space.

I mean that last quite literally. Almost two decades ago now, Canadian experimental poet Christian Bök undertook the creation of a poem that would be, after much careful encoding and countless funding dollars, transferred directly into a bacterium, meant to outlast the human race and survive the vacuum of outer space. As of this writing the project isn’t quite complete—one wonders if it will, in fact, ever be complete, not due to any specific scientific constraint (admittedly the current hangup) but due to its consistently evolving nature.

After all, the Xenotext takes the shape of a complex transmedial multiplicity. Poem written, enciphered, translated into a sequence of genetic nucleotides, and implanted into the E. coli bacterium: this is the Xenotext. E. coli’s reading and response to the poem, a poem that then becomes what Bök calls an “archive”: this is the Xenotext. The future poem, not E. coli but a specific bacterium meant to outlast the reader, incomplete & possibly impossible: this is the Xenotext.

On the human scale, at exhibitions there is a colorful polymer model of Protein 13. More graspable for us, here, there is also a print book (The Xenotext: Book 1), published in 2015 by Coach House. Somewhat surprisingly, it sidesteps the scientific-creative discussion in favor of anthropocene-motivated poems, recognizable poems with line breaks and figurative language and epic, elegiac tones. And, as an object, the book is beautiful, with a full-color section in the middle, and other sections akin to concrete poems mimicking molecules:

Nucleotides, “Cytosine”

Bök’s work has always expressed a delicate awareness of the book as form (see the transparent pages in Crystallography). Yet I can’t help thinking that the book is a successful book but not a successful work of book art. Instead, I am drawn again and again to the Xenotext bacterium, which uncannily wants to fulfil the maxim that artists’ books manifest a self-reflexivity about their form. What is more self-reflexive than a poem created of itself? And yet unmistakably we lose what is, for us humans, the exact definition of a book—that which we can read.

The Xenotext obsesses me as a bookmaker and thinker because it goes beyond the conventional book—a goal artists’ books tend to embrace—to the extent that it loses sight of the book altogether. (And yet there is that print text, too, a stake on Earth.) Is this the logical conclusion of arguing for a radical, ever-expanding view of materiality? The Xenotext takes the idea of transmedial work such as Abra, which I touched on last week, or perhaps the work of digital author J.R. Carpenter, or—even closer to the macrolevel writing under discussion here—book artist Jen Bervin (the Silk Poems), and blows it up from trans-medial to trans-mondial.

Not a book—but, still, writing. At the same time the Xenotext takes me to task for desiring new & strange poetries; it commands my awe. It reminds me that perhaps the thing I love most about artists’ books can be rephrased not in terms of self-reflexivity, but in terms that suggest an odd aliveness. What I love most, it seems, is material that speaks. Even if we cannot always hear it.

Anne M. Royston is a Visiting Assistant Professor in English at Rochester Institute of Technology. She received her Ph.D. in Literature, as well as a Book Arts Certificate, from the University of Utah. She is a founding member of the Salt Lake City-based independent book arts group, Halophyte Collective.

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