The Sense of Words: Reverse Engineer by Kate Colby

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Kate Colby’s eighth collection, Reverse Engineer, is an elegant and inquisitive unraveling of how language shapes our relationship to the world, to ourselves, and to each other. Colby uses simple words and twisty syntax to embody the process of reverse engineering language-based relationships; with questions and humor, she finds the traps and trapdoors in our language.

Understanding how reverse engineering works is indispensable to understanding this finely crafted book. To reverse engineer is to disassemble, and by examining and analyzing parts and processes, then recreate a device, process, or system. In this case, Colby disassembles language, specifically the lyric poem, to show the mind at work creating language, by way of our senses, just as problematic as the world. In “Actuarium,” she writes, “We are born double-blind / to fill the darkness in.”

“After Life” begins with a denial: “Everything I think / to say is never true // Anymore—the medium / of thinking is thought.” The line breaks emphasize the flux and over-determinedness in language as each individual line asserts something that the next one takes away. The poem continues, “If all worlds / exist and we’re in // the best one, will you be / awake when I get home?” Here, the syntax of the if/then construction is broken because “then” is inferred, not stated, making the relationship between “I” and “you”—which was first contained in “we”—suddenly contingent. Will the you (an implied lover) be awake and able to interact with the speaker? And if not, is this the best of all possible worlds if each individual is isolated and relation is questionable? How could this isolation not be poignant?

The poem ends: “The day we put the dog down / I felt my umwelt like anything / admitted by emptiness / excepting itself.” The umwelt theory, developed by Jakob von Uexul, asserts that the mind and the world are inseparable because the mind interprets the world to an organism by way of its own particular senses, and the organism creates and reshapes its own umwelt as it interacts with the world. In this poem, the speaker’s umwelt is entangled in the emotional event of giving a dog an easy death. The poem refuses closure only by “excepting itself.”

In “Ars Poetica,” Colby further clarifies, “no poem ever fails / to extemporize // its reason for being / what is essentially itself.” This circularity is immediately interrupted by images and commentary:

Trees smear
train window

more immediate
forehead grease

(what I write about the everyday is
not my experience of the everyday)

a vestigial armrest ashtray.

The visceral quality of “forehead grease” unlocks a poem in which words double back on themselves, while language is asserted as failing to contain the parenthetical everyday. The result is a “vestigial” (unfunctional) reality like an “armrest ashtray” in a train where smoking is no longer permitted. The poem ends: “What I can’t know / beyond recollection // I put into words / to see how it seems,” again suggesting the power of language to let one “see how it seems” while also rendering language as entangled with the speaker, the “world,” and the intersection of all three.

“Unexpected Being” begins with the evocation of “A kind of presence— // what took all of / time to arrive at // the rest will never get here.” However, “Words are full / of dark meaning, // meaning without / proof of matter.” The slippage between noun and verb states of the word “meaning” enacts a language of uncertainty, which the speaker describes as a “systemic failure of / systems meaning both // ‘birds-eye’ and a bird’s eye, / a black hole.” The entire question of language “like a container / ship full of empty containers” is pulled into a “black hole.”

The speaker is as skeptical of love as she is of presence. In “Integer*” she states, “love isn’t real / only how you feel it.” Nevertheless, love is explored in three consecutive poems. “Night Vision” begins skeptically, “Shadows are ideas / of what casts them,” then pivots to a question cast as a statement:

If I could disgorge
my heart like a star-

fish its stomach
I’d draw you in,

but I only have this head
and how I love you

looks more like me than I do.

Personal pronouns “I” and “me” double back on themselves, while the line breaks create a witty undercurrent, as does the starfish disgorging its stomach as a metaphor for drawing the lover in. However, thought (“this head”) rather than feeling (“how I love”) governs the lover who can’t see herself in a love that “looks more like me than I do.”

In “Pediment” the lover’s “Interminable / questions pack into a chasm // I keep for you— // the hole we / hold together.” Then suddenly, the poem’s language becomes lyrical:

Through winter I see
each snow-articulated twig

convey it like a cup
across the floor

of the room you bring to me.

Here, powerful imagery creates a temporary or imaginary space for love. The hole is recast as a cup that one lover conveys to the other in a paradoxical space where “There are no doors, / only jambs standing in for.” The intimacy of a space without doors is undercut by the word “jambs” which could mean either doorjambs from which doors are hung or the variant spelling “jams” which one must get out of. Here, the lyrical cup carried from one lover to the other is caught in between words that if spoken, could have opposite meanings, suggesting the conditionality of love.

“Air Lock” completes this trilogy, asserting:

Only you contain me,
like a sieve sorts the sea.

We hold our heads
in each other’s hands

The containment or intimacy of love is visualized as a sieve held by one lover who sorts the other lover, perhaps intentionally trying to change them by sifting something out. Rather than holding hands, the lovers hold each other’s heads in their hands in a gesture of shared futility or grief. The poem completes this sense of futility in the final couplet “the key to which breaks / the lock by breaking in it.”

In the title poem “Reverse Engineer,” the speaker declares:

The measure of a fence
is its definition;

of my mind, its mark
in the mouth, mirroring

alluvial fans of my face.

The mark is a word that connects the mind to the external world in a process of umwelt only backward (reversed) as in a mirror. This prompts her to asks “What kind of document / is a photo of a map?” because language is twice removed from the terrain of the actual world that the map and the photo attempt to reproduce.

