How the Universe Is Made: Poems New & Selected 1985-2019, by Stephanie Strickland. Boise, Idaho: Ahsahta Press, March 2019. 304 pages. $21.00, paper.
Like many, I come to Stephanie Strickland via the digital. In the winter of 2009, she brought her laptop to the Poetry Project’s lectern. A video loop of waves crashing soon appeared on the projector screen. At the top of each swell, in dainty, spidery cursive font, a fragment of her poem “slippingglimpse” pitched forward with the water and evaporated with the foam. One might make out “by lightning,” “6-d hypercube,” or “greenness is not a color.” As Strickland explained, she and Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo had used motion-capture coding to map her text—itself appropriated language about capture technology—to Paul Ryan’s video of Atlantic wave patterns. The collaboration, still on the web, is a dazzling demonstration of distributed cognition known as slippingglimpse.
More than any poet of her generation, Strickland has embraced our digital revolution. She’s followed tech advances, joined the board of the Electronic Literature Organization, and consistently ventured new horizons of practice so as to create and collaborate on a digital opus. Her collection, How the Universe Is Made: Poems New & Selected 1985-2019, has a helpful 16-page section, “Poems Procedural, Generative, Kinetic & Hypertextual,” illuminating these complex architectures.
Yet the book’s 250 other pages testify to equally intrepid expeditions in 2D. In a style that is often witty and always humblingly erudite, Stephanie Strickland pits poetry against the wave patterns of our world. She battles our mental, physical and spiritual incarceration in culture—the “ferocious / self-completing / sentences / exerting control.”
The poetry, gathered from eight books as well as new work, often mines tech for lingo and theme: she parses living hyperlink, warns against info infiltration, celebrates “the soft ziggy sampling butterfly approach” of web-inflected reading. The almost-titular poem, “Presto! How the Universe Is Made,” gives playful programming instruction to turn “one first O/riginal Form” and “a second / angular Segment” into a “Star-in-the-Box” in only “five // iterations.” That’s the magic of making code do what you want. After plummeting to “where photons mediate,” the speaker pushes further via sprung rhythm and alliteration:
… Or deeper, look. No,
look, a quantum leap: the burst box—the born star—is re-
emerging on the line, on the line or/and . . . . Repeat:
The command “Repeat:” ends the poem, but “or/and” resounds. We’re left to speculate on code-roads traveled, cards hidden up the coder’s sleeve. Meanwhile, “re- / emerging” echoes the way meaning bursts forth in poetry, how a second read will change the line, the understanding, the book.
As the title declares, her radical interests lie with universe-making, or techne: Copernicus recognizing the “wander” of the planets, Willard Gibbs devising the math for multiverses. Re-readings and misreadings are centered, as with Ice Age nomads dependent on the night sky, or the Amistad’s African mutineers in Connecticut, whose language, “ancient // knowledge that it was” finds “no translator.” Ancient knowledge is a theme, philosopher Simone Weil an obsession, and witches abound, usually linked to serious science, as when her witch of Endor aligns with a theorem underpinning quantum mechanics. One section’s epigraph includes a query from Richard Feynman’s Lectures on Physics: “Why do the poets of the present not speak of it?”
Feynman, meet Strickland.
(The rest of us will need Google.)
The collection opens at sea, with “Seeing a Medusa.” The classical Gorgon who turned men to stone and was beheaded by a hero is spotted “like cyclamen flashing” in “the heave of the wake.” A second “deeper” look reveals the monster as jellyfish that collapses and glides away—to be re-read again:
it was you—alive! Not knowing. Reliving
the blow, remembering: you, torn out, despised
and flung dripping to the waves.
This glimpse of “a” Medusa ushers in a foundational project—the amputated and rejected female, recognized and (thinking Adrienne Rich) re-membered. The first poems explore bodies of women, especially the mother. Mother as a body “trying / to hide // its eagerness / to pull away / from mine,” mother in hospital imploring, “Don’t wash off my eyebrows,” mother wrestling erotically with the speaker on a bed. From a piece entirely in quotation marks, a crone explains how a body is given back to itself when lovemaking “leave[s] nothing / to language.” Elsewhere the body is betrayed and “living on air, all of them, on air; / as you, on air.”
