CUTBANK REVIEWS: Uncanny Valley by Jon Woodward

fisheye_with_book-600x600Uncanny Valley
by Jon Woodward
Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2012

review by Rob Schlegel

Say the following words out loud:

Piano. Piano. Piano. Piano. Piano. Piano. Piano.

This is likely not the first time you have repeated a word with such frequency that the word sounds strange.

Box. Box. Box. Box. Box. Box.

The phenomenon is called semantic satiation, a term developed by Leon Jakobovits James to help describe the sensation one has when repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener, who then processes the speech as meaningless repeated sounds. In this way the word grows so familiar it becomes uncanny, a Freudian concept of an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time.

The term “uncanny valley,” coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori, holds that when human replicas look and act almost, but not exactly, like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion in human observers. The “valley” refers to the dip in a graph of the comfort level of humans as a function of a robot’s human likeness. Almost more human than human, these robots behave not in accordance to their own unique biological desires, but rather by a series of predetermined algorithms.

When Jon Woodward writes in “Priscilla Lioness,” the stunning sequence concluding his latest collection, Uncanny Valley,

Narration
of one’s actions is monstrous. It
brings itself to construct a murderous woman
of algorithms…

he seems to be commenting not only on the nature of robotics but our culture’s overwhelming proliferation of human narratives constantly reflected back to us through social media networks, television and advertisements until all possibility for inimitable experience is quashed. But instead of trying to escape these tensions, Woodward harnesses them for profound linguistic and semantic purposes. In “Killing Flies Skyscraper Figurine,” repetitions are implied through images or shadows of images “reflected”:

“In what blue are its mirrors, and what
Girders write in its shadow down, and
Reflected, whose mirror reflects them?
A tiny friend of me who looks like me…”

Noteworthy here is the pronoun “me” Woodward repeats in the same line, as if warning against the potential horrors of a culture populated by humans whose thoughts and actions become so imitated that relationships otherwise based on chance and variation entropy.

It is a gross understatement to say that repetition plays a key function in Uncanny Valley. “Huge Dragonflies,” the long opening poem, repeats variations of the phrase “Hope dwells eternally there,” no fewer than 134 times. The final version of the refrain “Hopes dwell eternally there.” repeats thirty five times. It is important to note that the concluding twenty-two repetitions contain no end stops, suggesting that after extreme saturation, the phrase has finally shed its one-to-one referential duties, and is no longer constrained by the punctuation that helps a reader learn how to read it. As a result, the phrase becomes so meaningless that its immediate connotation transforms into “hope is nowhere.”

In the book’s haunting title poem, a disjunctive narrative about a car crash caused by trees falling onto a road, the reader is instructed to

Push the remote button and
The mechanical brayer brays

Lines notated like the previous two
Are repeated (as a pair)
As many times as the reader desires,
From zero to 255, before continuing.

Because the quatrain tells us how to read the couplet (notated with a short vertical line on the left margin) the invitation for repetition functions like a Choose Your Own Adventure narrative. How far down the semantic satiation rabbit hole are you prepared to go? One wonders if the structure, sound, and syllables in the couplet help to determine how many times the lines will be repeated. Is a reader more likely to repeat lines with fewer syllables? Or perhaps the reader is game for more masochistic challenges, choosing instead to repeat, “These thoughts are best left/To Ouagadougou’s bougainvilleas,” the maximum 255 times.

Either way, in the throes of such repetition one begins to sound robotic, as Woodward does in this seemingly exhausting performance of the title poem at the University of Michigan in 2012.

Uncanny Valley (part 1 of 2) from John Gibson on Vimeo.

All of the poems in Uncanny Valley are remarkable for their formal complexity. The longer poems are particularly successful as they employ extreme repetition (and subsequent variation) to collapse sign and signifier (and realism and fable) in ways that are disquietingly strange, and yet, strangely familiar.

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Jon Woodward was born in Wichita, KS, and has lived in Denver and Fort Collins, CO, as well as Boston and Quincy, MA. His books are Uncanny Valley (Cleveland State University Poetry Center), Rain (Wave Books), and Mister Goodbye Easter Island (Alice James Books). Other recent projects include a 40-foot-long Möbius strip poem, called “Mockingbird,” which was typed on adding machine tape; a suite of time-dependent visual poems called “Poems to Stare At;” and an ongoing poem called “Copyleft,” to which quatrains are added at the rate of one per day. He lives in Quincy with his wife, poet and pianist Oni Buchanan, and he works at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, where he specializes in digital imaging and a variety of other curatorial activities.

Rob Schlegel is the author of The Lesser Fields, winner of the 2009 Colorado Prize for Poetry, and January Machine, forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2014. His poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Jacket2, New American Writing, VOLT, The Volta, and elsewhere. With the poet Daniel Poppick, he co-edits The Catenary Press, a micropress dedicated to publishing long poems.

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