On reading Christian Bök's 'The Xenotext: Book 1' ten thousand years later

A xenoreview

The Xenotext: Book 1

The Xenotext: Book 1

Christian Bök

Coach House Books 2015, 160 pages, $18.95, ISBN 978-1552453216

My first impression that I cannot shake each time I open The Xenotext: Book 1: this is not the book I thought it would be. The bioart project became well-known in its time: to implant a poem inside the DNA of bacterium d. radiodurans that would be read by the organism each time its genome replicated, expressing another poem as RNA pairs up for transcription. The bacteria would become an archive of a certain idea of poetry, a poem actually alive, a poem that would likely endure longer than any reader or any concept of poetry (d. radiodurans can withstand heavy doses of radiation, survive in extreme environments, and will in all probability outlast humans).

But The Xenotext: Book 1 is not that story, not that poem. I did not know that Bök would not tell in this work the lengths he has gone to strive for this project and the success and failures encountered along the way. All along it was understood that the poem was not going to be the verbal icon, and not the book either, but the work of the poem in its trying to get made. Poeisis included: all the computer programming, grant writing, art exhibits, promotional tweets, interviews, preposterous claims, raised eyebrows, and bioethical murmurings. The poem project also involved aiming to survive at least ten thousand years later with enough of these subroutines still running to keep the poem’s grammar warm and agential.

It is strange then that most of that work on the bioart poem goes unmentioned in Book 1. Instead, the book consists of five sections containing a mix of prose and poetry, whose form and content are structured in varying degrees by some aspects of genomics. There is also a “vita explicata” where Bök details his methods and states that he sees Book 1 as “an ‘infernal grimoire,’ introducing readers to the concepts for this experiment” (151). With the genome as muse and medium, this is really a DNA text. The book fits somewhere in the early twenty-first century between J. Craig Venter’s genome cowboying and GMO redemption rhetoric and Donna Haraway’s accusatory “fetishism of the gene,” the feminist eco-technoscience-inspired rejection of masculinized selfish genes and synthetic genome rescue operations in favor of a decentered, pluralized, and environmentally embedded sense of coming to know what genotypes and phenotypes can do.

In a section titled “The Nucleobases,” for example, Bök supplies a visual of each nucleotide and crafts a short poem on tightly restricted terms: only nine-letter words beginning with the first letter of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, or hydrogen in proportion to the nucleobase’s chemical formula, and including some content that rhapsodizes bees (the fate of bees is a thread that runs throughout Book 1). Here is “Adenine (C5H5N5)”:

creatures, honeybees
cocooning nectarous honeydews — heartsome
cunningly harvested,
numbingly hypnoidal (87)

Reading Bök’s many DNA poems, we realize that all our bodies are made from highly restricted vocabularies. Bök wrote in the time of the first generation to witness the great bee die-off, when the chemical genius of bees was undone by other chemical geniuses who decided to spread insecticidal neonicotinoids everywhere. This was a time when one could openly question whether skill at synthetic genetic modification or care for a biodiverse world stood as the highest mark of intelligence.

Bök seeks to collaborate with the genome, writing along with it rather than through and over it. Many of the poems in the book take on the visual and organizational feel of nucleic material. Writing with the genome requires working with its generative and generational properties that occur at micro and macro scales. Bök’s project embraced writing with biological longevity and epochal time frames as enabling constraints. How do you write and read for (at least) a ten-thousand-year time span? There are clocks made to keep time for ten thousand years, and writings inscribed on tombs for radioactive nuclear waste meant for any possible reader who might stumble upon such a toxic archive. There are epic poems that believed themselves to be immortal and unforgettable and are long lost, while a fragment of an exchange of glances caught in Sappho’s scroll — “for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking is left in me” — still carries an erotic charge thousands of years later. Although Bök has sometimes claimed he aimed to write a poem that would effectively become immortal, the writing of poetry has never been about striving for one temporality or one version of longevity.