Language and anorexia segue to the next section of work, from The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil. The French philosopher who famously posited that attention is prayer was also a labor organizer and bomb-builder, and the paradoxes rankled some. In one fragment, an “annoyed” priest complains that “her thought” does “‘not accept fixed / starting points.’” Pages on, a friend portrays Weil’s Gospel commentary as “pour[ing]” truth into him, adding, “I virtually fed / upon light.” Weil is quoted describing herself as “ready to sabotage—or, to organize” or “sign[ing]/ her letters, ‘Your affectionate / son, Simon.’” The work can be a blast, but the blast is brutal. The violent self-abnegation linked to Weil’s near-conversion to Catholicism and wartime volunteerism also meant that her solidarity with “her people in France starving” could lead to her final refusal of food. Which is also chronicled here.
Locating Weil’s out-of-print and never-printed papers, re-membering what has been “despised / and flung dripping,” is another feminist move for Strickland. So is the book’s arrangement, where an index replaces the table of contents, implicitly recommending we read in a circle beginning anywhere.
Phallic linearity is further disrupted in her next collection, True North. The title is a wry parry, as the precession of the equinoxes constantly repositions geodetic north. The text, only part of which is here, is arranged around five poems, each titled “True North,” describing different methods of arriving at that truth. Strickland has said she envisioned a three-dimensional work, with poems spinning around the five axes. Although a Sufi dance of text-as-dervish remains impossible, hypertext arrived as Strickland was writing and she was able to program an electronic version. According to Strickland, neither the hyperlinked nor the paginated comprise True North; each exist as “parts of a larger whole.”
In “5 (Imaginary Numbers),” the metrical language of incantation reads like an ars poetica. Strickland’s spellmaker elides second-wave critiques, calling for zen-like attentiveness:
I spell it out—
to spell it in; I cast a spell
that puts an end
to all distinction: more including, wider flung, closer spun, more pen-
etrant, or more in-
fusing, if we only knew what
empty space was—
The section’s heroes are two 19th-century mappers of “empty space,” Willard Gibbs and Emily Dickinson. While Gibbs is the Druidic mathematician who descried multiple dimensions, Dickinson is Strickland’s progenitrix of hypertext. This Emily wasn’t indecisive about her 1700 poems—each was obstinately untitled, specifically stitched into packets. Her plus-sign footnotes, a referencing system for alternate language, were really a coder’s or/and that multiplied and (sometimes) upended meaning. Such engineering evinced “Deeper / duplicity: none. Role, trope and object: all / reversing, as if all were one // affair— / of language.”
(A moment of silence to consider what Emily Dickinson might have done with live links.)
Strickland’s investigations into the affairs of language has continued, as has her assault on the codex. Her next book, V:Waveson.nets / Losing L’Una, was published as two, invertible; turn it over for a second beginning. Underscoring the misrule, neither has an end, only the heading “There Is a Woman in a Conical Hat”—that’s witch, sartorially and anagrammatically—and a web address inviting us to vniverse.com. (Now a free iPad app.)
The work selected here, despite being rectified on the moribund page, efficiently explodes author-ity. “Errand upon which we came,” the poem honoring the “ziggy sampling” of reading, starts:
Gentle Reader, begin anywhere. Skip anything. This text
fully for the purposes of skipping. Of course
In a hymn to anarchy, “is framed” deserves investigating. If all technology is a framing, as Heidegger said, Strickland consistently foregrounds the scaffolding surrounding us. Once again, she’s exposing “purposes”—saving us from “ferocious” self-completions—and refusing to decide our “[Of] course.” In “Errand,” Reader is “a frog” who, en route to extinction, “thinks to ask” whether it belongs in land or water. (The work is riddled with climate change references.)
Land or water, 2-D or digital, wave or particle? In a later section, the poem “Unsolved Problems” asks:
in a world divided
into what can be divided
damage ( magnitudes metrics . . . )
what if divided changes its nature?
Violence of categories—a theme from the start—gets a surprising solution: “obedience.” The poet promptly clarifies that state, not “ten-hut / military” but “rather ob-au-di-re (hear . . . thoroughly).” Then that opposition evaporates: thorough listening requires “endurance,” a hardcore discipline in hearing a world divided. Which meshes nicely with Simone Weil’s equation of attention and prayer (and feels about right, in the summer of 2020).
New work is gathered as “The Body Obsolete.” This reference to binaries—mind/body, silicon/carbon—is also homage to body-augmenting performance artist Stelarc. The poem “Gormley vs. Stelarc” opens with a photo of him seeming tortured by electrodes and waving his third, bionic hand, while the speaker wonders what is being birthed in the “seed pod inner bomb” of his/our cyborg life.
This final section is haunted by “Lady death,” “blight,” and “snarls of code,” casting us into the surveillance century. In “C.T. or H.”—Cyberterror or Hacktivism—the NSA is terrorist, garbed in “A disappearing Cloak / of Digitality set to reroute / our men of stealth into men of steal—.” Another scary short poem, “Shape Shifting,” begins, “simulation turns logical / then to temporal then then // she dies.” After references to Epimedes’ paradox (is the liar lying about lying?) (thanks, Google) and to the violence of bits and bytes, Whitman is conjured:
…a child said what is
the grass pressing
Ouch. This American poet has much to say about our ticking “seed pod[s]” and “glitchy codestreams,” our Internet of ferocious, self-completing sentences, and it can be gloomy. But her mind is too curious to remain so. Possibility endures, as in “Random Worlds,” where “creation hymns sung sing forth creation.” In this Genesis lurk lyric, code and spellwork—presto.
The volume’s last poem, “Are you sure?,” exemplifies Strickland’s seeking, her scale, and her confidence. She begins:
Orion lying on his side taking up the whole sky
—but how?—as I step out from the winter train
That one step launches the world of code, the Virgin Mary, the pun within “utopia,” the supernovas of 1572 and 1604, the friar-occultist Giordano Bruno, friar-poet John Donne, and astrologer-physicist Johannes Kepler—and that’s just the first eight couplets (of 43).
Maybe Donne is central. His fragment, “in peeces all cohaerance gone,” cuts to Kepler, whose ratios and algebras for the planets “dial numeral Nature / Number the Mother” and (thus):
overrule flesh, overrule common sense
undermine ritual, rant, the non-West
We’re firmly in terra second-wave, where “Number[ing] the Mother” establishes the rule of body hatred and bad science: “cohaerance gone.” Stanzas later, Kepler’s own mother, an “imprisoned Witch” (literally “overruled”), appears with the V of the Vniverse, the “Volt vaulting oVer each time touched.” This mouse/wand makes orgasmic alterations:
world— a world of shining horror sensitive
to fluctuation privileges decision
choice changes probability this much shown
whether for the better, unknowable
Hail the matrix of fluctuations. Our decisions “for the better” based on blips: affection, affectation, and data capacity. And I believe we’re being advised to check our privilege.
The poem ends in our “age of Matter” (not mater), when the bomb’s “us-confounding // Vishnu to Indra” (hyper)links to “crack cognitive cages” of “acontextual truth and domination.” Again the crux—the cross Strickland’s work rises on—is context. Domination sets out as a fussy priest bristling at Simone Weil for deconstructive thought, but it soon demands actively ignoring context—no second looks, no rereading, no live links—eventually no thought.
The closing couplets return to the delicate human. “The vibration-taken / body” spots the “hard image arriving” and:
the child’s distress, a cloud fast pass across her face
furrowed brow clash—she is trying to take
it in, has long past taken it in, she tries to ‘get it’
to proffer a solution, then another, she is five
The end. (No period.) It’s tempting to read the “she” as Strickland herself stepping off a train and beginning the journey of the one who would write this poem, a child already trying to “proffer a solution” to the question “but how?” Or the “five” that “she is” may be the fifth dimension Willard Gibbs made the math for, a mystic utopia above the time-space continuum where one slippingglimpses wave and particle, grass and glass, the hard image coming and the empty space between. Or she may connect to a dozen other references and allusions that I didn’t know to Google.
In any case, tomorrow’s read will reveal other ors. What’s definite: How the Universe Is Made stands as 36 years of fantastic language work on our “flung dripping” peeces—seeking context, questioning cohaerance—by a poet who was surely born to do so.
Alexis Quinlan is a writer and editor and adjunct teacher of composition and plagiarism (conceptual poetry, actually) at Fordham University in New York. Her poems have appeared in journals including The Paris Review, Rhino, Tinderbox, Juked, and Madison Review. Of the three chapbooks published, an admission, as a warning against the value of our conclusions remains available from the Operating System.