One can read Christian Bök’s The Xenotext, Book I, as a political poem by an author doubtful of its political usefulness. One can place it beside another Canadian xenotext, Earle Birney’s “Vancouver Lights,” as a poem that addresses its only possible future readers as aliens: “O stranger. Plutonian descendant or beast in the stretching night-- there was light.” In Bök’s poem there were also once sonnets, and meadows with honey-collecting bees. Xenotext – a text for strangers.
Both texts reflect the desperate material conditions of their times – Birney’s the abrupt 1939-40 diversion of human creativity and the planet’s resources to the waging of a global war, Bök’s the growing realization that human extinction may be only few decades and degrees celsius distant. Irreversible global warming – a phenomenon which the banality of social thinking seems likely to allow to happen – promises humanity a demise similar to that envisaged by Neville Shute’s On the Beach – a demise that is understood through an understanding that has been attained too late for action. Bök’s project to preserve both a poem and poetry itself in the DNA of an almost indestructible bacterium can be read as an act of despair similar to cryogenic freezing of a loved one’s body for possible revivification years or centuries hence. Or it’s like the burial of a time capsule by someone acutely aware that time
Bök uses the “colony collapse’ metaphor of the honey-bee for one of the major section of his book. It’s a metaphor that reveals that humanity and its fellow species are all colonists of this planet. It implies that “Colony collapse disorder” is active not only in the bee or in the rampant self-destructiveness of whales that beach themselves, but also in the farmers who defend their neonicotinoids, Brazil authorities who invite Olympic rowers and sailors to race in the sewage lagoons that form Rio’s harbour, Japanese who persist in annual whale hunts, US politicians who oppose gun-control with a vehemence that increases with every mass killing, and in the failure of each climate-change conference since Kyoto 1992 to create effective and enforceable global policies. How fitting that The Xenotext, Book I should be published in the autumn of the enigmatically named “COP21” – a text not only for future strangers but also for current strangers who may understand too late the intransigence of their alienation.
All colonies of course do collapse, or evolve in ways that leave the appearance of collapse and loss. Bök’s choice of the honey-bee, however, is of a collapse that is both premature and in current circumstances avoidable. The metaphor thus has meanings that run against Albert Alligator’s observation that some day the sun’s going to explode, killing all mankind, and against the deliberately Orphic mood of loss that Bök creates here – recovering Eurydice only as a text created by a genetically modified bacterium. For he also recovers poetry in the process – the lower parts of many of the book’s pages of offer fascinating poetic translations of scientific theory (78-82, 96) and formulae (119-137). Poetry is not only still possible but it is present within the discourses of science and needs only a perceptive translator for its revelation. Recovery and loss, that is, play against each other here, and are part of the processes that the book celebrates.
It’s tempting to read The Xenotext as only an aesthetic tour de force – as an exceptionally clever structure, as a lesson in poetic constraints, as a brilliant addition to the history of pastoral poetry, as an aesthetic recompense for inevitable loss – which some reviewers have done. But there is more here. Bök’s project is also a poem of our moment.