This post begins a series of short author’s notes to be compiled for the preface for my master’s thesis. The thesis is entitled Five Chapbooks, which – spoiler alert – is comprised of five distinct chapbooks.
One of these, dead OR died OR killed, is a conceptual poem which documents every unique result of a Google News search concerning reports of deaths on March 23, 2008. Here are the specific constraints that define the poem dead OR died OR killed.
- It was composed using the internet database / search engine Google News which is limited by factors of its own.
- It searched for news stories from one 24-hour period, 12:00 AM through 11:59 PM on March 23, 2008.
- It asked for all articles containing any of the words dead, died, or killed. The title of the poem is the boolean search string that I used to compose it.
The idea for the project came unexpectedly to me. I had heard several reports about violent Chinese suppression of riots in Tibet, each of which reported a different number of deaths for that day and for the days leading up to it. Once I had worked out a search string that might answer my question, I thought about how morbid the search actually was, and also how much larger it could be if it was carried to its logical end. I decided to get reports of every death, violent or otherwise, that had been reported in english-language newspapers over an arbitrarily chosen 24-hour period.
I didn’t think about all of the implications of the search when I was conducting it. I assumed I would get a large number of reports of politically relevant deaths regarding wars, police actions, occupations, etc. This fortunately was not the case. What was increasingly interesting to me was how many of the deaths were domestic and accidental. Even more interesting was the specificity of the stories, with full names and often biographical snapshots of the deceased. Details of murders and ambushes add another level of morbid fascination the piece which became increasingly a testament ot the strangeness of life and death on this planet and even less of a political statement.
Still, there are deeper issues to interpret about the work. What statement(s) does it make about death? What does this concept poem accomplish as a work of literature? What do results about the Google News search engine? What does this poem say about knowledge, not just about what is comprensive or complete knowledge, but about what can satisfy curiosity about a subject so difficult (impossible?) to come to full terms with as death?
When I took refuge in the Buddhas, I was given the curious name Sherab Tharkin, which translates roughly to Perfection of Knowledge. Aside from the religious meaning of that name, it made me wonder how knowledge could be perfect or complete in any form. I believe with a fair amount of confidence that knowledge is always incomplete and always imperfect, so what really concerns me here is what would be adequate knowledge, satisfactory knowledge. This project makes me ask this question: what kind of knowledge about death is complete or adequate for my own curiosity? My answer turns out to be none. I don’t think this poem should satisfy, but, actually, do the opposite, to make one think mortality in a different way, from a different perspective which encompasses the meaning of death on the individual and collective levels. I feel that knowledge is then not an end in itself; knowledge is only perfected when it dawns into wisdom.