Natural, unnatural language processing with Franny Choi’s ‘Soft Science’

Wednesday, May 22, 2019 - 6:07pm

Alice James Books

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One of the poems in Franny Choi’s latest collection is written in code.

“Program for the Morning After” initially appears to be a mad experiment in punctuation and form. But, if you spend a little time with the poem, the curly braces and brackets and semicolons fall into a general pattern recognizable to any hacker under the sun. Choi is writing functions — code plot — that iterate through the possible thought loops one might experience after waking up in someone else’s bed:

            it was going {

                        where              did you think this was going;

                                                did you come from

                                                            [a salt throne, a stink womb, a wound];

 

                        well                dangling your good drink;

                                               powdering the air;

                                               did you think

                                                           [well, well];

            }

The poem, true to name, is actually a program. One could imagine groggily navigating their brain’s directory after a one-night stand, searching for their “it was going” function to initiate the contemptuous process of considering whether the individual they went home with came from a salt throne, a stink womb or a wound. Classic.

One could only imagine it, though, because this program won’t literally run. Which is fine, because it’s actually a poem. By writing in this loose, code-English hybrid syntax, Choi teases human feeling out of the characters and patterns we reserve for machines and computers. List brackets suddenly take on an air of secrecy and volatility, as if whispering a series of possible outcomes while coyly withholding favor for one over the other. The curly braces separating function from definition come off as isolating and ominous, especially that latter one, visually punctuating each function-stanza like some crooked afterthought. This program, in effect, is charged with an emotional aesthetic unknown to computer science, which seems to cast the field and its language in a radical new light. Was my Interactive Applications final an epic poem? Is GitHub a public anthology?

“Soft Science,” Franny Choi’s second full collection, works to dissolve this line between poetry and program, human and machine. Choi, a graduate of the University’s Helen Zell MFA program and member of the powerful Dark Noise Collective, explodes the themes of AI, identity and language introduced in her 2017 chapbook “Death by Sex Machine” into a full-blown exploration of what it means, exactly, to be alive.

And life, Choi seems to imply, isn’t an exclusively animal thing. The cyborgs in “Soft Science” swipe right on Tinder and make awkward small talk at family parties. In fact, they’re better at being people than people. A listless poem about the decidedly human speaker’s failed attempt to masturbate after the 2016 election (“my clitoris dull-eyed / and dumb when I asked / for proof I was an animal”) comes right before the effortlessly sensual “Brief History of Cyborgs,” in which our speaker-borg “make(s her) mouth a technology of softness” where “tools fuck” and her “hunger, too, has both hard and soft parts.” Flesh and machine are poetically muddled all the way down to their material components: Blood is reduced to an empirical “series of rules,” and silicon is heralded as supremely organic, “for the ocean so loved … the tiny homes of tiny creatures / that she ground them / into sand … to kiss them.”

Poetry and code, human and machine, blood and silicon … about halfway through the collection, I lost the ability to determine whether the speaker was flesh or ‘borg. More importantly, Choi convinced me that it didn’t matter. In one of the many Turing Test poems that introduce the collection’s six sections, the cyborg under question sums it up with this piece of advice: “remember / all humans / are cyborgs / all cyborgs / are sharp shards of sky / wrapped in meat.”

In dissolving the barrier of definition between “human” and “machine,” Choi makes space to investigate the expectations and permissions brought to definition in the first place, summoning cyborg femmes from pop culture to demonstrate the consequences of such identity reduction. In “Chi,” Choi writes to a damaged android of the same name (from the Japanese manga “Chobits”) who is rescued from a dumpster and promptly named “after the only sound she is able to make.” Choi’s ode to Chi is deeply empathic, gently imploring “what names did you call yourself?” and imagining the various pronunciations and meanings of the syllable “chi” that the android must comprehend, a rich lexicon flattened to a domineering perception of simplicity by the humans who recovered her. Definition, in this case, is near-silencing.

In a poem of similar spirit, Choi recovers the deleted language files of Kyoko, the cyborg servant and sex slave of tech mogul Nathan Bateman in the 2014 film “Ex Machina,” who is literally silenced in order to preserve trade secrets and enforce docility. Choi’s reimagining traces Kyoko’s dialogue as she heartbreakingly revolves around the collection’s central questions of animals and language, and whether you have to be one to have the other:

The emergence of language, it’s generally assumed, history, art, symbolism, & so on, among

            many hominids, or that selfsame hardwired solace, say, as other

creatures …

 

 

Like other creatures, can machines can. Can mouth animal. Can metal.

In an interview with the publisher, Choi reveals that Kyoko was one of the key inspirations behind “Soft Science,” explaining that “her character embodied so many of the questions I’d been trying to engage with in my poetry; about the relationships between language, race, and gender … about power and intimacy, especially with others whose bodies make them strange.” Obsessed, Choi began the collection by “writing poems in Kyoko’s imagined voice,” which “eventually turned into (Choi’s) own.”

Indeed, somewhere along the process of breathing generous life into the inner machinations of speaker-beings like Chi and Kyoko, Choi spins lines that ring with powerful personal ownership. The piece “& O Bright Star if Disaster, I Have Been Lit,” in particular, swells with such voice: “i pick up the accent / of whoever i’m speaking to. nobody wants / to fuck a sponge. nobody wants to crush / on a ghost … a story of a story of a girl.” It’s a hard-fought connection of Chi and Kyoko’s linguistic othering to the author’s own struggle for identity; it’s the final installation in the “Empathic Response” section.

Choi doesn’t present a clean-cut solution to the complicated intersection of musings on language, race, machine and identity posited in “Soft Science.” Choi is a poetic realist. What she does, however, is remind us that thought and poetry are not limited to the languages that dominate the field. In fact, she empowers us to challenge such hegemony:

there are many programming languages / use whichever you prefer / but stick to

your syntax / though it be muddled / mussed / though it be machete … o

gorgeous slopbucket / if they used it against you / it is yours / to make sing