Hyperrhiz 10: Special feature: e-lit reviews
David Jhave Johnston, Sooth
University of Georgia
This paper was presented at the roundtable "Reading the Electronic Literature Collection Volume 2," as part of the graduate conference "Intermediality in the Digital Arts" held at Rutgers University on March 2, 2013.
David Jhave Johnston, Sooth. Electronic Literature Collection Volume 2. Electronic Literature Organization, 2011.
When trying to choose a piece to review from the Electronic Literature Collection Volume 2, it was difficult to decide where to stop clicking and where to start reading. The Electronic Literature Collection offers a lot to click on: 64 titles of electronic poems, all of which lead to pieces that, for the most part, want you to click on them. A click to open; a click to close; a click to give life to a video or sound segment; a click to kill them all. The power I am given to give life and take it from the tips of my fingers took over, at first, any desire to dwell on the poems and start reading them. But when I finally clicked on David Jhave Johnston's piece Sooth, a poem and I finally clicked together. The poem somehow managed to capture my relentless desire to click in and out, and tied this desire together with something that made sense to me. Sooth is a love poem. A poem that addresses love as the scene of conflicting desires of life and death. This poem gave the meaning "love" to my relentless desire to click on and off, and at last something akin to reading could happen.
What seduced me at first was the simplicity and the clarity of the interface. It reminded me of a sonnet. On a black background, a central, relatively small window displays a series of six looping videos that serve as a background for six short poems. One has to load each of those videos one after the other in order to read the six poems. Each video-stanza is available from a minimalist side bar populated with six simple, elegant, short words that serve as titles for each of the stanzas: sooth, weeds, body, root, soul, snow. Uncomplicated, even clichéd, those titles immediately reminded me of Petrarchist poetry, a genre of love poems generated out of a pool of codified words, creating an exhilarating loop between the finitude of the vocabulary, and the infinity of their possible combinations. The loop of Petrarchist poetry invites its reader to dwell on each stanza and try to figure out what led the poet to choose this word order over another. The reader stops reading, and starts playing with the poem in their mind, lingering in some kind of timeless limbo between reading and play. This timeless lingering is not overwhelming, but soothing, probably because it is contained into the approachable, small structure of the sonnet. As in the case of a Petrarchist sonnet, the presence of different media and the ability to choose your own path in the David Jhave Johnston's poem are not overwhelming or discouraging, but soothing, because of their clear, well-sized, tidy interface.
The video that serves as stanzas of the poem of Sooth loop slowly back and forth, creating an eerie feeling of timelessness similar to the loop generated by Petrarchist poetry. The camera floats around, as if imprisoned into some strange limbo, skimming the grass of a fishbowl, gliding over the clothes and skin of a half-asleep young woman, hovering over the surface of heavy, thick, dark water, bobbing around a scary-looking moray eel, or dancing over a spotless field of snow. All of the videos are close-ups, inviting the reader to lovingly caress grains, textures, fabrics, pores and fluff with the delicate touch of the camera's focus. A discreet, small inscription down the window invites readers to "click on video to launch new words." With the curiosity of a malicious scuba diver, the reader pokes at those peaceful, beautiful, and slightly threatening worlds to trigger, simultaneously, electronic soundscapes and sound objects (fire crackling, birds chirping, rain, snow cracking, water dripping, a sob, a pianist rehearsing), gradual shifts in the color of the video, and the popping of verses that surface, float around, sink back in the depth of the picture, and surface again — at times slowly, like the wreckage of a boat, at time in more hectic jolts, like a birds struggling in a tempest. The violence of the clicking is underlined by the brevity and crudity of the some of the verses ("sex / is / good / for / the soul"), and by their condensed, texting-like orthography ("u sooth u with i"). Clicking on the videos does not simply display the text, as in the turning of a page; it disturbs it, it shuffles the lines and complicates the reading experience with the intrusion of more sound, movement and color. Clicking is an act of destruction and disturbance of the text as much as it is a necessary operation to build it and proceed with the reading. In Sooth, clicking is a gesture that both kills and gives life. And so is love: "the way i feel about you / it's as if innumerable / relentless / goddamn / fucking / weeds / full of sun / are sprouting / everywhere / while i drive around / morose and jubilant / helplessly hopelessly / trying to kill them / contain them before i am them / doing nothing but / whispering your name / as i shine and laugh / and the goddamn weeds / grow and grow ".
The word "Sooth" has the same root as the word "truth." The love poem is a quest for truth: The truth about the self and the other, for instance, or the fact that both are indistinguishable ("i sooth i with u / u sooth u with i") ("even my own limbs / remind me of yours") ("uniqueness dissolves [...] / others identical to our own"). In the second stanza, the viewer thinks he is looking at a sleeping young woman, when all of a sudden her enlarged eye opens and looks straight at them for a second, inverting the roles of the viewer and the viewed. The act of lovemaking itself suffers from the duplicity of the loving self, leading the lovers to be "ravished by disingenuous wonder." And even the desire to play a clear sexual role and distinguish the true from the false ("i offer u the whole root / naked wide awake") leads the lyrical subject to take on a submissive, contemplative pose ("the world confronts my echoing gaze") in which satisfaction leads to withering, melting and swelling.
A love poem is also a quest for the truth about satisfaction: A quest to find the language that would write down sexual satisfaction as a model for all satisfactions. The poem toys at times with an almost scientific lexicon for depicting love ("dissolve rhythm into reticulation," "absorptive particulates / osmotic unions"). The videos themselves present what could appear to be imagery of sexual organs. "When the sinuosity seizes us" reads a verse of the first stanza, as the camera span tightens around a water pump that looks like a phallus. But the lovemaking leads to withering and swelling, and the ambiguity of sexual roles disrupts the possibility of representing satisfaction. The depiction of lovemaking itself does not lead to any clear picture. In the stanza "body," where the lovemaking comes very close to being literally depicted ("we dive together / tide of tissues and ligaments"), the visual representation breaks down and leaves the room to an abstract landscape of colors. This breaking-down sets the stage for a representation of love that is the opposite of the idealized object of love as depicted in clichéd Petrarchist poetry. The close-up of the woman's body is not exactly a flattering image of a submissive woman, but that of an all-too-real person, featuring bedhead, birthmarks, and eye circles. The stanza entitled "soul" depicts an ugly-looking moray eel, slowly breathing dirty water in and out while staring aimlessly into the void of its fishbowl. The poem takes a cruder tone, displaying provocative statements about sex, love and licking ("sex / is / good / for / the soul / & / loving / is nourishment / for / the body / and / licking / began / before / time"). The love poem is an exploration of the extent and the limits of satisfaction through love. The truth about love is the truth about satisfaction and its limitation. When exploring the truth about love, one finds both ugly-looking moray eels and soothing fields of snow. In front of the unfathomable ugliness hidden behind the interplay of two lovers, love appears to be a double bind: lovers are bounded by the ambiguity between the self and the other ("it comes to one thing / one cannot be alone") and bounded by the impossibility of depicting, transmitting and sharing satisfaction ("it comes to many things / one is always alone"). This double bind leads the lyrical subject of Sooth to a resignation to an "immaculate yearning," floating over a field of spotless snow. The language of love is not a lexicon, or a set of concepts, that could write down satisfaction; it is more of an arithmetical language, in which letters, sound and moving images have inherent, positive values: "o is what our mouths do."