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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Josh Wallaert's Common Sensed Conversations with Broken Texts

reviewed by Elizabeth Kate Switaj

The author's note to Josh Wallaert's Common Sensed (on the internet at Beard of Bees) introduces a method of composition for the poems contained therein: the reading of texts significant to the development of the US to his computer via voice recognition technology or, in other words, the feeding of such works through an entity programmed to respond to language in a systematic and consistent way without regard to content or consideration. Even a well-programmed computer cannot produce a wholly natural text by such means. A poorly programmed one, or one programmed in accord with a specific ideology produces even greater distortions. In this regard, the fact that the poet claims to have used a corporate-produced program rather than open source or shareware suggests a particular bent may become evident (or evidence) in the text. In "Amends", the truncated adaptation of the Bill of Rights, the fourth amendment begins:

     The right of the people to be secure
     in their purses houses papers effects
      and in some reasonable searches and seizures
      shall not be violated.

Persons have become purses; wealth and property take priority over humanity and citizenship (except perhaps corporate citizenship). The eighth amendments, rather than assuring our protection from cruel and unusual punishment, tells us "Marxism fines [are] imposed." After all,

     You're permitted to buy the state
     our surgeon states respectfully
     but not the people

or so the tenth amendment states. People not only have lost their power over their own government (assuming they ever had it) but have even lost what value they might have had as property or wage slaves.

Even in its distorted form, however, "Common Sense", which appears after "Amends", reads as a counterpoint to or cry against such a state. Wallaert describes the poems that follow his note as providing a "record" of the "conversations" between himself and his computer. They also can be taken then as a template or metaphor for conversations between a thinking individual and a society believed to be distorting or failing to understand the texts seen as the root of their own values and the texts (such as the 2001 Patriot Act, another source text) changing both those values and the world in which they dwell.

The term "conversation" allows hope to enter into the poems. Rather than being merely a pessimistic description of distortions and misunderstandings, the chapbook includes Wallaert's attempts to bring understanding — likely to the audience rather than to (though perhaps through) the computer. The audience, however, must play an active role in determining the divisions between the computer's distortions, the original texts, and the poet's conscious shaping of the poems. The reader, then, is asked to develop their own common sense and bring it to bear on the work. Moreover, the poet provides keys to a reader whose common sense is, perhaps, not developed to a level Thomas Paine would recognize. In other words, the poet provides an opportunity for the reader to become "common sensed". For example, Wallaert includes a note indicating the source text of each poem even when a reader familiar with, for instance, the Preamble of the US Constitution, would likely recognize it.

With references provided, any reader becomes capable of choosing to compare the original document with the result of the discussion with speech recognition software. By providing a scenario that allows and invites comparison, the poetry provides an impetus for readers to being interpreting the ur-texts on their own rather than relying on systemically generated interpretations. The reader has an opportunity to escape their own programming and, in doing so, may become capable of relieving the loneliness that Wallaert states the project is rooted in, a loneliness that, not insignificantly, followed the reelection of George W. Bush.

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