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Up above aliens hover, June 16, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

An anthology of seven short hypertext poems about UFOs, Phenomena boasts some clever wordplay and a nicely-realized theme (the title of the final poem gives the game away: “guess this was never really about ufos, haha” – it proposes the night, or death, the possibilities we invent from sign and portent). There’s some effective imagery here, and the way it engages the reader worked well for me: each poem can be read “down,” by just reading it top to bottom as it first displays, or “through”, by clicking each line to change it into one of a half-dozen or so different variations. Time – or at least narrative progress – usually progresses as you read “down”, while the “through” options typically elaborate a single idea, introducing a set of potential options and often including one that serves to undercut things. For example, here’s the second poem as it first appears (which riffs on a historical account of strange lights in the sky of 13th-century Japan):

We have been camping near Hermit’s Pass for nearly two months.
Our orders come from the empress herself.
But we search the night sky and see nothing.
The stars flex, relax.
Not a star out of place.
Her ever expanding empire.
The hunter draws her bow.

Then for the “through”, if you successively click on the second line, it runs through this sequence:

Our orders come from the empress herself.
Confirm what has been seen in the sky.
Accounts come in from all corners of the empire.
Peculiar signs.
A topic to pray upon.
But I am no priest.
I seek only to fill my belly and find a comfortable place to shit.

…before running back to the beginning with one more click.

It’s clever that the poems work this way, but because there are strong throughlines both ways, it’s easy to turn the poems into ridiculous self-parodies if you’re not careful with where you stop clicking – an issue that’s exacerbated by the author’s repeated tic of interposing a single short phrase to punctuate most lines, like the “peculiar signs” above. Here’s another way of rendering the second poem:

Peculiar signs.
Seen by the paper maker:
Xnth farts in his sleep.
The cuttlefish.
Imagining blight.
Animals cower.

Of course, if the player does this they’re not really entering into the spirit of the thing, so that’s not necessarily much of a complaint. I will say that this style of verse isn’t my favorite; there’s not much in the way of complex imagery or highlighting specific words with jewel-like care, but I can’t make much of the meter, is the main thing (these could also be the complaint of a philistine – I’m not very well read in poetry!) I do think the sixth poem, which is couched as a dialogue between the witness to an abduction and their therapist, worked best of the bunch for me, because the relative informality of the spoken word felt like a good fit for the author’s relatively unadorned prose. But anyway this is a matter of style and personal preference; you should be able to tell from the excerpts above whether you vibe with Phenomena, and regardless I still enjoyed the way it smartly runs through a number of different perspectives on aliens and what they symbolize for the human condition.