Reviewed by Lisa A. Flowers
Abra: an ingenious human centipede constantly morphing toward the “wit end” of the stick
“Perfection is terrible; it cannot have children,” Sylvia Plath famously said … profound and ambiguous lines that could just as well be about the immovability of masterpieces as anything else, a conscious Han Solo loving in agony from the prison of his carbonite. But the truth is that nothing in art is ensconced as long as spectatorship exists. Marcel Proust hit upon this perfectly when he wrote, “When we have passed a certain age, the soul of the child that we were and the souls of the dead from whom we sprang come and shower upon us their riches and their spells … asking to be allowed to contribute to the new emotions which we feel, and in which, erasing their former image, we recast in an original creation.”
Be that as it may, the digital age … like a human centipede abridging itself to two pieces so its mouth-to-shit ratio is less arduous and grotesque … has shortened the gap between discovery and epiphany, enabling spectatorship to move (almost) fast enough to catch up with itself. And Abra (short for cadabra), the brainchild of poets Kate Durbin and Amaranth Borsuk and designer Ian Hatcher, is a wormhole for the era … one that’s a cosmic, fangy, hallucinogenically-venomed, Edenic pleasure to bite into. This book-within-an-app is free for ipad and iphone, and can be easily downloaded. Users can touch random words and watch as they shift into different poems/scenes. They can also add their own lines, erase existing text/journeys, or simply forgo the written word altogether, abandoning language for universally filmic visual images.
If you’re thinking that this sounds like a brilliant learning app for children, you’re not far off the mark: Abra evokes all the enchantment of certain toddler-like, pre-existentialist states of observation, in which endlessly mesmerizing and absorbing notions ebb and flow—dreamily, raptly, and without seemingly conscious obligation to each other. The project zooms on like a babe’s bright ball, sailing Toon Town-like past peppermint striped, crèmepuffed, scalloped, edible villages, out of whose windows fantastic characters lean, wave, and sometimes fly.
In other words, the app is basically a conscious entity with an increasingly sophisticated sense of self-preservation. And, much like Annie Hall‘s relationship-shark, it has to continue moving forward at all times or it dies. At sea, it strengthens as it swims, getting wittier and wittier in its associations and more—and less—picky about the big fish, little fish, mermaids, and random debris (aka new input) it munches as it flows. On land, it’s a rolling stone that gathers all moss, a tumbleweed intertwined, veined, and networked with whatever it picks up. “We picked images that spoke to excess and overabundance: overgrowth, growing beyond one’s bounds both in the organic world and in artifice, in art,” Durbin has explained.“And a third voice … Abra‘s … was born from that.”
The subsequently thousands of utterances the app has collected since then are as babelishly discordant “as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table,” as Comte de Lautreamont would put it.
Because there is no linear consequence in this world, doom easily transitions into salvation. Page one of the book/app opens on a scene that seems to be giving death a boost up into a high window, as one home-invader might give another:
tumor trellis up the fleshwall
to evolve implode
Touch a word, though (“heaving?” “trellis?” either one will get you there) and the cancer/homicidal imagery suddenly dissolves into a holiday vibe: via the magic of diachronic linguistics, the word “tumor” is repossessed and redefined, and all at once, we’re almost festive, trimming a Christmas tree amid carols:
voices shimmy to put tumor trellis up
As words and phrases are interacted with, and shift, the scene—much like actual human thought—gradually shifts with them, by way of both cognitive awareness and cognitive dissonance.
