Sunday, August 1, 2010

Review: Susan Slaviero's Cyborgia

Cyborgia by Susan Slaviero
Mayapple Press, 2010,
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

Susan Slaviero's first full-length poetry collection, Cyborgia, takes on the ambitious project of imagining what "female" would look like at the dawn of a post-human age, and her playful, cerebral, at times demanding poems rise to the challenge, densely packed and fully loaded with visceral imagery and wickedly inventive wordplay.  These poems are worth reading because they are fun, provocative and at times disturbing but also because they have something to say about a moment in our collective future that may come sooner than we think and what it could mean for one gender in particular.

The epigraph by Donna Haraway is a quote I'd come across as a college student, when the territory of feminism was much more familiar to me than that of cybernetics, and it made an impression on my evolving feminist consciousness, as well as the way I viewed technology, having been one of the last in my class to hold on to her Smith-Corona word processor rather than trek down to the computer lab:  "I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess."

That statement opens so many areas of inquiry surrounding the dynamics of power between genders, the nature of the choice to claim a sexual identity or identities versus androgyny, and the fundamental question of what it means to be human.  It prompted a shift in the way I viewed technology and its relationship with my gender, past and future.  Slaviero's collection explores all of this territory with a welcome balance of optimism and caution.

In the two sections that comprise the first half of the collection, "The Red Queen Hypothesis" and "Celluloid Marionettes," Slaviero imagines the genesis of the female cyborg.  In "Agalmatophilia," she is an animated doll, who "sees you as architecture, as blue libido," and in "Parthenogenesis," she is a mother of mutinous clone daughters.

The cyborg creations in these sections are largely passive, deriving what power they may possess from what they lack, the vulnerability of human flesh and how that shades consciousness.  Violence is enacted upon them, but they only respond insofar as they are programmed.  In "Bride of Frankenstein 2.0," the cyborg speaker hears "the cadence" of her "own dissection" but is indifferent:  "... This flat/ affect is characteristic of my vampire/ < species > / I will not burn, even at blue temperatures."

"Consider the Dangers of Reconstructing Your Wife as a Cyborg" ends on a different kind of note, in which self-awareness implies grave danger for the would-be cyber-Svengal addressed in the poem:  "... You are superfluous.  This house is fully of zygotes, the tran-/ sister radio, the refrigerator.  Lampwire and smoke detectors.  In the/ twenty-six minutes since I've been resurrected I have devised about/ ten different ways to disassemble you.  Imagine what I could do with/ an hour and a box of power tools."

The third section, "Boolean Fairy Tales," was the most fun for me, as I've admired Slaviero's unique takes on folklore and mythology for several years.

There is a millennia-old tradition of myths being adapted and re-adapted to accommodate new questions that crop up as a culture's technology evolves and its prevailing values somewhat laggingly absorb the shock, and here Slaviero brings familiar tales and tropes into the Cyber Age.  It's a brave new world of robot wolves, cybernetic mermaids and gynoid armies.  

And again here there is a progression of the poems' cyborg heroines from animated dolls to self-aware agents.  The section begins with "Bluebeard's Clockwork Bride," where the familiar villain grows bored with his new creation because she cannot suffer, and so he remakes here so that "This time, he gives her skin./ This time, he programs her/ to be afraid of fire."

However, in "Gretal Discusses Her Prosthetic Arm," the heroine delights in what she can do for herself:  "... Now, this/ mechanical limb works better/ than flesh.  I chop onions for stew/ with a built-in chef's knife, open/ wine with my corkscrew thumbs./ I have become more than mere/ girl; I am an armory/ dressed in gingham and lace./ You would never suspect/ that my ulna is a loaded gun,/ that the bend in my elbow bears teeth."

In "A Cybernetic Mermaid Dreams of the Sea," the speaker claims to have "... no interest in catching sailors/ or cliff diving.  I have become something different/ than what you intended...."

"The First Cyborg Epistle:  Mythology," from the final section, "Ontology of the Virtual Body," addresses the curiosity of a corporeal race toward our inscrutable successors:  "You try to understand me as ergonomic, the random flickering of cir-/ cuits for this dolls' apocalypse.  Yes, I dream, but not of sheep, electric or oth-/ erwise.  I am the corkscrew universe, my eyes metalmoons, the planets/ hidden between aluminum rods of warped spine.  What monstrous/ couplings and recouplings make this avatar of steel ships and colored/ wire?  You ask for clarification but I am not programmed to answer/ your metaphysical questions...."

It's not a new problem.  How can anyone fathom the universe behind another's eyes, whether the computational machinery ticking there is carbon-based or silicon?  We're all enigmas to one another at the same time as we're reflections of the star-stuff of which we're all made.  But in the post-human age that Slaviero imagines, in which one self-aware being can fashion another, turn her on with a switch, and then run for cover, things get just a little more complicated.

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