When I was first starting to read full-length novels as a child, I remember skimming the page for dialogue – the only part of the story I was interested in. The descriptions of people and landscapes bored me (and interfered with my own imagination), so I skipped them. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was missing the best part of the story: the language.
Ten year old me would not have enjoyed “Chemical Landscapes Digital Tales.”
This piece by Edward Falco (with photograms by Mary Pinto and a design by Will Stauffer-Norris) consists of eight prose poems, accessed by clicking different parts of the title page. These prose poems are presented on photograms (images that aren’t “landscapes” at all, but the products of a flashlight, chemicals, and a dark room) and refer to the colors and textures in the corresponding photogram. The poems, however, are ephemeral. After a few seconds, the text fades from view, returning the reader to the title screen.
Even with skimming, very little of each poem can be read in one try. Just to make sense of the words in each, I had to read the poems several times over. To get a better look at the text, I had to take a screenshot before the words disappeared (obviously, this is not the way the poems are intended to be read, but the skimming was straining my eyes).
However, there’s little narrative complexity to unpack in Chemical Landscapes. There are whispers of a narrative and characters, but only barely. The blocks of text make me want to call it a prose poem, but it resembles no other prose poem I’ve read, which are usually heavy in narrative. It seems to me that Chemical Landscapes is a collection of thoughts — the kind of fleeting impressions we have when viewing a place for the first time, and which disappear as quickly as they appeared.
The poems are very much in the style of stream-of-consciousness, creating fairly nonsensical sentences that are heavy with images and create a stunning vista when visualized. For example, the line: “Sickness sea under upswells serene that midnight at the seething heart blue.” I can recognize that grammatically, these words make no sense together. But the sound of them, and the feelings associated with each (Sickness, serene, seething are quite emotive, evocative words) create a landscape, however transitory.
The poem itself is a sensory experience, not a literary one. The reader’s eye must skim each passage, picking and choosing where to start and where to end. The option to choose which poem to read (and how often) makes this a hypertext poem, but there ends the interactivity. We are merely explorers of this landscape and can’t interact with the text directly; the creators hold control of the text and its presence on our screens.
The driving force of this piece is the language, and the strings of nouns and adjectives which my eyes were immediately drawn to. The reward of Chemical Landscapes is not to understand or make sense of a story, but to visualize and dwell in a landscape that doesn’t even exist – made by human hands, in a dark room, with flashlights and chemicals.