The speaker realizes: “. . . I’ve never put // ‘oblivion’ in a poem before. // All this time I didn’t even notice.” Her awareness of time is broken, “Took almost forever, / pretty much everything” and now “(the pickets are listing) // what I am used to / being broken.” The fence is disintegrating into listing pickets, so its measure is no longer a functional definition; and yet without the wholeness of the fence, the speaker feels “what I am used to / being broken,” which applies to both the fence and herself.

Colby repeatedly interrogates this fluctuating condition of the self. In “Saint Namesake,” the speaker’s “body has a name / that’s the shape of it, . . . All I know is / what my head holds // holds me back.” She concludes “Infinity is ‘to be’ / without me.” “Codicil” continues to question the stability of the self, as the speaker exclaims: “I am what’s needed / of my own erasure….the half-moon finished / to begin with.” This complex conditionality of the self is literally grounded in the poem’s last two stanzas:

I root for seeds
I need to grow,

bend and be
also broken.

Again, language is duplicitous. To be broken is perhaps to be part of a process (or a metaphor for life), where to bend (and survive) also leads to being broken. In this context, the word “broken” in “Reverse Engineer” might well point to a hard-won success.

An explanatory gap occurs when language cannot explain how physical sensations actually feel. In “Explanatory Gap,” the speaker claims: “I write poems as though seeing /and knowing weren’t separate— // the way they make up / the mind makes sense.” Employing the concept of umwelt, one could say that perception (which differs from animal to animal and subjectively from person to person) is interpreted by thought, producing language such as poems. However, an explanatory gap exists between perception and language. The senses give sensory data to the mind which tries to use language to make sense of the world. Yet language is unable to exactly reproduce all the information relayed by the senses, so there is a gap. There is even a play upon the word “sense” which collapses the senses into the same word used for meaning—to make sense of. Again, imagery and lyricism suggest another way to close the explanatory gap:

Today’s sun
bent round corners,

tonight’s moon
gash glares down.

This haiku-like completeness that seemed impossible is now achievable in the concise description of scenes that appear seamless. The speaker immediately reacts, “What’s this have to / do with reflection?” bringing us back to the explanatory gap. To make her point more literally, she breaks “a mirror just to see / my shadow at the back of it.” Beneath its reflective surface, the mirror is black and will not reflect anything but a shadow. Here, the explanatory gap is closed.

In “Centaur” and “Blivit,” Colby continues to examine the ambiguity and untrustworthiness of words and ideas:

…One rule
of science is it works

the same everywhere
except for the words

in which it’s conceived—

in other words, half
a glass is complete.

Even science, the ultimate (human) system of ideas based on close observation of the world, is challenged from two disparate perspectives. First, the same words don’t exist in every language to describe the same phenomenon, and this cripples the universality of science. Second, scientific language is unreliable in communicating ideas because of its own explanatory gap: “in other words, half / a glass is complete.” The poem concludes: “Language, some believe, / is here to make us think // silence can’t exist / without a word for it.” Without an objective correlative, language is a trickster to the absurd degree of contending that even silence (the lack of words) can’t exist without “a word for it.”

A blivit is something that can’t be named, but paradoxically, is also the name of the “Impossible Trident,” a shape that mysteriously transforms like an M.C. Escher print. It also refers to an indecipherable shape that requires a shift in the visual perspective of the viewer to be understood. The poem “Blivit” contends that “A poem makes much / of what’s already in it // (‘essentially’ means / ‘deeply’ or ‘all but’).” However, “words are fake / in fact of night, // their light the stars / won’t reach to meet.” The poem continues:

“Leave off” can mean
“Stop” or “omit;”

a unicorn’s an animal,
a tricorn a hat;

The beginning of a corner is
as long as you face it.

Here, the mercurial nature of language is laid bare. The same word in different contexts can mean radically different things. As well, language can conjure, by naming, non-existent animals like a unicorn. And it can make literal associations between real and imaginary nouns like “unicorn” and “tricorn hat.” Finally, language can create displacements like “The beginning of a corner is / as long as you face it” which conflates “beginning” with another possible meaning of the word “long.”

The final poem, “Automat” is divided into nine sections and begins with a headnote quotation from American photorealist painter, Richard Estes, whose work often contains details that make his images unique rather than simplified visualizations: “. . . perhaps you show the way things look the less you show how they are or how we think they are.” In “Automat,” the speaker further probes our entanglement with the reality of our senses (umwelt) and wonders if language can ameliorate our isolation:

…A window is
filled with the shape of its limit—
you have to see through this—
we’re split from the world
by being born to it.

Then later:

…and words,
do they contain us as
well, we’ll just have to see.
Poems are holey.

Colby concludes with a perfect echo of Estes:

What’s a photorealistic poem?
A: “Abstract.” There’s a crack
in the world where the eye goes.

Colby recognizes our isolation is an existential consequence of living in a world that is not as it appears to be, while trying to use language to communicate despite its explanatory gaps. In her poems, she offers us a language that embodies that isolation and abstraction. As well, she provides us with a speaker whose solitary struggle enlivens our doubts about reality. When she declares “Poems are holey,” she also means they are the “crack / in the world where the eye goes.”


Randall Potts is the author of two poetry collections, Trickster (Kohl House Poets Series, University of Iowa Press, 2014) and Collision Center (O Books, 1994), as well as a chapbook, <emRecant (A Revision) (Leave Books, 1994). Their work has appeared widely in periodicals such as American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Interim: A Journal of Poetry & Poetics, Poetry Northwest, and is forthcoming in The Bennington Review. They live in Bellingham, Washington. More from this author →