CanLitCrit Essay Contest First Place:
The Xenotext’s Woman Problem:
by Andreae Callanan


Citation from CNQ editorial staff:

Andreae Callanan’s winning essay offers a lively, original feminist take on a work that, curiously enough, elicited more submissions than any other in our contest: Christian Bök’s The Xenotext, Book 1. While acknowledging the scope of Bök’s achievement, Callanan looks beneath the work”s experimental veneer—its flamboyant, quasi-scientific aspirations, martial, otherworldly imagery, classical allusions, charts, and diagrams—to show how it consistently upholds conventional notions about femininity and the male-female power differential.


Digital Illustration: Craig Small

In a clip of a 2013 talk on the theme of “Experimentation” presented by the Walrus, poet Christian Bök reads two short poems to his audience; behind him, the poems are projected on a screen, side-by-side, in a typewriter-style font. As literature, they are unspectacular, but the quality of the literature is not the point; Bök is promoting his most recent project, The Xenotext, in which a poem, translated eventually into the genetic code of a living, indestructible bacterium called Deinococcus radiodurans (but for now into old reliable E. coli), will produce a series of amino acids that will in turn make up a protein that can be translated back to English and recognized as a predetermined response to the first poem. In completing its task, the molecule will, Bök explains, glow rosy red, “in a fey way.” Bök also explains that he has nicknamed his poems “Orpheus,” after the mythic bard, and “Eurydice,” after the unattainable object of the bard’s affection; “Orpheus,” he says further, is “written by me as a kind of masculine assertion about the aesthetic creation of life,” while “[Eurydice] is written by the microbe as a kind of feminine refutation about the woebegone absence of life.” Bök says that the poems resemble two Petrarchan sonnets, representing a dialogue between a male and a female speaker, “much like poems in the elegiac pastoral tradition of the herd-boy addressing the nymphette.” When the experiment fails, and the microbe refuses to respond in its “fey way” by blushing a response back to Bök’s bard, Bök remarks that his “first microbial writer,” by silencing or shutting down Orpheus’ advances, has in fact become the first microbial critic.” Given Bök’s critical and commercial success as a poet, the conflation of censor and critic seems a little disingenuous, but regardless, why associate both the critic-censor and the microbe’s anticipated response, as dictated by Bök, with a specifically feminine voice?

The Xenotext is several things: it is this Orpheus-Eurydice pairing, the poetic double act that is meant to talk back to itself for all eternity; it is a project fusing poetry and science in a way that has yet to be done on any kind of major scale; and it is a book, or rather, an anticipated series of books, of which we have only seen the first installment, 2015’s imaginatively-named The Xenotext Book 1, which is dedicated cryptically to “the maiden / in her / dark, pale meadow.” The Orpheus-Eurydice poetic pairing referred to as The Xenotext when presented by Bök at his Walrus talk doesn’t appear in The Xenotext Book 1; instead, The Xenotext Book 1 is an “infernal grimoire” composed of prose poems, translations, a double-acrostic alexandrine sonnet that is a perfect anagram of a sonnet by Keats, a lyrical revision of a song by eighties electronic group Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, charts, diagrams, and computer-generated protein models. The only trace of the 2013 poems is in the current installment’s cover art, which is a visual interpretation of the Orpheus poem as a grid of grey cells. Eurydice is all but absent.

Book 1 opens bombastically, welcoming the reader to the Hadean era of the earth’s formation by taking us from one hellish global event to another in a series of dense prose pieces that call to mind more than anything postcards from an obsessive ex-boyfriend who went off on a Dungeons and Dragons campaign and never fully returned, writing now from his prog-metal band’s tour of northern Europe, which is going very well, not that you asked, and PS, the end is nigh:

What orchid must have bloomed among
the flame-
throwers in the furnace? What dragon
must have hatched
from a burnt geode, buried in these
ashes? Must the uni-
verse be so pitiless as to immolate all
its offspring at birth?
Even now, the astronauts have
marshalled their forces to
march, resolute, across the kill zone of
your godforsaken

The language is uniformly aggressive and apocalyptic, combining military terminology from across eras and cultures with catalogues of dinosaurs, asteroids, and incendiary stars. It is addressed to an unidentified “Wraith and Reader,” and only in the final line is there any suggestion of specific human connection, as Bök writes, “Even now, my love, these words confess to you that the / universe without you in it is but a merciless explosion. // Come with me, and let me show you how to break my heart” (italics author’s own).

