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Essay on Spam.

By ALISTAIR NOON.

DIM UP THE eighties, chime the start-up theme
of some great operating system agleam:
a hammering, stammering bell transports
thirty-three programs in grey skirts and shorts
back from the grazing playground and the field,
that monotone a tone intoned and pealed.
Today though, they go where none of them have gone:
snug on the desk, a ZX81.
Chip-child, keys like dinosaur hide, and slow.
The telly shimmers and cascades “HELLO”.

Those peering, poring ten-year-olds won’t touch,
that day, the skin the teacher strokes: too much
is overload. Still, the young neurons bustle,
just as they will at the shove of the Shuttle
into Florida sky, its fledgling cruise:
this is the vehicle they’re going to reuse,
its waving, sleek-uniformed future crew,
to spin new payloads into orbit: through
their lives they’ll float and thud RETURN again.
Line twenty of the brain is “GO TO 10”.

Here be DRAGONS. The index fingers of the nerdy
hop from tooth to tooth, the top jaw marked QWERTY;
tap-tapping, they evade a fatal claw,
and rise a rank to the COMMODORE 64,
squadron of bytes, whose Memory will belong
to barrel-rolling, jumping DONKEY KONG.
Oh happy childhood hours of chasing apes
and waiting for the reboots from the tapes!
Then class again: no more slaloms on skis,
but afternoons in front of BBCs,
soon to be gone the path of every tow-path.
Angling arrows and boxes for the flow-chart
on that squared paper, the teenagers try
to work out X and ask, if X, then Y?

Some bike or bus to summer work experience:
they train to pack the mail off by the millions,
leaflet and letter, postcard, catalogue –
impassive paper doorstep reps who flog
sofas on offer, holidays and clothes.
Glued with gobbed-on flags, graffiti from those
quite sure you’re fitter if your skin is pale,
the post crawls back, or scrawled NO MORE JUNK MAIL!!!
The brain reskills for boredom, pay and patience;
hand and eye hone work-life coordination.

And some, tooled up with booklists, grants and keys,
escape, and scale the universities,
leap and arc through the GATES of Microsoft,
swinging their lithe bodies like LARA CROFT
onto the swivel seats of the computer centre,
to tap and type, delete, save and strike ENTER,
send intercessions from the humming chapel,
read scriptures, plan to pluck the JOBS of Apple.

Above, LOVELACE, TURING and KONRAD ZUSE
blow smileys down to every future user.

Spam is the MessAge’s surest advance:
no longer need the spluttering hoarding chance
the jammed-up roads, no longer must the mailing
rely on human hands to be unfailing
in picking, sticking, packing, stacking stocks
of text, then force it down my letter box.
No longer shall I have to snip glue chop
on Sunday afternoons in grumpy copyshops.
The spambots, metacrawlers and web spiders
colonize the prairies of the providers,
cross-pollinate their electronic weeds
amongst the blogs and tweets and newsfeeds.
We’re all logged in. But as invasive species
locate and breed in their electric niches,
who amongst you would be first to define
spam as random, “announcements” as design?
Spamism equals – whoever began it –
brand management plus wifi for the entire planet.

Around us, though, one seldom gets the sense
we’re slogging fewer hours for recompense
or sifting fewer streams to fund our lives,
though some turn gardens into gravel drives,
and more of Europe’s waking workforce flies.
Those who once filed the catalogues in piles
now pace along new sunless warehouse aisles
where compact sediments of wood-pulp rise,
or mine machine-packed goods of every size
with target times to delivery zones ever greater.
The tool that should have saved you years of labour
just frees you up to share more time with paper:
for just one well-timed breakfast I would like
to look forward to my job’s all-day hike.
The scientist now’s a farmer on her tractor,
churning the croplands of the impact factor,
the papers that she needs to grow and rear
only to keep her funds for seeds next year.
The server farms burn calories like Alpine guides.
贵屿1 disembowels digital insides:
the general terms and conditions of brands
mute on that Costly Island’s leaden hands.
And still, the lung-sick, mud-soaked Congolese
send rare earths to the needy overseas.

