Agrippa makes it to the big time

The New York Times reports on a new exhibit of letterpress books from the 1990s at the New York Public Library. Among the books listed is William Gibson’s legendary (to some, anyway) book-length poem, Agrippa (a Book of the Dead). This collaboration between Gibson and artist Dennis Ashbaugh, produced in an extremely limited edition, featured photosensitive prints and the text of the poem on a self-encrypting floppy enclosed with the book; the poem could be read once, in theory, and then never read again.

I remember at the time Agrippa came out, when I was in undergraduate at the University of Virginia and a habitué of Usenet, that it was fairly shortly after the publication of the book that the text of the poem was available on Usenet; in fact, it’s still on my hard drive, three Macs later. Gibson himself isn’t complaining: “there seems to be some doubt as to whether any of these curious objects were ever actually constructed. I certainly don’t have one myself. Meanwhile, though, the text escaped to cyberspace and a life of its own, which I found a pleasant enough outcome.” His official website has an official electronic text of the poem, including my favorite section of the poem, the transition between the first two stanzas:

“Papa’s mill 1919”, my grandfather most regal amid a wrack of cut lumber,
might as easily be the record
of some later demolition, and
His cotton sleeves are rolled
to but not past the elbow,
striped, with a white neckband
for the attachment of a collar.
Behind him stands a cone of sawdust some thirty feet in height.
(How that feels to tumble down,
or smells when it is wet)


The mechanism: stamped black tin,
Leatherette over cardboard, bits of boxwood,
A lens
The shutter falls
Dividing that from this.