Sunday, November 16, 2008


The tautogram is among the easiest Oulipian forms to explain; it is simply a text in which each word begins with the same letter. Please find an example below.

Time-Honored Tale

The tree tops trembled through twilight, timbers tapping townhouse turrets, telling troubling tales. Teenage toughs trolled the thoroughfares, tormenting timid Trinidadian taxi-drivers. Trying times turned these teens to terrorism; they talked treason, thoughts trained toward toppling the town’s triumphalist theocrats. Townsfolk tip-toed to their tedious tasks thanks to timebomb threats telephoned to the town’s trains. Theocrats took to tapping telephones, tasing those they tagged terrorists, tarring them thieves through trumped-up trials.

Timothy thought the terrorists told the truth, took to transcribing their theories, titillating the town, taunting the theocrats to tussle typographically. The trigonometry teacher told Tim to think twice; Tim through thrice, then typed thirty tropes taking temple-goers to task. The theocrats, trying to thin the tension, trimmed taxes, tariffs, tolls. Tim trumpeted, “Tired tactics! The theocrats tremble!” Traders took their trade to tranquil towns; tension tripled; the terrorists thought the town tilted toward them. Tim typed tracts that told the townsfolk to tear through the theocrats’ temple. The townsfolk, tempers throbbing, took to the thoroughfares to thump the theocrats. Theocrats toppled, the terroristic teenage toughs took the throne.

Twilight threaded through town, thorny trees twisting toward townhouses. Triumphant, the terrorists took to tapping telephones, tasing those they tagged theocrats, tarring them thieves through trumped-up trials.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Obama and I

The following text does not fall under any particular Oulipian rubric; but as a permutation of another text’s structure, it partakes of the Oulipian spirit. In this case, the original text is Jorge Luis Borges’s classic meditation on the elusiveness of identity, “Borges and I,” altered to substitute Barack Obama—or rather, “Barack Obama,” whomever that may be—for Borges’s speaker. The problematic relationship between public and private identities detailed in the original, while certainly of great concern to Borges, is a subject with a thousand fold more relevance to the life of a politician and inspirational figure like Obama.

Obama and I

The other one, the one called Obama, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Chicago and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Obama from the news and see his name on a campaign ad or in a blog entry. I like basketball, writing, loafing with my kids, Christianity and the prose of Toni Morrison; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Obama may contrive his politics, and this politics justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has outlined some valid policies, but those policies cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the public and to the future. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.

Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Obama, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his orations than in many others or in the laborious blowing of a saxophone. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the machine politics of Illinois to games with hope and change, but those games belong to Obama now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

I do not know which of us has written this page.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


A univocal passage is, quite simply, a passage that contains only one vowel. As noted by Harry Mathews in the Oulipo Compendium, we can also describe a univocal text as a lipogram in the excluded vowels. (To review, a lipogram is a text composed without one or more letters of the alphabet.)

Below is a short poem in which 'o' is the only vowel.


Mold grown on pools,
Blood color'd moons,
Old Scots' drool,
Trod-on cocoons,

Gowns torn on thorns,
Cold, hollow rooms,
Long spools of worms,
Gorgons on shrooms,

Porn sold to clowns,
Chloroform spoons,
Forlorn port towns,
Bottoms of tombs,

Condoms worn wrong,
Fog, torpor, gloom--

Slow tools of doom.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Lescurean Word Square

Named for its inventor, founding Oulipo member Jean Lescure, the Lescurean word square involves selecting four words and combining them in every possible order. (The number of permutations of four words, and hence the number of lines in the word square, is 24.) In addition to the four words selected, a minimal number of words from necessary parts of speech are allowed for the purposes of lending the lines sense. Below is a rudimentary example.

The Skull Beneath the Skin

The image of death haunts the body’s progress.
The image of death haunts progress’s body.
The image of the body haunts death’s progress.
The image of the body haunts progress’s death.
The image of progress haunts the body’s death.
The image of progress haunts death’s body.

The death of the image haunts the body’s progress.
The death of the image haunts progress’s body.
The death of the body haunts the image’s progress.
The death of the body haunts progress’s image.
The death of progress haunts the image’s body.
The death of progress haunts the body’s image.

The body of the image haunts death’s progress.
The body of the image haunts progress’s death.
The body of death haunts the image’s progress.
The body of death haunts progress’s image.
The body of progress haunts the image’s death.
The body of progress haunts death’s image.