The first time those container ships chugged in,
my mind’s first port was poet J.H. PRYNNE.
It did seem so, but no it wasn’t the
earlier style to which I refer,
in which the mind jolts as the axle moves
but turns to see five trails of rain-filled grooves:
post nineteen-something, even savage fans
concede that this one’s fossils fissile bans.
Which friend had exported a poem round
about the earth and into my account?
Which mate had nudged that keel into motion,
killed the syntax, which student of the notion
that complex worlds require a complex text
to leave us even more, not less, perplexed?
(Before we praise simplicity, recall
W.S. GRAHAM: it may mean sod-all.
But mightn’t the simplest lines be the ones
that sometimes make the most complex response?)
I thought the special top successful feather
and ostrich chuckle ball went well together.

But spam has nicked itself a flasher pen
and learnt to write full sentences again,
copying copy. I clicked my mails today,
oh girl, and found new weeds I need to spray:
not deals on easy flights, how to zap weight
in microseconds, the digital bait
of blonde and brunette, love letters misspelt,
West African heirs requiring banking help,
but all my personal causes and concerns,
constant trade in tropical trees that turns
the strikers, refugees, orphans of drones,
the burning forests and the media zones,
the subjects and the updates I’ve signed up for
into a kind of Miltonic uproar.
Some counsel sloth, some ease, some scream for war.
But all agree that what we want is more.
And more is what the global go-withouts
still need amid the killing winds and droughts.
Some are targeting opportunities
online, some in the realtime southern breeze.

Of all things, doing good should be the coolest,
but I’ve no space today on my to-do list.

Define this noun. The metaphor implied
in every mention of it is the tide,
a tide that brings us whole and broken shells
molluscs and cockles. Every message sells
its special story, scrawled in dustless chalk
we wash away. And on our daily walk
on the evershifting trillion-grain beach,
we spot that wreck, that once-piloted speech,
stroll past its bulk, scoop up handfuls of likes,
build better barrages, back up the dykes.
Or think of spam as electronic rain,
whose drops run straight into the concrete drain
and underground they swell the outflow, gain,
then rush, are gone for now, watery grand prix
splashing round curves into the waiting sea.

The medium and the message now are “Hi”,
a fight no longer to define the sky
but finalize a lease on loaned-out ground
to build and live on while you’re still around.
I go for quick walks in the public rain
whose sentences and sounds gush down that drain,
and live and write and read in one ginormous
notification of triumphs and traumas,
the page that scrolls on down without an end.

And now that I can hide you as a Friend,
the self itself’s become a strain of spam:
best to delete it and free up your RAM.
The Facebook poet oh I know him well,
that SISYPHUS who doesn’t only tell
two thousand Friends where they can get
his latest rolling stones across the net
but that a Friendly editor, here tagged,
sincerest thanks to her, has kindly bagged
four more that will appear forthwith
in next April’s special issue on Myth,
due to include Tag, Tag and Tag as well;
a minor headache, delays and jams on tramways
his daily chance to check back with his fanbase.
But by a factor of a million, there are cats
who will outmeow me in the liking stats:
spam of the streets, I will never complain
that people taking snaps of me’s a pain!
Bring me the post-apocalyptic scavengers,
my communications and outreach managers,
precarious pseudo-volunteers whose fees
are nothing more than entries on CVs:
increase my likes and links, and get my friend list bigger
until I have become a Public Figure!
Hocus poetus: rise, ANDREW MARVELL,
could you still hear Time’s wingéd chariot
you’d need a well-staffed, full-time secretariat,
stress balls, a personal coach, a PR team,
a masochist spouse, to govern supreme
your chosen Art. To start and fight that war
of all against all, keep screaming from the floor,
but know: the USP of those who win
is to be the new piece that still fits in.
No artist settles me before a frame.
I do not think they will brand T-shirts with my name:
our bookshops and our bookshelves creak enough
with spinal names and versey-vasey stuff.
No central bank will raise our interest rates:
for most of us no featured slot awaits,
no marquee spot, free nosh, festival perks,
no Sunday feature on our life and works,
even, when we have snatched our final snooze,
at least three seconds on the evening news.
Nor, when the whistle sounds from that celestial ref,
will a grateful nation save my walls from mortgage death.
Nor will the phalanxed scholars of my doggerel
debate if my charisma was apocryphal,
or duffled connoiseurs of what is duff
opine that they prefer my early stuff.
Independent production teams won’t edit
my biographer in, on water, why I’d dread it.
Though articles on figures lost are fun,
only the famous rediscover what’s been DONNE.
It wasn’t contacts and courses that they outraced
the rest of us by: what we contest is taste.
The online dating game that none can shun:
lost in that hypnotic music, all amortize
the self’s investment in professional ties.

