Tinkering With the Closed Box

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Cyborgia is wildly imaginative and the poems don’t take themselves too seriously. Even when these women are being constructed or destroyed, the book isn’t particularly angry or even political. It instead feels rather gleeful.

Cyborgia, Susan Slaviero’s first full-length collection, is both stimulating and challenging. If we were to splice the DNA of Dorothy Parker with Anne Sexton and Philip K. Dick, we might get a poet like Slaviero. These cyberpunk poems are delightfully bizarre, occasionally sexy, and often fun.

Much of the content consists of a series of portraits of mythical and legendary females as they might be if they were cyborgs or out-and-out robots. The word “gynoid” is sporadically mentioned, a term coined by sci fi author Gwyneth Jones to describe robots designed to look obviously female (whereas andr-oids implies obvious male characteristics rather than merely human ones). There’s a “Gynoid Eve,” “Bride of Frankenstein 2.0,” and “Cyborg Cowgirl,” and that’s just in the first half of the book. Grethel later shows up with a prosthetic arm:

No, I don’t remember how it happened.
It could have been bitten off by a hungry witch

or burned in her candy oven. I only recall
the raw end of bone, white and pretty…

Stepping into steampunk, readers are faced with “Bluebeard’s Clockwork Bride.” Among the more narrative of the poems in Cyborgia, it further develops Bluebeard’s legend without covering the same ground as Carter (or, to my knowledge, anyone else.) “He finds it tiresome, all this flesh–/ this repetitious strangling… So he weds/ a robot, a burlesque,/ a pantomime bride.”

Of course, even this isn’t enough for Bluebeard. “He takes a saber/ to her joints, unthreads/ his machine/ in a fit/ of bloody boredom.” He can’t help destroying women, but this bride can be reassembled and murdered eternally. Does that make her better?

Slaviero doesn’t simply write around these characters; she explores and reveals these constructed women and the men who operate and program them. “Briar Rose, in Cryostasis” takes the frozen head of Sleeping Beauty and has her “waiting for a prince to defrost you,/ to kiss the stump of your pretty neck.” Another, “The Mechanician,” knows that “a woman without veins has no use/ for a tourniquet. That she takes calcium pills/ hoping to grow bones.”

The tension between elegance and violence is ever present. Slaviero melds this with feminist critical theory, offering her robotic women as literal examples of the “construction” of female gender. Although cyborgs and gynoids may look sleek, sexy, and seamless in films and illustrations, Slaviero makes it clear that mechanizing bodies is a nasty, painful process. “Our Lady of X-Ray Vision” beholds “a scattering of puncture wounds beneath a titanium shell.”

Even so, it would be a mistake to label this as feminist poetry. I wouldn’t even call it postfeminist. At the risk of sounding glib, Cyborgia is far more Aeon Flux, Tank Girl, and Buffy than, say, bell hooks. It’s wildly imaginative and the poems don’t take themselves too seriously. Even when these women are being constructed or destroyed, the book isn’t particularly angry or even political. It instead feels rather gleeful.

Cyborgia also contains poetry in a variety of forms. In the titular poem of the “Boolean Fairy Tales” section, Slaviero embeds database search terms and conditions to shake things up: “Tools [not] chemicals/ for tinkering with the closed box [or] brain-bot/ fatal errors [and] moonless mouths.” There are also prose poems, bulleted lists, and a poem-as-appendix.

Despite all of this creativity, the theme of the book still becomes repetitive. This is always a risk when writing an entire book with such a specific subject and a possibly narrow audience. For a first book, it’s a mighty offering, but the thinness of the theme is obvious. Even with Slaviero’s rich vocabulary and risky syntax, the frequency of science talk can easily turn off a reader resistant to or uninterested in it. Slaviero offers varied imagery and makes successful experiments with form and style, but she quickly exhausts the subject matter.

The second cycle of poems in particular, “Celluloid Marionettes,” starts to drag. It feels too familiar after the first section, and there’s only so much that a cowgirl can do, cyborg or not. Nonetheless, readers who power through it will be rewarded as the book is rebooted half way through by the next section, “Boolean Fairy Tales,” compared in a back cover blurb to Angela Carter.

The comparison is obvious, but this isn’t just a rehash of what’s already been done in fiction. Carter’s The Bloody Room has its definite place, but Cyborgia has its own. These fairy tales, recast as science fiction rather than magical myths and folklore, may be nothing new to fans of sci fi and fantasy prose, but Slaviero and Mayapple Press bring this into verse. Mayapple Press actively publishes, among other genres, science fiction poetry, creating a niche outside of the book contests and larger presses. For those who enjoy both speculative fiction and daring poetry, this is a welcome territory for Mayapple to stake.

For these fans, Cyborgia shouldn’t disappoint. It’s simultaneously smart, different, and demanding. Cyborgia is a strong and arresting first book from an inspired and uncommon poet, but it has its limitations. The specified subject matter and language will undoubtedly leave many readers perplexed or unamused, but if you’re into it, then you may end up loving it.

Evan J. Peterson lives, writes, and teaches in Seattle. His poetry, nonfiction, and journalism have recently been published or are forthcoming in the Southeast Review, Sweet, Studies in the Fantastic, and Ganymede. For more, check out his blogs at Poemocracy.blogspot.com and Wonderkabinet.blogspot.com More from this author →