Book Reviews

Who’s to Say We Aren’t Robots?

by Jacob Laba | Contributing Writer

Oh You Robot Saints! 

Rebecca Morgan Frank. 

Pittsburg: Carnegie Mellon University Press

Oh You Robot Saints! by Rebecca Morgan Frank is ambitious in its aim to snare the experience involved in creation: each poem is a canvas spanning from ancient Greek arithmetic to the fancies of robot babies and bees, which, together, amount to a sort of physiologus with the steampunk and divine adjacent to each other. It’s a wild scope, but as you  flip through and see one piece probe mythological botany and another probe robot monks, one with automaton angels and another in Aljafería’s palace, one with a very-present theme of creation and other with multifarious nature surfaces, you find that this collection both strikes and comforts the reader in its universality.

Perhaps ironically, Frank kicks the collection off with the poem “Creation.” The trappings of human creation and its variety of delicacies is tasted. As Frank writes, “That day we’d only just begun / to build our own city on a slab” and conflates such with a child’s project: “with clay, toothpicks, cardboard, scraps / of wood, found buttons and beads.” The reader can’t help but wonder who “we” is, and why they disappear behind “I”—and if their origin is of the selfsame grain.

As the poem flits along in a young child’s musings, so too do dreams of the little city coming to life with faceless clay people. The child wonders, “What could I tell them of the tools / I’d found in the kitchen, the basement? / On sale at the five and dime?” However, this fear of superficiality is swiftly supplanted by what’s essential: “I built them a place to gather, wrote / out their mythology for my teacher.” However, for the teacher, this was not enough, as she establishes that “you can’t just make up gods— / this is Social Science.” To “fix” this grave problem, the child “put a cross on / the roof and passed.” But what is the cost of this temporary band-aid? It’s that the little city is inadvertently stepped on with an elaborate funeral transpiring in the school trash—chilled by the realization that the “senseless god was dead.” While the claim isn’t as seemingly-grave as Nietzsche’s “God is dead,” its implication is likely that some divinities are acceptable in the eyes of institutionalized education, whereas others are not if seen as “senseless.” What the teacher cannot take from the child, though, is their humanity, and therefore, the beauty of creation entrenched in their being from millennia of oral and written narrative. No matter what, the age-old past of vague, but nevertheless present “clay people” transmitting myths cannot easily be gutted from children: the raw, new forms of human creation. A cramped world may aim to stifle such creation, but the child sets himself on combating this possibility: ”The people’s stories mine to claim. / Mine to tell over and over again.” In swearing to storytelling and the pursuit of creation, the children swear to this very nature. 

But creation isn’t limited to storytelling. In the poem “Invention #1,” the act of creation is “like an idea hooked out of a fishbowl”: perhaps always there, swimming around and visible through belying curves of glass, but isolated from our grip unless we cast a line (of poetry) for it. Frank loves inventions; one is, “Vaucanson’s Digesting Duck Automaton, c. 1739.” Within this poem, one of the most arresting questions ever is proffered: “But when is a duck a duck?” Is it when “it looks like a duck, quacks // like a duck, walks like a duck,”…There could be a certain percentage of duck-ness that denotes being a duck, and nobody really knows who, where, or what a duck’s philosophy really is. But Frank herself doesn’t try to answer such a question. Instead, she frames it with satire in order to juxtapose how we see not just humans, but all creatures, and confronts us with the question of what really defines ducks, or humanity. Perhaps the human panorama is more limited than we imagine, maybe even in need of some humbling. Frank’s work reflects on ducks in motion: 

for hundreds of years now 

we’ve witnessed the stomach
in motion, a machinery

at work, more magical 
with science than without . . .

In many ways, science has humbled humans, has illuminated the quirks and strings erecting the composition of our biology. Additionally, science has endeavored to disentangle the knottiness of our nature, the knottiness that we have (Frank suggests) mistakenly believed elevates us. Frank’s poem inspects the process of creation in ducks, the emotive experience of giving duck-birth, almost as if to endorse the idea that humans are not unique in the fervor of creation despite our obsession with the idea that we’re unerringly special.

By the same token, Frank criticizes the human view of art and its intersection with science: 

we once had to imitate
in order to see inside of ourselves.

We’ve been trying to get back
to the real thing.

