How to build a human: review of “Death by Sex Machine”

Death by Sex Machine (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017) is Franny Choi’s second published book and acts as an exploration of what it means to be human and how sex is treated as a commodity and – most frigthening of all – as a right. “My heart is a room full of gongs—one new footstep / and the whole place vibrates…” she writes in “So there, each new ache makes the old ones hum along”. Many of these poems center around various personified robots or machines, including Chi from the Chobits manga and Kyoko from the film Ex Machina. It also deals with the sexualization of the Asian and Asian American female body.

Violence appears again and again in these poems; it’s heartwrenching and also eerily familiar, an environment of a possible future where rape culture is not only normalized but commodified. “Letter to Chi” and “The Price of Rain“, in particular, stuck with me. “whats a mouth for        whats hand     / whats a mouth for       clitless      soft trigger      whose weapon        whose knife      / slice…” Franny writes in “Kyoko_Inquiries”. The thought of abusing something simply because it cannot feel pain alarms me; sex is not violent, or at the very least, sex is not violent without consent (and even then, shouldn’t pleasure and love and connection be the actual motives?). Violence equates brokenness, an imbalance in the natural order of things, a dismantling of logic and compassion. How does one arrive at treating sex as an act of taking? And what hope is there of changing the societal narrative?

For example, “Even the walls are chewing. / There should be enough teeth to go around… / I’m licking all the doorframes.” sends my mind in many directions, connecting images of the walls we build in our hearts to the walls we erect to hold others / oppressed groups down, then to an image of a person licking a doorframe the way Israelites were instructed to paint blood…

So many ideas pour into my interpretations of these poems because of the unusual and even nonsensical word choice; then, in re-reading the poems, I infer meaning or connect ideas to those seemingly out-of-place words to figure out how they actually do belong. It’s a thrilling journey. I gawk at her mastery of language.

This chapbook also explores the gray area between consciousness and technology, as other creative works before it have, such as the role of the Doctor (the Emergency Medical Hologram) in Star Trek: Voyager and, more recently, Netflix’s Altered Carbon.

The tough part about these poems is that we don’t currently value AI or robots and tech the way we value people. Tech is a subhuman class beneath the working class. One of the poems, “Solitude”, feels like a somewhat-self-abasing, honest acknowledgement of contradictions and self-esteem and desire. And it’s a beautiful poem for those reasons; it allows the reader to question their own social, romantic, and sexual motives and to think critically about their own interactions with others and with intimacy itself, both personal and interpersonal.

Death by Sex Machine is a complex exploration of some of our most important and secretly held values; what transpires in these poems is outcry, anecdote, and invitation. I’ve appreciated being able to look at such troubling issues and ponder my own motives, experiences, and values. This chapbook is available from Sibling Rivalry Press for $12.

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