Review: S S Prasad’s 100 POEMS

100 Poems by S S Prasad | STD Pathasala 2008 | $10 or INR 100

Art interested in and interacting with technology, and the technology of its production, can pose some pretty intriguing questions. Bangalore-based poet S S Prasad, in his nanopoems, attempts to engage with new technologies of writing and with code as language. Collected in print in the book 100 Poems, these nanopoems were first written for the microchip as surface for inscription: Prasad, apart from being a poet, happens to be an engineer working for a prominent Silicon Valley company. Not all the poems ended up being nanoed (“nano” denotes one billionth of a meter), but even in print, even to the naked eye, they as a group assert their micro-aesthetic. What’s interesting is that their micro-ness is a response to Raul Zurita’s sky poems, which the back cover blurb tells us is an intertext whose scalar proportions Prasad inverted.

The poems, most of them in the binary language of zeroes and ones, are primarily concerned with  marking time on, or across, the page space. The binary digits operate as image, as sign, as object. They explore a visual poetics which functions sometimes in the concrete, and other times in the conceptual, mode.

The digits “0” and “1” represent Boolean logic, which admits of only two possible values or states: off-or-on, yes-and-no, true-and-false, red-and-green. They are the basic units of information in computing and thus ever-present in our environments, activating our numerous electronic gadgets. Prasad’s poems use the surface oppositionality of this language to generate tension. They also use binary sequentially. This recalls the combinations and strings of code written by computer programmers so that machines can do their job, but it also calls to mind the strings of code generated by machines as they do their job.

See “Sunflowers”, the opening poem, which unfolds across two pages, thus itself operating as a sequence:

From the first page to the second, there is a permutation of the sequence. With this, the information/instructions being given by the sequence also changes. The binary digits invert when the visual symbol for the sun—the letter “O”—moves from the left of the binary lattice to the right of the lattice. Acting as stand-ins for sunflowers, the digits track the heliotropic response for which the sunflower is well-known, by switching “on” and “off”.

The travel from the first page to the second page of this poem-sequence enacts the temporal shift from dusk to dawn. In another poem-sequence, “The Butterfly”, flipping successive pages creates a sense of and simultaneously enacts the unfolding of time. Here a lattice of ones provide a thick textural surface through which two zeroes, which could be the two wings of a butterfly—or, more intriguingly, symmetrical eyespots on butterfly wings—move and eventually disappear. The four ‘panes’ of the poem track the quick-as-a-blip movement of a butterfly.

Sequentiality, the process which makes binary digits useful as information to computing devices, here does the same. It helps narrativize the code, and frees the code to represent processes in nature or culture.

Scenarios enacted by other poems include the Drosera, carnivorous plant + javascript debugger, trapping bugs; fireflies in the dark; fluctuating hotel occupancies; the blandness of animal pairs on Noah’s Ark (the beginnings of gender wars?); open then closed Venetian blinds. Still other poems configure shooting targets, or common centroid arrays with their sheep mentality. Letters are also brought into service, for instance to display Alibaba’s brother Kasim’s chopped up body, and then the pieces of the body stitched back. Argentinian visual poet Ana Maria Uribe gets a toy and then an accident-prone car as homage. Letters of the word “song” repeat in “Song on FM 98.3” to mimic the long vocal note, and lines repeat to pattern the song structure. In a second “Accident”, two antiquated modes of transport—cart and poem—crash against each other on a very crowded road where all manners of vehicles are jostling each other. Since words must perform too, the word for each of the vehicles clogs the page space and thereby stages a jam.

[More poems + photographs of silicon chips with nanopoems + SEM images of nanopoems, on]

All this is whimsical and delightful and diverting, and yet. Too neat too thing-in-itself too circumspect. Will Prasad’s poetry participate in radical projects of the kind its avant-garde fathers and mothers have? Will it, can it, tap into the shadowiness of code: the ubiquitous “hidden presence” in our world? According to lit. theorist N. Katherine Hayles, “the unconscious of language”? Will it party with its own technological context (isn’t a silicon chip integrated with a poem a hybrid of chip and poem—of reality and dream—of present and future? And how does the chip help the poem become more poem? And how does the poem help the chip become more chip?)?

I wish they would hallucinate more. I wish they would tell me something disturbing about the world. Especially because Prasad brings Zurita into the picture by citing his sky poems, I wish these nanotexts would destroy their nano-faces while looking at the mirror. In 1982 in New York, Chilean poet Raul Zurita was trying to realize a “utopia of the limit-less” (Nelly Richard’s description of CADA’s art actions), a space that went beyond every rule. His ‘page’ exceeded the Chilean dictatorship, his text was additionally an event, and was in no case classifiable as one genre or the other, or frame-able by the dictatorship’s cultural system. His audience was the (viewing/flying) public, and his art was open to his audience.

[Action Books just came out with a new book by Zurita called Songs For His Disappeared Love.  It’s a brilliant translation by Daniel Borzutsky. Here’s an excerpt, to give you a taste.]

Prasad publishes his poems onto microchips (before bringing out a book). Nanomarks on circuits leave no proof behind and can be read only through a state-of-the-art microscope.

Imagine this: Swarms of nanopoems circulating silently and secretly among the circuits of mass-produced televisions, computers, microwave ovens etc in our industrial economies.

Imagine this: The poems carry secrets subversive enough, and messages surplus enough, to warrant the secrecy. The code.

Imagine this: The message find its audience.

Imagine this: We have no proof.

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