Bök’s The Xenotext helped open the field of xenopoetics in its time. Xenopoetics involves reading and writing in varying time scales and from varying points of view in addition to the human perspective. All texts have xenopoetic qualities as they ask: how would an individual, human or nonhuman, read X after time Y has elapsed? Xenopoetics amplifies concerns about the durability of a poem’s medium, message, and range of transmission. In addition to form and content, the question of contact becomes paramount for the poem. Xenopoetics considers the aesthetic and material properties that enable poems to send an image, a feeling, or a message to an unknown reader in an unknown time across an unknown cultural gap situated in an unknown land. The xenopoem, with Bök’s The Xenotext: Book 1 as an example, stresses the conjunction of form, content, and contact. Xenopoetics engages the medium to transmit the message and questions what message transmission might mean at species and planetary levels.[1]

Bök’s “Alpha Helix” instantiates xenopoetics by casting the helix as one of the primary forms of the cosmos, a swirl of matter-energy that can offer a platform for anything from bad weather to biological lifelines. The helix form, here iterated by the pronoun “it,” bears writing and life across the universe:

Whatever lives must also write. It must strive to leave its gorgeous mark upon the eclogues and the georgics already written for us by some ancestral wordsmith. (140)

It is the little vortex that can torque the course of evolution for every micrococcus. (141)

It is but a fuse lit long ago, its final blast delayed forever, the primacord escorting a spark through every padlock on every doorway shut against the future. (141)

It is but a tightrope that crosses all abysses. It is but a tether that lets us undertake this spacewalk. Do not be afraid when we unbraid it. (146)

Bök believed that the poem and the genome could together extend the xenopoetic properties of both into new time signatures and new aesthetic conditions. Bök wonders throughout Book 1 that DNA may already be a xenotext, and perhaps already has a message encoded within, or can be a message-medium in the future. Probably all advanced civilizations in the universe manipulate the composite living elements of their existence, and they all probably question why such manipulation should be done at all and what the problematic consequences of such power can entail. But maybe the genome itself already has such questions and concerns embedded in it, as Bök writes:

Tell me, Wraith and Reader, tell me: Will love save us from our fear that we are here alone? What then if we peer into the sky at night but see no distant lantern blinking at us from the far end of the cosmos? What if such a beacon goes unnoticed, like a dying flame in the darkness? What if only the most wicked people in the world (the pharaohs, the warlocks, the assassins) ever get to read this signal from outer space? What if the message, when decoded, says nothing but a single phrase repeated: ‘We despise you! We despise you!’ What if we find the evidence for such hate embedded in our genomes? Even now, colonies of dark ants from a species called Mystrium shadow feed themselves upon the blood of their young. Even now, my love, these words confess to you that the universe without you in it is but a merciless explosion. (19)

How long does that “you” last? That address, that mode of lyrical speaking, that personified word, that body, that intimate other, that way of reading and being read, that form among forms. How can poems and genomes be ways of transmitting that “you” for ten thousand years?

Let me harken back to a lovely tweet from Bök that I keep returning to, where he states: “I am still amazed that poets insist on writing about their divorces, when robots are taking pictures of orange, ethane lakes on Titan.”

But recall Sappho’s burning eyes: a furtive look can last longer than the records of kings. Already we see patterns of divorce are having planetary effects — that is what geologists in Bök’s time called the Anthropocene. No one knows for sure what ephemeral messages may end up enduring longer than messages borne in a microbe’s practically immortal genetic coils. Like cave paintings that record the story of a hunt for a shamanic animal that has now long since gone extinct, poems are things for capturing amazement, sometimes ephemeral and sometimes monumental, in the amber of overly formalized language. So, for this xenoreview, I leave this for the next unknown reader in an unknown time:

I am still amazed that astrocapitalists insist on mining yet another asteroid, when poets on Earth struggle to write about their devotion to remain tied to a single wobbly planet.

I am still amazed that yet another new synthetic form of bacterial life intended to produce and store energy has been generated in a lab, when luminous colonies of coral keep living and dying in the ocean, trying to maintain themselves between stone and bone as the seas digest all our discarded polymers.

I am still amazed that space agencies insist on sending more robots on one-way missions out of the galaxy, when a planet full of people keep falling in love, divorcing, or otherwise pouring out their desires in the billions to anyone who will listen.

1. For other examples of xenopoetics in Bök’s era, see Will Alexander, Mari-Lou Rowley, Jack Spicer, Ed Roberson, and Aimé Césaire.