Do You Understand What I Am Saying

Soft Science by Franny Choi (Alice James Books, 2019)

What is the process we go through to understand someone or something with a fundamentally different consciousness from ours? This is the question I most often asked myself while reading Soft Science by Franny Choi. On paper, in the skeletal facts of biography, Choi and I have quite a few things in common, but, on the page and in mind, author and reader were so dramatically different that I sat wondering what to say about this collection of poems. I tend to resist art that self-consciously and relentlessly draws attention to its cultural moment. (Does a poem that references Tinder have lasting relevance?) I’m a person who spends most of my time thinking about plants and insects. Even in college, I had no idea what was on the radio or on TV. When I meet others like that, it takes little effort to connect with them. Outside of our tribes, connecting takes effort. One of the book’s central questions seems to be: How do we connect in a time of disconnect and fragmentation? Therefore, I decided to experiment, to see what the process was to understand these poems, and, more importantly, to forge a connection with them.

I. Science

Science is my fallback means of solving problems or understanding most things in life, and it was the way I was first able to connect with these poems. When I think about what language a cyborg or android might speak, it is, of course, code: the language that connects humans and machines. In their form and syntax, these poems bear much in common with code. They employ signalling punctuation whose function goes beyond the grammatical. The poems are filled with slashes and colons and brackets and parentheses that give purpose and direction to fragments of language. They are filled with erasures that show how the removal of seemingly insignificant information can completely change meaning and function, a phenomenon anyone who has coded knows well. 

// this is a test to determine if you have consciousness

// do you understand what I am saying

So begins the first poem, which takes the form of a Turing Test, a test to determine how human-like a machine’s behaviors and language are. In these poems, the reader is both the test’s subject and also the test’s questioner, a nameless entity, perhaps human, perhaps not, a questioner saying into the void, “do you understand what I am saying.” The questions have no question marks the way they would if a human spoke them, and it is almost as though a machine is speaking to another machine. Or as though the questioner does not expect a real answer.

The process of translating human thoughts, commands, ideas, and words into language a computer can understand is complex. It began with the Jacquard loom, which could weave intricate tapestries by using patterns drilled into pieces of wood. Early computer scientists furthered this technology, making punched cards that could give computers basic commands: Yes, No; Left, Right. That is something I can understand. Beyond html, however, no. As a history of science person, my knowledge of computer science and programming comes from when code looked like this:

The Jacquard loom, progenitor
of an early programming card. Images from Wikipedia.

I was, therefore, at a disadvantage as a reader. What I appreciated, however, was that, presumably, the speaker of these poems, for whom code is the native tongue—or more than that, a brain process—understands layers of meaning that many humans do not. And, even if a human does understand the meaning of a missing closing bracket, they may not catch its absence if the command makes sense without it.

“Program for the Morning After” is written as code, with instructions in brackets.

But the question mark does not exist. Instead, a missing bracket. A lack of closure. An instruction never finished? Or maybe a disintegration of the boundary between the strict commands of code and the flailing of human emotion and speech. In taking on the form of code, these poems are filled with caesuras and erasures, bits of missing data that alter function altogether. The things we don’t say. 

Punctuation speaks in lieu of words: colon, semicolon, slash, bracket. In code, these wordless commands have meaning. Punctuation also enacts its literal meaning: to create space between, to punctuate, to interrupt. The above question “did you think it was going to be easy” in fact takes 1 1/2 pages to complete, in a sense conveying a stream of consciousness type of question, rather than a literally spoken one. Something similar happens in “Turing Test_Weight,” where the speaker of the poem hijacks the questioner’s question so that what comes between the question, in the speaker’s voice, is ten lines longer than the question:

// what is your country of origin

// what is (inside each question lies another question—a question of weight. What brings you to the bed of this river? What is it about this planet that keeps you running back?…In other words, the question here is one of history, of a family tree…the thought that almost becomes a thought just before dawn) your country of origin

At times Choi’s code conceit feels like too much, it’s trying too hard, but at other times, it has real emotional impact. When there is less adornment and fewer acrobatics, computer science becomes poetry, even though the two seem like opposites. It is in moments like this that I connect with these poems, the moments when a scientific function lays bare complex emotion.

II. Voice

In an interview in The Paris Review, Choi said, “I love reading my work aloud. … I love what happens to a poem when it enters a room of people… Slam has taught me what kinds of poems are immediately accessible and exciting to people—and I love reading those poems. But I also really love reading work that I think no one outside of my own brain will understand.”

Poetry workshops have long taught the practice of the poet not saying anything before others discuss the work. But, in fact, we often hear poets talk about their work now, and reading what Choi has to say—even in the most general sense—was helpful as a way in to the poems. Taking her advice, I invited an actor friend over for drinks, and we sat on my porch to read some of the poems from Soft Science aloud. 