Sometimes, it feels like you can practically see a glassed-in cyber-digestive system working as words muse and consolidate. At other times, rearrangements are unguessable, and seem to go on under a magician’s drapery of darkness. When the curtain lifts, we’re no longer in yuletime, but with a cornered fox in the English countryside, where
round faux petal spectacle
to regale out hollow
Or is this a unicorn in a clearing, or a trapped faun ornamented with blossoms—“faux” because the faun is actually a maiden in disguise? Soon, the word “petal” morphs into the word “flowers,” and we shift into an image that seems to be pursuing, and then rebuking, its own sexuality:
flowers hunter spasm
Which almost immediately turns wittily (and acidly) on itself, suchlike:
flowers hither spasm
Consequence (per se), exists in this particular manifestation of poetry, but it doesn’t matter. Actually, Abra has a lot in common with the Choose Your Own Adventure books of the 80s, which introduced thousands of pre-internet kids to the concepts of randomness espoused in The Lady Or The Tiger; who knows what would have occurred had we touched the word “hither” instead of the word “flowers?” (And how to choose, when so many beckoning roads are diverged in such dappled, fairytale-yellow woods? Missed “opportunities” here are a bit like falling through portals in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits).
But, as it is, the act of touching these blossoms morphs us into Styria, where wild roses appear to wreathing Carmilla’s pale face at the window at night:
round a gradual faux petal spectacle mouth
to regale fang-fringe release
gaskin agape into halter showmanship
sewn through milk-drenched agate
which then turns to the suggestive erotic tussle of
opening a gradual mouth bone fang-fringe
petticoats overturned agape
Note the huge, bubbly champagne-overflow of Gothic/and/or contemporary bubblegum lushness in these shots: nocturnal foliage and halter tops, whose red stripes turn (a few lines later) into crimson “ribbons of familiars” drawn through arteries. Barber’s poles subsequently spin into dilated acid eyes, which then turn to “spidery blinders/a pompadour of lashes to lure limbs.”
For a few shifting lines on, spiders in “web corsets” cinch up their prey like girls dressing, fastening, and zipping up amidst garters and laces. Then the word “cringelets” (a word that has no formal definition, and is all the more wonderful, and versatile, for having none—though it must mean something like fledgling clusters of fear?) makes its debut:
cringelets crochet the bones
These then transform, Freudianly but cleverly, “stretching encroaching cringelets;” and then into “penis tresses set to wooing.”
After awhile, these tresses turn pathological, and two homicidal siblings come out of the woodwork, Giallo-style:
masked sisters with scissors …
throw out tendrils in this
museum of superfluous tresses …
animal pelts of every breed
Those tresses and pelts eventually mount up into a land of high white wigs and Versailles debauchery:
pouf city freshets aswirl to whitewash pompadour to frolic buttress foundations in powder party bouffant stylelines twine to buoy between abodesdown beneath the muff of this upswept nidus a studied circumstance …
And there are a lot of circumstances to study. One can go on all day, delightedly ducking into these little pop-up theaters. Somehow, the “random” interface is never tin-earedly or aesthetically a flop, as sometimes happens in Dadaism; on the contrary, it’s pithy, receptive, and apt to take whatever’s put into it and transform it into something ingeniously surreal and cinematic. It is, in other words, like a surrealist version of 2001‘s HAL.
But, unlike HAL, Abra has a sense of humor, and it knows how to hide itself in another. And how to disappear, only to arise later in some other emjoi, some other poem, some other pair of eyes. Indeed, the project can be seen as an allegory for human consciousness, itself, disappearing and reappearing—say, into Alzheimer’s, or into the derangement of Ophelia with her brief flashes of lucidity and snatches of old songs.
Abra is indeed a human centipede, swallowing images that are subsequently processed through eight—or a hundred—bodies, “glittering and digesting,” like Plath’s phones, into an expulsion that never comes, and that we never want the diaper of concept, so to speak, to see the end of. Even if all language is pig shit, as zany old Artaud claimed, this experiment is alchemized brilliance of a thoroughly Holy Mountain kind … and the only shit it produces turns to gold.
Lisa A. Flowers is a poet, critic, cinephile, ailurophile, and the founding editor of Vulgar Marsala Press. She is the author of diatomhero: religious poems, and her work has appeared in various magazines and online journals. Raised in Los Angeles and Portland, OR, she now resides in Colorado. Visit her here.