A Long Post on a Digital Poem

Computer technology endows the poet with unique capabilities, many of which K Michel and Dirk Vis have taken advantage in their electronic poem “Ah (a shower song).” Upon clicking the button on the appropriate webpage, which is accessible from the Electronic Literature Directory, to “BEGIN,” the reader is transported to a white screen. A sequence of words formed with black letters slides leftward into view at a leisurely pace, but some words slide faster than others. At times, one may be able to discern only a jumble of nonsensical letters, but the seeming chaos resolves into logically ordered words. Michel and Vis’s messages are cryptic and invite imaginative interpretation. Just as all people have unique thoughts and emotional states while in the shower – or anywhere else –, all readers will have unique emotional experiences of this poem and ideas about what it – or anything else – may mean. There is likely to be less variety in the interpretations of a very straightforward message; “Ah (a shower song)” likely is deliberately ambiguous, befuddling, in order to generate a diversity of impressions upon its readers. But while the words may seem chaotic at some instances, nothing about this digital poem is random. Its every feature is a manifestation of precise computer programming. Similarly, although the thoughts that come to one in the shower may seem random, they are manifestations of precise biological workings, so only in appearance are words or thoughts random – I think.

One of the earliest strings of words in the sequence, which runs for about five minutes but replays indefinitely on a loop, is “not Einstein no after a lifetime’s study this morning while singing in the shower I realised time passes but doesn’t exist no not,” but because of the ceaseless motions of the words, these words only exist in this order for a few moments. The entire poem has no punctuation or capitalization; it can be thought of as a single line, a single continuous thread, just as one’s thoughts in the shower are a single continuous thread. At the junction between thoughts, one thought intermeshes with the next. “Not Einstein no after a lifetime’s study” is such a junction between thoughts; the speaker’s musing about time’s nonexistence is a seamless, immediate continuation of his thinking about Einstein. Perhaps the “no” in between “Einstein” and “after” is an expression of doubt the speaker has about what he just thought about Einstein, as in ‘no (that cannot be).’ Perhaps that “no” is more like a ‘no (Not Einstein. Nooooo)’ – maybe even ‘no (not Einstein)’ in an Et tu, Brute kind of way. Maybe the “no” is a subliminal cue planted by the authors to seed doubt in the reader about his/her own interpretation of the poem. I certainly have no idea what to make of the words, “time passes but doesn’t exist.” How can one define existence, and in what senses can time be thought to exist or not to exist? I have no idea. The words’ mobility and varying speeds, which cause them to become jumbled, contribute to the poem’s ambiguity. Ambiguity is the essence of “Ah (a shower song).”

The poem continues to expand upon the nebular nature of time with the phrase that a “clock counts the smoke of the hours but you don’t see it.” We can directly observe the results of the passage of time (“the smoke of the hours”), but do we observe time itself? Our experiences are manifestations of the unseen (time is unseen), just as the poem’s visual elements are manifestations of unseen code and as thoughts are manifestations of unseen biological activity; ordered processes can have chaotic, seemingly random manifestations. In addition to ambiguity, continuity of motion – defiance of stasis – is a central theme of the poem. Consider the stretch “despite that the rusting goes steadily on ah yes.” The flow of time is inexorable, just as is the flow of words across the screen. In this instance, the form of the poem reflects its content, as both form and content involve continuing motion. Perhaps the “ah yes” following this thought on the march of time reflects pride speaker feels at the thought he just had, as in ‘ah yes (good thought, Me).’ The “ah yes” may in fact have been planted to influence the reader subconsciously to agree with the statement that precedes it. The role these words play, as well as the original intentions that account for why they have roles to play at all, is ambiguous.

Before the content of the poem repeats itself, it continues to develop the ideas of continuity and ambiguity. One stretch reads, “there and here are banks of the same river ah aha you and me are both liquid oh ah ah oho.” The metaphors “river” and “liquid” mirror the fluidity of all the words’ motions. The roles of the “ah aha” and the “oh ah ah oho” are ambiguous, but they could be musical sounds sung by the speaker; the poem is entitled “Ah (a shower song),” after all. “You and me are both liquid” could be a comment on how human bodies consist mostly of water molecules, or it could be a comment on how a person’s identity is fluid – that is, it is always in flux. In “Ah (a shower song),” which parallels aspects of the process of thought, there is no escape from ambiguity or flux.

What aspects of thought have specific parallels in the poem? Thoughts seem to have lives of their own. They come from an unknown source, and if they leave my head, I can’t necessarily call them back. Just as I cannot choose the words that appear in my head (if I ‘decide’ to think about puppies right now, did I really decide that? Where did puppies come from? Why not urban poverty in China? Why not lemons? Why not some other topic that hasn’t yet come to mind? It doesn’t seem to me that I control what comes to my mind), I cannot choose the words that appear on the screen, nor can I influence the behavior of those words; additionally, once those words have gone off-screen, there is no calling them back. Just as the form of the poem embodies its theme of perpetual motion, the form of the poem also embodies its theme of ambiguity. The poem directly references ambiguity in the following way: “where you see a vase I see two faces see here.” Michel and Vis are speaking to the ambiguity of their own words. Then, the form of their words itself becomes ambiguous, as I hope the following screenshot demonstrates.

Turtle, crab, jellyfish, lips, hat, Pringle-guy mustache, camel hump, flying saucer, hut, DNA?
Turtle, crab, jellyfish, lips, hat, Pringle-guy mustache, camel hump, flying saucer, hut, DNA, none of the above, all of the above?

Whereas previously the words slid across a single horizontal plane and traced out a straight line, their motion becomes more complex and traces out arcs.  Just as the words that form these arcs can be interpreted, the arcs form images that can themselves be interpreted.  For instance, the bottom half of the image looks like a DNA double helix, a twisted ladder, or the mustache on the face of the Pringles logo.  What is the significance of the prominence of “etcetera,” “not,” and “one?”  I don’t think that question has a clear answer.  The functions of these words are ambiguous, just as is the function of the larger image they create.

“Ah (a shower song)” is an exemplary work of digital literature.  Its authors utilize the unique capabilities of computers in order to make the form of their poem directly reflect the themes of their poem.  The motion of the words is outside the watcher’s control, just as the stream of thoughts one has in the shower is largely outside one’s control.  Additionally, the ceaseless motion of the words reflects the ceaseless motion of time.  The poem directly addresses the notion of ambiguity, and its visual form as an image adds an additional element of ambiguity.  However, though much about the poem may remain unclear to its watchers, every aspect of the poem is as it is and appears as it does for very particular reasons, even if those reasons are unknown.

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