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Reviewed by Vanessa Lent
Frank Davey’s innovative work is structured by specific search engine queries, the result of which is thirteen verse poems separated into paragraphs of varying length. His goals for the project are to “use the sentence as the basic structural unit of poetry” and to “constitute another of [his] forays into cultural commentary.” Davey tells us that “these texts are unrepeatable,” highlighting the ephemeral nature of their composition due to the continually changing text-content on the internet (7). Herein lies the strength of the collection as a whole: it serves as a document, a testimony, and an inventory of a particular moment in the collective accretion of online text.
For any such high-concept project a number of questions invariably arise: does Bardy Google work on a conceptual level, a literary level, both, or neither? In other words, is the collection enjoyable and/or culturally significant? For me, the text works insofar as it reproduces the acts and patterns of reading that internet-users have come to regularize in terms of repetition, accumulation, and seamless integration of advertisement with testimony, news articles, and fiction. In many ways, Davey’s experimentations recall the high modernists’ reaction to the rapidly increasing inundation of advertisement and text; these reactions were sometimes playful and focused on the social implications of such media.
Certain pieces remain memorable while others are less so; like the ephemeral nature of their composition, these poems lose force once the page is turned. One piece that particularly showcases the narrative possibilities of Davey’s method is “Sydney’s Wreck.” As the reader makes her way through the prose a narrative emerges of the March 2008 discovery of the HMAS Sydney and the German merchant raider Kormoran which sunk each other in World War II and remained lost in the Indian Ocean for sixty-seven years. The way in which this story unfolds is fascinating: while the first line of the piece reads “[t]he mystery surrounding the fate of the HMAS Sydney has never been solved,” it quickly becomes clear that this mystery has indeed been resolved. Peppered throughout the slowly accumulating details of the wreck are constant assertions regarding the continued unsolved nature of the ship. Because the sentences have all been “sequenced in the order found,” this results in a destabilization of the prioritization status of the ship’s whereabouts based on temporal date in favour of the order imposed by the search engine (7).
Davey thus constructs meaning in a way that has no connection to traditional human means of reasoning and storytelling and yet is wholly comprehensible to his reader. The contradictions in the found/missing status of the Sydney are nullified by the reader’s familiarity with search engine protocol. Davey instead draws attention to other concerns embedded in the written documentation of the battle and subsequent discovery of the ships: for example, a lingering sense of Australian nationhood, the reliability of German testimony to the Australians in the course of the search, and the impact that the “first dramatic pictures” had on the reconstruction of the battle, and the subsequent reaction of central and peripheral victims (25).
Bardy Google is less an aesthetically stimulating collection and more a commentary on the current ways in which web-based text is layered, contradictory and, in many ways, able to construct both traditional and new, innovative forms of narrative. As individual pieces the poems succeed to different extents, but the core of the composition and the reading experience of Bardy Google hint at the narrative possibilities that lie embedded in the mass of text that exists on the web, always within reach.
This review first appeared in The Bull Calf.