My friend and I traded roles of questioner and cyborg in a few of the Turing Test poems. We alternated stanzas. We read in different voices. As Choi says at another point in her Paris Review interview, “I love learning about a poem in the air.” The words had more feeling in voice, literally vibrating and travelling in waves through the air. I read “Turing Test_Love” in a robot voice, but did not sound like a robot. Instead, I sounded like someone trying to get words out when I didn’t know what to feel or how to express, a recurring theme in this collection.

remember / all humans / are cyborgs / all cyborgs / are sharp shards

The sound of my voice changed the meaning, the feel. And when my friend read, it was different yet again. Sound was a way into these poems because sound transcends meaning, and therefore species (human? machine?) does not matter. In truth, these poems may have a cyborg speaker, but if Franny Choi reads them, the speaker stands before the listener. That makes these poems particularly powerful to imagine as an act of performance or imagination. Sound and voice create a path to empathy and feeling. Even when we don’t completely understand the consciousness speaking to us.

On another level, there’s a lot of unmitigated joy in sound in these poems. 

// and how does that make you feel

amygdala / thalamus / hypothalamus … god reading the news / the noose

Sometimes meaning and logic aren’t needed. There’s a kind of Gertrude Stein–esque stream of consciousness glossophilia/glossolalia at work in many of the poems, an exuberance in the way the tongue can produce sound, and reading aloud gave me joy.

As a counterpoint to code and machine, there is so much sound and physicality in these poems. Almost as if they are pushing back against the erasure of the human in machinery, going back to a time when computers were more physical, had bodies and brains in the form of holes punched in wood or cards.

III. Ex Machina

“We all have intimate relationships with machines—that’s part of the definition of being a human,” Choi comments in The Paris Review. In the time when computer science was code punched in cards, in the time when it was holes in the pattern for a loom, there was a clear line between human and machine. Now that even most of my luddite brain’s information is stored online, the division is less clear. Or, as Choi puts it, a cyborg is “both machine and human.” Conversely, humans are both human and machine because without machines, we could not survive.

Choi has specifically noted that her inspiration for the poems in Soft Science is the film Ex Machina (2014). I decided to watch the film as another way to get inside these poems. In the film, a tech guru lives in isolation except for his AI creations, one of whom is a speechless sex slave named Kyoko. The film is ostensibly about the line between human and machine—and to a lesser extent about the fetishization of machines and Asians. And, of course, about how, if machines are created in the image of humans, they can be just as terrible.

Choi’s poems, however, take on a question not asked in the film: When you don’t have the language to communicate with those around you, what is your inner life? What would you say if given voice?

The final poem in the collection, “Kyoko’s Language Files Are Recovered Following Extensive Damage to Her CPU,” is close to nonsensical. The ostensible reason is that there is physical deterioration of the files, but I believe the book posits that even before this physical damage, Kyoko’s language was the language of the earlier poems: sometimes coherent, sometimes animalistic in its confusion, terror, anger, lust. In Ex Machina, Kyoko is someone whose voice has been taken, whose freedom has been taken, a being constructed to align with one man’s fantasy. That experience is the damage. And the voice we hear in the poems is the result.

Thus the poems undertake to create a language and a mode of thought. As Jos Charles creates a trans language in the poems in Feeld, this collection creates the language of a soul divided between two worlds, human and machine—or perhaps two races, two nations—and the tensions that result from moving from one identity to another as life requires. “You can be both Korean and have ways in which you are unfamiliar with Korea,” Choi says, as the second half of her thought about cyborgs being both machine and human.

If the world thinks you are a machine, what words can you say to prove otherwise? In an interview in Adroit Journal, Franny Choi recalls: “the afternoon I spent with my father as he said, ‘This is my first visit to San Antonio’ over and over again. I realized that we hadn’t just been practicing to navigate America, but to prove our personhood. That was when the poem started to open for me.” 

// do you understand what I am saying

==

Do you speak English? Where are you from?

This moment in Choi’s interview gave me a lot of admiration for this collection’s project, even if I didn’t end up connecting with the poems on a deeply personal level. 

In my own reading of these poems, what opened them up was not only Choi talking about her work, but also my own experience as a person divided between two ethnicities and two geographies and many other things. We all have divisions within us (Korean/American, programmer/poet), and these poems wrestle with conveying those divisions in a way that is both accurate to the subject’s experience and also comprehensible or relatable to the reader. In some ways, the poems are strongest when simplest. At least, that is when they are most comprehensible to me. But perhaps that is the point: When the language is most coded, it may be the most true to the experience of a life divided.

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