Book Review: The Xenotext, Book 1


This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman. Photo: “DNA”, by John Goode

Many in the poetry world have been patiently watching Christian Bök for the better part of the last decade as he has done his characteristic “deep dive” into fields of study that few outside science might ever dare; in this case, it has been into genetics and genomics. With a writer like Bök (and it is fair to say that there are not many—if any—truly like him), the expectation is that whatever comes of the massive amounts of research and investigation will be delightfully confusing, simultaneously illustrative, and altogether new. Crystallography explored the lesser-known field that is its namesake, giving the reader a fascinating peek through that subject and into Bök’s theory of language, and Eunoia functioned almost like a magic trick, revealing things about language to us that were hidden in plain sight.

Xenotext: Book 1

The Xenotext: Book 1
Christian Bök
Coach House Books, 2015
160 pp.

He is a poet fixated on structures as forms rather than forms functioning as structures, and the work he has done functions to create a corpora of new syntax that we can use to discuss not only own craft, but (at a much deeper level) our own meaning. Each entry in his bibliography expands on the previous, and it certainly feels like everything that Bök has written has lead up to this moment; we are on the edge of the experiment with him. He takes the form of “The Xenagogue” for us (which is, as he explains in the backmatter, a kind of “escort who guides strangers through a foreign terrain”), and leads us into a place that is unimaginable, yet inevitable. In The Xenotext: Book 1, Bök is patiently asking us to follow him into the inconceivable territory of the future, a place of evolution, recombination, disorder, and unknowing.

If you are a reader who is looking for the ultimate result of Bök’s experiment, The Xenotext: Book 1 is not that part of the equation. Perhaps, then, the analogy of the writer to a guide leading us into uncharted terrain or a floor-less room is not quite apt—yet. However, this first volume is a kind of scaffolding in the same way that Crystallography is; compared to the writer, we are neophytes with regard to the subject matter, and this text serves as a primer, or a guidebook that orients us to the basic knowledge needed in order for us to understand our relationship and position to the kind of meaning that the second book will present.

Bök summarizes the role of this part of the project as “orphic,” and the language of the book certainly takes on an oracular nature. To that end, the text engages with myth extensively, using a register of language that is equally mythic in parts of its construction. One of the hinges of the text is a 52-part section that translates a part of Virgil’s Georgics entitled “Colony Collapse Disorder” which makes an allegory out of Virgil’s metaphor of armies to bees, drawing a parallel to the fragile state of bee populations in our real, extra-textual world—a kind of damage that we, as biological beings, have enacted on other biological beings largely through the product of systems of action brought into being by our own will in language. It is a conflict that, no matter how developed our concepts of meaning and signification become, condemns genetic structures to die; no amount of language can resurrect species subject to the forces of extinction or answer the question, as Bök’s translation asks,

[h]ow do we expiate our sins having sacrificed every beast upon every altar?

“Colony Collapse Disorder” is an interesting moment in The Xenotext. It occurs early in the book, and concludes with a model of meaning that serves to set up the rest of the ideology of the text as the speaker of the last poem of the section, “The Xenagogue,” is (as written above) an apparent interface between poet and reader lamenting that “The Poet begs to exhume the frail ghost / of his lost Muse” only to reveal that the Muse “listens, but the lament [The Poet] sings / dissolves in the cells of all living things.” Bök’s translated “pastoral nocturne” endows the sense of mortality that pervades the project that spawned the writing of The Xenotext, that of creating a poem that endlessly replicates itself in the immortal form of DNA—organic matter that will live on long after our will has been exercised upon this planet and our own likely disappearance has occurred.

In this way, the entire Xenotext becomes a hopeless pastoral, one we cannot hope to read; the ultimate lament for a living text that will both always and never be; it is a sign that is of us, but is not us.

The notion of somberness and mourning is much more of a characteristic of this text than its quality as oracular; the forward-looking and prophetic nature of the language only serves as one part of the “vector” of the book, in this case only the directional part. The doleful nature of the text is what provides the magnitude of the equation. Even in sections which illustrate the codon language of DNA (“The March of the Nucleotides”) harkens back to the ill-fated march of the bee-soldiers of the earlier “Colony Collapse Disorder” and involves the sorrow of “[a] threnody…via tempos / odic grief” and “at Arcadia / a treasury.” The language is embedded with a sense of thanatosis in which the oft-invoked notion of riches existing in a plane or realm beyond that of our physical selves emerges (Arcadia being among the most elegiac subjects of pastoral).

Once more, Bök’s text forces us, in understanding our composition, to face our own fragility and mortality.

This achievement is a somewhat ingenious sleight of hand that combines what Bök has learned in his previous work alongside the educational regimen that he has undertaken to create his Xenotext project. This first volume of the series takes on a kind of biblical stature in that it describes how creation might function after humanity, a feat considering the juxtaposition of Virgil’s mythology and what Bök believes to be a mythology or religion of the present—that of the pantheon of science at-large. However, this exploration, this “unraveling” of the nature of the mysteries of life, death, and creation take on a new aspect here: the writer creates, is created, but (at same) is not infinitely powerful to create.

The last section of the first volume, “Alpha Helix,” (beyond being what Bök refers to as “a delirious catalogue”) offers us a way out of the cycle of powerlessness that the previous idea creates. In many ways, it is not a catalogue, but a kind of benediction that exhorts the reader to examine as, “[w]hatever lives must also write. It must strive to leave its mark upon the eclogues and georgics already written for us by some ancestral wordsmith. It must realign each ribbon of atoms into a string of words.” Instead of sounding the death knell, the ultimate end of our species and our creations, Bök provides a new way into creation, by entering into the very language and vocabulary of the canvas of life itself, reassuring the reader that there is safety and promise in this endeavor writing in “strand” metaphors that “[i]t is but a tightrope that crosses all abysses…[d]o not be afraid when we unbraid it.”