TITLE: Algorithmic Shapeshifting: Poems
AUTHOR: Bogi Takács
142 pages, Aquaduct Press, ISBN 9781619761650 (paperback/ebook)
DESCRIPTION: (from Goodreads): Algorithmic Shapeshifting is the first poetry collection of Bogi Takács, winner of the Lambda award for editing Transcendent 2: The Year's Best Transgender Speculative Fiction, and finalist for the Hugo and Locus awards. Algorithmic Shapeshifting includes poems from the past decade and previously unpublished work. The scope of the pieces extends from the present and past of Jewish life in Hungary and the United States to the far-future, outer-space reaches of the speculative—always with a sense of curiosity and wonder.
MY RATING: Four out of five stars
MY THOUGHTS: I should start out with an admission, for those who don’t already know: I am not a huge poetry reader in general, and don’t consider myself enough of such to provide deep critical analysis. I actually thought I was requesting a copy of Bogi’s upcoming debut short story collection when I asked for a review copy of this (I got the titles and release dates confused. Not anyone’s fault but my own.). This review will be more about the feelings Bogi’s work elicits than about any critical analysis of structure or style.
Obviously, if I gave the book four out of five stars, the writing affected me. There’s so much here to be moved by: so much pain and love and hope and history and speculation. As a white, gay, cisgender male born and raised in the northeast United States and in the Roman Catholic faith, most of Bogi’s poems don’t speak to my lived experience: I’m not agender trans, not an immigrant, not of the Jewish faith. I needed to approach this work at least partially from a place of understanding that I am not necessarily the intended audience, and with an eye towards listening, learning, absorbing and considering life outside my own bubble. I am so thankful to Bogi for this book, for these poems E has written and shared with us. E is not responsible for educating me, but does so with every poem, every paragraph.
Another admission: there was a time when I struggled mightily with any first-person narrative that didn’t include clear indications of the character’s gender. (Interestingly, I never had a problem with genderless or gender-fluid characters described in third-person narratives – just with stories in which I could not discern the gender of the narrator.) I’ve long since gotten over that, and I have to thank writers like Bogi – by writing about emself, E and others expanded my horizons. (Again – not their responsibility!)
The book is divided into conceptual sections: “Trans Love Is,” “A Gentle Introduction to Talmudic Argument Structure,” “Daily Dispatches From the Land of the Free,” “The Up-and-Out.” You can guess what you’re going to get in each section, and you’re mostly right.
“Trans Love Is” is mostly poems that describe, sometimes obliquely and sometimes straightforwardly, the experience of being trans, agender, neuroatypical. Not that Takács’ experience is everyone’s experience, which the author acknowledges in “The Handcrafted Motions of Flight.” The narrator remembers pasts and presents: “some are me, some only similar to myself / and some carry more of me / than my self living and writing in the present.” The same poem, just a few lines later, addresses how some people just can’t accept the form of the messenger: “They are bothered by the pronouns.” (There are more subtle references to anti-trans and anti-gender-neutral sentiment throughout the book, and more obvious references as well. But this one, coming after a stanza in which the pronouns used are E and eir, is particularly powerful for its brevity, for what it leaves understood but unstated (that it’s more than just the pronouns, and the people in question are likely more than just “bothered,” which is a mild word for what anyone not cisgendered is likely to face). The poem from which this section of the book derives its title, “Trans Love Is” is a list type of poem that shows that Trans Love is, in the end, really not different from “straight love” or “gay love:” buying non-dairy items and blackberry sage tea for the ones you love, microwaving hot dogs and taking joy in the gigglecry of your child. It’s verbal shorthand between partners. It’s finding the commonality of the spaces between labels. It might be my favorite poem in the collection because it is everyday-sweet with a tinge of the wider world’s lack of acceptance (“Trans love elicits surveillance”) and a dollop of neuroatypicality (“the burning desire to do FIVE loads of laundry / and tell the interrogation officer / there are no terrorists in Hungary”). The poem that lends the collection’s title, “Seven Handy Ideas for Algorithmic Shapeshifting,” is also wonderful, subversion couched in fantasy terms. And I would love to see “The Iterative Nature of the Magical Discovery Process” performed live; it’s powerful in written form and I can only imagine how much more powerful it could be when spoken out loud and coupled with creative lighting.
Looking over the section titled “A Gentle Introduction to Talmudic Argument Structure,” I’m not sure it was quite accidental that I read this book just before Barbara Krasnoff’s mosaic novel The History of Soul 2065, as random as the choices seemed at the time. Both deal heavily in Jewish tradition and how it migrates from the Old World (in Krasnoff’s stories, Germany and Ukraine, in Takács’ poems, Hungary) to the New (for Krasnoff, mostly New York City, for Takács, mostly Kansas). Takács draws more directly from the Talmud and Rabbinic teachings than Krasnoff does. The poems touch on reconstructive surgery, reincarnation, interacting with harmful spirits, exploring other planets, and our responsibility to pass on the knowledge of our forebears to our descendants, all through that lens of Jewish faith and history. This section made me want to reread what the tradition I grew up in calls the Old Testament, but also to talk more deeply with my Jewish friends about these poems and about their faith in general.
The poems in the section titled “Daily Dispatches from the Land of the Free” are more political in nature. I am unsure if “Radiation Hormesis” is really about life in Eastern Europe right after the Chernobyl disaster, or if I’m making the connection because Chernobyl is back in the public consciousness thanks to the HBO mini-series: but either way, the poem’s description of outdoor desolation and indoor claustrophobia and the “how bad could it really be” mentally that so many of us exhibit when confronted with something that’s designated dangerous but isn’t visibly so is deeply moving. I had tears welling while reading and rereading this one. “Replicate Personal Experience” starts out as a description of being the lonely, different, new kid in town, but takes a SFnal twist that opens the poem up to even more meaning. “The Oracle of DARPA” put me in mind of Orwell, of the double-speak of 1984 and how it can be used for good or ill.
The poems in “The Up-and-Out” are perhaps more future-looking that the other sections, with focuses on bonding with colony worlds, the limited bounds of memory and physicality. “You Are Here / Was: Blue Line to Memorial Park” is an interactive poem meant to be viewed and read, blending computer science with the art of poetry.
I got a lot out of this collection and as I said, I’m not a big fan of reading poetry. I think people who love poetry will get a lot more out of it that I did, and I highly recommend it.