Book Review

While reading Betsy Aoki’s “techno-lit” poetry collection Breakpoint, my mind kept returning to a specific quote from science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who told us that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Between its gaming lingo and automata, embedded snippets of code, and references to Silicon Valley and the Hadron Collider, it is tempting to call Breakpoint futuristic—but Aoki’s genre-bending poetry reminds us that the computing languages are tongues of the present, even if they feel like a complex and powerful magic.

Aoki dedicates Breakpoint—which won Tebot Bach’s Patricia Bibby First Book Award—to “all the women in tech making it happen.” She is herself a video game producer, and the poems that take direct inspiration from that world often address alienation and misogyny within the traditionally male-dominated industry. For instance, her frustration is apparent at the end of “Debugger”:

Women should come
with O’Reilly textbooks
he thinks, a Wikipedia entry,
something. Gotta keep looking
running and breaking
line by line carefully
or else it crashes down
and then she’s gone.

In the poem “The women’s room at [ variable1 ] tech conference in [ variable2 ] city,” Aoki describes the (sarcastically interchangeable) tech conference restroom as a momentary safe haven where “the toilet seats are U-shaped sentinels” and women can feel free to crinkle their sanitary bags without shame. She ends the poem definitively:

Outside, men will scratch their balls
through their jeans, forgetting

you are there. Outside, you
are the outsider crashing and crinkling
the world of men. But in this moment,

four walls stand firm for women like you
and you are here for a mirror
to give your game face a break.

At times, as with her gentlemen scratching themselves, there is a fly-on-the-wall quality to Aoki’s observations, with her speaker keeping a healthy distance and chuckling at sadly commonplace feelings of inequality or dismissal. More frequently, Aoki takes a battle stance, using action-laden language to return a direct, unabashed gaze of her own.

This more direct side of Breakpoint is one of agency, pride, and the sheer power of taking up space. The poem “The mystery, explained” grinningly details Aoki’s first discovery of the joy of coding, which is tangled up in another joy altogether (“If I knew coding would make you this horny,” / he says, “I would have shown you Coursera / weeks ago.”). We experience more than playful sexual liberation here; there is a clear sense that coding is not merely a profession for Aoki but a central element to her larger identity—and one she’s willing to fight for. Consider “Slouching like a velvet rope,” which was chosen by Jericho Brown for the 2021 Auburn Witness Poetry Prize through Southern Humanities Review. “Tomorrow I’ll be breaking the rules by showing up, / elbows on the table,” the speaker insists, and later:

A gadget is not a woman.
No one will notice that it isn’t you in there.
Just like no one noticed that my name isn’t that girl
And I didn’t come here from marketing, I flew in
full frontal from engineering.

And then there is her compelling use of code itself: at eight different points in the collection, Aoki inserts snippets of functioning Python game code as poems. (Her code.) At first, at least for non-coding readers such as myself, stanzas of text with lines such as “229   def collide (self,other_object)” can be perplexing; and yet, with time and attention, their content gradually yields themes of collision, the self, destruction, and transformation. (Aoki borrows many of her “code poems” from a game she wrote for an online programming course, which seems to involve a rocket ship avoiding asteroids.) In the context of a poetry collection, these fragments begin to read as a complex poetic form of their own, with governing principles not unlike meter and rhyme. Our minds are naturally hungry for puzzles and patterns; the associative leaps required to grok Aoki’s Python poems may feel familiar and even satisfying to readers of poetry.

Though the tech world keeps center stage, Breakpoint is more than a simple rumination on Python code and the gaming industry. Aoki tells a larger story about culture through techniques such as her use of myth, in which Greek mythology’s Persephone and Cassandra show up alongside yōkai, spirits of Japanese folklore, including the shiver-inducing buruburu and the “ceiling-hanging” breath-sucker tenjō kudari. (Aoki often weaves these mythologies right into her tech poems, inviting readers to consider whether myths, like code, are simply another flexible language we use to construct worlds.) In the poem “Okuri Inu, or the sending-off dog demon,” Aoki explains this yōkai’s myth, beginning “Japanese legends say you will meet your dark dog like a friend,” but warning that if you stumble on Okuri Inu’s path, he will turn on you, devouring you instantly. However, just as we see in her tech world poems, Aoki’s defiant speaker refuses to simply accept the fate she has been assigned:

The lore advises to fake the fall if you stumble, pretend intent,
rest your panic out until you can keep going. But little sister
I can only tell you what I know: I did not keep my steps perfect.
I met his eyes with my knife, and complicit silence
with anger. I became more than his mouthful.

Breakpoint’s cultural memory is faceted, at times calling upon tech pioneers such as Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing, at other times turning its attention to the “barbed wire and dog’s teeth” of the United State’s mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II. (It is heart-wrenching to realize that both Turing and Utah’s Topaz Internment Camp were active at the same time, each shifting the world irrevocably in the 1940s.) Though the collection is divided into three neat sections, poems are not obviously separated by subject matter, meaning that we find the poem dedicated to Topaz right alongside code poems and yōkai, the poet’s concerns always blending with one another. This gently erratic organization feels like a refusal to be oversimplified, and the consistent weaving of technology into nearly every poem suggests again that coding is a lens for Aoki, a way of seeing, and not only a way to keep the lights on.

In Breakpoint’s penultimate poem, “Everything around us opens in time,” Aoki tells us: “I’ve met more people / in orange sunglasses that all turned out / to be me, lost, with maps in their hands.” As unmoored and alienated as these poems’ speakers might be made to feel, Aoki never abandons them. Her poems tend to end with a final fierceness, a fist in the air:

Over and over
the metal wheels sing their songs of open skies
and subjugated prairie (because everything around us
opens, in time) and so golden, we whistle our lives
defiantly into the rushing dark.

Breakpoint is just that, a life whistled defiantly—a life where race and gender are weaponized but where hope can be found in rebellion. Through her pursuit of computer programming, Aoki has trained herself to build new worlds, but her poems warn us of the myriad ways in which our own world violently resists being remade. In the words of this brazen debut collection, “There is no new world without a girl leaping and fighting.”

About the Reviewer

Erica Reid lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. She earned her MFA at Western Colorado University (‘22) and serves as assistant editor at THINK Journal. In 2022 she was nominated for Best New Poets and a Pushcart Prize.