- Heading Forward Ass Backwards
88Pages; Print, $15.00
In many examples of dystopian literature, the future is horrific because it grotesquely distorts certain aspects of contemporary society. Government overreach and regulation turn into tyranny and comprehensive surveillance in Nineteen Eight-Four (1949). Religious conservatism and misogyny culminate in the total subjugation of women in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). In Philip Fried’s Squaring the Circle, the dystopian future revealed in his poems is horrifying not because of how far it has strayed from current cultural norms, but because it hasn’t strayed at all.
Fried is no stranger to exploring major moral issues and societal ills in his work. Interrogating Water, his 2014 collection, took on the national security state and its accouterments, such as torture, nuclear weapons, war, and national expansionism. In his latest collection, Fried returns to these subjects, but his primary targets are the illusory progress and authority of technology, the binary logic that accompanies it, and the privileging of data as knowledge.
Squaring the Circle is steeped in math and physics, and while it is clear that the poet has a deep affinity for—and understanding of—scientific and mathematical theories, it is also clear that data sets, statistics, and calculations don’t necessarily represent advancements for humanity. Many of the poems in the book’s initial section, “Powers of 10,” play with numbers and what they give us. In “We Rented,” Fried summarizes with the skill of an actuary the ways in which calculations (both mathematical and logical) determine our lives. We are
subject only to the rates for life expectancy, suicide, morbidity, guided by provisos for the average family size, number of cars, and income, and signaling when we crossed any median.
Fried goes on to propose that this subservience to calculations and quantification impacts our ways of understanding the world and processing events that define society. He first transitions to the somatic experience of tattooing and assumes a conservative perspective from the past, referring to it as “adorning bodies with vulgar signs and symbols” and as “a nasty habit of bikers and screwloose sailors.” Yet a different type of tattoo appealed to an ambiguous “we” of the past who “liked intoning numbers from the news, / a form of aural tattoo: the body count, / the market uptick, and the missile countdown.”
By contrasting the “vulgar” and “nasty” tattoos of the body with the aural tattoos of the numbers, Fried demonstrates that we are not better off leaving the realm of the physical for the realm of the cognitive. A “body count” is even more vulgar than a body tattoo, and through his language play of connecting “count” with “countdown” and “countdown” with “uptick,” he deftly shows the cultural connection between market and political forces that result in human deaths.
God also features prominently in these early poems in the collection, and as Fried explores the role of God in contemporary society, it is often in the context of what has become the new golden calf: data. In “Cloud of Knowing,” Fried portrays God as “a committed statistician” who is
Intent on minimizing risk, Constantly seeking optimization, Cognizant of each fallen sparrow, The regrettable fact of collateral damage, But figuring outcomes for the flock.
By playing with the concept of “the cloud,” Fried moves God from his historical position of somewhere above the clouds to the just-as-mysterious cloud-based platform of computing. Relocated, he is transformed from the Old Testament terrible God of justice and the New Testament God the Father who loves all earthly creatures into a new God. This one wears a “plastic gambler’s visor” and makes decisions based on the odds. While he is aware of each sparrow’s death, his reaction isn’t emotional. Instead he focuses on the cold facts of outcomes—outputs that result from his inputs. This calculating way of thinking, Fried suggests, is dangerous. The new God, “cocooned by arrays of supercomputers” is so distant from humanity that “he inputs, / Commands for drones named for archangels.”
As the book progresses, Fried uses...