The progress of the image haunts death’s body.
The progress of the image haunts the body’s death.
The progress of death haunts the image’s body.
The progress of death haunts the body’s image.
The progress of the body haunts the image’s death.
The progress of the body haunts death’s image.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Irrational Sonnet

An irrational sonnet is a 14-line poem composed of five verses, with each verse containing 3, 1, 4, 1 and 5 lines, respectively (3.1415 being the first five digits of pi, the most well-known irrational number). The rhyme scheme for such a sonnet, as devised by Oulipo member Jacques Bens, is AAB C BAAB C CDCCD. Below please find an example dealing with the subject of surveillance.


It was becoming difficult to be–
Without (at the same moment) being seen.
Surveillance’s continuous saccades

Were there, profiling each chattering ‘I,’

Assembling Cubist portraits from snapshots
Of e-communiqu├ęs and satellite feeds–
Small slivers of what makes us ‘you’ and ‘me,’
All siphoned from the web and then re-thought

According to the Weltanschauung of spies.

The borders separating truth from lies
Had dimmed, as context spun from our control,
Relinquished to the media’s shifting light....
We pined after identity by night,
Then held our secrets closer to our souls.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Homosyntactical Translation

Homosyntactical translation is a method in which the writer retains the syntactical structure of the original work and replaces each word with another instance of that word’s part of speech. It is up to the writer to decide which parts of speech she wishes to replace; in the text below I replaced nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs (although some verbs and adverbs from the original were left in place). The text supplying the syntax is Part I of Nietzsche’s preface to his “Genealogy of Morals,” while the words supplying the subject matter hail from the discussion of mushrooms in Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

The Genealogy of Mushrooms

We mushrooms are elusive to ourselves, and due to an unusual problem: how can we ever know to observe what we have never digested? There is a fundamental syntax which reads: “Where a fungus’s spores feed, there feeds its creation.” Our spores feed in the decomposition of our earth. We are mutually amid death, indefinitely, being by ability indispensable tools and potent agents of this realm. The horrific thing that dwells within our structure is the power to produce something entirely from the dead. As for the energies of day—so-called “calories”—who among us is green enough for that? Or has metabolism enough? When it comes to such energies, our tissue is usually not in it—we don’t even alter our process. Rather, as an organism necessarily exotic and subterranean in whose metabolism the moon has just stored the strange energies of night will presumably grow within waste and obtain for itself what flesh has nearly disintegrated, we only produce our enzymes during decomposition and ask ourselves, terrestrial and unconscious, “What have we really digested?”—or rather, “Who are we, really?” And we break down the prodigious dead matter of our soil, our earth, our cycle, but seemingly digest wrong. The eerie paradox is that we remain deeply invisible to ourselves, we don’t penetrate our own intelligence, we must lack ourselves; the words, “Each fungus is farthest from itself,” will surround us to all time. Of ourselves we are not “digesters”….

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Eye Rhyme

"Eye rhyme” refers to a pair of words that rhyme on paper, but not in the ear; that is, words that end in the same sequence of letters, but with different pronunciations (“through” and “rough” being a prime example).

Below is a sonnet composed of eye rhymes—with some fudging.

The Inheritance

My love and I were singing in the heat
That rose from meadows laced with summer dew--
Our minds had shed utility’s caveats,
Attired in thoughts that only gods could sew.
The insect world of ethernet and train
Seemed distant to our wine-soaked ecstasy;
We swore blood oaths never to work again--
Never to be quotidian or easy.
We served ourselves the universe to taste,
Crushed money underfoot to make our vintage;
We dreamed in red, the members of a caste
Who keep their youth as each commuter ages.
We drank and danced until the day was done,
And love was lost to vacuums in our bones.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Translexical Translation

This procedure consists of translating a source text into the vocabulary of a drastically different form of discourse while retaining the text’s underlying meaning. The prose poem below only loosely qualifies as an example; in it, each question asked by the narrator of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is rephrased as its own answer, and each answer begins with the kind of ass-covering probabilistic phrase used by U.S. spy agencies to describe potential threats in their National Intelligence Estimates—e.g. “we judge with moderate confidence that, etc.” (The opening phrases of each line in this particular piece were lifted from the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.)

The resulting passage doesn’t shed any new light on Prufrock’s character, but the easy fit between the National Intelligence Estimate’s phrasing and the chronic uncertainty of Prufrock’s voice hints at an institutional angst within the CIA, NSA, et al. When knowledge seems shifty and elusive, endless self-questioning results, for intelligence agencies no less than for introspective narrators of modernist poems.


The National Intelligence Estimate of J. Alfred Prufrock

I judge with high confidence that I do not dare disturb the universe.

I assess with high confidence that I should not presume.