Most artists, poet or writer or painter or other, are aware of imitation in art. While Frank’s speaker doesn’t outright claim that artful imitation has begun to dilute rather than spell out the nature of humanity, in these lines, the speaker does imply that in science, the view of human centricity is undergoing a massive shift. Automation is creeping up our backs, computer-generated art is illustrating landscapes and composing poems in increasingly concrete and intricate algorithms, and an imitation of the human brain in artificial intelligence (with improvement!) is not expected to be far off. However, perhaps this is not a bad thing—perhaps we even need this advent of science to show us that we’ll have automatons that supercede our cognition. Perhaps we’ll be inching “back to the real thing” as technology maps and charts all the crevices that create what the human automaton always held in such high regard. While it may be frightening to those who treasure the distinctness of humanity, there is a comforting sentiment that we’re like duck automatons — just adrift the ebb and flow of life —a product of science that doesn’t boast the transcension of as much as previously thought.

In Frank’s speaker’s eyes, the human marrow is an invention as well: we’re mechanical creatures. What we know of biology and systems of intelligence point to exceptionally automatic processes of which replication is near. While it may seem initially reductive, there is nothing cheapening the human experience within this collection, only leveling it from folly heights — craft, mechanical processes, genetics programmed to this or that are rich with meaning and deep-set emotion propped up in the complexity inhabiting our bodies and minds.

For example, in “Descartes’ Daughter,” the speaker highlights the cornerstone quality of creation in childbirth, stating that “You can create such tiny dimensions, / can even make the body move.” However, for Descartes and his daughter this movement was of grief: 

Encased in a wooden box, she sailed 
to Sweden with him, her automaton 

girl-body built by his grieving hands—
his own Francine had died at only five. 

Can what is dead be alive, and if so, how? Descartes himself raises a great deal of controversy in this and Frank notices: “Meanwhile, Descartes’ own death / remains contested—you might ask what sort / of maker sets up so many possibilities / for destruction.” Once he died, his skull was graffitied by those who snatched it up, as if “to lay claim to all it once housed.” Even if deceased, the speaker seems to be noting the human attraction to cherishing the dead, laying claim to what no longer is simply based on what it once entailed and no longer does. But she does not demean this and may even relate to it. Even Descartes, as a result of his human mechanics and love for his daughter, is not free of this irrationality either. Frank imagines: 

It’s not hard
to imagine him alive, cradling the automaton
in his cabin, beginning his god to give back
the soul to the machine he had made.

Those who have created or surfaced anything meaningful from below know that once something is lost, we cannot help but shiver in the creation of an absence.

Another example of resonance in mechanics is “Self-Operating Machines” in which Frank sweeps through the all too real steampunk-human: 

Everything is a clock inside, geared
and oiled to sing and turn—the body,
even, no different than that of medieval
mechanical monkeys lining the bridge

The language here is in harmony with itself as associations shave back human mechanics: we’re geared, oiled, but look!, we sing with our bodies, with the automation at play in our nature. Verbs seldom describing art such as “geared” and “oiled” are succeeding by singing. We may be a set of properties forged from some hard-boiled logic, but in that logic, beauty and art rises.

Creation is built over many ages. As in the first poem, this piece doesn’t shy away from the ancient and its exchange with the current, or even the future: 

the surface of life 

runs by a mere series of cause and effects,
buried beneath with care and craft. 
In grief, the gears and springs spin on. 

Additionally, she observes that “We were all once part / of a set of nesting dolls, a robot designed // in the body of another robot.” The civilization’s pool of learning expands every year that passes, as more insights are produced and thus bequeathed to whoever or whatever comes next. Reproduction, often seen at the heart of creation, demands this imparting. Our parents are pronounced in our “builds” and so too are our parents’ parents and so on, traced back to evolution and pre-sentience—like a nesting doll. And again, rich emotion is not degraded in mechanization or by the “cause and effect” that governs beings.  Gears, springs, and a great deal of our parts “spin on” in billows of grief, but that doesn’t make grief any less present or meaningful. In fact, mechanized evidence of emotion could actually be an assurance of our condition, the grief that commands us:

They never saw their mother’s body

graying on display, or felt themselves
unmade by absence, as if a spring

let loose a monkey’s howl
so real it sounds like lament.

The set of poems that follow “Self-Operating Machines” are all brilliantly in dialogue with the overarching presence of creation and very human grief ringing from Frank’s speaker. She forays into the human condition, leaving her automaton-self bare for distant admiration. The first, “Offerings”, picks up where “Self-Operating Machines” and the grief of losing one’s “designer” left off: 

Amidst the grieving, one sole loaf 
of bread—the only food anyone 

had brought, or would, in the days 
to come.

