Breakpoint is the debut poetry collection from Betsy Aoki. It’s the winner of the 2021 Patricia Bibby First Book Award and its poems encompass a wide variety of topics, from women in tech and gaming, to Japanese legends and American history. A number of the speculative poems have previously appeared in Uncanny, where Aoki is a regular contributor.
Immediately, one of the most noticeable things about Breakpoint is that scattered through the collection are found poems “excerpted from Python game code [Aoki] wrote” (p. 65) during an introduction to Python programming course. Aside from the connection that this brings to the poems about being a woman in tech, or a woman in gaming, these poems also bring a potential ambiguity to the text, albeit one informed by the potential knowledge of the reader. I have little to do with coding myself, and from my perspective a python is an animal I would prefer not to meet in the wild, so I lack the capacity to truly read these poems, I think. That incapacity stretches to not even being able to tell if there is a specific reading, one that people conversant with Python would pick up on. Arguably, however, this particular ignorance doesn’t actually preclude me from drawing some intent from these poems, and I think that’s a fascinating thing.
Before this review terrifies you into putting the book down, however, I should point out that these found poems are only a small fraction of the poems here. Treat them as a puzzle, if you will. A small linguistic riddle that you’ll not be tested on. They’re not there to be intimidating. They’re there to explore.
Part of that exploration is not just the linguistics of code. It’s the experience of a life in coding, or being a woman in the tech and gaming industries. Neither of these spaces have typically proven easy for women to navigate, and a number of poems in Breakpoint address this. “Debugger” (p. 34) describes a programmer working through code, and it’s noticeable that the person programming is male, while the female debugger is “the voice in his head / that follows his eyes / telling him what’s not working.” Reading the poem over, I’m unsure if the debugger is real or not; the programmer is certainly confused by her, thinking to himself that women require textbooks or Wikipedia entries to understand, as if their bodies (their minds) are written in codes that need to be translated. Have I used the wrong approach, the programmer wonders, as if a codified query, one strictly set into expected lines, is required in order to comprehend. If women are objects to be interpreted, then they are also objects to be researched, objects of research.
When one of those objects turns up, conversant in code, it’s as if the boundaries between creator and created, between coder and coded, are broken. In “The women’s room at [variable1] tech conference in [variable2] city” (p. 60), however, that sense of exceptionalism is present, as the restroom is completely empty of women ... except, of course, for one. “Outside, you / are the outsider crashing and crinkling / the world of men,” Aoki argues, while the small empty cubicles have room for multiple occupants that should be there but aren’t.
There’s a poem in Breakpoint which illustrates, with sparse repetition, the difference between what should be and what is. “Do I look like code?” (p. 15) has three lines, over the course of the poem, that indicate that poem’s thesis. “This is what [X]’s code looks like” is the first, and it’s followed by “This is what [X] coding looks like” and “This is what happens when you code for [X].” Basic algebra says that X could be anything. In an ideal world, everyone can become X, and the poem becomes the description of an individual’s work. Basic algebra also says that all too frequently X has a single solution—let’s not stretch this analogy to negative numbers—and X becomes concrete, less an individual than the totality of what is expected. Aoki, a woman in tech herself, no doubt has firsthand experience of this sort of lived ambiguity. It’s also fair to say, though, that there are poems in Breakpoint that break out of ambiguity and towards a welcome acceptance, as in “Playing Halo 3 in Iraq” (p. 23), when a soldier discovers that the woman he’s sitting next to on a plane is an indie games developer, and they have gaming in common.
This experience of partial belonging, of being both investigated and investigator, is underlined by historical explorations of the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War Two. “Walking here is to be swallowed by the sky” (pp. 5–6) addresses the Topaz internment camp, on the occasion of it being turned into a museum in 2017, and the experience of the narrator’s grandparents there. The grandmother turns desert seashells into necklaces, trying to create connection from absence. The grandfather comments that “it is important not to become bitter,” which is an admirable, if challenging, sentiment under the circumstances, considering that the poem also remembers “a man shot for walking / too close to the wires.” These were people locked up not because they’d committed any crime, recall, but because their ethnicity, during a war, made the majority think that they would be predisposed to treason. Another subject population, to be corralled and researched ... isn’t there a textbook, a Wikipedia article? (Yes. Now.) That determination to eschew bitterness ... I wonder if it’s a good thing. Noble, certainly, but bitterness is a basic taste. A required taste, perhaps: “it can’t happen here again, you say,” the poem states, and I would like to think it’s a well-founded optimism, but sometimes you have to hang on to the end of horror any way that you can. I won’t say that horror is a necessary thing, because that is a facile claim from someone who has never really experienced any, but it is certainly a way of learning navigation.
The tendrils of horror that seep through this collection, the experiences of otherness, come up in more expectedly vicious ways when Aoki writes about more typical demons, and more bloodthirsty stalkers. There’s “Okari Inu, or the sending-off dog demon” (p. 9), who sidles up in the guise of a friend or comrade. “Few could believe someone / so kindly as he’s been, has teeth. Then you slip, / and the world is as black as the inside of a closed mouth.” There’s the “Buruburu” (p. 21), who hovers over people who fight until they’re too scared to go on, catches them, and through consumption turns them into itself. There are others, too, but you get the point: these are recognisable monsters. The colleague who turns on you, the fear that, in a difficult situation, you will crumble and run. (How many women in tech, in gaming, come across the Okari Inu, or see the Buruburu in the mirror of an empty restroom, at a conference when the weight of representation is on them alone? Too many, I suspect.)
It’s through small connections such as these that Breakpoint comes together. Initially it can appear disparate, but look a little closer and there’s a clear, incisive intelligence quietly constructing parallels, reflections, a small collection of mirrors. These are codes and fantasies ... how does the experience of being other, of a weighted history of otherness, express itself in the construction of characters? And I say characters deliberately, in the full knowledge that it has more than one meaning here, and that all of them are relevant. How are others to interpret that construction? (There’s a python round here somewhere, all slinking scales and punctuation; both of them can bite.) I’d end on one of those parallels, a last little construction. Two poems, two games: “[X_] plays Planescape Torment” (p. 56), where the algebraic hero is “not a girl,” and will never be a girl. “I try to play him faithful to the part” but the part is uninspiring, and unable to evolve. On the facing page, “The Sketcher, The Witcher” (pp. 56–57), where a woman seeks out exploration and battle. It’s not so different; she kills monsters too. She also sketches pictures of her lovers and leaves them in places only other women will frequent. When she fights, she uses a sword, and skills learned in kitchens to blind her attackers. She makes friends with other women. I like to think she raises them up. I know which I’d rather play.
That, at least, requires little interpretation.