“kindness abandoned like television sets”

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These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

32 of 100: love, robot by Margaret Rhee (2017, The Operating System)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • In an interview with Elæ [Lynne DeSilva-Johnson] published by The Operating System at Medium, Rhee turns to an AI named Rose to help her answer some of the questions. That’s pretty bad ass in my book. Not to dis Rose, but the gesture turns upside down the idea that what we say/know about poetry is somehow special, that it is superior to what a bot may say, for example. “What does it mean to be a poet?” is a question kind of like “What does it mean to be human?” Just like many of us, Rhee seems more comfortable letting the work answer those questions.
  • In that same interview and without any help from Rose, Rhee says, “Because my own practice draws from various modalities — theory, poetry, art, science, robotics — I like to think about hybridity and transgression.” Hybridity and transgression. I love that description of poetry. A lot. And it is a terrific description of Love, Robot, as well. Mixed in with what we’re likely to recognize as free verse (plus a few sonnets) are “algorithm poems,” series of 1’s and 0’s and some coding. Hybridity. Also, the language itself — much is a narrator addressing a “you,” an other, a lover — blurs which is robot and which is human. The pair of lovers seem to meet in a middle ground: the human, less emotive than many humans in poetry; the robot, more “alive” than a machine. Hybridity. Throughout the collection, there are moments in which we learn that robot-human relationships are taboo (and illegal in some states). Transgression. The poems in Love, Robot explore what turns out to be the fairly narrow lane of intimacy that exists between lovers. Are we allowed to admit how limited that space can be? Transgression. Should we lay bare the truth about that: isn’t what we teach others designed to “improve” their code so they better meet our needs? Transgression. How does it usually go when we try to change the other?
  • A repeating question in Love, Robot is “Who programmed you?” but it’s not the only question that emerges for the reader. See above, for example. But also: What are the consequences of emotions and attachments? What causes stress and tension in a relationship? Whose needs? Whose limitations? As the book raises these questions, the exchanges of information reveal “love” as a clumsy collaboration between two parties who aren’t particularly well equipped. (Sounds about right.) What we get out of it is as much in the attempt — the human drafts some sonnets; the robot tries, too — as it is in the result. In this regard, I find the book-length extended metaphor fascinating. And refreshing.
  • What’s also refreshing: the absence — or near absence — of gender.

Lines I want to remember:

  • “following the morse code of my human heart”
  • “so, stay up with me / until my plane leaves in the morning. / until this city falls in. / until every gear in me stops. / or if. or if. we only have this evening left.”
  • “Let the lover be disgraceful and crazy. / I still hear your radio heart beating / Inside this meat of mine.”
  • “Your blue buttons. My hand / Turns your read dial slowly. Hey, / I just like watching your red needle / Inch, round, and wave toward me.”
  • “Robot porn is never any good.”
  • “The first time you kiss a robot, you will feel your heart leap. And then you will cry because you like it.”
  • “One day, you make love to a human being and realize you could never give up robots.”
  • “upon command, i pulled the lever of your arm, the reels turned, & then everything started to spin.”
  • “kindness abandoned like television sets. what happened to riding in cars with boys?”
  • “this world was not made for robots. / This world was not made for love. / There is never going to be a turn in this song.”
  • “i’ve analyzed uncertainly with you over and over again.”

What others have said:

  • from Chicago Review of Books: “A set of speculative accounts of robot-human love, Rhee’s book encodes the future with a level of investment and commitment that makes the present livable. In the midst of our culture’s contemporary infatuation with dystopia, Love, Robot’s unabashed techno-optimism, its wholehearted devotion to imagining human-robot love—love no less tender, frightening, or ecstatic than love between humans—is startling and necessary.”
  • from an essay by the poet published at Lambda Literary: “My first poetry book, Love, Robot is a collection of robot love poems, set in a world where humans and robots fall in and out of love. As a collection that gestures back to Alan Turing’s sexuality and writing on machines, and inspired by music, my poetry collection is an attempt to depict a future world where boundaries between robots and humans is transgressed. Writing about this robotic world of sexual and romantic subversion helped me articulate a futuristic queer logics. Queerness cuts across binaristic thinking, and offers new poetic articulations.”
  • from Publishers Weekly: “This is a queer love story interjected with algorithmic code and metallic musings. Rhee channels the excitement of meeting someone new and falling for them via the unfamiliar body of the robot, one that is full of electricity and light. As with most torch songs, readers are left with the longing of an imperfect love. Throughout, Rhee blurs the line between human and robot via proverbs such as ‘believe me when I say nothing is because of chance. nothing is not math.’ Readers are asked to consider how they’ve been programmed too. Perhaps the love interest wasn’t a robot after all; perhaps the narrator isn’t human.”
  • from Viet Thanh Nguyen on the book’s back cover: “The poems of Love, Robot are delicate and smooth, witty and touching, and yes, occasionally odd and strange, as human beings themselves are. In a paradoxical and wonderful way, Margaret Rhee’s robot love affairs make us rethink what it might mean to be human.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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