As our material face-to-face world, threatened from so many directions, slips into potentially infinite virtual spaces . . . where have we gone? This slippage has happened suddenly, worldwide, and we do not know whether it renders humankind irrelevant, serves as an escape from apocalyptic problems, or is to be welcomed as a new direction for human life. For Strickland, poetry shares with mathematics and code a “proclivity for extreme semantic condensation within a formalized language structure,” and is thus her chosen instrument to track this enormous, increasingly invisible dragon-in-the-room stalking our time.
“Pointing us to new and deeply lyrical frontiers of feeling, like the power of entering into the body of a virtual macaw, Strickland shows how the ‘world of no attachment’ floats always nearby, with its ‘probe-less pen-less visionless light.’ ‘There is a zombie at the wheel,’ she writes, ‘who finds acceptable all risk (his flesh looks like mine).’ This is a book devoted painfully and beautifully to what is inside us—to how small, delicate, and ghostly we are.” —Joanna Klink
“Stephanie Strickland’s dragons take dictation from myriad sources, contemporary and ancient. In the tradition of H.D.’s Trilogy, these poems build a palimpsest of figures, but instead of overlaying Ruth and Niobe, Eve and Tiamat, Strickland weaves them into a quipu that updates the Incan knot-book into a network of digital-age reference. These dense, ‘triply / dimensional writings’ in which we find ‘the cords’ code working in pairs,’ document mythology, mathematics, and electronic literature, bringing together strands and words in unexpected juxtapositions. Playful and audacious, these are poems of emergent meaning: our fingers on the knots bring them into being.” —Amaranth Borsuk
Author photograph © Star Black.
Burning Briar Scanning Tunnel
there is a zombie at the wheel
who finds acceptable all risk
( his flesh looks like mine )
a crinkle monkey in the swamp
mind tricky and brisk
( his moves feel like mine )
headless mannequin draped
white print snakeskin dress
( pale fakery filling me with dread )
a boneless man used up
by apparatchik juggernaut
( scrivener like me )
the one who hoped to poach
cockroach strategy adrift
( like me time-amnesic overreaching )
cord-cut all beyond the call
to heal or heel fold molt
( wormhole crush crash course )
Copyright © 2013 by Stephanie Strickland
"Precision, that's Strickland's metier. To corral the feeling, the glimpse, the proposition in perfect relation to the reader and the text. No poet has plumbed or plummed with her thumb so deeply into the pies (πs) of physics, math, and myth and made them interlock on the atomic level. She's brilliant, slyly funny and profound. This is a great book." — Terese Svoboda, The Common
"In her seventh collection, Strickland continues to open her sense of poetic form to conventions and practices found outside of literature, borrowing structures from architecture, engineering, math, science, digital coding, and beyond to shape her poems. Unlike her other recent projects, which have included digital poems and other digital media tie-ins and accompaniments, this one remains within the confines of the page, actively calling attention to the specific properties and possibilities of the physical book. Strickland utilizes techniques that draw attention to the printed page, as well as unusual typographical symbols and visual displays of unusual textual iteration. The book is deeply concerned with physicality, questioning what it means when the distinction between the material and the digital comes to be increasingly in flux. The sensorial human body is implicated through lush use of sound, yet distanced through attention to language as a formal system as much as a channel of expression. The physical world that Strickland presents is malleable, “a tissue of histories,” and she seeks to illuminate “not the old vicarial/ Holy communion/ nor the older/ surgery/ pregnancy/ sex/ instead/ another way to enter each other to share.” — Publishers Weekly
Denise Duhamel at the Huffington Post includes Stephanie Strickland as Required Reading in “Advanced Women Poets: Books You May Only Be Hearing about Now.”
“The Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca said, ‘la ciencia … [es] mucho más lírica mil veces que las teogonías’ (science is a thousand times more lyrical than theogonies). Stephanie Strickland’s [seventh] book Dragon Logic sees no need to make such a preference: with inventiveness and elegance, Strickland uses the figure of the dragon as a kind of serpentine ampersand to conjoin mathematics and mythology, science and superstition. In a series of dense and sonically charged texts, Strickland provocatively threads together references to the Rig Veda and René Thom’s catastrophe theory, to the Mayan deity Huracan and the algebraic geometer Heisuke Hironaka. The word ‘dragon’ comes from the Greek verb δέρκεσθαι, meaning ‘to see,’ and Dragon Logic is, indeed, a visionary and deeply insightful book for our new century.” —Michael Leong at Hyperallergic.com
Author photo © Star Black
I come from a family where my father was an electrical and mechanical engineer, a designer, a builder, a plumber, a sound engineer, a sailor. He made his own car—this was Detroit—and it was not so uncommon. People did their own stuff. His father was the same, but a hunter and outdoorsman as well. Consequently, it has never occurred to me that a thing could not be done, if sufficient respect were paid to ‘the laws of nature,’ as my father would have called them.
