Notes & Observations on Rob Kendall’s “Faith”
Rob Kendall’s “Faith: An Expanding Multi-Verse in Five Movements,” created in 2001 (& published in Cauldron & Net in 2002, and ELC1 in 2006), is a philosophical poem about coming to grips with existential darkness. I had long been fascinated with Kendall’s use of movement, a strategy that both helps to underscore the poem’s theme and highlight shifts in thought as the speaker wrestles with reconciling faith and logic to stave off despair. I also admire the way Kendall plays with the idea as motion common to kinetic poetry and as different sections of a musical work.
My recent visit to the Robert Kendall Papers at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library gave me the opportunity to study Kendall’s notes as he developed the poem from paper to the computer medium. In Box 1 of the 14 boxes that comprise his collection I discovered two folders, both with “Faith” hand-written on the tab. The first contained 43 pages of print-outs of the poem. The second folder contained five, dated from 7 May to 20 July 2001, one for each of the first three movements and two for the 4th. Missing from the file is a print-out for the fifth Movement. If you have ever experienced the poem in its entirety (and I encourage you to if you haven’t), you know why it is not there: It is just not possible. [But more about that later.] At first, I wondered why there are the two folders. Upon closer inspection, it was clear that the first reflected Kendall’s many drafts, while the second constitutes the final version––or, as I explain below, as close to a final version as possible.
Of course, I took photos––especially of the contents in the second folder. I followed that up with screen captures of the poem from the 2006 version published in the ELC1 so that I could compare the print-outs of this “final” version with the one that eventually made its way online. I am doing this textual analysis to understand the process by which Kendall developed his ironic notion of movement in a work written as five Movements that throws light on one person’s movement from crisis and indecision to peace and deliberate action. Physical and sonic movement, I argue, symbolize the intellectual and spiritual journey that is part of the human condition. Below are notes and observations.
The 1st Movement
The print-out is called “an untitled document” and numbered by hand as “1,” indicating that it is the first screen of the five movements of the work. Comparing the print-out with the published version, we see that the poem was originally entitled “Belief” instead of “Faith.” We also see that Kendall has written in pencil the word, “So,” the first trigger Kendall provides for navigating through the five movements of the poem.
Movement is used playfully to reflect the work’s kinetic quality where words fall, spin, slide, expand, blink, appear, and disappear, as well as its sonic quality where sound and music change in style and tempo with each of its five sections. When the poem begins, “logic” literally rains down in drops from the top of the screen, tinkling as they fall on “Faith.” Only one of them, however, remain. As this action takes place, the words, “can’t,” “bend,” and “this,” spin into place below “logic.” The delicate chiming that introduce each drop stops as the words become still. The line reads: “Logic can’t bend this.” “[T]his,” in this context, refers to belief or faith. And indeed, faith is unmoved by the onslaught of drops.
While the placement of the titles are different between the two versions, the words appear in similar locations. It is worth noting that in the published version Kendall accentuates the word “Faith” by using a highly decorative typeface while choosing a plain san serif typeface for the three words in the line.
The 2nd Movement
The second print-out shows that the poem is still called “Belief” and untitled, but it is numbered “2” by hand. Like with the previous movement Kendall has added the trigger at the bottom of the page by hand. We see, however, that he changes his mind several times––first using “Then,” before switching to “(Maybe, But And yet),” and finally deciding on “Maybe. But . . . .” It is this last choice that appears in the published version.
At this stage Kendall begins to differentiate color. All of the words from the 1st Movement remains golden yellow. All new words introduced in this one, however, are orange. This treatment of color continues in the next movements where blood red and later black are used to augment words and lines in order to emphasize the speaker’s confusion and growing despair.
The 2nd movement of “Faith” also introduces what I call kinepoeia––that is, movement suggested by the textual representation of the word. An example of kinepoeia is seen when the word, “edge,” literally sidles or edges in. I model this term on onomatopoeia, a rhetorical strategy that associates sound with the textual representation of a word (e.g. bam/bam). It is a form of imagery indigenous to the digital medium and unable to be reproduced in print (unless we need to have our meds adjusted, that is).
