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Words and Mirrors by Robert Kendall

Introduction to A Life Set for Two

Literature is a sham. A con job. A sack thrown over the head of unsuspecting reality. Incorporeal rows of symbols on a page pass themselves off as a Grecian urn or the taste of a madeleine. Those shrewd hucksters--imagery, characterization, plot--talk their way past the senses and into the bedroom of your imagination. You succumb to metaphor like a mind-altering drug, hoping it will heal the physicality of the world. You know you're being taken. You go along with it because you're being taken somewhere wonderful.

The page is a magic act...

The page is a magic act, a mystical show. Watch closely (but not too closely) and you may witness a stunningly staged escape from the padlocked chains of the meaningless. You may find the Deep and the Elusive captured there in print, like exotic animals hiding in the corners of cages. A few waves of the language wand and the fractured, fragmented world that careens around you becomes miraculously whole. And so it may remain on the page, reassuringly fixed, immutable. The page is also our Certificate of Superiority over mortality, temporality, and all the other messy bodily functions of existence.

So here I am, the poet anxiously coming to you with my illusionist's act, hoping you'll wink and look the other way at just the right moment so I can make the handkerchief of disbelief disappear. Ahem . . . Please direct your attention, if you will, to . . .

Where's the page?

But, you nervously ask, where's the page? Well, I nervously reply, there is none. Instead, there are pixels, semaphores of colored light on a screen invoking ranks of virtual print. There is nothing to hold in your hands. There is nothing solid and changeless. There is no single linear sequence underlying the text, no page numbering to guide you. Instead there is hypertext, a network of trails and passageways that wind through the words.

You'll see screenfuls of text, but each will lead outward to different potential destinations instead of merely to a page turn. The screen may look like a page, but words upon it may change as you read them. You may return to a spot in the poem where you've been before, as if flipping back through a printed book, but you'll probably find that the text has mutated in the interim. You can read and reread, but it's unlikely any two readings will ever be the same. The exotic animals are no longer in cages.

So I come to you asking for yet another charitable suspension of disbelief. I ask that you trust in the pixels, believe in the slippery virtual text they call up. Even though I don't offer you the hard, physical evidence of pages bound and lockstepping from front cover to back, what unfolds before you will indeed have the integrity and direction of a book. And though the milieu is now silicon, the sleight of hand will still be recognizably human.

Why a malleable poem? Why should I deny you the enduring, endearing solidity of print? I may promise to leave poetry still standing when I pull the page out from under it, but will it be standing with its wonted dignity and poise? Well, actually, I hope it will be doing a little dance, struggling spiritedly to keep its balance, reaching its hand out to you for assistance.

Struggle, after all, is at the heart of poetry. The struggle of metaphor against the merely real, thought against the world, meaning against the void. The interactive poem draws the reader into that struggle, the struggle that is really a dance.

... it's also my job to make poetry startle...

Why am I calling you onto the stage to be part of the act? You object that you don't like the spotlight. You just want to sit back and watch the show. It's my job, you say, to make the poetry happen. Ah, yes . . . but it's also my job to make poetry startle with the familiar, to make it bump the lens of understanding to unexpected angles. What I hope to offer you is a new, perhaps more intimate vantage point from up there.

Backstage at the Page

From a distance, language may seem a fairly easy dodge--a mirror angled toward the world, making its images appear to materialize onstage in a puff of smoke. But from up close, words reveal themselves to be instead a trap door leading up from that tenebrous wizard's basement of the mind, that hazy, haunted place where scattered sensory ingredients are transmuted into a mental mapping of the world and its contents and workings.

Our view of the world emerges not so much from the immediate mechanisms of perception, with their (we assume) direct lines to physical reality, as from the alchemical processes of mental reflection and recollection. Perception resides only in the fleeting moment of the present, that pinprick at the tip of the mind. We're forced to grasp the world by groping through the vast, cluttered repositories of memory and knowledge that we've culled from it.

Hence, when I take up my pen (or my keyboard) to confront life with it, I may think I'm writing about things I've seen or experienced or felt. But I'm actually writing about my memories of these things. This might seem a trivial distinction, but it actually makes my subject matter radically different in nature than I might first suppose. Places and events may be pretty concrete material, but my mental reconstitutions of these are a much slipperier affair.

recollection is not really a retrieval mechanism

We like to think of the past as being like a set of books. Once each volume is written (by Fate, God, or Chance--pick your favorite author), it is placed on some metaphysical shelf to sit and gather dust for all eternity. Who's to say it isn't so? But for us the past has no empirical existence outside our own memories, and memory seems nothing like a set of pages gathered into an orderly volume.