His knowledge was primarily perceptual, sensing the depth of water by the color, navigating by feel. I was mystified by what he saw ‘in the air’—these laws of nature—for indeed he just ‘saw’ how things worked, the way I might ‘see’ a marigold. And he was frustrated, and I was frustrated, that I could not do the same. Later, of course, he acquired the book knowledge that supported his intuition, but he never trusted books, nor any ‘pencil-pushers’, lawyers, ad men, other nefarious workers in language.
This is a complicated heritage for a child who felt drawn to write.
We moved to Chicago where he was a great appreciator of the marvelous architecture of that city. He bought me books with pictures of buildings, and by fifth grade I wanted to be an architect. I loved math! In some respects, I have become an ‘architect’, an envisioner of digital poem structures. These I do ‘see’ in the air, somehow, and work to make them become real.
My grandmothers had a great influence on me as well. I lived near both of them in Detroit. One, even as an old woman, believed in fairies. These could almost be spied in the thick lilies of the valley growing beside her driveway, or skirting the Queen Anne’s lace that we would stop the car to go see in the field. She had married a German doctor during World War I and was harassed by the local authorities—was she hoarding food in her attic they wanted to know. My grandfather Voigt had been exiled by his mine-owning family in Silesia for helping to organize the mine workers there. [The poem “slippingglimpse” in Zone : Zero uses some language from a Silesian folk tale, “The Passion of the Flax.”] In this country he went from mining to medicine, and died, of blood poisoning contracted during a surgery he was performing, when my mother was 18 months old. Before antibiotics. A great unspoken emptiness at the center of their lives—my mother’s and my grandmother’s.
My grandmother Strickland had an attic that was a third floor of a house! So it was full of rooms and trunks and old books, old journals from the 19th century that were bound as books. She wanted to capture me, perhaps from my mother, certainly from my other grandmother. She was strict and formal and taught me games. She made superb cherry pies, using cherries from the tree in her garden, and hummingbirds came to her window.
My active, archivist grandmothers! The one who believed in fairies had been a suffragist (suffragette, she would have said) and a musician. The other grandmother, the archivist of journals, the Christian Scientist, a woman who had gone to teach on Indian reservations, a woman who had studied to be an opera singer, stayed home too. Imperially, but not happily.
And my mother? The center—so quiet. Not thinking she should speak. Not believing she had something worthy to say. She could serve. She could make others feel better. She could listen to them—and she did. To neighbors, to strangers. She was sought out. She did not seek. She did not speak.
This is a complicated heritage for a child who wants to write. Especially . . . because she wanted me to write. For her, it seemed, to my young confused self. And that made it hardest of all. Hard to know whether I wanted to write. But I did—I wanted to build, I wanted to write, I tasted words, I loved poems. My ‘fairy’ grandmother had taught me songs and nursery rhymes. That is, she taught me formal structures. So on all sides, formal structures—musical or architectural or engineering—all mesmerizing, immersive, enchanting: structures that encode the laws of their making and their meaning. In my poems, I speak in the vicinity of science, one might say, which I believe to be one of the juggernauts of the 21st century. I speak in forms—not only inherited literary forms, but forms the world is rich in. As well, I focus on what women know and their historical experience, in how they might come to say. I have been interested in the body, the sensing intuiting body of the engineer, the body of the nursing caretaking mother, the body of the woman who knows—and knows that she knows, even though the world does not affirm her knowledge. I have not ever wanted to claim one knowledge at the expense of another. In my own life, I have raised children, cared for family members with long-term illnesses, held ‘day’ jobs, to pay for my MFA, my kids’ college, to subsidize my writing time. Only quite late in my life have I taught writing and digital literature. My mother died when I was 40. Simone Weil is the mentor of my adult life. I found her writings serendipitously and immersed myself in them in my thirties and after my mother’s death. Weil is a philosopher and a mystic, initiated in many forms of knowing and ‘unknowing’, interested in ethics, but interested most in a kind of spiritual knowing that is not possible in language alone. She was also awkward and difficult and exasperating and trying to do things in a world not at all ready to hear what, or how, she had to say. All of my books, after the first, have been affected by Weil and my relationship to her.
Unlike some of your other books, you have resisted providing online links to enhance this one. Why?
When I was 5 my grandmother gave my sister and me a poem book that contained the following verse by John Farrar:
I know that there are dragons
St. George’s, Jason’s, too,
And many modern dragons
With scales of green and blue;
But though I’ve been there many times
And carefully looked through,
I cannot find a dragon
In the cages at the zoo!
Accompanying this rhyme is a vaguely ampersand-shaped quite jolly dragon blowing bubbles of smoke around a small boy, hands crossed behind his back, peering through a set of bars at what appears to be a monkey posed as Rodin’s The Thinker. The visual references escaped me, of course, but apparently the sound of this poem stuck in my mind forever. What is the serious omission? To not be able to find that dragon? To fail to discriminate the hugely many implicate orders of life?
