Responding to the Digital

  • Jeff Latosik
    Dreampad. Penguin Random House Canada (purchase at
  • Steve Howell
    I left nothing inside on purpose. Penguin Random House Canada (purchase at
  • Rocco de Giacomo
    Brace Yourselves. Quattro Books (purchase at
Reviewed by Eric Schmaltz

Though it is unfair to reduce any book of poetry to a single theme, the three books under review ask and approach crucial questions about twenty-first-century living and what it means to write, speak, feel, and remember in an increasingly digital and virtual world.

Rocco de Giacomo’s Brace Yourselves intersects with these issues most directly. De Giacomo blends a variety of poetic forms, borrowing from the well-used tactics of erasure and found poetries and situating spam, comment threads, Tweet-streams, and dating profiles as the base of his poems. He blends these more contemporary forms with the longer-standing traditions of the visual poem and prose poem, reaching even farther back to the cento. Brace Yourselves is visually compelling since each poem is composed as a variation of a poetic strategy. “Baltimore: Two Voices,” for example, utilizes two distinct fonts to distinguish the two voices in dialogue. Meanwhile, “Ferguson” is an erasure poem that strikes through the original source texts—“various deplorable sources from”—leaving the single word “sorry” unmarked in the centre of the page. As indicated by these poems, Brace Yourselves emerges from a feeling of responsibility and a need to speak out in the face of injustice. As the author confesses at the beginning of the book, the subject matter is sensitive and, at times, offensive. De Giacomo has culled vitriolic language from the Web, but not to intentionally offend. Instead, he seeks to call back and condemn hateful language—though at the risk of sometimes oversimplifying complex social and political issues—to try to be a righteous voice amid waves of injustice.

In Dreampad, Jeff Latosik similarly engages issues of digital technology but without de Giacomo’s experimental flair. Instead, Dreampad exemplifies Latosik’s steady and concise lyric voice that considers contemporary life as it becomes more deeply enmeshed with technology and virtuality. For example, his poem “The Internet” reflects on a first encounter with the idea of the Internet. The speaker first feels bewildered by “its aim,” which “seemed as elusive as the stock ticker,” but later concludes by remarking on the prevalence of the Internet: “At night, blinds down, but windows open, flags of light / were quietly raised from main floors up into our rooms.” The book is self-described as both a “protest” and “salvo” to contemporary life, and these qualities come through most clearly in the poem’s reassertion of the human in a world that seems increasingly disembodied. These poems carefully linger on the past, revelling in nostalgia for old friends at school and old jobs in a “warehouse unpacking chic decor,” and for innocent and foolish days as kids. On the surface, Dreampad takes stock of twenty-first-century living, tracing the ways it has settled into everyday life, but these poems are hesitant to celebrate an ever-shifting world that risks eschewing the human.

Stevie Howell obliquely approaches similar issues in I left nothing inside on purpose, a book that expertly enfolds a plethora of discourses, including allusions to classical antiquity, existential philosophy, geology, and neuropsychology. These seemingly disparate topics are held together by Howell’s powerful and contemplative voice, which speaks in a language inflected by digital communication. It is speckled with truncations, ampersands, and occasional alternative spellings that are indicative of the prevalence of a Twitter-ready text-byte. Howell more directly engages the digital in one of the book’s two epigraphs, a quote from M. F. K. Fisher: “Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg before it is broken.” It seems only fitting to read the public/private dichotomy described by Fisher in the context of contemporary poetics when so much writing, thinking, and feeling is done aloud and online. The title of Howell’s book seems to correspond to this idea and invokes notions of emptying, of purging, of speaking out loud. Howell’s poem “Talking w / humans is my only way to learn” considers the complexity of this quality of online culture. The poem is written from the perspective of Tay, an AI Twitter-bot that was shut down after it became racist and sexist as a result of what it learned from public interactions. The poem questions whether humans know what to do with the expanse of information on the Web: “There’s no horizon any longer,” says Tay. “Artificial intelligence,” says Tay further, is a “non-material / mirror” and reveals how frightening humans can really be. In their poem for Tay, Howell reveals the larger project of their book, which focuses on how we see ourselves and see others through language.

This review “Responding to the Digital” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 138-139.

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