At Coach House Books, poet Christian Bök (pronounced “book”) is stuffing signed and lettered copies of his first collection of poetry in 14 years, The Xenotext: Book 1, into zippered wallets.
He’ll build 26 of these Deluxe Edition packages, one for each letter of the alphabet, stuffed with 12 pieces of “ephemera” — including a comic that outlines Bök’s manifesto and a glyph that, when held up to a webcam, creates a hologram of a poem by Amaranth Borsuk.
He’s dressed today in loose jeans, a turquoise T-shirt, a grey blazer and a belt buckle of sufficient size and shine to betray the 10 years he’s spent in Calgary, where he teaches in the English department at the University of Alberta.
The variety of work in The Xenotext includes pastoral poetry, a day-in-the-hive itinerary of a bee colony, a prose explanation of the parts and processes of DNA (including both illustrations and photographs), acrostic poems that use the three-letter structure of a molecule to talk about bees, and ruminations on the apocalypse.
What it does not include are the show-stopping centrepieces of Bök’s ambitious project. It goes something like this: having written the sonnet “Orpheus,” he created a code to translate the English poem into the alphabetical sequences of DNA. He then embedded that translated DNA sequence into E. coli. The E. coli then interpreted that DNA as a set of instructions to build a protein. When the DNA of that protein is translated back into English, it is a new sonnet called “Eurypidis.” (Cue mind explosion.)
“If I had just promised to do that, I would be done,” Bök says, stridently filing pages. “I would be one of the greatest poets alive if I had just promised to do that. Unfortunately I overpromised.”
The promise was to implant that DNA into Deinococcus radiodurans, a bacteria heralded as the toughest in existence, able to survive through outer space, nuclear explosion and a Trump presidency. When he achieves this, The Xenotext: Book 2 will be published.
“The scientists really don’t know why it doesn’t work,” he says. “There’s a lot of magic and voodoo in this. It’s all a young science and there’s not a lot that I can do to advance the technology.”
The project already boasts extraordinary breakthroughs. Bök spent four years combing through the eight trillion possible codes to find one that would produce a poem of suitable beauty (nevermind something better than gibberish). “I was beginning to think it was impossible,” he says.
He was working with a vocabulary of only 120 words (“scraping the bottom of the barrel” he says) when he conceived the winning sonnets. The opening phrase of “Orpheus” is “any style of life is prim.”
“Eurydice,” the transformed sonnet, opens with “the faery is rosy of glow.” In a pinch of magic, when the E. coli creates that poem, part of its programming causes it to glow.
As a child, Bök was so strong in science and math that people assumed he would become a scientist. “I thought, ‘I don’t have the intelligence or creativity necessary to make a discovery in science,’ ” he says. “Whereas, I thought that maybe I could make an important contribution to art. And luckily I have borne that out. At least midway through my career.”
His previous work, 2002’s Eunoia, is the best-selling Canadian poetry collection of all time. But his late-career goal is nothing less than artistic immortality. Deinococcus radiodurans could carry The Xenotext to parts of the universe uninhabitable by humanity, primed for discovery by a post-human reader.
“They can’t decode it unless they know English and understand the cipher,” he says. “Just knowing that someone manipulated an organism genetically would be meaningful to a civilization that discovered it. And that’s really what I’m ultimately trying to do — testify to our presence long after this disappears.”