When I recollect, the process is somewhat like rummaging through a seemingly bottomless, messy file cabinet, or searching for what fell behind it, or ransacking the waste basket. It's a process of reconstruction and deciphering, a puzzling over palimpsests and lacunae, an unconscious resorting to wholesale rewrites when things don't fit together the way they should. Much neurological research indicates that recollection is not really a retrieval mechanism at all, but rather a dynamic system of re-creation and reprocessing. Memories are shaped and reshaped by the process and circumstances of every individual instance of recollecting.

So where does this leave me when I try to channel what I've seen and felt into language? The gears of remembrance turn and out come words embedded in the page for posterity. Is this text a snapshot of my experience, the fixity of the words corresponding convincingly to the subject matter's solidly frozen position in the past? Or is it at best a plaster cast taken of memory's machinery in one particularly interesting or poignant state?

Perhaps the real subject matter of any memoir I may attempt is the working of my own thought processes. The objects of my ruminations are inaccessible to me now. I have only the various imprints and traces they've managed to leave on my gray matter and the methods my brain has of extrapolating an image from this residue. Whatever impulse sparks a recollection is likely to influence the focus and perspective of that image. The picture will be lighted and colored by whatever my attitude toward its content happens to be at that particular moment. Some sudden insight may make certain details loom larger in significance or become clearer. How, then, can I appreciate what the image really represents without understanding this germinating impulse, these shifting attitudes, this transforming insight?

What I'm up against here is the static nature of printed text...

Is there a way for literature to convey this image with its inherent variables intact? Can I somehow model in writing the processes of thought--either my own or, more importantly, those of a persona I may choose to fabricate as a vehicle for poetry? I can write about these processes, trying to record each turning of the mental gears and map each speculative footstep that leads to some final stage of understanding or confusion. Yet then I'm left with merely a chronicle of effects, an ultimately rather arbitrary catalog of external manifestations. This approach can't directly represent the underlying mechanisms and all their potential interactions.

What I'm up against here is the static nature of printed text, which limits how well it can portray the squirming, restless contents of memory. Ultimately and ironically, print can't capture the past because print always stays the same and the past, at least in the ways we perceive it, doesn't. In fact, the stasis of print is strangely at odds with the fluid quality of much else that it tries to pin to the page, because the world just won't stand still.

Wired for Metaphor

Now what if I resort to a model with moving parts? Hypertext is inherently dynamic, like the subject matter at hand. Orderings change, relationships shift, depictions become variations on a theme. Tendencies, urges, influences, ambivalences, repressions--I can incorporate them all directly into the mechanism of a hypertext. I create the laws of physics for my little world and then let the reader set it in motion to unfold as it will.

Can the dynamic electronic poem replicate thought and memory rather than merely describing it? Can it bring you closer to a character's experience by letting you observe, perhaps even participate in, the actual processes of recollection? In a word, no. But I can certainly exercise my prerogative as an illusionist and make it seem so.

... it has the chance to become real

The "working" model I offer you may just be made of words, but it has the chance to become real in a sense. As you twist the artificial causalities and biases this way and that, take the simulated emotional mechanisms apart and put them back together, there may seem to grow around them a certain reality that will turn out to be rooted in your own.

Think of how the playwright shamelessly shores up the illusion that a play constitutes real people in the real world--by using live actors. The trick works because it's not entirely a trick. The circumstances they're responding to may be simulated rather than actual, but the actors are flesh and blood nonetheless. Their responses are real in the sense that different actors will respond to the demands of the same role in different ways, merging their own personalities with those of the fictional characters.

Each reader's unique proclivities and motivations help determine where the sun and rain will fall.

Similarly, when the hypertext poem promotes the illusion that its permutations reflect a mind actively at work, it's not entirely a trick. The poem inevitably takes on a certain life of its own beyond authorial control. I create the text and fashion parameters for readings, but I can't foresee all the possible outcomes. Each reading (or simulated train of thought) will reveal relationships or establish connections and causalities that I hadn't anticipated. These relationships weren't thought out and set up--rather their seeds spilled from my hands and landed somewhere in the program code I wrote. Each reader's unique proclivities and motivations help determine where the sun and rain will fall.

A poet hopes readers will see something of themselves in the poetry, perhaps even be changed somehow by the small shocks of recognition. When the interactive poem ends, you'll look around at the props still surrounding you on the now silent stage, and you'll know that your fingerprints are on all of them. If you feel inclined to look back upon the twistings and turnings of the little drama, you may see the telltale scuff marks and strands of hair you left upon those contours. Who's to say that a few of these may not perhaps turn out to be tiny pieces of new evidence bearing upon that thorniest of all mysteries . . . yourself? Stranger things have been known to happen when it comes to literature.

(c) Copyright 1996 by Robert Kendall. All Rights Reserved

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Robert Kendall

A Life Set for Two

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