Any time I'm between projects, I feel like I'm freefalling without the satisfaction of landing. When I explained this sensation to my husband while on vacation recently, I used the example of falling in a dream and being rocketed awake—usually by the sensation known as the myoclonic jerk—except that the waking state never comes. After reading Bogi Takács's collection of poetry, however, I think the sensation should be called Algorithmic Shapeshifting.
Takács’s title, other than being a fantastic and totally appropriate name for a collection of science-fiction and speculative poetry, certainly encapsulates that freefalling feeling. Instead of focusing on the negative sensations of falling, though, Takács focuses on the transformative. It is only when we freefall that we see the world from another angle, and, through that act of astral-like projection, we keenly develop our own empathy and compassion for others. It is only through changing our shape that we see how different people view the exact same world. Difference, that is, has the potential to pull us together rather than ripping us apart. Moreover, we must perform these acts of shapeshifting regularly, and methodically, with each person—and poem—we come across.
As Lisa M. Bradley points out in her foreword to the collection, Takács is a linguist by trade and by personal necessity. E speaks several languages, has lived in several countries, and identifies as an agender trans person. Eir entire world tilts on language, and it shows in the titles of many of these poems—“The Tiny English-Hungarian Phrasebook for Visiting Extraterrestrials,” for one. These words just sound good together, much like those in the titles of other poems, such as “The Weight of Granola and Gefilte” and “Synthesis: The Shining Confluence.” Other titles also feel good in the mouth, like “Radiation Hormesis” or “Autonomous Spacefaring.” Algorithmic Shapeshifting is a stellar collection of things and sounds that don't seem as if they will go together, but, once you see them on the page or read them aloud, seem as if these are the only ways they ever could have been. This language is natural, yet surprising. It is easy to read, yet complex at its core. The collection itself has distilled language acquisition to an art and then framed it through a wonderful series of poems, and an interesting breadth of geometric shapes, that only hint at the collection’s final depth.
That depth lies in the volume’s ability to conjure empathy in the reader. I’m a sensitive person—as my sense of freefall might demonstrate—but it is easy to be moved by Takács’s collection because of eir overall craft. Whether it’s the intensely beautiful “Bursting Season” that describes rain and tree branches with such precision, or the deeply troubling works involving war and genocide, Takács is aware of eir ability to goad the reader into a particular feeling-state. This collection is stuffed to the brim with feelings, especially communal and shared ones, just as the language that Takács uses so deftly is shared in order to be understood.
These feelings are both good and bad; but, no matter their root cause, they are handled in a careful and considerate manner. This is the first collection of poetry I’ve seen with trigger warnings in the back pages, and looking back at all the poetry I’ve read (and then been quite upset by), I can’t believe other collections don’t do this. How many high school English classes would have been changed if we had some type of warning before diving into the bleak world of Plath or Sexton? I don’t think—I hardly ever think—something like trigger warnings ruin a story, a film, or poem. They prepare. They prime. In some ways, the trigger warnings themselves are like small meta-poems, which only make me appreciate the work more. Takács’s triggers (called content warnings in the collection) for “Six Hundred and Thirteen Commandments” really do sound like poetry in and of themselves: misogyny, fasting, injury, minor genital mention, murder, death. It is horrific, but it paints a picture. It gives me the story in burst and fragments, which then makes the trauma that much more real.
Even in Takács’s more harrowing poems, such as “The Oracle of DARPA”—which is an intensely focused series of vignettes about paranoia and gaslighting—or the poem “Periodicity”—about genocide and Nazism—are still works of careful beauty. Each scenario of trauma is depicted well, and ultimately for the sake of connection. These horrific images are not conjured for the shock and awe. Acts of violence are represented as real, as something to contemplate, rather than to draw entertainment from. We all have experienced something horrific, something that lingers. We can get so lost in the specifics, but the feelings of being alone and helpless are where we ultimately should focus because it is nearly universal—and from that sense of universality we can find healing. It is certainly what is depicted in Takács’s work. As someone who also reads a lot of horror fiction, I appreciate the nuance of how Takács handles this sort of violence. Often enough, we don’t need to see the monster at all: we just need to see the aftermath to be terrified. Only the better writers understand that. Beyond the violence hinted at or reflected upon, we then must move towards connection.
This tension between people and violence, between ideas and their aftermath, also emerges through the depiction of the transgender body in Takács’s collection. The first bunch of poems in this work is the series entitled “Trans Love Is.”; each poem dives deep into the nuance of bodies, languages, and their shared meaning together. Lisa M. Bradley emphasizes this series’ importance in the introduction, and I firmly stand on her side. This agglomeration of poetic lines is important because they utilize that universal feeling we all come to call love, but they do not universalize it at the cost of individuality.
When speaking about empathy, and the universal, it can be so easy to project an idealized body into that space. The universal is, and has been for centuries, a white man. We anticipate and learn to project our own experiences onto the blank canvas of the white man; we change all those hes to shes or to es, but this process can be tiring. To speak of universality sometimes means we are still speaking about a white male able-bodied subject, but we allow for an asterisk. We get good at reading that asterisk. Some trans theorists, like Jack Halberstam, have written entire books about that asterisk.