But I digress. Kendall makes use of kinepoeia in subsequent movements of the poem. In the case of “edge,” it helps to underscore the main point of the poem: Doubt creeps in; our belief system is sorely tested when logic finds its way in.
The poem now reads: “I edge/logic/out. Can’t the/mind press/on/around the bend to/consummate this vision/of the deep “or”?. The word “or” appears last on the screen, rising from the bottom with the pitch of the sound rising along with it . . . before it is punctuated with the question mark. This movement differs in tempo from the previous one. The staccato tinkling of chimes we heard in the 1st movement gives way to a slightly slower strum of a harp as each word appears. The harp is perhaps a reminder of “Faith” as in angels, God and heaven. As the line suggests, one may try to ignore logic and simply embrace faith with all of its inconsistencies because it is easier, because it doesn’t require us to stare into the “deep” and make sense of it. “Maybe, but”, hinted in the trigger, calls acceptance of faith, devoid of deliberation regarding logic’s place in the cosmos, into question.
The 3rd Movement
The poem continues to retain the title, “Belief.” Like the previous two printouts, the trigger words are hand-written at the bottom of the page, but this time the words do not match those of the published version.
Motion increases in this movement and continues to emphasize the theme. “Edge” becomes “hedge,” when an “h” pushes its way in. As all new letters and words introduced in this movement, it is an ominous blood red. We are reminded of the phrase, “hedge one’s bets”–certainly one way to reconcile faith and logic, though perhaps also a cop-out. Kinepoeia is seen with the words “winking” and “neon,” appearing and disappearing as if they are winking and blinking, respectively, at us. “[T]heory” appears upside down before it is righted. The “or” from the previous movement is divided now as an “o” and “r,” both of which shake and tremble. The interjection, “Oh,” rhyming with “No” in the next line, opens an apostrophe to “logic” (Oh/red/winking/neon logic”), a dangerous temptation threatening to seduce the speaker down an unseemly path to ruin––the winking/blinking neon sign reminiscent of red light districts and the seedy part of town. The poem now reads: “I hedge. Oh/red/winking/neon logic./No, I just can’t make the sunny/side of my mind press/the black button, think/around the bend of theory to be/only this consummate “o,” this visionary/”r” of the deeper world.”
Returning to the use of color––as I mentioned previously all of the words from the 1st and 2nd movements––“faith,” “logic,” “bend,’ and “this”––remain in the 3rd and are represented in a golden yellow. Words marked for change, like “edge,” are orange. New words and letters added to words and lines are shown in blood red. Print-outs in the first folder show that Kendall identified words targeted for movement by circling them; the photo of the print-out in the next movement retains his careful planning. Sound, too, is used strategically: The tempo slows down further in this movement to an elegaic, synthetic sound, signaling contemplation brought on by questioning belief in the face of logic. This constructed sound sits in contrast with the natural notes we heard previously made with the musical instrument (the harp). The “Yet then . . .” of the trigger however shifts the mood from what has been in thus far, in this movement, an existential crisis to perhaps, in the next, a resolution of the conflict.
The 4th Movement
As I mentioned earlier, the second folder contained two versions of the 4th Movement (which I refer to as A & B). A retains the title, “Belief,” while B has scratched out the word and changed it to “Faith”––which the poem has now come to be known. Another difference between the two print-outs is the final word: in A, it is “Jump,” while in B, “Jump” is scratched out by hand and replaced with “Leap.” The latter word makes more sense in that it reminds us of the idea, “leap of faith,” the act of trusting the unknowable and many times the insensible––which is precisely what faith calls for. Neither contains the trigger “Next” on the document. While both print-outs were placed in the folder together, only B is numbered “4” by hand. So, it seems odd that A is included in a folder intended for the final documents. But. . . There is one anomaly: The word “incorruptible,” that appears in the published version, is hand-written on A but does not appear in B. When I asked the archivist about how the materials and boxes had been assembled, I learned that Kendall produced the folders and placed the documents inside them. And so, in the case of the two print-outs, Kendall decided to keep both in the folder because together they reflect the final version of the poem. I don’t know about you, but this is one of the many things I love about archival research––sleuthing through information and gaining weird insights into texts.
