Links Perpetual Links

I’m finding myself with limited time and attention stretched thin — my wife and I are at home on parental leave with our two-year-old daughter and two-month-old son, both children needing both of us pretty much sun up to sun down. It’s wonderful and fun and exhausting and straining. My daughter has an inspiring fascination with books and stories (wonder where she gets that from) that I enjoy kindling. I treasure moments holding my son as he smiles and gurgles (mostly when looking at the ceiling fan). By the time my daughter is in bed, though, I don’t have much energy to devote to the sprawling, puzzling IF games that I had been exploring this summer. Amidst the chaos of having two young children joyfully laughing and strenuously crying in equal measure, I have found some reprieve in a short hypertext poem “for political lovers, a little utopia sketch” by Brienne Reid.

Made with Twine, this poem illustrates the versatility and variable effects of the link that Twine affords writers and readers to move through text. Ever since HTML became the dominant hypertext paradigm (for a while now, I think…), a major critique is that links on the Web are purely navigational — letting the writer make an association between pages and enabling the reader to move across these associations. This is great — fantastic, even! I love the <a></a> tag dearly. But links have always been more than navigational, even if these other possibilities have been less fully realized in hypertext systems, or rather that hypertext systems that do employ other kinds of links are mostly marginal, especially compared to the Web. There has been a lotalot of writing about this among the hypertext heads, but the scholar I always go back to on this point is Adrian Miles:

… much writing on linking wishes to domesticate the link as some category or species of rhetorical figure, always and already at the service of some other role, for instance to facilitate navigation, allow cognitive and associative
mapping of ideas, or the incorporation of otherwise disparate arguments, documents, or objects, within a
larger docuverse. In such work the link always remains the servant of other processes, but such thought obscures,
indeed actively turns away from, any consideration of the link in, or of, itself.1

Miles goes on to instead sketch out a poetics of the link based in excess, getting at the experience of clicking the link that exceeds the instrumental task of navigation or connection. While this poetics that emphasizes the event of the link — the significance produced by the action of the link itself, and not just the ways in which the link connects other signifying passages — can be applied to the strictly navigational <a> tag, hypertext systems like Twine that offer many other kinds of links provide fertile ground for thinking through this poetics.

“for political lovers” is especially interesting in this regard because there are no navigational links that lead off to branching passages. The only navigational links (as far as I can tell) are the ones leading linearly to the next passage. These links structure the poem like stanza breaks, guiding the reader through the text, but the non-navigational links within these ‘stanzas’ are doing the real poetic work. In particular, this poem makes use of links that reveal additional text in the same lexia and links that let the reader cycle through words.

The poem starts out, for example, with a lexia that contains just one clickable link, leading the reader into the work:

i smell boiling water on your tongue

->tongue

as if you were a martyr or a wheelbarrow full by the assembly of martyrs within

Clicking within alters the passage to say

as if you were a martyr or a wheelbarrow full by the assembly of martyrs within

transversal

This lexia, like the first, again has only one clickable link to advance linearly through the poem. From the start, the poem establishes that the reader is not exploring a garden of forking paths, but rather is digging more deeply down into the sparse, surreal language parceled out in each lexia. This work is a ‘transversal’ in the definitional sense of a ‘line transects a system of other lines,’ but the reader only moves along that one line, glimpsing the other lines obliquely.

The tongue — an image/object introduced in the first lexia as a strange substrate, that can hold the scent of boiling water — repeats throughout. I really enjoy this reprise of that initial lexia that occurs later in the poem:

i smell the places you’ve brought your tongue
and laid it down to the surface between things
and left the heat to do its job

Though not technically a link, this repetition of an image exhibits the same kind of excess Miles describes, the repetition of smell/tongue instigating an event that signifies in itself, layering over the words. As ‘tongue’ repeats and echoes here, the word takes on new resonances and textures that exceed either use of the image in the text of the poem itself. Lately, I’ve also been reading Burroughs’ cut-up trilogy, which I’d like to write about here soon too, as he is, of course, a master of this repetition-as-link.

In addition to the links that reveal additional text (like the within link above), Reid also uses links that cycle through words/phrases, enabling the reader to reconfigure the passage, and/or allowing the writer to hold open many possible turns of phrase without deciding on one definitive version. This works to great effect toward the end of the poem, in a lexia where the speaker proposes potential occupations/avocations for themself and their partner:

The reader can continue to click on both translate and make games to cycle through other possible tracks: cooking, running community workshops, teaching, gardening. Starting from the title and the opening lexia, the entire poem functions as a lover’s address, though it’s really only in this passage that the relationship becomes concrete, skirting the abstruse language for straightforward descriptions of the pair’s occupations. While concrete, the description is not closed, as the cycling links invite the reader to imagine various and variable partnerships. Clicking a future moves the reader linearly to the next passage, but the cycling links serve to spawn many imagined branching paths outside the space of the poem.

The end of the poem is superbly satisfying for the sense of closure it suggests for the lovers and, in turn, extends to the reader.

i want to find a space with you where our talking can repair and sleep

-> repair and sleep

and our neighbors repair and sleep

-> repair and sleep

and their loved ones repair and sleep

Here, the repeated phrase “repair and sleep,” which also functions as a navigational link, does not open up possibilities but rather suggests a peaceful closing down. The link here is still more than functional/mechanical, as Miles argues, even as it guides the reader assuredly to denouement. The link leads simply to the next passage, but joined with the phrase “repair and sleep,” the repetition is meditative, curative. This encouragement to repair and sleep is something I have very much been in need of lately.

Notes

  1. Adrian Miles, “Hypertext Structure As the Event of Connection,” in Proceedings of the 12th ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia, HYPERTEXT ’01 (Århus, Denmark: ACM, 2001), 61.

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