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The Code Book

[First published in RetroFuturism #17, January, 1993.]


I have long been tempted to write a book of poems in code, forcing the reader to deduce which code is being used, decode each poem, and then--as with much contemporary poetry--deduce what each poem "really means."

I see the book as an onion, containing many layers of enigma as the reader works his way through one puzzle after another. It would arrive in the reader's hands without instructions or clues as to what it was. Just a book whose pages are filled with seemingly random groups of letters, a mystery. The reader would page through, frowning over the contents. What does this mean? he would think.

At this point, many potential readers will put the book down and move along. The mystery of the first level has bested them. But some few will continue puzzling over the book, at last concluding that it is in code.

Even at this level, however, there will be readers who fall away. Not everyone wishes to spend the necessary time and effort to solve a book in code, after all. But those who persist will set to work, figuring out just which code has been chosen, what key word has been used, and so on.

In time, some of those readers working on the solution will become frustrated, unable to figure it out. They will give up the whole business in disgust. The rest will go on, eventually solving the code and deciphering the words in the book.

But the poems will be tricky, filled with double meanings and odd emphases, the decoder will not be sure he has got it right even when all the words are there. There are too many ambiguities in the language, obscure allusions, foreign words, and idiosyncratic spellings. And he will still need to structure the words on the page, deduce the correct line breaks, the correct positioning of each word, and changes in the line breaks change the meaning of the words dramatically.

At this level, many more will drop out of the quest, unable to put the words they have decoded into a meaningful pattern. Only a very few of the original readers will continue on, fiddling with the layout of each poem until they have arrived at arrangements that seem correct and sensible.

At this stage, a new problem emerges. Since the book arrives without instructions or clues, there is no way of knowing whether a poem arrived at is the poem that was written by the poet or whether it is merely a poem created from the words by the reader himself, a poem having nothing at all to do with the intended meaning. Perhaps the reader has created a whole new book, far removed from the book written by the poet. This damning ambiguity will cause many readers to leave the book in disgust.

And yet, even at this late stage in the game, some few readers will continue to dig for meaning. They will scan the placement of each word and syllable, the curve and dot and squiggle of each letter, even the allocations of white spaces between the words. Deeper and deeper into the maze they will go, probing for yet further meaning, like a dog gnawing at a dry bone.

Of the many potential readers of the book, only a very small percentage will actually reach the ultimate stages of the book's enigma. And these few may find themselves caught in a labyrinth from which there is no return.

Whatever is not fully understood is eternally seductive.

--Thomas Wiloch