Saturday, 27 September 2008


I hesitated
before untying the bow
that bound this book together.

A black book:
Order Extra Leaves By Letter and Name

William Gibson's Agrippa (A Book of The Dead) is probably my favourite modern poem, and probably one that surprised Gibson fans that had typecast him as a writer of "cyberspace" SF novels (a series starting with the 1988 Neuromancer). The 1992 poem was originally conceived to be part of an art installation by Dennis Ashbaugh, using media that literally illustrated impermanence: a self-devouring floppy disk that could only be read once and a book printing in auto-fading ink, encased in a metallic container whose surface would corrode and flake off. As Gibson's introductory biography says, "Today, there seems to be some doubt as to whether any of these curious objects were ever actually constructed". But in any case, the poem was widely copied, making it somewhat paradoxical that it has achieved a degree of permanence.

Agrippa is more or less autobiographical, starting from descriptions of photos in an old album, an intensely evocative meditation on family history, change and the passage of time. Events of Gibson's life are seen throughout through the filter of "the mechanism" ...

The mechanism: stamped black tin,
Leatherette over cardboard, bits of boxwood,
A lens
The shutter falls
Dividing that from this.

... whether a literal mechanism of the camera or metaphorically through transformative experiences (such as when the narrator narrowly escapes shooting himself) where the past, or a past mindset, becomes irrevocably separated from the future.

A deal of mythology has accreted about the Agrippa installation and the poem itself: The Agrippa Files is a scholarly site that attempts to clarify the background. The official version of the poem (line breaks etc have tended to mutate with copying) can be found on Gibson's official site: Agrippa (A Book of the Dead).

P.S. I'd occasionally wondered why Eastman Kodak should call a photo album "Agrippa". Was it after the Roman general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, like the Swedish-made Agrippa binders? The alchemist and occultist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim? Or even the Agrippa who appears in Struwwelpeter's The Story of the Inky Boys? Or was it just a mundane pun for "a gripper" to securely hold photos? After all, the pun is pretty venerable, as in this ghost-exorcising joke

Vauntington: "... so I had at him with the Latin, Friar Bacon, Doctor Faustus, and Agrippa."
Dickory: "Ay, he be a gripper, indeed."

The Spectre Bridegroom - or, A Ghost in Spite of Himself, A Farce in Two Acts, WT Moncrieff, Cumberland's British Theatre, 1827

The Agrippa Files answered this question, where a facsimile of the Eastman Kodak catalogue shows the whole range to have historical-classical names of no particular logic or common theme: Othello, Trojan, Hercules, Vega, Nile, Ajax, Agrippa, Thebes, Juno and Apollo.

Addendum: I rather liked the latest McSweeney's parody, Chapter One of The Miracle Worker, as written by the other William Gibson; an intro to the biographical play about Helen Keller by this William Gibson, written in the style of Neuromancer.
- Ray

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