The British mathematician and logician Alan Turing famously proposed a test of machine intelligence based on the “imitation game”: a man and a woman proceed into separate rooms and other party guests must figure out which is which, based on questions the guests devise and typed responses they receive from the hidden contestants. I have never played this game, but it sounds straight out of the 1950s, turning on a conviction that gender defines how we use language. That a woman could plausibly mimic a man’s way of thinking and writing, or vice versa—how hilarious!
Transposing the gender divide from the party game onto computers and human beings, Alan Turing wondered if a machine and man, similarly concealed, could seem comparably human to observers. The better-known version of the Turing test simplifies this triangulation—the computer just has to convince a jury, by its answers, that it is a conscious organism. Yet it’s interesting to remember the original proposition when reading Franny Choi’s second full-length collection, Soft Science, recently published by Alice James Books (in an attractive softcover emblazoned with triangles). The supposed divide between person and machine parallels the supposed divide between binary genders. Concentrating on the figure of the cyborg, Choi scrambles these and other dualisms ingeniously.
Choi’s inventive, appealing, urgent book is anchored by six “Turing Test” poems, each consisting of italicized questions from an unidentified source (“//how old are you,” “//why do you insist on lying,” “//do you believe you have consciousness”), and a series of surprising, and often moving, retorts. These replies feel especially resonant during the current humanitarian crisis at US borders. In the first “Turing Test,” for example, in answer to “//do you understand what i am saying,” the speaker replies with a tale of learning English as a child:
i caught the letters/as they fell from my mother’s lips/whirlpool/sword/wolf/i circled countable nouns in my father’s papers/sodium bicarbonate/NBCn1/hippocampus/we stayed up practicing/girl/girl/girl/until our gums softened/yes/i can speak/your language/i broke that horse/myself
Choi, who is Korean-American, offers a brief scene of a young immigrant proving her humanity to skeptical interrogators by laboring to master the only language they will recognize. The same concern with national borders recurs in other poems from the dispersed “Turing Test” sequence. In “Turing Test_Problem Solving,” for example, when asked, “//if you don’t like it here why don’t you go somewhere else,” the speaker, after a few evasions, begins riffing on the phrase “my country”: “my stained/page my mother/land my mother/board my boardinghouse…” The love-it-or-leave-it hostility of the italicized question cannot so much be answered as taken apart, piece by toxic piece. Choi’s virtuosic linguistic grooves and structural experiments rebut xenophobia and racism by undermining the pervasive binary of self and other.
Many other poems in Soft Science center on cyborgs, figures that straddle the boundary that especially interested Turing. The origin of this collection, Choi reports in a press release, was the character Kyoko in the movie Ex Machina (2015), “an Asian sex robot whose creator removes her language capabilities in order to protect his company’s trade secrets…I started writing poems in Kyoko’s imagined voice, and eventually that voice turned into my own.” Other cyborgs from various media enter the mix, including Chi from the manga Chobits (2002) and the Borg from Star Trek, as well as uncanny pseudo-people like Apple’s Siri; but the focus is on cyborg women—how male sexual desire has been projected onto them, and what desires cyborgs themselves might articulate. Choi’s imaginative identification with cybernetic organisms further enables her to tease out stereotypes attached to Asian identity, including technical adeptness, passivity, mystery, and silence.
An interest in language and who gets to speak is paramount for Choi, whose poetic career started in spoken word and Button Poetry. Soft Science, appropriately, demonstrates wild linguistic variety as it careens from scientific terms to idioms of strong emotion, including some especially taboo curses. The range of forms is also dazzling. The book contains many sonnets, including the sonnet crown “Chatroulette.” An inherently hybrid mode, the prose poem, recurs too, especially in the sequence “Perihelion” and the “Turing Test” poems, in which slashes crack the paragraphs, as if they are about to fracture into poetic lines. One poem imitates programming language and others deploy collage elements and extreme disjunction, such as “The Cyborg Wants to Make Sure She Heard You Right,” which, as a note describes, is “composed of tweets directed at the author, processed through Google translate into multiple languages, then back into English.” In other words, Soft Science is a brilliant but not an easy book. Choi more or less mocks the idea of accessibility by beginning with a poem called “Glossary of Terms.” Instead of definitions, “Glossary” offers a grid of associative phrases that evoke some of the book’s concerns but explain nothing.
Yet a seemingly personal intensity quickly emerges, too. Some poems grieve dead or abusive lovers, illness, and loneliness—familiar literary material that Choi handles powerfully. In addition to the “Turing Tests,” I was moved by “On the Night of the Election,” a poem about trying to masturbate on the cusp of Trump’s presidency: “I called and called/ and nothing came./ I had a body, and/ it refused to rise for work.” Alienation having taken over the speaker physically, from the inside, she goes to sleep like the speaker at the end of Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues” (1926): “like a rock, or a man/ that’s dead.” Hughes professed dissatisfaction with the closure of his resonant poem, one that helped inaugurate the Harlem Renaissance, but here it takes on intriguing layers of meaning. “The Weary Blues” quotes a black blues singer, but also describes an unraced listener’s reaction to the song; the poem’s perspective hovers between them, perhaps fusing them in the last line. Choi identifies as “queer” and Hughes might have, too; her invocation of Hughes, then, brings their various negotiations of boundaries into productive conversation.
Turing, too, seems to interest Choi not only for his questions about machine consciousness, but because he was prosecuted for homosexuality, his achievements put under erasure. In “A Brief History of Cyborgs,” Choi alludes to Turing in the lines, “The British scientist was discovered to be a soft man. He made a machine that could break any code, as a means of hardening a little.” In the same poem, a possibly autobiographical speaker explores her conflicts with a scientist father who “wedded her to the internet” and was frightened by the transformations that ensued in his hungry daughter.
Another obvious influence on this project is the feminist scholar Donna Haraway, source of the book’s first epigraph: “We are excruciatingly conscious of what it means to have a historically constituted body.” “At the center of my ironic faith, my blasphemy, is the cyborg,” Haraway wrote in a 1985 essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” about the pleasures of blurry edges and the possibility of revolutionary affinities. Soft Science participates in Haraway’s sociopolitical critique, with a similarly playful and daring spirit.
I also loved this book as a commentary on twenty-first-century poetry’s relationship to a leaky sense of self. Being a border-worrying poet-critic, I spent the Fourth of July, rather than watching military parades on television or fireworks down the road, finishing Jonathan Culler’s massive Theory of the Lyric (2015) and considering it in relation to Choi’s spiky poetic practice. In a chapter on genre, Culler notes that the old definition of lyric poetry as “passionate expression” is still “well-installed … poets have continued to conceive their work in relation to the expressive model, though most often in resistance to it, constructing poems that frustrate attempts to locate a coherent voice.” Contemporary poetry, that is, frequently takes voice, feeling, and identity as major subjects, but in a skeptical way, offering emotion with one hand and snatching it back with the other.
Culler’s work has influenced my thinking for decades, but I disagree with one of his main points in Theory of the Lyric, that poetry is not fiction but “a ritualistic form with occasional fictional elements.” I think lyric poetry is, or at least tends to be, not only fiction but fantasy. Through rhythm and sensory vividness, poems invoke alternate possible worlds and tease out what’s real, or what we wish or fear might be real, just as speculative stories and novels do. In Soft Science, Choi is likewise exploring the boundaries of humanness and consciousness: what do people want, and what might be the consequences of desire’s satisfaction? Choi’s book is fantastic down to its DNA. It also offers fireworks enough for everyone, whether you’re excited about the queerness of cyborgs, the nature of consciousness, or the porous boundaries of contemporary lyric poetry.
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