Poetry in Motion: The Mandrake Vehicles

The Mandrake Vehicles are three installments of poetry in motion by Oni Buchanan and animated by Betsy Stone Mazzoleni, originally published as a flash-animation CD in Buchanan’s book Spring. Each installment is broken into seven stages, and each contains two hidden poems. The first stage starts with a text block regarding the mandrake plant. In the second stage, certain letters move, enlarge, change color, and dissolve from the screen. In the third stage, some of the remaining letters rearrange and fall from the text into a list of new words at the bottom of the page. These words then disappear, and the remaining letters move and rearrange to form the first hidden poem. Stages 2-4 are repeated to reveal another new poem. Below are screenshots of stages 1-4:

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While the text blocks can be read linearly across each installment, the hidden poems are separate from each other. However, the poems share the same whimsically dark tone of the original text. With the exception of the last hidden poem in the final installment, the each of the poems has fantastical elements that are reminiscent of the folklore of the mandrake plant.

Leonardo Flores describes Buchanan’s work as being similar Tom Phillips’ ongoing work, A Humurant, in which he takes existing printed works and rearranges or alters them in creative and artistic ways. The digital medium gives Buchanan’s work a twist on this approach through the movement of letters and words to create new works. While the poetry is interesting due to its limited nature, how the poems are created is what makes them compelling.

Buchanan’s says that her work is inspired by Edward Gorey’s “The Object Lesson,” saying “how selectively withheld information combined with selectively presented details (and the placement of those details in the poem, the manner in which they surface, the timing of their appearance, their endurance, their disappearance) endowed objects, people, landscapes with a kind of radiant shifting, mutability, and depth which made them real and unknown in the way that real things are unknown and able to be tapped for the most alien of revelations” (The Poetry Foundation).

Buchanan uses her own unique timing and presentation in The Mandrake Vehicles. Whereas Gorey’s 1958 piece was limited to the page, digital poetry gives poets the ability to set the pace and create new ways of manipulating the language of their poems. While readers can spend as much time as they choose on each stage of The Mandrake Vehicles, the speed of animation is a set pace. In this way, agency is removed from the reader and interaction with the text is limited. The external, exploratory nature of this work allows it to maintain some sense of traditional structure, while its digital elements make it a dynamic and visually interesting poem. 

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