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Mechanized mayhem bedeviling the (perhaps late) Anthropocene era. Salacious cyborg simulations of civilization’s projects. Computerized bugs, bombs, and — yes — viruses. These artificial ingredients permeate the text of Oh You Robot Saints!, a romp of robotically obsessed odes and profiles. Frank’s new poetry volume showcases how our hyper-intelligent, heavy metal duplicates swarm us with their duplicities and inorganic corrections, proliferating prototypes of virtual and all-too-real menace.
Organic ontology be damned, for in Frank’s vision, the robotic takeover has already taken place and we soft machines can only conceive of ourselves in relationship to their surpassing, thrumming identities.
It turns out that machines are in the woman (and man) and the woman/man is a machine, automatism is set against the natural, and all human constructions end up being impure artifice. Perhaps this cold conception is apt for our tech-obsessed age.
Or maybe we have been compromised from the very beginning. The origin myth in “The Mechanical Eves” relates how:
Oh, man has made her— mechanical Eves have been around for thousands of years, fetching your tea, serving you wine: the early “female” automatons didn’t have a mind were built from the ribs of men’s brains, from their longing to be gods and make a life like a woman could.
No anachronistic creation, the unequal virtual automaton lives on as not only slavish and objectified but also commodified and readily available for service:
Oh, man has made her in his own image for beauty and service, oh, man has made her, a more pliable Eve with no desire of her own. Sold her online for $xxx.99. Given her a hollowness of the body, a phonograph for a heart.
Elsewhere, relentless critiques of anti-feminine histories and discourses prevail — critiques of sexism, bodily objectification and violence, and other acts of gender debasement foster Frank’s feminist poetics tied to this robotic theme. But these poems are also philosophically preoccupied with themes of agency and identity, authenticity (the phrase “real thing” appears more than once) versus simulation, and originality and imitation, as well as the impact of technologies, especially militarized ones, across the precarious geopolitical landscape.
How the self is or can be reconsidered and displaced by a slew of mechanized forms is constantly evoked, lending an ominous atmosphere to, and invoking a disturbing prophecy in, many of these poems.
Frank’s poetic universe is home to a haywire recombinant conceptual machine that recalls and recasts mythologies, resurrects Sophocles and Descartes for strange new scenarios, smashes the atoms of humans and the wires of their robotic counterparts into hybrid intelligences, and riffs on the work of other poets, like Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats. The latter’s “Sailing to Byzantium” is channeled in two poems, “Mechanical Birds” (“…the wind through/bronze birds make the sweetest sound…”) and this volume’s tour de force, “Ode to the Robobee.”
Though a sinister mechanized bee, not a metallic bird, is the flying subject here, the echo of Yeats’s transcendent Byzantine mortality design registers. (So, too, does homage to Yeats’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” with its phrase “bee-loud glade” copied in Frank’s anti-pastoral dystopia, here “buzzing like a drone.”)
Composed of 14 sections of varying lengths, linked by the repetition of each section’s last line as the next section’s first line, the narrative tracks scientific engineering from its early innocent humanist ambitions to its inevitably dubious legacies:
Over time, our harmlessness proved that we knew little, and when we paused to learn more, we shuffled and shoved our way through the labs, gassed the creatures we could no longer use. Now a small tool can undo a single bee and make it new. We commingle life and death, making robots in the image of the bee, which dies in part to cause you pain. Our job was to make less than the human eye could discern: the laws of identification rely on someone’s best guess: “Oh—honey bee?” A minor sting.
Soon that minor sting is made major as robobee grows from a child’s playful drone into a strategic surveillance system, our voyeuristic avatar:
Look out those camera eyes by staring at your screen from the comfort of your own home. We, too, can go to Iraq, Russia, North Korea, inside any school. We too can follow the bomb as if we were the sniffing dogs. Watching everything unfold again and again. The mini-robot flies where we don’t dare go. The mini-robot can navigate anything.
Beware of this full-service wunderkind. The flight path of this infiltrating flying device encompasses and invades the narrator herself, for robobee can also “remove anything”: “Unwanted waste, bombs, the growth/that has been wrapping itself around my uterus.” The site of human female reproduction now has been visited by the bee, that acts as a surgical implement. The poem muses on how the biological potential for life has been both superseded and assisted by its rival, by the seemingly endless future of the machine. What else may the robobee and its mechanical cohorts accomplish when “anything” is possible?
And yet, notwithstanding any potential harm the roboobee/drone/extractor might do, we will still envy its immortality á la Yeats’s Byzantine owl, and wish to be gods of our own artificial re-creation:
Soon, we’ll be reincarnated like a robobee. Sentience shrunk into a chip packed with human memories. We’ll see everything about us that’s been tracked, our digital and photographed past. Breaking news: a frog’s heart and skin cells beat the xenobot, programmable at last. Like the robobee, it knows no pain, no sin. I long to be its maker, to be the creator like everyone around me makes life through lust or labor, a fate we’re told is natural. There are no fakes…
The impulse to which Frank alludes is to create inanimate life and also be the custodian of self-redundancy — a chilling ambition. The equivalence here among human manufacturing efforts is gloriously sarcastic, a nod perhaps to the flattening out and consensus logic of social media platforms.
But taking stock of contemporary technological and sociological tremds is not the only enterprise on display in these pages. To play God is to invoke the divine and Oh You Robot Saints! pays homage to holy subjects, objects, likenesses, statues, dolls, and fetishes.
This current runs parallel to the book’s nightmarish automaton-induced scenarios. Though more intermittent and less pronounced, the references to miracles, spiritual transcendence, and holiness give the volume a dash of metaphysics and imaginative escapism to offset the predicted robot apocalypse. Spiritual contemplation becomes another form of creative engineering. Even so, here beyond the technological we are still out of our league, for, as Frank notes with Rilkean aplomb, “Every Angel is terrifying.”
Given the primary conceits on display — the robo-pathic and theo-logic — some of the poems lack context and seem arbitrarily jammed into an already lengthy book. While offering strong, even poignant personal perspectives, poems like “Bread” and the extended “The Girlfriend Elegies” seem completely out of place, all robotic/machine/technological subject matter entirely absent.
Moreover, given the onslaught of mechanical threats confronting us, one might wish for the poet to intensify the fight against them by expanding her formal and tonal range, and maybe, in doing so, produce lines less staid and standardized in their evocation of the technical menace. One certain way to disrupt artificial intelligence is to evade its code by oblique, ambiguous, and multiform approaches not subject to static representation.
Regardless, Oh You Robot Saints! amasses many compelling visions and intriguing premises. It also holds out for the human subject’s liberation from technological subjugation by fighting back — as Frank writes in “The Archer in the Tomb,” in which a bold heroine defies capture from her mechanized minions, “This is a new transfiguration: she programs herself, sets her crosshairs on you.”
Oh You Robot Saints! (2021) by Rebecca Morgan Frank is published by Carnegie Mellon University Press.