[ToC]

 

REVIEW

Carleen Tibbetts, DATACLYSM.jpg, White Stag Publishing, 2019

Reviewed by Jamison Crabtree

[Review Guidelines]

 

 

In kindergarten, I was marked as "developmentally challenged" after I provided a literal answer to the question:

"In a room with white walls, what color are the walls at night?"

The question omitted too much information for me to come up with an answer that I could feel comfortable about. Is the moon out? Is it cloudy? Who's looking at the wall? How is their vision? Are they colorblind (thanks Mr. Wizard's World)? Are the lights on in the room (the bulbs in my house made eggshell white appear firescum yellow)? Is the question asking about the color of the wall or what I can see in the dark?
    In the dark, how would I even know?
    "Just answer the question."

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how do you
catalog a feeling
broken space
inside the body

—DATACLYSM0041.jpg

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While the inherent lack of detail in the white-wall scenario was responsible for causing my curiosity to swell, the poems in Tibbetts' debut full-length collection inspire through an abundance of information.
     Apocalyptic language brushes alongside the vocabulary of fashion. Questions about the verification code on credit cards become questions about cultural relationships. Allusions to Duchamp are as likely as those to Pig Destroyer, Moby Dick, Blind Willie Johnson, or Neil Roberts.
     The book's atypical collection of associations, allusions, and concepts inherent to her work should inspire a recurrent outpouring of questions.
     In other words, these poems revel in their widening:

looky-loo into the
lunar grit of all this
winsome frailty
closure's a sensual fable
ceaseless beatific ghost
thank you for your order

—DATACLYSM00244.jpg

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DATACLYSM.jpg's title is a meshwork of allusions: a pop-science book of the same name, the conceptualization of data as something capable of drowning a person, and the lossy nature of information stored in a .jpg (and probably more).
     Engaging with these three elements leads to insights about language. For example, applying an image-based format to name a language-based text invites comparisons about the ways both function, recontextualizing language as a lossy compression algorithm.
     For instance: you live a life, and in that life you have an experience. To tell someone about it, you'll be forced to strip the experience out of its context and to rebuild it using the shared medium of a received language.
     Neither inherently positive nor negative, language provides the means to transmit information while limiting us to the vocabulary shared between a speaker and a listener.
     It can help you feel the broken space inside a body, but it can't precisely communicate the nature of that feeling. Words are pretty weird.

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Dataclysm (lower case, sans file extension) is a pop-science book written by one of OkCupid's founders/data-analysts, Christian Rudder, in 2014.
     In it, he posits generalizations about human behavior by examining the data collected from OkCupid's users. Some of his data-supported claims argue that:

  • "the least black band on Earth is Belle & Sebastian..."
  • "fifty-year-old man's idea of what's hot is roughly the same as a college kid's..."
  • "being highly polarizing [in people's response to your physical appearance] will get you about 70 percent more messages [on OkCupid around 2014]"
  • "women clearly prefer men of their own race—they're more 'race-loyal' than men—but they also express a preference for white men."

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The book makes a lot of claims; make what you will of them.
     Tibbetts' poems and Rudder's book both resonate with concerns about the nature of data. However, where Rudder tries to frame data in pragmatic generalizations about a subset of human behavior, Tibbetts' poems dwell on the outliers.
     Her title page refers to these poems as "vectors." On one hand, the term denotes something with direction and force—a propulsion. On the other, it denotes transmission.
     For instance, in relation to movement, consider the distance each of the following first lines must cover to reach the last line of the poem:

the abject arrogance ... who wore it better

it's the Holocene so ... thank you for your order

word light word flight ... a reversal of self is a radical act

     The poems move quickly, with intent.
     "Vector's" other definition, as an organism that transmits disease, further extends this reading. By conceptualizing these poems as vectors, they remind us of how language spreads. Whether I want them to or not, her lines stick with me (I'm cool with it, though).
     Information changes us and the floodwaters get higher every year.

