At first glance, the seventh collection from Carolyn Smart and the highly anticipated new work of conceptual poetry from Christian Bök share little in common. The former is a suite of narrative poems that retell the story of 1930s Dust Bowl outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow; the latter is the first in a two-volume set based around the poet’s attempts to encode a work of poetry into a bacteria capable of outliving the human race.
And yet thematically, the two books are more closely linked than one might expect. Both tilt at the subject of life’s meaning in a world that is, at best, indifferent to our existence; at worst, violent and inimical.
“Sometimes in the dark my fears rise up and chase me,” muses Smart’s Bonnie in a moment of prayer. “Could come any time our final battle.” She is echoed several pages later by her partner, Clyde: “is it what I must expect, to go to Hell?”
God provides solace for Bonnie and Clyde in Smart’s depiction, something that separates her version of the story from many earlier tellings. The succor of prayer, and their love for each other, is important to the two figures, who otherwise cleave a well-known path of gunfire and destruction through Texas and Missouri, before being ambushed by rangers and shot to death in Lousiana.
Smart presents this climactic shootout in a manner reminiscent of the finale in Arthur Penn’s 1967 movie, chopping up her sentences to resemble the cadence of machine-gun fire and editing closely by rendering the sequence in 24 short bursts (also the number of frames per second a film unspools at). But unlike Penn, Smart does not end the story with the corpses in the car. She includes several poems of denouement, including a poignant reminiscence in the voice of Blanche Barrow, wife of Clyde’s brother, Buck, and one of the only surviving members of the Barrow gang.
“Who could have reckoned how bad it would become,” Blanche wonders. “Some nights I could not see the moon for all the horror in the way.” The characters in Smart’s book struggle to chart a path through a dessicated and degraded existence, reflecting Bob Dylan’s advice, in “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” about living outside the law. Smart refuses to romanticize her subjects, but she also refuses to romanticize the world into which they were unceremoniously dumped.
The vision of the world that Bök evokes is, if anything, even more distressing and fearful than that of Smart. What he has created in the opening volume of his staggeringly ambitious new work is a “fiendish grimoire” that reckons with questions of existence on an extinction-level plane. “What then if we peer into the sky at night but see no distant lantern blinking at us from the far end of the cosmos?” the poet asks in the early stages, exhibiting the kind of existential dread Virgil evinces in The Georgics (a partial translation of which serves as a centrepiece of The Xenotext): “What can a poet do? – now twice riven. What cries, what pleas, can evoke pity of the morbid demons in this dungeon?”
Bök’s response is to marshal science to encode a poem into an unkillable bacteria that may contain the potential to survive all other life on the planet. In explicating this attempt, the poet is no less ambitious: volume one of The Xenotext includes the aforementioned Virgil translation; a double-acrostic poem that is also a letter-for-letter anagram of Keats’s sonnet “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be”; a poem that riffs on lyrics from a song by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark; and a “modular acrostic” consisting only of nine-letter words “derived from atomic models for the basic units of both DNA and RNA.”
“DNA is a metamorphic scriptorium,” Bök writes, “where life transcribes, by chance, whatever life has so far learned about immortality.” In The Xenotext, the poet strives for a kind of immortality through bold gestures that are almost frightening to contemplate.