The Machine Became My Reader

Eric Magnuson


Victor DeMatteo flies to Mexico City in order to prove Eric Magnuson wrong. Victor DeMatteo has had terrible dreams all year long. Victor DeMatteo's poetry has been called "effusive" and "lovesome." Victor DeMatteo has spoken one poetic language for 52 years. Victor DeMatteo has read his poems aloud in New York City and Albuquerque, in London and Sydney. He can speak his language to cowboys and geologists and weather girls and they will all know that what he speaks is poetry. He can speak this in deserts or on high plains, in bayous or on salt flats. The landscape knows the language despite the language. And when Victor DeMatteo travels to Paris or Berlin or Juarez or Rio, he has others translate his words for more lines to fill yet more pages, and the intellectual or the conquistador or the Aymara appreciatively nods back, Yes, I know what that is. Victor DeMatteo has spoken the language so fluently that he barely felt the need to open to his twenty-third poem in Poetry magazine. He knew the language so well he didn't worry anything might be out of place. But as pride slowly turned the page, he found something he did not understand: A man in a magenta suit (yes, a magenta suit) and a straw hat (yes, a straw hat) prattled on in the middle of Poetry's vaunted pages, and Victor DeMatteo knew that something was on the paper, but it may as well have been streaked in horse shit because it was not his poetic language. Victor DeMatteo looked at the pages but he did not read them and he hoped none of his colleagues in the English department would ever ask his opinion of them.

But the fear of appearing illiterate was too strong. Victor DeMatteo went to his university's library, seeking any scholarly papers addressing the language presented by the man in the magenta suit. He found nothing. Victor DeMatteo grudgingly turned on his computer. He typed in what he'd seen but not read, and found that somebody else, behind his back, had created a new language he did not understand. The words first appeared slowly on the screen, then in digital reams, illuminating poetic works that "did not need to be read," bringing to life works in which the authors said the conceptual idea was more important than the final product on the page, if there even was a page. Poems consisting of nothing but every other name listed in the 1998 Minot, North Dakota phone book; poems documenting every curse word heard by a poet watching television for 24 hours on January 6, 2005; poems that were merely alphabetized transcriptions of city names found in a weathered Rand McNally atlas. These were poems that only became real at the moment that people talked about them. These were poems that needed to be spoken into existence.

Victor DeMatteo could see these words, he could nearly read them but he would not have said he read them. He would not say he'd become bilingual. He actually went to great lengths to not read what he could or could not read. He feared that giving the works any validation would only make them more real, and that his own beloved language may become obsolete.

But later that year, a colleague—who discussed these things only in secret with Victor DeMatteo—sent the lyrical poet an essay written about this new language, theorizing how the only way that poets could do anything new would be to write not for humans but for machines. Waiting for the robots to wake up and consciously read the poets' work would be the only feasible way to make it new. The essayist said the first generation to do this was already alive, perhaps already writing poems, merely waiting for the machines to loudly snore themselves from sleep. Victor DeMatteo, worried that he'd become outmoded, erased the essay from his screen. He avoided letting the idea frighten him. Poetry magazine never published another dossier of conceptual poems again. But then the colleague sent Victor DeMatteo a link to a YouTube video. Eric Magnuson was being interviewed at an academic conference in Ann Arbor: He was asked about his latest conceptual poem—a text that bypassed any need for a human audience.

In a Google search box, Magnuson had retyped the entirety of an interview between a critic and the man in the magenta suit. He Googled each sentence of the interview, one by one, and clicked on the first link that appeared—always the same unnamed website that the interview originally appeared on. Every time Magnuson clicked on the website's link, his search terms, i.e., the interview/poem, would appear on the magazine's own web platform, slowly rematerializing "on the other side of the machine."

"Okay," Magnuson said in the shaky smartphone footage, "so the magazine's webmaster is basically my only real reader, right? You know? I don't even have a copy of the poem. I deleted that shit from my search history. But let me throw down this hypothetical and let's just say that the webmaster never even bothered to look at what search terms brought readers to the magazine's website. I'm gonna pause there to let you mull that one over. Holy shit, right? You following me? Yeah. Yeah. I've written a poem that's only for the machine: The machine became my reader when I typed the text into the search box. And then, you know, the machine became my editor when it asked me 'Did you mean . . . ?' 'Did you mean . . . ?' You know how Google asks you that? And then on top of that the machine became my publisher and critic when it decided which website to send my poem to. It had way more control than I ever did. Even if the webmaster saw my poem, the machine was, like, a much closer reader. It's not skipping over any words like a human would. So that's trippy, right? It doesn't even matter if anybody else reads that shit. And actually, it doesn't matter if it's even real. As far as you know, it's only real because I'm talking about it right now. Shit's crazy."

