A hologram is an illusion. You think you’re looking at something three-dimensional and lifelike, but what you see is only an image, a reconstruction of reality rather than reality itself. What could be a more fitting image to encapsulate the illusoriness, isolation and distance that pervade collective life in this post-truth, post-Covid era—one in which facts are subsumed by beliefs and a screen avatar can stand in for a physical body? In her most recent collection of poems, The Vanguards of Holography, Annie Christain creates a pervasive sense of disconnection and disembodiment.
Christain’s work is unpredictable, experimental, and wonderfully bewildering. The book is divided into three sections, each consisting of long, experimental, free verse poems. The poems draw from eclectic source material; comics, folk songs, pop songs (by Beyonce, Hank Williams, Childish Gambino, Dolly Parton, and the Smashing Pumpkins, to name a few), spiritual texts such as the Bible and the Book of Lieh-Tzü, museums, films, YouTube videos, and more. These poems orbit the present, pandemic-afflicted era of remote communication and social distancing. In the world they describe, there is a disconnect between people and their bodies and between the physical and digital realms.
Throughout these poems, Christain creates several kinds of distancing: between people and their actions, between the self and the body, between personal and world events, and between individuals. More than a few poems deal with the breakdown of a relationship. In “Heaven is a Soundstage Built to Make Drugged Soldiers More Fearless,” the speaker expresses a mournful uncertainty with regard to a lover:
maybe I won’t speak to her again for a whole year.
Maybe we will lie beneath a low-hanging
noose in the mineshaft,
our ears touching the rope to hear its sound. (2)
The speaker expresses hope for the relationship, but can’t trust that their beloved will continue to be there in the future. Subsequently, the proximity of the beloved triggers a split between the speaker and their self: “I see her at the coffee shop, / and my spirit becomes encased in a glass box / with what else exits my body” (2).
In “We Never Really Touch Anyone Because of Molecules,” the speaker realizes a hard truth:
if we are all mathematical
the first programmable device,
that means you are too” (5)
Humans, she argues, are easily made and reproduced, rather than unique. She compares them to “devices,” similar to electronic ones, programmed and replicated by biology. However much the speaker wants to see her beloved as an exception to this rule, she knows no one is truly exceptional. Yet the beloved’s individuality is important to the speaker:
Anyone can wear molecules of what they say they represent,
but I need yours.
The boombox I place over my head
outside your window
records proof of your existence” (5)
Despite all of our being just bundles of molecules, we are not interchangeable to those we know and love. We need to maintain our belief in one another’s uniqueness, and treat each other accordingly, in order for society to function.
At several points in the book, the central relationship seems destined to fail, despite the speaker’s persistence. In “Dragon Ball Z Censored for an American Audience: ‘One Night in Beijing’,” it is revealed, a third person is involved, complicating matters: “[s]he’s been growing flowers with her husband for years” (34). And while the beloved accepts certain forms of intimacy from the speaker (“It’s decided it’s more acceptable for me to scrub her back”), these exchanges happen always on the beloved’s terms, never the speaker’s, creating an imbalance of power in the relationship. Christain’s speaker doesn’t seem to envision a future for herself, with or without her beloved, connected to the present moment. In “That Split Off World You Must Destroy and Live in Too,” she imagines the end of the relationship when it has barely begun:
I imagine her living in a van in a motel parking lot
with cables hooked up to the payphone.
Masking her voice through so many levels,
she wants me,
or she just wants to explore an auditory cortex. (60-61)
Even as she imagines the beloved wanting her, the speaker can’t envision a future in which she as an individual—rather than just the idea of an interpersonal connection—might really be what her beloved is after.
Indeed, throughout this collection, Christain’s speaker remains liminal, never disclosing a stable identity or context. In “We’ll Always Have Terracotta Warriors Dusted in Han Purple, Never Looking Behind,” the speaker self-aggrandizes, believing herself to be immortal: “My purple skin projects royal essences…I said I would live forever” (15). Gesturing toward the heavily virtualized social world of the pandemic era, the speaker claims to be entirely spiritual, though “capable of passing as physical.” Without physicality, the speaker can have no attachment to place or community; it’s impossible to be close to anyone else or to experience pleasure, pain, or desire. Without a body, what does it mean to be human? The speaker’s distance from the physical world permits her illusion of immortality. The anaphora of “We’ll always have” emphasizes this contrivance, the idea of a perpetual future of which she is constantly trying to reassure herself.
In the titular poem, the speaker alternatingly uses “we” and “I” pronouns, so we can’t know whether the speaker is singular or multiple. They use holographic technology to reach inside someone’s body and disrupt its natural processes, with possibly fatal consequences:
I use ultrasound
to disrupt the air around your hologram
and insert a tumor inside of it.
You were going to become infected without us anyway” (11)
Unaccounted-for harm is pervasive throughout the book; many poems deal with speakers or subjects who have done (or have imagined themselves doing) something terrible. Conversely, in some cases people come to harm even when they are not to blame for the crises that have befallen themselves and the world. In “Dipping a Player Piano Sheet in Lemon Juice and Setting It Out to Dry in the Sun,” the speaker fears abandonment as punishment for a vague offense: “your wife will hate you for something. You’ll lose your wife, / brother, sister, friends, children, mother, father” (9). By means of a sidebar next to the poem’s main text, instructing ““Do Not Take Any- Thing of the Self,” the word “self” is cleverly inserted into this list. Through this trick of formatting, the poem suggests that to lose important relationships is to lose one’s “Self”.
Yet something in the speaker resists becoming completely separate from humanness and attempts to reckon therewith. In “Criminal Tranquilo,” the speaker’s addressee is given the opportunity to become something other than—or even superior to—human, but they refuse this opportunity. The speaker says: “It’s very telling you went to your archangel surgical wings appointment but couldn’t go through with the procedure. I know it’s because fused fingers can’t grapple necks, // my neck.” (19). Even supernatural beings crave human touch, she suggests, even if that touch can be violent.
Ultimately, Christain’s poems explore the idea of a world completely devoid of physical human connection and find it to be an unsatisfying one. A world made of illusions allows us to hide from the difficult truth of mortality and the body’s fallibility, but it’s also a world lacking in touch, emotion, faces, voices, and all else that makes us human—it’s a “split off world you must destroy and live in too” (60). And from the far reaches of her memory the speaker recalls:
from my childhood, all those lonely people with shoulder pads
who broke safety rules
just to hear someone else’s voice” (60)
Real voices and real speech enable us to express our physical sensations, emotions, and wants, fulfilling us in ways that holograms and illusions cannot. By further removing our connections with others and the physical world, Christain warns, we risk living in a society where people are unable to see or live with the consequences of the harm they cause and in which we are deprived of bodily agency and physical or emotional intimacy with one another—a world not unlike the one in which we already find ourselves.
The Vanguards of Holography was published on October 1, 2021 by Headmistress Press.