“search :: if it kills for a living we call it ; a soldier ; if it kills but can’t speak ; we call it ; a mirror”
— from “The Cyborg Meets the Drone at a Family Reunion and Fails to Make Small Talk”
Franny Choi presents something at once familiar and entirely unique with her latest collection, Soft Science, from Alice James Books. Choi notes in the acknowledgments that this is a book which has survived several iterations, including the immensely popular chapbook Death by Sex Machine, from Sibling Rivalry Press. It is difficult not to compare the two collections given that the latter feels almost like an origin point for the new collection. Indeed, fans of Choi will recognize a number of the poems in her new book, yet this new and (seemingly) final version achieves greater harmony and vulnerability than her chapbook was able in such short space.
The most unifying element of Soft Science is Choi’s attention to computer programming, cyborgs, and other variations of artificial intelligence. This theme pervades the vast majority of the poems, leaning on technical metaphor to highlight the myriad ways that American society dehumanizes the female and the immigrant. Through poems predicated on the Turing Test structure, Choi introduces the reader to questions that test not just whether or not the respondent is sentient, but also seek to undermine the humanity of specific identities in daily life. This correlation is most clear, however, in “The Cyborg Wants to Make Sure She Heard You Right,” which Choi describes as a poem constructed using tweets directed at her.
Science is not limited to the technological sphere, and it is the poems which consider softer elements, so to speak, which resonated most with me. Here, Choi is deeply human, exposing herself figuratively and literally as she lays bare her inability to climax on the eve of Trump’s election, opens up about sexual encounters in which she was, at most, tacitly complicit and disconnected, and explores the lingering haunt of “the dead boy who was mine/before he was nothing.” These poems add depth to a technically remarkable, thematically brilliant collection, helping to further contextualize the omnipresent question of humanness woven into each poem.
Franny Choi is a unique and vital voice in American poetry, and her poems frequently extend into the political realm. Educators will find numerous poems in Soft Science which can serve as catalysts for poignant, necessary debates on contemporary political issues.
Readers can hear Choi read from the collection here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UONN7be9Nwk