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DATACLYSM.jpg consists of 72 poems. Of the 2,450 words in those poems, 1, 324 are unique.
     Words most commonly start with the letters 't' (303 words), 'a' (253 words), 's' (185 words), and 'o' (183 words).
     The poems vary between 1 and 10 words in line length. 8 lines in the manuscript consist of only one word, with 2 of those lines appearing in the same poem.
      The number of words per line averages at 4.0285. The average number of words per poem is 34.0833.
      Second-person pronouns dominate the book, appearing over 100 times. First-person pronouns appear less than 8% as frequently as second person pronouns, with first-person plural pronouns appearing twice as much as first-person singular pronouns..
     None of these poems contain reoccurring two-word sets (bigrams) or three-word sets (trigrams).
     The distribution of lines per poem makes a cute little angry face when you chart it and rotate it 90 degrees clockwise (you have to imagine the eyeball).

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What information are you looking for vs. what information do you need?

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Rudder's explanation of dataclysm:

Kataklysmos is Greek for the Old Testament Flood; that's how the word 'cataclysm' came to English. The allusion [to cataclysm] has dual resonance: there is, of course, the data as unprecedented deluge. What's being collected today is so deep it verges on bottomless; it's easily forty days and forty nights of downpour to that old handful of rain. But there's also the hope of a world transformed—of both yesterday's stunted understanding and today's limited vision gone with the flood.

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Tibbetts' poems include a single simile, which uses sound to explain sight:

there are infinite types of darkness
and infinite types of light
like the lasting of loud
shoes in a museum
or an "i like myself" kind of pocket

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Instead of comparison, her poems rely on portmanteaus and anthimeria to make sense of and to enliven the world.
     Comparison simplifies relationships. If someone says "that cat's like a bowl of vanilla pudding," the reader's left to draw their own conclusions about the specific similarities between the two subjects. By combining two separate, familiar words into a single, new one, Tibbetts is able to use portmanteau to defamiliarize the things we've let ourselves become accustomed to.
     Since the individual parts of her portmanteaus are immediately recognizable (sick + joke = sickjoked, spectral + nestled = spectralnestled, some + when = somewhen), they allow readers to approach new concepts without feeling alienated by those concepts. Further, by eschewing comparison, her poems are able to highlight what is, not what is is like.
     As someone who's felt drowned by what is for the past few years, I need poems like these to keep me buoyant.

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In the spring of this year I began staring into the crystal ball of data, hoping to understand the qualities that make poems poem-y.
     In a sample of all poems published by Poetry Magazine between April of 2009 and March of 2019, I learned that a largely disproportionate amount of their author bios mention connections to Kenyon Review.
     Here's the breakdown:

[click for larger]

Some of the most common adjectives used in the poems they publish are simple: "white," "little," "other," "dead," "first," "last," "own," and "more." Titles average out to about 3.3 words. The 3,000+ poems in the set contained at least 1,600 similes. A majority of the poems include hyphenated phrases.
     The results from a 600-poem sample curated from instapoet @Atticus' body of work echoed these trends. Out of the top 18 nouns used in a decade of Poetry's publications and in @Atticus' poems, a third of them were identical. Both sets included relatively common nouns: "eyes," "life," "day," "way," "time," and "man" (and "man" shows up about 10 times as regularly as "woman" in the Poetry Magazine dataset).
     Modifying my queries to look for the same trends by gender (by counting the pronouns used to self-identify in each author's bio) didn't produce notably different results.

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When does abundance overwhelm? What allows lack to do the same?

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Playing with these datasets helped me recognize patterns in publishing, but I still don't know why a poem like "DATACLYSM0041.jpg" emotionally affects me every single time I read it.

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click here to add data
click here to add

—from "DATACLYSM006.jpg"

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[click for larger]

Her poems keep returning me to the question: how does one create a foundation in a constant flow of information?
     Algorithms heavily influence what I watch, what I listen to, and what I buy. I don't think I'm alone—it seems like my friends talk less and less about the media they consume. I've watched the entire run of The Office seven times because it was the easiest thing to access on Netflix—ever-present on my home screen.
     How does information reshape our lives and when do we notice it? Not just the information we receive, but the information we constantly provide about ourselves.
     The damage caused by a flood is horrifically tangible. But how do you quantify the effects of a culture on a person?

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The simple version of what I like about these poems is selfish: they help me form associations between seemingly disparate concepts in a way that complicates my understanding of the world.

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The book opens with a piece of advice:

a few scanning tips as you journey to the
composition:
you should demand answers

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If we can't see devastation, where do we begin to measure its effect?