By David Cravens

Rodney Brooks’ colleagues at MIT
assumed robots had to be stable
but he watched a film of insects
tripping, colliding, dropping food—
making mistakes
so he built Gangus, an android
that behaved like an ant
scrambling, falling – rectifying errors

Tarantino too noticed something of this
reading Elmore Leonard’s novels—
cops chase criminal, criminal hijacks car
car’s a stickshift
criminal can’t drive stick
he said this ruined the genre-moment
a truth he always strove for

if you can recoup you can survive
(by either intellect or luck)
for the I-Ching says
that in moments of danger
the important thing is moving forward
but chance is indiscriminate
and genetic software in the long run
always trumps
the roulette wheel of fate

so Brooks began programming robots
with sequenced feedback loops
building complexity upon simpler forms
because evolution really only tinkers
developing cleverly
on that which came before
rarely producing the best design

the vertebrate eye being so flawed
that the retinal neurons face backward
as if we’re looking into our brains
light toils through a confusion
of light-degrading capillaries
before it’s even detected
then redirected through layers of retina
to the optic nerve where it’s then sent back
and processed for inversion and blindspots—
a pinball machine of misengineering

in Pirsig’s analogy of this evolution
with that of societies
neither is seamless
they advance in ratchetlike steps
lent from punctuated equilibrium
and these dynamic advances
need shielding static patterns—
vulnerable DNA, to survive and evolve
needs a protective shell of protein—
as an idea, to advance, needs a skull
or a book with a cover
sheltered by a library
defended by a weapons-bearing
organized society
analogous to the symbiotic relationship
between conservative and liberal
vital to the survival of any culture
for without dynamic quality
an organism or society will not grow
and without static quality
an organism or society cannot last

two pinecones spinning in tandem
is what a millwright saw in his mind
as he ground coffee one morning
so he carved his idea into cone-shaped bits
carried them into a Shreveport bar
and happened upon Howard Hughes Sr.
other riggers scoffed at the model
Hughes bought it – perfected it
and tore into oil deemed invulnerable
mutating the industrial age
lacta alea est
for genius – like evolution
really only trifles too
ever building upon prior forms, ideas
in science as well as art

when Hughes Jr. watched the first film
to win a Best Picture Oscar
he felt he could do better
and spent part of his father’s fortune
making Hell’s Angels
a film that would influence Kubrick
just as Lucas’s cinematography
was conceived of Kubrick’s work
but like crudely carved models of rotary-bits
a work of brilliance is rarely deemed such
upon its conception—
and when Lucas’s friends screened Star Wars
everyone was speechless
appalled at how bad it was
except for Spielberg
who said it would triumph
(no one believed him)
too when Cézanne unveiled his paintings
people laughed
impressionism, rococo, baroque
all derogatory terms
like Indian names: Navajo, Apache, Sioux
names from the outside – derisory, insulting
but genius recognizes talent
and Hemingway said he wanted to write
like Cézanne painted
said a person could do this
if they lived right with their eyes
he wanted readers to live what he wrote
and some did
further tangling the cobwebs
of art and history
for in For Whom the Bell Tolls
Robert Jordon thought a single bridge
the point at which humanity might turn
and so too perhaps a book
for Engels deciphered the French economy
by reading Balzac’s novels
and after Castro read Engels
he studied For Whom the Bell Tolls
and used what he’d learned
to fight Batista’s troops in the Sierra Maestra—
and though its author called such civil war
the best war for writers
he also said Napoleon
taught Stendhal to write
Napoleon whose nephew
helped distend the walls of the Salon
allowing impressionism to prosper

dynamic ideas precede sudden change
(mutations for good or ill)
for an odd mistress is genius
bestowing her gifts
on angels and demons alike
but civilization and knowledge
make little progress outside conflict
and those who advance science, art, society
are, at the start, deemed criminal—
threats to the status quo
brilliance rendered too often extinct
(rather red queens or court jesters)
throughout history hung, burned, crucified
and so prone to self-destruction
brilliance sung in a fanatical key
the heartbreak of a suicidal Van Gogh
(hopeful monsters fighting in his soul)
and these fates of the brilliant
are analogous to the most able societies
where jevons effect and the diderot effect
bore south in tandem
in a deadly anthropogenic grinding
in vis est exordium quod terminus
cultures enacting the story of Cain
(Quinn said written from outside)
and when Cain confronts Abel
only transmutation or death result
as when the Tuppan Basse mutated
after Peter Carder washed ashore
a Tycho Monolith fallen from heaven—
invited to help them attack the Tapwees
he taught them to fashion battleshields
the result was a slaughter
changing the nature of Brazilian warfare
a single sprout from the seed of Europe
planted by Columbus
and during the festival of the god Lono―
James Cook sailed into Kealakekua Bay
and seeing the Resolution’s white sails
slapping across her spars
the astonished natives
enclosed the ship in adulation
thinking it Lono himself
come to bestow his blessings
(they were wrong)
and when Nicolas Roosevelt was a boy
fishing on Minetta Brook
he watched a millwheel churn the water
and wondered if it could push a boat—
decades later he steered the New Orleans
down the Mississippi
the Indians thought it a god to destroy them
(they were correct)
as with the fate of the Tuppan Basse
the leftover smears on Van Gogh’s pipe
blue, green, and yellow
for Malthus said most seedlings
were not to grow to trees—
by the time Darwin arrived on the Beagle
the Spanish were exterminating them
and he thought to himself
that when races met
they acted like specie of animals
fighting, cannibalizing, trading diseases
but then came the more lethal struggle—
which ethnicity was better organized

then he voyaged to a place called Eden
islas encantadas ‘the enchanted islands’
that in Spanish means not beautiful
but bewitched—
where an English governor
used tortoiseshells for flowerpots
and told him which island they’d come from
by looking at the edge of their shells—
a seed of knowledge to beget revolution

two such epiphanies I had
one, sitting on my grandfather’s bed
looking out the window at birds
as he explained their song as not music
but a series of warnings and threats—
I felt for days
that someone had kicked me
then – long after his death
I’d come home from work
and unlocking the door to that same room
I heard a thud and looked down—
a squirrel had fallen
it lay in the grass stunned, motionless
white belly toward the sky
then it shook, looked this way and that
flipped to its feet
and darted up the same tree—
I’d not known such mistakes to happen
but we don’t learn so much
from those things we do correctly
so perhaps it’s best we see poorly
through our misconstructed eyes—
for El Greco’s work was astigmatic
and Van Gogh said he saw better squinting
seeing stars and sunflowers different
seeing wheatfields askew

Category: Poetry