I assess with moderate confidence that I should not begin to spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways. I continue to assess with moderate-to-high confidence that I should not presume.

I continue to assess with low confidence that it is perfume from a dress that makes me so digress. I judge with moderate confidence that I should not then presume. I judge with moderate confidence that I should not begin.

I recognize the possibility that I should say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets and watched the smoke that rises from the pipes of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows.

I assess with high confidence that I will not, after tea and cakes and ices, have the strength to force the moment to its crisis.

I do not have sufficient intelligence to judge confidently that it would have been worth it, after all, after the cups, the marmalade, the tea, among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me; that it would have been worth while, to have bitten off the matter with a smile, to have squeezed the universe into a ball to roll it toward some overwhelming question, to say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"--if one, settling a pillow by her head, should say: "That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all."

It is difficult to specify whether it would have been worth it, after all, would have been worth while, after the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets, after the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor--and this, and so much more?—a growing amount of intelligence indicates it is impossible to say just what I mean! But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen: it is difficult to specify whether it would have been worth while if one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl, and turning toward the window, should say: "That is not it at all, that is not what I meant, at all."

I assess with moderate confidence that I will not part my hair behind.

I judge with moderate confidence that I do not dare to eat a peach.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Snowball II

For a description of the Snowball form/procedure, please follow the below link:

The following poem is an example of a standard snowball; the combined efforts of, various online catalogs of plastic surgery procedures, and my own vocabulary produced a poem that maxed out with a seventeen-letter word.

Line Reading


Wednesday, February 13, 2008


The end-to-end method is reminiscent of poetic redundancy; but whereas the latter method involves shortening each line of a poem to its final few words, the former consists of removing the middle portion of each line, such that its first and last words are condensed into a potent burst of figuration and meaning (potent in theory, at least).

When applied to the first section of Wallace Stevens's "The Auroras of Autumn," the end-to-end method yielded the following result:

The Auroras of Autumn


This is the bodiless,
His head at night.
Eyes open every sky.

Or is this the egg,
Another cave,
Another body’s slough?

This is his nest,
These fields, distances,
And the pines beside the sea.

This is formlessness,
Skin disappearances
And the serpent skin.

This is its base.
These lights attain a pole
In the serpent there,

In another maze
Of body and images,
Relentlessly in happiness.

This is his poison: disbelieve
Even in the ferns,
When sure of sun.

Made in his head,
Black beaded animal,
The moving glade.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Cylinder (part 3)

con't from the post of January 20, 2008 (apologies for the delay to any readers out there):

3. “Dr. Howe–if you are hearing this, let me begin by saying that I have the utmost respect for your work as a physician. While I was in medical school I read about your experiences researching and treating infectious diseases, and I thought I saw in them a woman dedicated not only to her profession, but to all of humanity. Which is why I want you to know what I know.

“My name is Jorge Canosado, and I am a doctor from Colombia. A year ago I was forced to flee my country to protect my young family from political violence. The men in power in Colombia do not stop at slander when attacking dissent, but my elders taught me never to suppress my own convictions, so I donated money to opposition candidates and wrote letters to my city’s newspaper protesting the government’s roots in corruption and violence. I never thought of the consequences of my actions; I did what I did instinctively, because it was the right thing to do. But one of my friends in the government told me that my words had drawn the attention of the dogs running Bogota, and that my family was in danger. There are many sacrifices I would make for my country, but my family is not one of them. So I fled north to the United States, coming to rest in your city, mopping floors in your hospital to support my wife and child, unwilling to risk exposure by practicing medicine in this country.

“I have no illusions about the purity of the United States. As a South American, I am too familiar with the U.S.’s history of aggression in the world. And you, as a native of England, must be disturbed as well by the potential for evil your adopted nation his displayed in recent years. But what I have witnessed in the last few months.... I will not attempt to describe it; the videotape I have included will do so better than I ever could. But I will say that in your hospital, in your division–under your nose, as they say–men are committing an injustice that terrifies even someone of my experience. I leave it to you, as someone the American medical community respects, to decide how best to use the information I am putting in your hands.”

The tape ran out. Madeleine, her face drawn with concern, looked up at Charles, whose expression had not changed as he stared out at the lake through her sliding doors. When she first heard the tape she had been puzzled, intrigued; now, after viewing the videotape of which Dr. Canosado spoke, she could barely suppress a wave of emotion on hearing his voice.

“I know what you want to do–” began Charles.

“I would hope so,” said Madeleine. Charles paused and sighed before he continued.

“But we can’t do it.”