And where does the speaker take the reader? To ancient Rome via Bök’s own translation of Book Four of Virgil’s Georgics, although Virgil isn’t named until the end of the section, and the original text isn’t identified for another 125 pages. The Georgics is a long, agriculture-themed poem in four books; the fourth book is on beekeeping, the practice serving as a meditation on the nature of society. It includes the story of Orpheus and Eurydice embedded in a larger narrative about Aristaeus and the loss of his bees, and his subsequent quest to replace them. The translation is exquisite, easily the best writing in Book 1; Bök chooses to translate Virgil’s Latin text as blank-verse sonnets, more seventeenth than twenty-first century in style; however, while writers in the seventeenth century had become aware of the matriarchal structure of bee life, Bök chooses to preserve Virgil’s “king” as apiary monarch (many authoritative translations, like Peter Fallon’s Oxford edition, correct the bee-sexing to “queen”). The translation is largely archaic in tone, save for the appearance of contemporary military words like “jihads,” “foxholes,” “insurrectionists,” and “platoons.” The translation is also not particularly generous with the women who populate Virgil’s original. Where Fallon translates an early passage as “the fabled swallow, Procne, her breast still bearing stains from her bloodied hands,” Bök chooses, “the progeny of Procne, her blouse still / bloody from her filicide.” (Procne’s filicide, it is worth remembering, was an act of revenge against her husband, who had raped Procne’s sister, Philomela, and cut out her tongue; Virgil doesn’t include this detail, and Bök doesn’t fill in the blanks). When Orpheus fails to keep his eyes straight ahead in Fallon’s translation, Eurydice has five long lines to say goodbye. In Bök’s rendition, this is reduced to “‘Orpheus!’ cries his bride. ‘What perfidy / has thou wreaked upon us? Alas, I feel / myself recalled to fatal sleep—farewell!’” In an otherwise beautiful section, Eurydice’s words are shamefully uninspired.

The inclusion of Virgil’s poem in Bök’s “grimoire” is interesting; on a surface level, a discourse on bees in the context of planetary destruction and catastrophic global events makes sense enough—the section is called “Colony Collapse Disorder,” and includes a brief scientific excerpt on the causes and effects of this troubling phenomenon. But the most significant passage in the section is the one where Cyrene instructs Aristaeus, in detail, on how to get information on the fate of his bees from the old shape-shifter Proteus. Cyrene tells her son,

Restrain Proteus in thy chains, my son,
to pry from him the reason for thy grief
—for he cannot bequeath his auguries,
if beseeched, but only tormented.
Handcuff him in irons, letting him test
his will in vain against thy punishments.

This, it would appear, is Bök’s creative model: you will not hear what you want to hear merely by asking, so you’d better be prepared to get tough, to really get in there. Double points to Bök for the implied Protean/protein pun. Bök’s dedication to his project means that he’ll get the answer he wants out of D. Radiodurans, no matter what it takes. Critic Eleanor Gold finds it all rather troubling, asking “Is it fair to suggest that an aesthetic project that uses the life of another creature for egotistical, even masturbatory ends is morally and ethically suspect (if not repugnant)?” Is it worth it just to get a few preordained lines and a fey glow out of an imaginary “nymphette?”

In “The Virelay of the Amino Acids,” Bök truly goes to town with his outmoded gender conventions; each of the twenty short poems is accompanied by a molecular diagram of an amino acid, and uses the letters that mark each molecule’s chemical make-up to determine the order of the words in the poem. So Asparagine is represented in verse as:

nursemaids, held hostage,
croon orisons,
calling heavenly heroes—
come home
(no hummingbirds have
copied our opulent hymns)

while Glutamic Acid reads as:

concubines obsess over heartache,
crafting hypnotic harmonies,
calling heavenly heroes—
come home
(no hummingbirds have
copied our opulent hymns)

and Isoleucine is interpreted as:

conquerors, having harrowed hell,
comfort humble handmaidens—
comely hamadryads, held hostage—
come hither,
come home
(no hummingbirds have
copied our opulent hymns)

The poems are filled with figures associated with particular, traditional brands of femininity and masculinity. The feminine figures are nursemaids, handmaidens, hamadryads, concubines, courtesans, odalisques, that is, figures of domestic and sexual servitude. They are held hostage, nightly heartbroken, comely, and craft “hypnotic harmonies,” which is to say, they seduce. The masculine figures, on the other hand, are conquerors who have “harrowed hell,” or they are “heavenly heroes” or sonneteers (a neutral term, but given the established presence of Orpheus, I’m going to file this one under “men”). Again, as with the Orpheus-Eurydice pair, the female principle is not only passive, it pleads for the active, heroic principle to return, free her from whatever unexplained hostage situation she has found herself in. The repetition of the words in slightly different arrangements over twenty pages has an incantatory, mesmerizing effect.