And I love the fluidity of the asterisk, too. Don’t get me wrong, there. But there is something freeing about reading Takács’s work, because this default to the able-bodied white man just doesn’t happen. Whiteness or cisness are not taken for granted; these versions of a body are clearly the asterisks in eir work, and this is clearly shown in “Trans Love Is.” These poems speak of expressly trans experience. In “The Handcrafted Motion of Flight,” for example, the narrator laments that, “They are bothered by the pronouns. / The smallest details can mean the world to me— / that landscape in the future, in a casual past / of smoke beige edges and silence.” In another passage, the narrator addresses a close loved one using gender-neutral pronouns (e/eir) and then also reaches out for a stranger’s reaction:
A moment stands out.
The balding stranger looks at me
with no internal calculations
sees me for who I am.
Our interlocking thoughts
pass a message of trust.
These poems are keenly organized around transgender lives and experiences. Yet I still believe these poems are universal—because there is a projecting outwards, rather than a closing off of connection and community. Takács wants to lovingly address eir gender-neutral partner, and be recognized by the right pronouns, as well as have connection with a balding stranger. Similarly, e wants the reader to feel what e feels, so e writes a poem about it. Each poem reflects eir distinct experience, but Takács still invites the reader in. That invitation is beautiful and wonderful, and it is addressed to everyone. In Takács's work, especially this series of poems, the individual experience is elevated to the collective, but that collective or universal body is now a trans body. That is amazing. That is great. That, to me, is the primary function of empathy.
While at times I find the empathetic sensation of freefalling terrifying because there is no sense of boundaries, it is also elating. That sensation of shifting, of falling, of reconstitution itself, is an act of empathy. And empathy, I firmly believe, is what keeps people together, communities together, civilization together. It is a profound action to feel with someone, in addition to feeling beside someone. Feeling with someone erodes all divisions and differences we attempt to erect; it invites people inside for camaraderie rather than divisiveness.
And this is especially important for audiences outside of the community a writer may seek to represent. We need more diversity in fiction and certainly within poetry, and we need it not just for those who share that voice to see themselves, but especially for those who don't share that position to see it. The world is diverse—and so is the audience—and so everyone should be able to be invited to a book. We should be able to speak with one another. It is the only way any language is ever learned: through sharing, through the telling and the retelling of stories.
At its core, Algorithmic Shapeshifting also describes the act of reading itself. It is, as Takács writes in “Pivot Point” about “not the desire to get loose but rather / to embed yourself even deeper.” We shift and change with each new narrator we come across in these poems (and within eir fiction, too, if you are lucky enough to read eir other work), which draws attention to the artificiality of the experience itself. Yet this artificiality—the unrealness of these speculative worlds—is why we love reading. We shift and change behind each new character, experiencing their life as they go on and live it. It doesn’t matter if these characters are real or not, if the world they inhabit is real or not, because they feel real, and because they make us feel; we are invested. Some great things can come from that sense of investment and validation.
This is why I like fiction, why I got a PhD in literature, and why I continue to seek out new authors and new experiences that go along with these authors. I share very few similarities with Takács. Yet through eir work, I feel something profound. Through each poem, I get to be someone else and live life through their eyes, in both the good and the bad; and by doing so, I am allowed to understand myself a little better. That is the purpose of shapeshifting, and when we do it enough, as the collection’s title seems to imply, we get to form beautiful patterns. These patterns, like Carl Jung's mandala, are universal. They connect all of us. We are in this together, not watching it from afar.
I think that's one of the main reasons why I feel like I'm freefalling without a project, and especially without something to read. I want to be able to see myself in the world I review and in the books I read for pleasure, but I also fear becoming lost in something that only represents me and only me. It's a falling without the myoclonic jerk that rockets me back into the world, into people, into community, and—more importantly—into strangers. It's no surprise that I felt like freefalling when I was on vacation; I didn’t have my students or their graded projects with which to engage. I didn’t have my research or my own collection of books. Yet I knew the solution for this freefalling sensation wasn't to narrow focus on my own issues, but to turn to my husband for camaraderie and understanding. He pointed out to me that, since we were on vacation, in a different part of the country, and we had no expectations, perhaps we should talk to strangers. We needed to shake up the very idea of strangeness and familiarity, and by doing so, access understanding and empathy. Only then would we find our feet again.
That is what Algorithmic Shapeshifting does best: accesses empathy by presenting diverse experiences in a cogent and beautiful way which allows for everyone to understand. Takács’s work calls out from the page to be understood and shared. I mean this quite literally as well, since eir work often uses the second person “you” in many of the poems. I will cite an example from my favourite poem “Bursting Season”:
Rain patters on you softly, tree-branches opening
to the night sky, allowing you peace and rest.
Your mouth is sweet with nectar and ambrosia
and you smile as tears wash over your face.
The bursting season will soon arrive again.
The constant incitement of you, you, you is the best form of callout culture I've seen. It's not a callout for a past mistake, but a callout for connection, humanity, understanding … all the good things that diversity does. In this form of callout, I want to be named. I want to be known.
And being known, of course, is the first step away from being a stranger. It's the first part of waking up.
It is the exact place I want to be. But I know, as well, that it won't be my final form or shapeshift yet. I can't wait for the next one, especially if Takács is the author.