'A cubicle diced irony ox': Genetics and poetics in the letter-blender

Feeding “deoxyribonucleic acid” into an anagram generator, one receives results like “a crucible decoy dioxin” and “a cubicle diced irony ox” and “a cubic code dioxin lyre” and “a bouncily dicier codex.” These lettristic recombinations fittingly suggest animals turned into conundrums on laboratory workbenches and harps made from humanly concocted chemicals playing geometric melodies and books sliced up into elusive components. This is tellingly ironic, as the science of genetics and the genre of bio-poetic art intersect most productively at the level of the malleable, protean letter.

In the discipline of Kabbalistic gematria, Hebrew letters possess numerical equivalents that allow them to participate in mystical equations: in our metabolism’s chemical alphabet, amino acids likewise interact both alphabetically and algebraically. Defying Saussure’s cleavage between linguistic “form” and “substance,” a gene is both a shaping agent and a carrier of content. It is a token as well as a type, an embodiment and yet also an abstract essence. We are chemically composed of anagrams that can be rearranged nearly indefinitely and acronyms that form linear collaborations along gene strands that resemble limpid Scrabble tile-holders.

An organism’s DNA sequence is the same for all its body parts, and so “interpretation” becomes crucial — how a formative tongue tissue “hears” the spelled-out rhetoric of a DNA imperative is clearly different from how an eyelid does. Our bodies can self-assemble into their signature complexity because their parts are able to practice separate-but-singular hermeneutics. As we evolve, the lexicon of our chemical “statements” is forever incorporating new pidgins and creoles, and bio-art seeks an even greater molecular fluency in which the component letters of our genetic alphabet are encouraged to contort into new pictograms, in which a chemical “t” can somersault into a chromosomal “x” and the scimitar moon of a “c” can cast a mutating light and “b” and “d” can perform a self-mirroring tango around the axis-spindle of a chromosome.

The practice of using these letters to write inside of a bacterium is possible now that extragenetic material like verbal language can be contained in genetic form, nucleic acids can be custom-made, and human-formed protocells can serve as containers for laboratory RNA. Ezra Pound, born in an Idaho soon to become a hotbed of genetically enhanced potato husbandry, can now have one of his haiku-like phrases translated into a codon triplet for a starch virus.Wallace Stevens, who as an actuary lawyer insured cattle en route to being butchered, can have his phrases interlaced into bovine tissues. Lines of Robert Frost (his very surname a menace to still-growing foodstuffs) can be cross-fed into the flesh of crabbed, gnarled winter apples.

One of the few words that can be spelled using only the letters from the DNA alphabet is “at,” a simple preposition for direction or location, and yet this alphabet is increasingly used to reroute or defy a species’s evolutionary progress or placement. Supplementary DNA can now be inserted like an adjective suggested by a line editor, controlling the “trait” inside of a genetic “portrait.” A few biological generations ago, Harold J. Morowitz referred to processes that seem “too linguistic or poetic for the grind-and-extract business of biochemistry,” but these processes are indeed driven by an abstract and alphabetic code as much as by brute biologic matter. A bio-artist is a Faustus of the species fetus, engineering anomalies to supplement and accelerate evolution, exploiting the chemical alphabet to accelerate a process formerly known for its sluggard, gradual pace.

Organic chemists are now at work forging new letters to supplement our genetic alphabet: the humanly concocted nucleotides P and Z can now mesh seamlessly into the DNA skein, and newly enhanced forms of genetic spelling are on the horizon, opening out into a kind of chromosomal “free verse” beyond the foursquare standard of base-pair couplets. If so, proteins (as folded molecules) are soon to engage in a more complex genetic origami. James Joyce’s figurative pun on “atoms” as “etyms,” root word components able to intertwine into the fine grains of a living fabric, is becoming a material reality.

The line between studio and laboratory is dissolving, as suggested by Marta de Menezes: perhaps the line between notepad and handheld gene sequencer will soon follow suit. Bio-artists are working on genes that cluster like mandalas or stack like rocket scaffolding instead of stringing together like linear words. There is a greater danger of misfolding in such arrays but also the potential for greater genetic “eloquence.” Eduardo Kac has praised e.e. cummings’s use of vertical acrostics and blank space to liberate words from exclusively semantic form; Kac and his colleagues are similarly bent on releasing our body chemicals from their merely “genetic” duty and scripting new flavors for our bodily recipe.