Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Stuff That Doesn’t Fit in a Box—Binary Planet

Binary Planet by Henry Crawford is a book of poetry that is out of this world, extraordinary for its reach forward (Future) and backwards (Past) but prophetically speaking to our odd situation now with a pandemic virus and global protest over racial injustice. The Dresser offers this example of Future:

Driving a 22nd Century Ambulance (excerpt)

into the tunnel comes a fleet
of self-driving flat-white
Escalades [patched] into [light
guided] screens updating the
incoming information [HUMAN
PRIMATES] reads the status
console [homing in] with
wide-area [nuclear resonance
imaging] showing a warren of
[modern humans] in the skeletal
stages of starvation

The Dresser notes that a higher intelligence speaks in this excerpt and that creatures like you and me—human primates—are not faring well.

The Dresser offers this example of Past:

Driving Across a Bridge (excerpts)

                                   …I cross
the Whitestone bridge into Queens
wondering [who I’d be] on the
Edmond Pettus Bridge

mine is a tribe of immigrant
factory hands [raised] across
the Rikers Island narrows
[measuring ourselves] by
the hats and coats of others
[fearing what we do not have]
Protected in the [normal] ways
                        …of hate

It’s always 1965 on the Edmund
Pettus Bridge [some locking arms]
some wielding [billy clubs] some are
[praying] others firing [tear gas]
others [walking] some on horses
some will [roll up the windows]
lock the doors [look straight ahead]
[stay in their lane] as the bridge
arcs over a river of lost history
bleeding out of Selma

The excerpt positions us in 1965 but the situation on the Pettus Bridge sounds like what happened in front of the White House on June 1, 2020, when police violently cleared a peaceful protest sparked by the brutal death of a black man at police hands (or rather a knee) in Minneapolis.


Black or white, true or false, one or zero—Crawford defines his binary planet. Yet he opens wide for what is outside these parameters. His poem “Machine Language” is an overlay to the binary ASCII code of zeroes and ones that is the last stanza of Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy.” Here is what the poem looks like on the page.

Here is the last stanza of Plath’s “Daddy” in English:

There’s a stake in your fat black heart   
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.   
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

Here is Crawford’s poem separated from its binary code:

[we’re in here now]
[ where everything ]
[passes] [bottom of the machine]
[ our words ] [ finally ]
[ made just ]
[no Jews]
[no Germans] [ no vampires ]
[up there]
[ you unmasked ] [ the bastard ]
[here] [the skins of words]
[ in sequences ] [chalked
in whitespace ]
[ bastards all ]
[ and never ]
[ enough ]

The Dresser will pause here to reflect on Crawford’s English words which seem to both acknowledge and negate a huge prejudicial load with words like passes (often used in the context of a biracial person presenting as a Caucasian), Jews, Germans (in juxtaposition with Jews, Germans are seen as oppressors of Jews in WWII when Hitler targeted Jews for extermination), bastard (a child born outside of marriage and therefore outside of protective inheritance laws and societal acceptance of a certain period of time), skins, whitespace (these words point to racial differences). Does machine language (the code of zeroes and ones) cleanse the difference? Probably not, since there is “never enough sun” to do it. This ambiguity flies in the face of binary—black/white and true/false.


Remarkably, Crawford offers another overlay poem where he does not use machine language and he doesn’t use brackets. “The Love Poem of an Average Man,” which ends the book and forms its own section, overlays his long poem on fragments from Gertrude Stein’s book-length love poem Tender Buttons. Crawford then repeats Stein’s fragments, such as “a large box is handily made,” “no window is useless,” “broken in more places and mended,” “red rose and pink cut pink.” As he did in “Machine Language,” Crawford’s poem appears in bold font and Stein’s poem appears in gray characters. The Dresser’s collaborating analyst Hal Greenwald said, this [poem] is an exercise in boldness. If you take a look carefully at the end of the poem, Crawford’s bold words start to fade. It’s an interesting design touch that Henry Crawford said was his editor Nancy White’s idea. White did the design layout and it is a handsome book. White gave Binary Planet more attention to page layout than usual, because Crawford’s work has an artistic element that requires seeing the poems on the page.

For a love poem, “The Love Poem of an Average Man” has a low threshold of violence, starting with “pretend your beauty /as a gun pretends /its aim /this is the tumble /this is the end of fortune /throwing off our gold /bailing out /a drowning boat.” A little later in the poem, the violence becomes more intense: “we /wield /the sharpest /knives /bleed out /the wounds /expose the cuts /a river of blood.” What this poem puts forth is dirty realism and a concluding possibility that “there is something in nothing /it is possible /to be someone /it is possible /for us.”


Binary Planet addresses the high arts: music—Bach in “Fugue Before Lunch,” art—“Walt Whitman Ekphrastic”, writing—“Sketch of a Poem in 10 Broken Lines” as well as the low: video games—“Game [ON],” television—“Twilight Zone Reboot,” boxing—“Taking the Fall.” Whatever your mood or situation, Crawford has something for you—“Sex and Its Discontents,” “Cowboy Dreaming,” “A Night at the Drive-In,” “Getaway Car,” “Elegy for a Spin Instructor.”

The Dresser wants to leave you laughing though there is plenty in “Happiness” to remind you that in our time of the invisible killing virus, communicating this emotion might be dangerous for your health.

Happiness [excerpt]

Happiness must be possible [else why would we pursue it]
but wait a minute [it might be something like] “world peace”
which we think will happen someday [but it’s hard to imagine]
so what would happiness look like [does it come in colors]
white? black? blue? green? …sizes?...
…[will they let you take your happiness back if
it doesn’t] fit [how long does it last?]…
               …and what if your happiness lasts longer
than four hours [do you need to contact a medical doctor]

The Dresser acknowledges that Binary Planet by Henry Crawford is a book published by The Word Works. Thanks to Hal Greenwald for long and enjoyable readings and discussions of Binary Planet.

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