Picking Up the Pieces of William Gibson's Self-Destructing Poem

You don't have to be a computer geek to appreciate Gibson's "mechanical" and artistic statement. Of course, you do have to be one to reverse it.
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Twenty years ago, cyberpunk novelist William Gibson published his poem "Agrippa (a book of the dead)" in an unprecedented and extraordinary way. He distributed the poem on a 3.5-inch disk stuffed into the hollowed out pages of a hand-made art book. When the disk was run on a Mac computer of the era, the poem scrolled (uncontrollably) across the screen and then encrypted -- and effectively destroyed -- itself. A reader had one shot to absorb it, and then it was gone forever.

Gibson's elusive verse is in the news these days because a website called Cracking the Agrippa Code has challenged the Internet to unravel the code that devoured the poem. Whoever succeeds first will win a copy of every book Gibson has ever published.

The full text of "Agrippa" has already been salvaged. It's believed that some enterprising NYU students videotaped the poem as it scrolled onscreen at its public debut, and then posted it online. Gibson found that outcome "pleasant enough," and, in order to get the poem out exactly as he intended it, he's since published it, in full, on his website.

As a poem, "Agrippa" is quite good. It's also surprisingly accessible considering the mystery and decay that surrounded its presentation. The poem is flush with Gibson's memories -- many triggered by a series of photographs -- and explores the nature of memory itself. It also examines the boundary between reality and the reality created by "the mechanism" of the camera:

The shutter fallsForeverDividing that from this.

The meaning of "the mechanism" shifts throughout the poem. By the end, it seems to have expanded to encompass all of the poem's reality. The poem ends with the lines,

tonight red lanterns are battered.laughingin the mechanism.

The art book, designed by Dennis Ashbaugh and Kevin Begos Jr. to house the poem, is itself a piece of conceptual art. It speaks to artifacts and memory -- designed to look like an artifact itself (as if it had been buried for years or had survived a fire). It also blends the biological with the mechanical, juxtaposing etchings of chromosomes with guns and cameras (two of the mechanisms that appear in Gibson's poem), and framing Gibson's disk with the language of DNA sequences (A, C, T and G).

But I learned the hard way that one shouldn't read too much into the poem. I spent a good twenty minutes researching the Roman general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa -- who commanded the fleet that defeated Antony and Cleopatra's forces at the Battle of Actium, apparently -- before coming across Gibson's note that "Agrippa was simply the name brand of the photo album in the poem." Gibson has also derided those who've claimed the book makes some grand philosophical statement about the nature of language and meaning, once telling an interviewer, "Honest to God, these academics who think it's all some sort of big-time French philosophy -- that's a scam."

But "Agrippa" is undeniably thought provoking: a poem about memory designed to quickly and irrevocably become a memory. A poem that examines how mechanisms affect our perception of reality, while appearing via mechanism, before being destroyed by a mechanism. You don't have to be a computer geek to appreciate Gibson's "mechanical" and artistic statement. Of course, you do have to be one to reverse it.

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