June 27, 2019
To Look After and Use by Leah Falk
Asylum Artist, Leah Falk, talks us through the creative process behind her newest chapbook, To Look After and Use, now available for pre-sale.
To Look After and Use, my forthcoming chapbook,is a collection of poems that uses the life and work of Alan Turing as a departure point for considering a constellation of questions: what do our machines inherit from us? How do we decide when we’ve isolated uniquely human habits of being, in the mind or body? What are the human dimensions of highly abstract problem solving? And, crucially for me, the science-curious child of an electrical engineer: how might non-scientists interact with and understand loved ones whose lives orbited difficult scientific problems?
When I started this collection in 2013, I was first fascinated by the possibilities of poetic form suggested by early attempts to reproduce human habits of mind, such as the therapist chatbot ELIZA. I turned to Turing’s biography to understand more about the mathematical foundation he had laid for early computing. Soon, I was stuck on another question: why was I interested? Was I just writing a biography of Turing in poems, and if so, what was the point of such a project? He already had a biographer.
While asking myself these questions, I came upon another biography, one his mother Sara had written after his death in 1954. Alan, as is well known, died of apparent suicide after he was arrested following the discovery of his relationship with another man (homosexuality was then a criminal offense in Britain). Sara Turing didn’t intend her biography to be authoritative – she considered that the province of Alan’s colleagues – but she hoped it would serve as a resource. “This book contains almost all the essential material for a biography of Alan Turing,” she wrote. Though full of the silences we’d expect from a woman of her position and time – she mentions nothing about his sexuality and little about the conditions of his death – her act of creation struck me as not only archival or academic, but also as an exquisite, painstaking act of mourning.
Sara’s biography was the missing puzzle piece that allowed me to complete To Look After and Use – as an outsider and non-scientist, I found myself using her persona as a kind of avatar for my own curiosity. Persona in poems is often fraught: persona can be a mask that obscures or reflects the real ethos of the poet, her motives and preoccupations and biases; it can easily descend into caricature. But at its best, it can permit poets the frame to explore the questions we’re too bewildered to ask with our own bare voices. For example: how will I deal with the deaths of my loves, when they come? What will remain of them in the artifacts they’ve left behind, and how do I locate them there? I found such a frame even in Sara’s straightforward, sometimes evasive writing; and space in the unwritten interstices of her biography to imagine – dare I? -- her perplexity, sadness, and anger at her son’s death.
Turing at Lascaux as first published in The Kenyon Review