Saith ARISTOTLE, people seek attention
to feed the mirror image of their own invention
(though this perhaps is easier to observe
for those who think they’ve got what they deserve –
retiring to its Engadine chalet
while others dig, spin and lift on a fifteen-hour day,
Philosophy: Cheering The Bourgeoisie
Up Since 341 BC.)
We live in CLOUDS that never clog the sky
but halls that hear the ventilation sigh,
in daily snapshots from one spot, ourselves
last night, as embryos, or of our shelves.
I let you know I’ve finished marking books
or post old me’s oh have I kept my looks?
I put my wrist at risk and notify
the sympathetic world I’ve RSI.
Is it the need, not to read, but create
that makes me comment so upon your update?
Welcome to my world, where I let you see
my shopping list, what I’m having for tea.
We bawl, believing that the more we bark it
the more our thought intimidates the market.
The paleoanthropologist had best
not wait a decade till the final test,
ultimate strand and sign, had best not mull
too long before she tells the press a skull
she dug from sandy Californian canyons
looks like it might belong to homo spamiens.
The science papers that are truly new
meet tough, turf terrain in the peer review,
and PETER HIGGS denies that he’d have found
his boson on the pressured research ground
that’s now the uni. Variety is the norm.
Go forth and divide. Be different and conform.

It need not be a necessary condition
of thought to never form a proposition:
despite the fact that criticism’s critical,
and how we split our chores stays gender-typical,
I’d argue policy remains what’s most political.
We write, it’s true, to keep our speech in flux,
but may allow ourselves, though not in stone,
to briefly state the odd thing we think sucks.
Since SNOWDEN showed us what we should have known,
we know the net is crammed with nets. The zone
was coastal waters – post, the rotary phone –
that fish whose shoals bother the state would shun;
now it’s all depths at which the trawling’s done.
The messages squeeze the internet’s belt,
shares are tossed back and forth while dealt
about among the high-frequency group,
trades launched like particles round a loop,
hunting the money, not the public good:
that public and their good are hard to spot,
but still we have a sense of what they’re not.
Hooded muggers frightening the entire hood,
the banks loan out the dosh they never had,
no debt upon the planet that’s not bad,
interest decaying like an isotope.
Their statements bloom from the moist envelope
or sing the chorus in a press release
as privatized profits rise and public risks increase,
history’s debt spreads, returns wilt: the target
now’s to declaim that all the world’s a market.
Impoverished German nobles now are forced
to send their sons to study law, resourced
with long names: they relax from being mean
by rocking to RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE
flat-out true – while under the viaduct
the socio-economically fucked
occupy space with tarpaulins and tents,
sleeping and carrier bags, across from a fence
that every morning they wake to see through
to buildings built for members of the zoo,
or smoke their clothes amid the hollyhocks
that smile across Prague 5’s apartment blocks.
Nor was it Great to get a foreign land
to use wheat fields to meet cotton demand
in Lancs., for farmers’ wages to depend
on prices at the planet’s other end:
whoops, the Bengal Famines the Tellybrits
delete to save the Empire’s not-so-bad bits.
And still, when seed costs rise but prices slide
Vidarbha farmers down their pesticide.
Factory costs were once the market’s hallmark,
a textile’s price today is set by Walmart.
Nations that kept their wealth with guns and tariffs
now add subsidies and free-trade narratives.
The crews whose seas we fish, surface to bed,
to our surprise, cross deserts and the Med:
what do I know of cities in Gabon?
This is a culture with its headphones on.
But while we boo investors who have torn
the fields from Ethiopians, we chomp our popcorn –
frankly more honest than to get upset
by indecorum, then retire to bed.
Warning: this bit contains disturbing reality,
in which newborns die of a misshapen cranium
where artillery left depleted uranium,
a Syrian lacerated in her nappy.
Kids pick and stitch our kecks… My rant is done:
SVEN BECKERT’s Empire of Cotton’s far finer spun.

When LUTHER banged his nail and wrote in ink
It Isn’t What You Do But What You Think
(and bear in mind he thought Jews went to hell
and peasants should on no account rebel),
the cultural moment came to sense some guilt
at flinging thoughts about, as if we’d spilt
the drinks ourselves, not just been at the party.
Ideas might be political or arty,
we think they clog the lugholes just the same,
whether or not that mail was in our name.
And did those invitations that I sent
send certain punters to a shit event?
Is my lack of fame a critical mishap,
cruel injustice, or am I just crap?
What if, Mister I-Think-Therefore-I-Am,
the program thinks my comments might be spam?
Will I de facto no longer exist
when I am pinned on a realtime blackhole list?
And should I bother with another adblocker,
when all the worldwide web’s already chocka?
Slowly the coast of the analogue world
spills off the edge of the ocean we’ve swirled,
and life mimes a long-term relationship
where each of the partners gives constant gyp.
The question I wake up to: will my chassis crack
and split before my wheels skid off the track?
What is my rational choice, to bike and risk
the friend-killing roads, or die of my desk?
The day must come for every clump of particles
to read its last complimentary article.

Should I relax? The mind can come to love
the pit it’s in by dint of push and shove:
foie gras my brain, then prod me with a thumb,
and I’ll forget the past from whence I’ve come.
Arabian snakes with wings, so odd to us,
were bioscience for Dr. HERODOTUS,
and HA-JOON CHANG notes that washing machines
have spun more lives around than liquid screens,
to mean more might be more and more productive
than deemed and doomed to be just reproductive.
Much of the individual’s no clean slate,
and can’t be, now that the street and the State
resemble screens designed before you had
a chance to opt out of their pop-up ad,
plus – there is information on that screen
on which my mind and many more are keen.
What’s my most faithful correspondent brought
today, the automatic spam report?
The realest mates remain the ones that count
whenever you meet, whatever amount
of Friends you Add. It’s never clear what’s relevant.
I think it’s good I know you rode an elephant,
a human right, when any work is done,
to spread your towel for five weeks in the sun.

Out on the steppe where plastic plankton float,
we could wack up the beats that thud our boat,
flick off the lamps and watch an offshore wind farm
blink and blink, here on the galaxy’s arm
it takes a mind to figure out is spiral,
the place the notion of the star went viral,
recall that light will come at us aslant,
and learn what people can and what they can’t,
not caring just who’s the festival patron
but who it was roped in to do the catering,
and talk of krill and whales within one phrase,
a second’s kindness, how to nab back our days.
Amid the gas, we find the constellation,
and the longest long jump of the imagination
must be where you can see thick text in all
directions. Come, O Ostrich Chuckle Ball.
Come, exoplanets. Come, dark matter I could call
out at the superfluity, Hi, here I am!
For where there’s intelligent life, there’s spam.


Alistair Noon‘s publications include Earth Records and The Kerosene Singing (Nine Arches Press, 2012 and 2015), a collaborative sequence with the poet Giles Goodland (Surveyors’ Riddles, Sidekick Books, 2015), and pamphlets including most recently QUAD (Longbarrow Press, 2017). His translations of Osip Mandelstam, three of which appeared previously in The Fortnightly, are forthcoming from Shearsman Books in September 2018. He lives in Berlin.

 

  1. Guìyŭ

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