Okay, back to the poem. The poem has reached the climax in the conflict between faith and logic. The speaker, whom we left standing at the edge of the cliff and looking down at the abyss in the 3rd movement, now makes the decision to “press” a “foot firmly” ahead to the “chasm.” A sense of gleeful madness––that is “off the rocker” (yippee!)”––tells us that the struggle is over. All that is left is for the speaker to “leap.” Both “off the rocker” and “leap” are emphasized through movement (re: kinepoeia, again): the former slants downward from the other words on the line, and the latter grows in size as if falling from a height onto us. Other phrases, like “leave-taking” and “foregoing, going gone” literally leave and go and return.
The sound is a mix the harp of the 2nd Movement with the deep synthetic sound of 3rd, representing the tussle between faith and logic. The poem now reads: “I step to the idea edge elegantly and oh so/ultimately, not just any watered-down walking about/but a fine wine of leave-taking, a full-bodied/forgoing-going-gone upon the logic lip./No, I just can’t make the usual sense anymore so/I’ll simply stride out of my mind, press my foot firmly/into the black, all-but-bottomless chasm beyond the brink,/around the bend, off the rocker (yippee!),/only this consummate poem, this visionary, incorruptible/transcript of the deeper world’s One True Word:/Leap”. That “[O]h” shifts from its earlier use as an interjection to an adverb modifying “so”, hinting to a change in perspective from despair to acceptance. We notice that the color black is introduced in this movement, signifying perhaps the despair the speaker has been experiencing.
The 5th Movement
It would be impossible to type, much less print-out, the text of the 5th Movement, for after triggering it with the word “Now” from the previous movement, all but four of the words from the previous movement fall to the bottom, piling up on one another. The chiming sound from the 1st Movement returns as each word hits bottom. The word “I” is the first to go (perhaps referring to the necessity of giving up one’s ego) with the other words following. “Faith,” the only word left yellow, falls last. The others are orange, blood red, and black, or combinations of those colors. But while the other words are unreadable in the jumbled mass, “Faith” lands with a bounce, seemingly unscathed. Introduced by the phrase that the four words make up, faith gets the last word: “just to sum up:”. The colon announces to us that while we may struggle to make sense of the world and indeed even if we rely on the muddle that results in following logic, logic requires faith in the truths logic presents. It all boils down to believing what we can know and even accepting what we can’t––that is, the “black” nothingness, the “o”, the hole we see at the bottom when we look down from the ledge.
The “o” introduces another term I use when describing rhetorical strategies that have emerged in digital media: pictopoeia. This term refers to the use of a letter that reflects an image of a concept––in this case an O for hole. This same tact is used in the kinetic poem “>>oh<<” by Jennifer Hill-Kaucher, Dan Waber, and Reiner Strasser, published in 2005, where round puddles of water appeared in the poem as the letter. The word “oh” is sounded by different voices as the user mouses over the Os.
I end my notes and observations here. There is still much work to be done on this essay, and I may refine my views as I continue to work on it. I’ll definitely continue to edit this draft for grammar, spelling, and usage. But it feels good to finally have the chance to write about a work that I have loved for a very long time––over a decade to be precise.
Because “Faith” was produced in Flash, it is becoming difficult for many people to access the work. I am hoping that others interested in kinetic poetry will document these works in some way. Any takers? If so, I have a long list I’ll be happy to share with you.
***I thank the David M. Rubinstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library for making the Robert Kendall Papers available to scholars and for collecting and preserving electronic literature for future generations.