“Virelay” is troubling for two reasons: first, the repetition of these odd fragments of male heroism and female servitude naturalizes the sequence’s gender dynamics and roles. The same sort of language might be dismissed in a classical bit of text, or compartmentalized as a product of a bygone era. Indeed, the poems in “Virelay” do rather resemble unearthed scraps of ancient Greek verse. Bök uses Virgil to lend authority to his position in “Colony Collapse Disorder,” and he echoes an archaic style to support himself in his gender representations here. Second, the poem’s values are further validated by the accompaniment of molecular diagrams; the lines and angles and capital letters suggest an objective, clinical authority. In our time, science is considered an absolute, and Bök uses this to his advantage here to suggest that the poems are expressing some kind of natural truth. But the molecular structures of the amino acids Bök has chosen to represent merely dictate the pattern of the words: Bök himself has selected the words he wishes to insert into the pattern, and the words he has chosen are “hero” as shorthand for man, and “servant” as shorthand for woman.

Legend has it that Bök read the dictionary cover to cover five times over as preparation for his second project, 2001’s Eunoia; this being the case, it’s safe to say that Bök chooses every word with the full implications of that word’s nuance and layering. When his poetic molecule glows, it is “rosy” and “fey”; that is, it blushes. “Fey” carries multiple meanings, including being vaguely otherworldly or supernatural (or feigning supernatural powers) and also being near death (appropriate here), but in today’s English it often suggests coquettishness and flirtation, again, like the seductive feminine types throughout “Virelay of the Amino Acids.” But the molecule isn’t actually able to “read” and “reply” in any real sense: its reply is crafted, engineered, determined by Bök. In Bök’s scenario, the “feminine” response is only a success if it tells him what he wants to hear, and what he wants to hear are the words he has written for the female speaker to tell him. There is no actual dialogue, and the suggestion of a masculine and feminine exchange is illusory.

When Bök refers to The Xenotext Book 1 as a “grimoire” rather than a notebook, a miscellany, a compendium, or collection, he is again referring to an object associated with magical (or, depending on one’s perspective, demonic) record-keeping, and most often with witches (owning a book identified by the authorities as a grimoire, or book of shadows, was enough to get a woman hauled away as a witch during the Salem trials, but then again, what wasn’t?). Bök is committed enough to his word choice to use it twice in Book 1, calling it “fiendish” first, then “infernal” later in the text. He puns on the word, too, when he refers early on to the “grim hour” when the US president pushes the nuclear button, and when he inserts “with grimness” into the opening lines of “Colony Collapse Disorder,” describing how he will study the “plight of puny gods.” But isn’t a demonic spell book fiendish and infernal by its nature? These two adjectives call to mind another book about science and writing: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the “grimoire” mirroring the collected scientific notes the creature—the fiend—gathers from Victor Frankenstein’s apartment and uses to understand his origin. In Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein refuses to complete a female companion for his desperate and lonely monster for fear of not being able to control her and her possible progeny; in a strangely similar fashion, Bök’s project is only a success if the “female” companion to his “male” poem behaves in a way that he can control. The female response is only acceptable if it is the response Bök has dictated.

What if Bök is just taking the piss? Is it possible that the gendered language of “The Virelay of the Amino Acids” and the hostility in “Colony Collapse Disorder” or even the fey glow of “Eurydice” as she replies to the poet in accordance with her programming is meant as a critique of conventional representations of women in poetry from antiquity to the electronic age? What if Bök is parodying, rather than parroting, these outdated types? If so, he is a master of comic deadpan; his tone at his Walrus talk (and in countless other clips available for anyone’s enjoyment on YouTube) is one of wholehearted conviction as he assigns masculine and feminine designations to his poems. The “Vita Explicata” section at the end of Book 1 makes no mention of women, or feminine principles, or of gender at all; given this, I expect that Bök’s classification of the active male and passive female, of the hero and the handmaiden, is meant entirely in earnest. Is it meant to be malicious? I can’t say, but I expect that at the very least it is unexamined, and this, from a poet of Bök’s stature and significance, is disappointing. At a time when women across cultural and social backgrounds are still disproportionately affected by violence, poverty, and disenfranchisement, do we really need a space-age text objectifying us further? Why are we giving voice to a set of poems in the elegiac pastoral herd-boy and nymphette tradition when there are so many unexplored and underrepresented modes of human interaction? Bök may see himself as an experimental poet, but the attitudes about and toward women in The Xenotext—project and book—are embarrassingly regressive.

—From CNQ 100, CanLitCrit Essay Contest, Fall 2017

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