She clarifies the situation: “They’d left gifts at my mother’s door for months— I knew how much she’d loved // those tokens at the door, sweets / she would never eat.” The speaker’s mother is so entrenched in the speaker’s being that it almost clashes with her mechanics: 

The crust stuck in my throat. 
The loaf hardened over days, grew 

tougher to chew, and still 
I wanted more, still I took it in, 
the care with which someone kneaded
the loaf, shaped it, and wrapped it for us, 

then placed it in a brown bag, tied
its handles with a yellow ribbon.

This hyper-fixation on items and associative meticulousness are the mechanics of grief and creation’s interplay, as each stanza brims with the severity of mourning and swings on the teeter-totter of grief and appreciation for a presence that once was. You see, when grieving, we do tend to hyper-fixate, we do tend to see our loved-ones in everything, since they (and the speaker and the speaker’s mother, literally) created something rich in our beings which torques our perception to see newness in them, in the littlest things, in the world. For Frank, what once was still is, since we birth a type of creation in others, something residual, a fate or wheel in our mechanics. Though the speaker’s mother is no longer alive, she once wedged life in her automaton, created the speaker, and in death, the weight of this truth settles on her tongue:

I swallowed the last crumbs
like communion,

like the body of my mother
could enter me, and live.

The next poem, “Invention #3,” also fiddles with the idea of death, but it seems to both scuffle and harmonize with “Offerings.” She carries the torch of “Offerings” in the beginning: “A ground holds history, / the bones of every creature / that came before.” This is attuned to how the last ends — the continuation of “life” or at least something soulful, after death. She sees that:

If you put them together 
like the small rodent bones
found in an owl pellet, you 
can recreate what was consumed.

However, as she paces on with the poem, this is contradicted in self-reflexivity, as if the speaker herself is grappling with her mechanics, her humanity, and death: “But the truth is, the small mouse / is dead, no matter how / you order its remains.”

Frank intentionally pits two ideas against each other: in “Offerings”: the dead can “enter me, and live” and in “Invention #3,” “the small mouse / is dead, no matter how / you order its remains.” In the death of another, the human is lost, astray. Whether we like it or not, the dead are dead; however, so too are their creations, which tug on our heartstrings and brain after death. Frank is a cerebral poet in how she touches on mechanics and science, but the overtones of mechanics mimicking (or creating) the human experience in their implications are what move her work to illustrate how absurd and heart-rending our mechanical existence is. She, a human as emotional as we all are, has her screws and bolts undone in the death of her mother. As a result, these two poems seem at odds with each other, just as the heart and mind  are when one mourns. Our automaton shivers and ripples in a host of incompatible thoughts. While these two poems may seem to oppose each other, together, they mirror grief with more uniformity than a lone perspective would.  Sometimes contradiction is more in line with the irrationality of the human automaton.

The next poem, “Loving the dead is what we are here for,” proposes a resolution to this predicament, synthesizing the two works while simultaneously acknowledging their distinct verity. It also involves the theme of old and new paramount to the collection, with hints of the formalist narrative and meter united in contemporary verse she sings, echoing past sentiments:

Above
the windowsill, a line of red ants makes its way
somewhere—towards the leftover cheese plate, 
across the folds of your trousers, into your ear. 
They are driven by the scent of death.

We, you, us—she draws this poem out in figurative inclusion as death is ubiquitous—almost an aphorism in of itself. Still, in a crescendo of creation, the speaker pays patronage to her mother: she sets her mother in the backdrop of humanity’s in-sync essence and in the basin of our cries and cheers trickling down in quiet profundity. She also centers her in reverberations from centuries-past and shouts from the future that will linger in our centers:

My mother taught me this, to remove
the tiny corpse from the house. The dead
are a road map. They leave behind the lure
of their histories, your thoughtless violence.
Still, we try to shake the sensation,
the sense of something moving over us.

 – 

Rebecca Morgan Frank is the author of three previous titles, including two published by Carnegie Mellon University Press, and Little Murders Everywhere, a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, American Poetry Review, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago.

Jacob Laba is a writer and poet from El Cerrito, California. He has been published in Collidescope, Haiku, The Compulsive Reader, and elsewhere; he is also forthcoming in a few journals, such as Lit. 202, Rain Taxi, and Whale Road Review.