Animations of Desire: A review of Rebecca Morgan Frank’s Oh You Robot Saints! by Brady Alexander

Rebecca Morgan Frank’s new poetry collection Oh You Robot Saints! has refused to leave my mind. Since its release on February 19th from Carnegie Mellon University Press, Frank’s meditations on the ethics of creation and creators, gender, cybernetic worlds, and empathy have stayed with me. This is in no small part due to Frank’s careful, emotive language featured side-by-side with her imaginative explorations of the problems—new and old—that mar our current world.

Frank is the author of three previous books of poems: Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country and The Spokes of Venus, both from Carnegie Mellon University Press, as well as Little Murders Everywhere, published by Salmon Poetry. She is also co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online magazine Memorious. Frank’s poetic experience grants her linguistic poise, while her curiosity and integrity help guide her through the sorts of thorny explorations featured in her writing. This includes the joy of creation and its mirror, destruction, in “I Hold With Those Who Favor Fire,” as well as the desperate sorrow that accompanies the loss of our creations that we love as seen in “Descartes’ Daughter,” which recounts an automaton Descartes made after the loss of his daughter, Francine.

At many points, the highs and lows of birth and parenthood play out within the poems. All the while, Frank pays careful attention to the ethics of these matters. “Not Everyone Else’s Bestiary (Yet)” asks what the value of a living biosphere might be when contrasted with robotic animals, and how we might replace what is with what could be, or, how it is that we might sink the living in our dreams of artifice. “Maternal Application” asks what it means to be a creation with no immediate creator, and what happens when that absence is reopened: “I’m just trying to understand / how these absences / shape us.” The chilling “Here Come the Parasitic Robots” likens the manipulation of children that is present in so much of institutional education to recently developed robots which are able to control the nervous systems of insects and make their bodies into unwilling marionettes. These ideas are further complicated when Frank asks her reader to consider gender as a creation, and its capacity for harm when, like a robotic parasite, it’s used to control others. In “The Mechanical Eves,” the speaker comments on how women have been made to take on the qualities of servitude, silence (save for parroting the words of men), objectification, and rigid perfection. In other words, women are made to become automatons, novel like the one in “Vaucanson’s Digesting Duck Automaton, c. 1739” or servile like the ones in “Monk Automaton, c. 1560.” (To read “Vaucanson’s Digesting Duck" in Miracle Monocle, visit Issue 10.) 

As far as the collection’s weak spots are concerned, I found myself wondering how much context is needed to fully appreciate some of the poems that are featured. Many, of course, acknowledge and lean into the fact that most readers will have little reference for what’s being spoken of, but still spin rich and captivating pieces while filling the reader in, like the excellent “Virgen Abridera de Allariz, 13th century.” This poem describes an automaton of Mary with the cosmos carved inside her while playing with the irony that an unmoving vessel with no choice may hold all of creation in her womb. However, I felt that a few of the poems could have benefited from some additional allusion to or exploration of their references in order to reach full realization. I remember not getting the reference to Pygmalion (a mythological Greek sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved) in the poem “Mechanical Birds,” for instance. After looking up the reference and learning of Pygmalion’s myth, he seemed to me like a no-brainer inclusion to the collection, so further integrating him or references to his story in “Mechanical Birds” could have easily patched the issue. I felt similarly about the poem “Lionfish Robot”; had I not known the threat that lionfish pose as an invasive species, I likely would have had less appreciation for the poem as a whole.

Still, the poems’ ability to couple so many disparate ideas more than makes up for any shortcomings. I’m aware that I haven’t yet dived into the “Saints” of Oh You Robot Saints!, but the book is simply so expansive in its interests—from mythmaking to robobees to fish—that it’s difficult to gloss in just one review. Throughout the collection, the speakers often ask their readers to proceed with faith in mind—this is a phenomenon that appears, in fact, in “Creation,” which is the first poem in the book—and that’s a good advice for any reader interested in taking the plunge with this eclectic collection. The last poem I want to mention is the final poem, “Restoration,” which concludes the collection with what seems to be the death of faith by the hands of technology, and the death of the past by the talons of the present. After all, it grants us the visceral and somber image of Nagasaki’s cathedral being destroyed by the bomb. But, as in the poem, perhaps the past survives as crystal eyes, like those of Mary watching it all happen from her church: “She watched everything destroyed around her. / Full restoration is impossible when dealing with / the flesh, but we had always hoped our art would be / immortal. In grief, we feel the wounds become stone.” It’s as though Oh You Robot Saints! knows of its own ephemerality, like it may disintegrate between your fingertips as you are reading it. It knows that we can’t be eternal, and that nothing that we are or make will live forever onward. But we can, as we change, preserve, smash, resurrect, and roll onward from the present once again into the future. Or, we may pray earnestly that something that we’ve made will live instead.

Oh You Robot Saints! is as sharp as it is lovely. It’s available for $15.95 on Carnegie Mellon Press’s website.

BRADY ALEXANDER is a genre editor of Miracle Monocle.