“Why in hell not?” said Madeleine, reverting to her youthful Cockney accent as her anger mounted.

“Because if we do, our funding will dry up. Along with that of many of our colleagues. And all the good we’ve staked our careers on will turn to air.”

“Wait...,” said Madeleine, a dark realization spreading from the corners of her consciousness. “You mean–,”

“I don’t want you to think less of me, Madeleine, because I’ve kept silent about this. You have to think about all the possible costs.”

“You already know? How long, Charles? How bloody long?”

“That doesn’t matter. Here’s what matters: the man who left you these tapes is probably dead now. And that’s how you’re going to end up if you speak to anyone else about this research. You have to understand, Madeleine, that the men in that video draw their support from sources who aren’t we are.” Pronouncing ‘civilized’ here with bitter irony.

Madeleine was silent. She thought of Coleridge’s image of slimy things crawling on a slimy sea, of a world turning demonic before her eyes and grant money hanging like an albatross from her neck.

“I take it from your silence that we’re in agreement?” said Charles, his voice laced with caution.

“I don’t know,” said Madeleine. “I’ll have to think about it. The prospect of losing–Charles,” her thoughts changing track, “why didn’t you tell me what was going on, if you knew?”

Charles rubbed his forehead. “I just didn’t want to saddle you with the guilt.” He smiled ruefully. “It gnaws at the insides, you know.”

They couldn’t think of anything else to say. He crossed the room and opened the door to leave, pausing with one foot in the hall. “Promise me you’ll let me know first if you decide to do anything rash,” he said.

“I promise,” said Madeleine.

Two days later Charles received a package in the mail from Madeleine. She had copied the VHS tape of the doctors’ conversation to DVD. Included in the package was a brief note: “A reminder. In case the gnawing ever subsides.”

A week after that, Charles received another package, this time from an anonymous source. It was another DVD, with another note: “We know you know.” The gray sky outside was pressing down like the surface of Earth’s menacing double. He went immediately to his living room and played the DVD, only to see:

(con't at the post of January 15, 2008)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Cylinder (part 2)

(con't from the post of January 15, 2008)

2. Two men in lab coats and ties sat across from each other in an immaculate office, one situated at the far left side of the frame, the other at the far right. Their manner was familiar, easy, as if they were discussing a tennis match they had seen the previous night. The man on the left, slim with whitening hair and wrinkles encroaching on his brow, sat drumming his spidery fingers together behind a large gray desk. His cohort was twenty years younger, well-built, shaved head; reading, with an arctic calm, a draft of the write-up for a drug trial unknown to the vast majority of the medical community:

“MRSA has made clear the need, not just to generate ever stronger antibiotics, but to do so at a rate an order of power above the rate at which resistant strains of microorganisms develop in response to these drugs. It is our misfortune that the only sound method of accomplishing this goal is the following: 1) to infect a human population with a resistant strain of MRSA 2) to develop a new antibiotic to treat it 3)to re-infect a similar population until a new resistant strain emerges, and 4)to repeat the entire process ad infinitum. Of course, this sort of continuous drug trial could not be undertaken publicly in a democracy such as ours–the media would portray it as an abominable deprivation of individual rights, an abuse of scientific power sufficiently grotesque to re-invoke, in public discourse, the cautionary horror stories of the Nazis and their eugenics experiments.

“Yet the present study differs from the experiments of the Third Reich in one crucial respect: the discoveries that it has yielded so far, and that further studies will yield in the future, shall be used for the benefit of everyone—not for the awful purpose of perfecting a race of supermen—,”

“I would suggest ‘grotesque purpose,’ rather than ‘awful purpose,’” interrupted the man on the left.

“Yes, but I already used ‘grotesque’ in the preceding paragraph—‘an abuse of scientific power sufficiently grotesque,’ and so on, if you’ll recall.”

“Then perhaps ‘hateful’…‘awful’ has the lingering sense of ‘awe-inspiring,’ I’m afraid. We can’t allow any phrasing that smacks of admiration for the Nazis.”

“Fair enough. ‘Hateful’ it is.” He made a note in the margin of the page.

This mundane editorial back-and-forth continued for some minutes as the younger man read the rest of the study’s introduction to his elder; who, as it became clear from a subtle undercurrent in the two doctors’ otherwise arid exchange, was his mentor. Amid the deliberations over diction and syntax, a picture emerged of a scientific plot that included, in its operational costs, the all-but-certain deaths of dozens of the homeless, kinless and destitute living on Chicago’s South Side. The logistical details of how the men had procured their equipment and participants were still obscure, but they had already conducted their first round of trials—a fact that shined through with staggering, painful clarity.

