by Christian Bӧk
Coming at it from the perspective of a man that has a lot to learn when it comes to poetry, The Xenotext: Book 1 was quite lofty, and I found it at least some degrees of inaccessible. Luckily for me, Bӧk was kind enough to include explanations for his poems at the back of the book. (Not knowing that when trying my hand at the Text, I had to go back and revisit it.) This allows for readers to actually get something out of The Xenotext, even if they’re unfamiliar with Homer or Virgil, though I would suspect it would improve immensely if you happen to be.
Say what you want about Bӧk; I don’t know the man, personally, so I wouldn’t really be able to defend his character, unless, of course, you were to suggest he wasn’t a hard worker. The Xenotext: Book 1, is a companion piece to Bӧk’s Xenotext project, in which he plans to encode a poem, entitled “Orpheus,” into the genome of a bacterium that will likely outlive the human race, and will cause the bacterium to encode a poem, “Eurydice,” in response. In it, you’ll find a series of poems that mimic not only the chemical formula of each corresponding nucleobase and amino acid, but each structure, as well; there’s a poem made of two-word phrases with a rigid DNA-like structure, that makes logical enough cellular sense to create a protein (as Bӧk shows with a 3D model); but the most impressive to me was a sonnet, which is a perfect anagram of another sonnet, with exactly thirty-three letters in each line, the first and last letter of each line come together to write a message, and it somehow all forms a lucid poem at the end of it all. Much was great, or at least intriguing, in planning, but I felt that at least a few attempts fell apart in execution. With “The March of the Nucleosides,” the poem that ended in the model of the protein, I greatly hoped that the end result would spell something logical in its sequence, as was demonstrated immediately afterward with “Death Sets a Thing Significant,” but no such luck. Being only a companion piece to the actual Xenotext project, perhaps I was expecting too much, but, if you already went through significant work to get there, why not go all the way to make it extraordinary? A much pettier gripe involves proline, the one amino acid for which its poem stuck to chemical formula, but not structure. But, to dwell on the little things misses the point of this book and the entire Xenotext project, considering life and infinity next to personal death and mass extinction, writing in the constraints of the universal, cellular language, and even utilizing it to create something that will outlast us all.
The Xenotext: Book 1 boggles the mind. I can’t fathom how anyone could possess the intellect to create even a small piece of it, let alone make it near as beautiful as Bӧk did.