“Cannibal Dreams”: Science Made Poetry

Cannibal Dreams: Anatomy Study No. 1” uses a block of text from a Biology textbook and hidden hypertext links to create a melancholy poetic piece. It was written by poet Lucy Cunningham and programmer Justin Talbott, and is currently being showcased on the Electronic Literature Organization’s homepage. Interestingly enough, the “about” section is attributed to Leonardo Flores, with whom we just had the opportunity to speak in class last week. He writes:

“Cannibal Dreams: Anatomy Study No. 1” is a hypertext that riffs off a scientific explanation of the organ that comprises our skeleton—bones—to wax poetical about love and loss. The 23 lines taken from the two-volume set, Principles of Bone Biology (2002), edited by John P. Bilezikian, Lawrence G. Raisz, and Gideon A. Rodan, provide 28 words and phrases that make the connection between “the health of a relationship [and] bone health” (Leonardo Flores, 2013).

In many ways, this piece was similar to “The Mandrake Vehicles”, which I looked at for my last entry (here), in that it uses pre-existing scientific texts as a base for the author’s poetic expression. Like “Vehicles,” the title of “Cannibal Dreams” had little to do with the actual content. Both works have simple interfaces and are pretty user friendly, and I think  both could have been improved with a soundtrack behind it. I also think color could have made “Cannibal Dreams” more visually engaging, however I’m not sure that would have matched the tone of the piece.

The only two pages that were text-only were the home page, which features an sketch of a human jaw bone, and the first clickable phrase: “matrix of bone,” which shows a diagram. 

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The clickable drawing as an entry to the text reminded me of “My Body A Wunderkammer,” however instead of having many clickable parts, the entire sketch was only one link. The entire piece had a very linear feeling to it because each word/phrase linked back to the original text. I took a methodological approach to exploring the text, first I slowly scanned the text with my cursor and wrote down each word or phrase that was clickable, then I went back and viewed each page in the order that they appeared. While the description said that there were 28 clickable links, I went through it three times and only found 21 unique links.

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The first clickable link, “matrix of bone” takes the reader to a scientific looking diagram of words most likely associated with human relationships that doesn’t have any obvious meaning. The first and last links were different from all of the others, which were all short poetic lines or even singular words. While the text in the last link is equally poetic, it is much longer than everything else and written in the style of prose.

I compiled all of the short poetic lines into one cohesive poem, and what I found most interesting about this way of creating poetry is that, while I chose to explore them in a traditional reading order, someone else could read them in a different order and have a completely different feeling about it. The lines are independent enough that I don’t think my order is definitive, and it’s probably not the order that the authors created. Part of its versatility is that there is no “correct” way to read it. 

Here is what I came up with: 

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I enjoyed the straight-forward simplicity of this piece because I think it shows that electronic literature can be made, and made well, without extensive programming knowledge. In fact, while reading this, I could imaging making something similar with Twine. In that way, this piece is inviting to other authors who may be intimidated by more complex works of e-lit. 

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