Jorge Conosado stopped the tape with a grimace. ‘Participants’—the wrong word, he thought. More like the old, inhuman ‘subjects’ that any scientist with an ounce of ethics had long discarded, along with its connotation of human beings as spiritless systems that experimenters could take apart and manipulate at will. He took the tape out of the VCR and slid it into a manila envelope, along with another tape he had made the day before.

His one-year-old son, Miguel, snored in the crib beside the bed he shared with his wife, Veronica. As he stood up to leave he kissed his forefinger and touched it gently to Miguel’s head. At the door he paused and surveyed his nascent family’s dim, decrepit basement apartment. Then he left for the hospital.

Before he began his shift he let himself into the office of Dr. Madeleine Howe and placed the envelope on her chair.

Over the eight hours he worked cleaning the hospital’s Infectious Diseases wing, dread spread from his heart through his body like a network of tributaries branching off from a river. There was no way he could have recorded that video with no consequences. He knew from experience that conspirators could be sloppy, but never sloppy enough to let you get away untouched.

Dawn broke through the gaps between the callous high rises along the shore. As he fumbled for the key to his battered ‘96 Ford Escort, Jorge heard steady footsteps approaching from behind. A flesh-colored smear appeared in the driver’s side window above the image of his shoulder. Jorge spoke without turning around.

“No tengo dinero.”

“Please. You know why I’m here.”

Jorge shrugged and inserted the key in the door.

“Surely you must have been aware, sir, that we have surveillance cameras of our own.”

“The thought had crossed my—,” began Jorge, but the bullet didn’t let him finish.

That evening, Madeleine Howe arrived at her condo, put down her purse, shed her coat, and sat down to watch the first of two anonymous VHS tapes that had been left on her chair that morning. The screen showed:

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


A cylinder is a text in which the author arranges linguistic units so that the reader can begin at any of several different points in the text, read to the end, and come back around to where she started without any lapse into incoherence. This example from the Oulipo Compendium works at the level of letters:

Emit, mite, item, emit.

Below find the first part of a cylinder composed of three micro-narratives (the second and third parts will follow shortly):

1. It was a film of a fluffy Maine Coon cat approaching a human hand. Autumn leaves scuttling downwind over the gnarled roots of an oak tree. As the cat sniffed at the can of tuna in the upturned palm, another hand appeared suddenly with a box cutter and slit its throat, blood gurgling out of the wound and spreading in an ellipse over the withered grass. An impassive voice off screen: "Consider this a warning." Then the DVD stopped.

Standing in front of the TV in his bedroom, Dr. Charles Silvering sighed the sigh of a man too exhausted to feel fear. He could only think that it was disgusting and unfair of them to kill poor Clive, and even counterproductive, since Charles had long ago come to terms with the prospect of personal injury or death. They had misread him and completely botched the threat. All parties (and Clive most of all) would have been better served if they had sent him a film of his cat being held in captivity; then he would have felt compelled to meet their demands in a bid to save the one creature in the world he still loved. As it stood, they had recklessly cast their only bargaining chip to the wind.

He walked to the bay windows opening out on the overcast January afternoon, gray as Athena’s eyes, and dialed a number on his cell phone. Now the truth had to come out, if only to spite them for killing Clive.

“Yes,” said a female voice on the other end of the line. The greeting was more a statement than a question.

“Madeleine. I’m coming over.”

“Charles? Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“I’ll see you in ten.”

It was a short drive along the lake from Charles’s suburban stronghold to Madeleine’s building on the far north side of the city. She had left instructions with the doorman to show her guest to the elevators, and soon Charles was standing in the living room of her 30th floor condo, unsettled as always by the ivory-white carpeting and crystalline furniture. She was reclining on a sofa and, in her husky British drawl, offering him a drink.

“Not now, thanks,” he said, wearily unwinding the black scarf from his neck. “Tell me you still have the records.”

“From the hospital? Of course, but–,”

“We’re going public,” he said, turning on her television and DVD player and inserting the disc he had been clutching in his right hand.

“Going public! Why, Charles,” she said, eyebrows raised nearly off her forehead, “this sudden change of heart–it’s baffling. I think you owe me an explanation.”

“You’ll see.” He crumpled down beside her on the sofa and pressed ‘play’ on the remote control. “Just look what they did to poor Clive.”

“Clive? Who’s Clive?” said Madeleine.

But Charles must have taken the wrong DVD from his player at home, because when the screen came to life, it showed an image that the two of them had seen, and despaired over, many times: