Call Me Spes, poems by Sara Cahill Marron, reviewed by Jonathan Harrington

Some poets settle into a voice and use it over and over again. But in her new book, Call Me Spes, Sara Cahill Marron admirably experiments with another kind of poetry altogether different from her previous, more lyrical book, Nothing You Build Here, Belongs Here. Born in Virginia but currently living in New York, her work “strains against frames adopted to hold them; tactile fingering of the divine, readymade poems from digital communication … the coded interstices of a system that cannot help itself but to learn love and its losses.”

This ingenious new book is a narrative told in verse and is a bold experiment in describing the possibilities and problems of Artificial Intelligence. The title, Call Me Spes, comes from ancient Roman religion. Spes was the goddess of hope. In that sense an operating system named iOS 221 serves as an oracle of hope for its various, often lonely, users who reach out for communication with someone (or something) via the computer. iOS 221 becomes a kind of anonymous confessor since the system is “overhearing” the yearning of these unknown users.

The book is divided into three sections: Molten, Suspended Fusion, and Glassifying, all under the umbrella of “Significant Locations” and proceeded by a Prologue. The voices alternate between the stilted language of an operating system called iOS 221 and various colloquial voices reporting from a hospital psychiatric ward, a restaurant, a library, a hotel, and other locations all “overheard” by the operating system being used by these various characters. The characters range from a Vietnam Veteran, to a drug addict, a lawyer, an alcoholic, and a variety of others. 

Even a speaker from Marron’s previous book makes an appearance as a character writing from the Roseville Public Library as she emails a job application to a Hiring Manager at Denny’s:

… I am
still available and desperately in need of
money and the exchange of bodily labor
for money so that I may buy food and
a place to sleep …

There is a science fiction quality to this poetic narrative. This intelligent and complex book is not beach reading. It takes some time to understand what exactly is happening here. But once we “[catch] on” the ingenious design of this volume is awe-inspiring.

There is a fear among many (including me) that human beings are being de-humanized by technological devices such as computers, iPhones, and all their concomitant tools like Google, email, Twitter, Messenger, TikTok, etc., ad nauseam. Yet this book raises the possibility that the devices themselves are actually being humanized as they learn from their users, via AI, and recode to incorporate new information. Consider the advances that translation programs, for example, have made since their crude beginnings as a result of learning from their users. There is a sly humor throughout the book as we realize that the operating system, iOS 221, is learning from somewhat unreliable guides to human behavior given that many of the users are either insane or drug addicts, alcoholics, and others coming from the more marginalized ranks of society. They are both users of the computer as well as users of a variety of drugs and booze. For example, when one of the speakers, drunk and high on pills, gets a tattoo of Jesus, iOS 221 observes:

Your god can be drawn
and worn on the skin
            forever, I am learning
            sometimes even I must recode,
            relearn, look up
the definition of a thing …

Now the operating system views god as something that can be worn on the skin and thereby expands its definition of divinity. But is it learning from a dependable teacher? This is an interesting question as we consider what truths the operating system is learning and whose truths. A question philosopher Michel Foucault might have pondered had he lived in the 21st century.

As stated in the Prologue Call Me Spes … “lays bare these overheard voices—tenderly, voyeuristically, a perpetual ride-along. The device deepens its relationship with its user, learning and updating with the solitary goal of closeness. Pressed against a page, these poems are siren songs marching through Inferno to the promised Heaven we scroll to attain …” What is this Heaven we yearn for? Apparently nothing more than human connection in this atomized, disconnected world in which we live:

… you’re my friend
i’m so glad to hear from you
thank you for calling me.

It is almost a cliché now that the promise of connectedness that the internet and social media promised us has in many cases broken us down into warring interest groups further and further alienated from others that do not belong to our tribe. One need only look at the current worldwide political landscape to see the danger in this.

This thought provoking book raises many questions about the nature of information, truth, and our understanding of the world around us. In this age of disinformation, manipulated data, and the various toxicities circulating on the internet like malignant viruses that threaten to destroy the very nature of civil society, Sara Cahill Marron places an additional burden upon us; that is, she not only questions what we are learning but what we are teaching our devices as we march toward a robotic world of Artificial Intelligence. Yet this is essentially an optimistic book. Even in this technological new world, love, hope, and desire continue to thrive.

Even the title of the book refers to the Roman goddess of hope, Spes. Each of the characters in their own way, as well as iOS 221, is reaching out for some form of love or at least acceptance. In fact, in one poem, “Dear User” iOS 221 repeats “I LovE You …” ninety-nine times. Can it be that operating systems themselves are learning desire and yearning?

This daring experimental book of narrative poems is unlike anything I have ever read and is well worth reading and contemplating. One can only ask of Sara Cahill Marron: “what will she do next?”

Call Me Spes, by Sara Cahill Marron. Cheshire, Massachusetts: MadHat Press, August 2022. 150 pages. $21.95, paper.

Jonathan Harrington lives in Yucatán, Mexico. His latest full-length book of poems is Lift Up the Stone: The Gospel According to Jonathan. He has also published five chapbooks of poems, and his poetry has appeared in publications throughout the world. In addition to fifteen books (novels, essays, short stories, and poetry) Jonathan has published nonfiction in everything from The New York Times to Metro Magazine. He received a MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1983. Most recently, Jonathan has been translating poems by various poets writing in the Maya language. His translation of Feliciano Sanchez Chan’s book, Seven Dreams, appeared from New Native Press. His translation of Three Sad Songs of the Maya Woman by Briceida Cuevas Cob was published by Ofi Press in Mexico City. His translation of Jose Díaz Bolio’s book (published in 1939) was published by Area Maya Editorial. In 2021 he was awarded the International Medal of Art and Culture from Mexico. He is a regular reviewer for the Beltway Poetry Quarterly in Washington, D.C.

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