Since the dragons in this book do slip through potentially infinite virtual spaces, it seemed wise to confine them, in Chris Ware’s term, inside the “considered finitude” and tactility of the book.
I also wanted to work with print pages—where words persist as a score for the poem resonantly heard—because that mode itself is under attack and facing rebirth. I quote the digital artist, Jhave: “Poetry is crossing an ontological membrane from being an abstract printed system to becoming a system of quasi-entities: words and phrases that are dimensional, kinetic, interactive, code-full, context-aware and tactile.”
Can you explain how all these dragons, both in the title and the titled sections as well as woven through the poems, bring the electronic world alive?
Dragons are mythical and abstract—mythic embodiments of abstract power, from the snake in Eden, to devouring sea monsters, to the latest special FX apocalyptic creation from Hollywood. The dragon hunt that matters for me is tracking the beast as it slips, dizzyingly, from real to configurational (electronically generated) space, always aware that where we live, in either case, is the belly of this beast.
Does a math theorem inspire a poem or do you search for metaphorical connections in the subject matter?
Dragon Maps, the majorly math-y section, evokes abstractions that, hugely masked, control the electric and electronic world. I don’t attempt to convey the mathematics of the math or the code of the code, but rather to give some sense, in natural language, of what might be happening there. Throughout the book, there is a constant refocusing—on conversions, transformations, and shifting registers. These, as well as recalibration and the use of a multidimensional language, act to turn math into metaphor and vice-versa.
How did you arrive at the shape of the book?
The book is a flow of active layering that hums along from one untitled poem to the next, interrupted by a few titled poems, raising their heads like islands, and by two poems that sink to the very bottom of the page, including the reverse invocation for erasure at the end.
There is a consciousness of streams and algorithmicity and an appreciation of classical Islamic aesthetics: baroque counterpoint and Islamic arabesques were some of the earliest tractable subjects for computation.
The voice of these poems invites interpretation and challenge, reaching out in many modes to include the reader. Is there any specialized knowledge your ideal reader would possess?
No, not really. Each reader brings individual riches. As Jhave says, “Very few people actually read fluently either poetry or programming languages. Even fewer understand their total reach. Each . . . requires a biological proclivity for extreme semantic condensation within a formalized language structure. Poetry reveals the semantic tunneling between apparent contradictions.”
Do I read the index/list poem, “Codemakers,” first, for a sense of the players? Or is it meant to complement and enrich the other poems after their reading?
The tiny hollow circle leads you there whenever—and if—you care to go; some might want to read it first, but I had not anticipated that, as I just plunge along trusting that things will become clear, or shouldn’t.
How are the ecological concerns married with the technological, especially later in the book when Pan arrives?
The Critical Engineering Manifesto calls engineering, not art, the most transformative language of our time, shaping the way we move, communicate, trade, and think. If you control the engineered infrastructure, you control what’s understood to be fact, and this infrastructure is extraordinarily abstract and also actively kept hidden. Living without leaving digital traces is now impossible, a reality untrue for most of my own lifetime as well as all lifetimes on earth preceding mine. The boundaries between digital and physical are porous, dissolved, and press toward becoming non-existent.
A digital system must erase what is specific in order to generalize a mathematical pattern that functions as a reliable network. Do people become more silent (and less specific) as technology finds its own voice? My poems engage science, computation, and mathematics as human creations; mythic language and diagram are, in turn, used to elicit the bias of knowledge and to allude to a history of science that has excluded women, as well as many others, and thus skewed our present state of knowledge.
Today invisible abstractions threaten the material earth. When pagan gods like Pan were felt, seen, and known, this capability allowed us to identify with the great intuited unknown of the living and non-living world; Pan has long been felt to be gone and has not been replaced by any myth or argument or strategy that changes ravening behavior. As Isabelle Stengers says, our abstractions are achievements with a price. Whitehead would say that one must use writing against writing’s authority: each abstraction mutely appealing for an imaginative leap.
Do you see readers linking the poems into a narrative or finding discrete connections that resonate?
No narrative can compass the abstractions—they act in too many dimensions at once. The eye can be guided by fancy online interactive tools, applets, to see more than it can grasp on a page, but the ear is our most discriminating native resource. Finding resonant connections is possible, even as explanation-stories fail and fade.
How important is sense to the reading of some of the exuberantly sonic poems?
Sound is sense—semantic meaning is always also found, not only impossible to shut out but intended multiply along various channels. We are woven into the mesh, fabric, harpstrings of a world newly stretched between subatomics and cosmic reach, a new instantiation of the wind harp, the Aeolian harp, the Huracanic harp on which aliveness is woven.