Who’s Afraid of Orpheus and Eurydice?: Christian Bök’s The Xenotext Book 1

For those unfamiliar with the project, Bök has tasked himself with writing a pair of poems, which he calls “Orpheus” and “Eurydice,” that encode each other in a mono-alphabetic cipher, a type of code where each letter of the alphabet is substituted by another letter. To take the first lines of the two poems, “Any style of life is prim” encodes as “The faery is rosy of glow.” These letter-to-letter substitutions must hold for all the words used in both poems.

This cryptographic challenge is difficult enough, but it’s just part of Bök’s intention. The two poems (think of them as patterns of symbols) are encoded again by assigning DNA codons to the letters of one poem in such a way that a chemically viable gene is designed. This gene is then sequenced and inserted into a microbe. E. Coli was the first host, though Bök ultimately intends to implant the gene in the “extremophile” D. Radiodurans. The inserted gene prompts the creation of a new protein, and the chemical structure of the protein can be decoded as the second poem. Bök has superimposed one encoding system (alphabetic) onto another encoding system (biochemical), and attempted to satisfy the requirements of both at once. Moreover – and here’s the literary aspect of the project – he wanted to create poems that referenced each other and their own making.

Readers of various stripes may have quibbles with The Xenotext Book 1. Cryptographers might point out that Bök could not have examined a fraction of the mono-alphabetic ciphers available to him (there are roughly 8 trillion) and must have chosen certain word pairs himself for convenience and aesthetics. Geneticists might argue that if a mutation does not give the organism a survival advantage (just a “poem”) it would be removed by natural processes and could not outlast a printed book much less the human species. Common sense sticklers might argue that assigning letters to codons and then reassigning different letters to different codons after DNA/RNA transcription is like saying the red traffic light means “Marco” and the green one means “Polo” and Bök’s microbes are no more writing a poem in response to a poem than traffic lights are playing hide and seek.

I sympathize with these quibbles, but I am willing to cut Bök some slack on all counts. What I can’t overlook, however, is his leaving “Orpheus” and “Eurydice” out of The Xenotext Book 1. Late in 2015 Bök announced in several online and print interviews that we would be getting two volumes of poetry out of the Xenotext project, not one, and that “Orpheus” and “Eurydice,” the poems about which so much fuss was made, would be held back until the second volume.

Cryptically, their structure does appear on the front cover of The Xenotext Book 1 as descending rows of blank squares in shades of grey, as if one of the poems (each has exactly the same pattern) were laid out in scrabble tiles with the letters erased. But that’s all I can find of them in the book. And readers would have had to follow Bök’s interviews to know not to expect them. In the “Vita Explicata” section – a sort of “Coles Notes” written by the author – Bök describes the idea for the poems in some detail and yet does not take the opportunity to mention that they are omitted.

Bök explained in Quill and Quire that this first book will be “kind of a movie trailer for the second book,” and that the second will include “the actual poems of the Xenotext, the data, all of the crazy science-fiction material.” This impending feature presentation might make a fool’s errand of reviewing the first volume on its own. But it’s an errand I can’t resist. And not because I think the trailer will be better than the movie.

The Xenotext Book 1 contains some of the strangest and most exhilarating writing I’ve ever seen in Canadian poetry. This is partly a function of the unfamiliar subject matter that Bök engages, but it’s also due to his skill with sound and rhetoric, and his enormous vocabulary. Here’s a passage from “The Late Heavy Bombardment, ” a fantasia on the chaos of early Earth:

When bolides of brimstone collided, then exploded into ablative cascades. When tsunamis of lava, like napalm, bedrowned a subcontinent in a deluge of flames. When millions of Molotov cocktails shattered all at once upon the cobblestones of Hell.

The poetic prose is fully justified with no line breaks, but it has powerful internal rhyme and rhythm, and carries the reader into a maelstrom of concept and image. Bök ranges through geological and human history for his references, and the time-space continuum gets twisted quite out of shape.

By the end of this section we feel as though Blake’s Urizen, turned science-fiction fan, has been ranting at us from a pulpit of nihilism:

Tell me, Wraith and Reader, tell me: Will love save us from our fear that we are here alone? What then if we peer into the sky at night but see no distant lantern blinking at us from the far end of the cosmos?

A second long poem toward the end of the book is written in the same 15-line stanzas. After the nightmare of “The Late Heavy Bombardment,” “Alpha Helix” provides an inspirational counterbalance, riffing on the ubiquity of spiral structures – like the DNA within us – in the world around:

It is not a tangle. It is not a knot, although it might resemble a woven cable, left disheveled, like a strand of diodes, forgotten in some bottom drawer …. It is but a fuse lit long ago, its final blast delayed forever, the primacord escorting a spark through every padlock on every doorway shut against the future.

Other parts of the book are less accessible. Some sections seem to consist of solutions to puzzles that Bök has invented solely for himself. The translation of Virgil’s 4th Georgic reads as if it’s intended to be awkward and archaic.

What The Xenotext Book 1 does not deliver is an original enactment, revision or interpretation of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. There is a version of the tale in the Virgil section, but there’s no modern take on the story. The omission of the two Xenotext poems, mildly scandalous for those of us who were expecting them, is emblematic of a larger omission.

The Orpheus and Eurydice myth is about failure, and failure of a particular kind. The artist’s ambition—to bring his lover back from death—is thwarted by the artist’s hubris. Orpheus turns to witness the moment of his success, to see Eurydice emerge from the underworld, knowing this is the one thing he must not do. There are rich parallels between Bök’s ambition and that of Orpheus, but they go largely unexplored in this volume.

The author has admitted in interviews that the constraints he imposed on the composition of the Xenotext poems were more limiting than he planned, and that he worried about failure. On CBC’s Ideas in April 2016, Bök said: “It turned out to be even more difficult than I ever expected …. I was actually at a very desperate moment …. scraping the bottom of the barrel …. I was looking at a cipher that generated a very small vocabulary, of less than 100 words ….”

When describing the two genetically encoded poems in the “Vita Explicata,” Bök calls them sonnets, and the sonnet form is present in various guises as a motif throughout the book. “Orpheus” and “Eurydice” (you can find them online with a little searching) do indeed have fourteen lines each, but many of those lines are just two syllables long. Did Bök omit them from his first volume because they remind him of, and might alert readers to, his brush with failure?

The tone of The Xenotext Book 1 ranges from prophetic to professorial to gnomic, and we could almost say that a private voice never appears. But there is one moment, at the end of “The Late Heavy Bombardment,” when the tone suddenly descends to the personal, and to the occasion of utterance: “Even now, my love, these words confess to you that the / universe without you in it is but a merciless explosion. // Come with me, and let me show you how to break my heart.”

Just when I’m tempted to complain that it’s Orpheus who will break Eurydice’s heart, I begin to feel the “fool’s errand” aspect of my critique. Perhaps Bök is preparing us – by misdirection – for a very unexpected Book 2, a Eurydicean volume in which he embraces and overcomes his Orphic pride, and in which he details the over-reachings and compromises that shaped these books. I hope so.


Brent Raycroft lives north of Kingston, Ontario. He trained in literary studies and his day job is in legal publishing. His poems have appeared in Vallum, Arc, Prairie Fire, Freefall, the Walrus, Queen’s Quarterly and other magazines. The Subtleties of Divine Creatures, a single-poem chapbook, was published by Thee Hellbox Press in 2014, and in 2016 he self-published his short epic, Sydenham, to celebrate Canada 175.



Skip to content