Victor DeMatteo shifted in his chair. He shook his head, No, no, no, in gentlemanly disbelief, but then he needed to take a walk. He needed to write a poem about the spring equinox or the red-throated loon. Though he couldn't get any words on the page. He felt as if he was out of ideas. He felt that the language he'd spoken—now for 56 years—might be obsolete before he died. He went back to his desk, weighted heavily by writer's block and distracted by the computer screen. He searched for the man in the magenta suit. Dozens of news reports turned up—the man had a new project: He was printing off the entire internet. He'd asked volunteers to print out and send as much of the internet as they could to an art gallery in Mexico City. In a flurry of clicks and typed credit card numbers, Victor DeMatteo booked a flight from ORD to MEX.

The lyrical poet reasons now that if he finds Magnuson's poem among the boxes of printed pages—if he sees it with his own eyes—he may be able to save his language from not only the machines but from the conceptual poets. If the text has any poetic value whatsoever, he now writes in his notes on the 747 high over the border, I can prove that this 'poem' is just as important as the idea. The poem would remain real; the idea an abstraction. Victor DeMatteo touches down at the Benito Juárez International Airport to do no less than save his beloved language.

Victor DeMatteo enters the Mexico City art gallery. He sees hundreds of boxes exploding with white pages covered with the internet's texts and images. He sees the man in the magenta suit sitting aloft the piles like a boy king on a papyrus throne. Victor DeMatteo shyly asks, "May—may I read through these pages?" The man in the magenta suit smirks from atop the pile: "Be my guest," he says and slowly waves his hand over the papers as if showcasing only the finest Wagyu.

The lyrical poet cautiously picks up a stack of papers. He skims the lines of words, searching for anything that might be Magnuson's poem, any mention of the critic and the man in the magenta suit. He finds Twitter feeds and Wikipedia pages on Hiram Abiff and personal emails and a food blog's celery recipes and a mountain of Facebook chats between two adulterers and Akron's city council minutes and pictures from Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale and a box of comments posted to a news article on Sandy Hook conspiracy theories and Kelley Blue Book numbers for a 2012 Buick Verano with 45,000 miles and a Tumblr documenting everything eaten by a 13-year-old girl in Reno, Nevada and Google Maps from South Bend's Studebaker National Museum to Ames's Cyclone Liquors next to Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft off of South Third Street and long-dormant MySpace pages with links to long-erased Friendster pages, but Victor DeMatteo finds nothing that might be Magnuson's poem. He pushes onward through the stacks. And onward still, page after page, all while the man in the magenta suit sits atop it all and answers questions asked by the few visitors wandering through the one-room gallery today. The sunlight passes the edges of the windows. The ceiling lamps grow brighter as the streets go dark. Victor DeMatteo anxiously tears through the pages. The man in the magenta suit hops down from his piles and asks, "Would you like me to keep the lights on?" "Yes, yes," Victor DeMatteo mumbles into the texts. "Yes."

The man in the magenta suit exits.

Victor DeMatteo flips open cardboard boxes and throws reams of paper into the air and behind him. He climbs up the highest stack. He scans the words beneath him before the pages slip out from under his hands. The mound of paper slowly gives way, sending Victor DeMatteo to the floor, leaving him half-buried in the internet. Wearily shaking off the fall, he looks up at you as if he just now realizes you've been watching this entire time. He watches you watching from above, from the ceiling, or standing idly by, on the floor, or at the door, or through the window that's now dark aside from the dusty glow of a Mexico City streetlight; from wherever you've chosen to stand this long afternoon and night as Victor DeMatteo helplessly summited the sheets—paper cuts bloodying all of his fingers and both of his palms.

"How long have you been here?" he asks you, unwittingly burying himself deeper in the pages while panicking as if in quicksand. Though you don't respond. You pause for too long, wondering if he's truly talking to you but you see nobody else in the gallery, you even look back at where you've been but nobody is there. And still you don't respond. "Why haven't you said anything!?" he says, exasperated, out of breath, the sweat at his grey hairline spilling onto the pages that nearly engulf his face. He does a clumsy breast stroke to the surface, treading papers that slip from under his hands: Flimsy sheets logging Canadian Parliamentarian votes puff up into the air at his academic flailing. Many of them are now darkly smudged by Victor DeMatteo's wingtips, dotted in drying blood from his paper-cut hands, watermarked by the sweat he's shaken from his ruffled hair.

He stares at you, waiting, incredulous.

The brick-walled room is silent aside from his heavy breathing. He breathes in and out. In and out.

"Say something!" he says.

But you don't.

"Say something!" he says.

But you don't.

"Say something!"

But you don't.

"Say something!"

Say something.