Leonardo Flores Loves “A(l)one” by Annie Abrahams

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“A(l)one” by Annie Abrahams

Note: you’ll need to allow pop-up windows to read this poem.

This minimalist e-poem  influenced me greatly in my development into an e-lit scholar. When I first encountered this poem in 1999, I was impressed by its use of colorful pop up windows in different sizes and positions to illustrate how one can be alone, even when surrounded by others. The distinctive features of each window yield to a common look and feel as the all become the same in color and message, as seen below.

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The yellow words that take over all the windows is a background image– an animated GIF alternating the word/phrase “alone” and “all one.” This repetitive sequence resonates with E. E. Cumming’s spatial juxtaposition in “[l(a]” because both poems provide compelling images of loneliness. Whether you are a leaf falling from a tree, detached (in death) from the company of other leaves, or a window surrounded by 15 other windows for a little while only to be left alone, in the end you are bound to feel “one.”

When I read this poem, I understood that Abrahams was engaging the Web as a medium for artistic expression in a way that some of my favorite poets (E. E. Cummings among them) engaged the space of the page. She was making expressive use of pop-up windows (this was during that brief innocent time before they became another abusive advertising mechanism that required blocking), animated GIFs, and timers in her poem, none of which were available in print. This was born-digital poetry at a foundational level, but that wan’t my only profound realization.

I had read the poem several times in my green iMac using Netscape Navigator, but when I opened the poem using a PC running Internet Explorer, the poem looked completely different: the pop up windows were all stacked on the top left hand corner of the screen. At the time I was learning HTML, so I looked at the source code and was able to determine that Abrahams intended for the windows to be in specific positions, shapes, and sizes– they weren’t random– and that the browser was interpreting the code incorrectly. I also saw that Abrahams had modified a JavaScript engine created by Philippe Sarcher in 1998 which controlled the pop-up window and scheduling mechanism. This poem made me realize the value of reading code, which allowed me to understand the intended display of a page and revealed intertextuality beneath the surface of a screen.

Ever since, I’ve expanded my code readings to examine its strategies and “extra-functional” aspects performing Critical Code Readings, as defined by Mark C. Marino. I have also come to appreciate how issues of obsolescence set in, even with open source code, and mechanisms like pop-up windows have a limited shelf-life. This poem’s code doesn’t work in my iPhone’s Safari or Chrome browsers, for instance, and I can see how it might disappear from circulation. But I know it can be ported, reproduced, remixed, and written about.

For now, it is not alone in the World Wide Web.

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