From Vowels to Genomes, Christian Bök and Coach House Books are Capturing Attention

All of us have heard the phrase “vowels are the building blocks of sentences” at some point in our lives. Christian Bök’s book Eunoia from Coach House Books (October 2005) elevates the vowel from simple building blocks to something expressive and lyrical. Though released almost 10 years ago, the stunning title is still getting lots of attention. On August 16, 2015, Fox News had Penn Jillette (of magician duo Penn and Teller fame) on The Greg Gutfeld Show, where Gutfled and Jillette talked about their mutual admiration for Eunoia.

ChristianEunoia Bök is an experimental Canadian poet, and he is known for playing with language and style to push the boundaries of the written word. Bök’s most famous work is Eunoia, which won the Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize. Jillette and Gutfeld were extremely impressed by the work, which took Bök ten years to write. As Jillette and Gutfeld pointed out, this isn’t surprising considering how deliberate and specific the language is. The book consists of six chapters, each dedicated to one specific vowel. In addition to using words that only have the specific vowel in them, Bök tried to use each word only once in each chapter. The strict adherence to his self-imposed rules allows the character of the vowel to shine, with each chapter having a completely different tone and personality than the others. Jillette explained these personalities: the “U” is “guttural and mean and Germanic,” the “I” is “egotistical and romantic,” and the “A” chapter is “light and ethereal.” The word “Eunoia” is the smallest word in the English language that contains all six vowels (sorry, “Y”), and it means “beautiful thinking,” which is certainly reflected in this gorgeous work.

As if that weren’t enough, Bök is hard at work on a new project, The Xenotext: Book 1, a venture that has spanned nine years and that aims to produce “living poetry.” Set to reChristianBoklease in October 2015 from Coach House Books, The Xenotext: Book 1 sets the stage for further volumes, as it documents the foundation for the project using text, poems, and illustrations. Bök marries poetry and science with his experiment, enciphering a poem into a genome of the bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans which then “reads” the poem and responds by creating a benign protein. This protein has a sequence of amino acids that creates another poem, distinct from the original. The bacterium is virtually unkillable, meaning the original poem as well as the variations it creates will exist long after humans are gone. Not only did Bök change the way vowels are viewed with Eunoia, he is also changing the way language is presented on a cellular level.

 

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