The blue lights that pulse and flicker from otherwise dark houses are often the only ones I see when I walk home at night. These lights, thrown from computer and television screens, strike me at times as the modern equivalents of hearth fires. I return to this comparison, however strained, not only because screens gather us around them or because we stare into them, but also because of the nature of the light itself: the glow that comes from most of our screens is, like fire, emitted light, and emitted light captures us, transfixes us. We stare into the embers of a fire. We gaze at the screensaver. In such cases, emitted light encourages us toward reverie. We drift before it in a dream-like mood.
This effect opens up exciting possibilities for digital literature. Backlit, the glowing screen becomes a vehicle for meditative, even mesmerizing experiences. Take, for example, Ah (a shower song) by K Michel and Dirk Vis, in which an endless loop of text unspools around a single syllable. Michel and Vis describe it:
Words glide in and out of each other in a way that reminds us of respiration, or of the ‘stream of consciousness’ of somebody standing in the shower whose thinking and poems (singing) about the unfolding of time flow almost iconically into each other.
In its repetition and simplicity, its ceaseless forward motion, Ah feels nearly hypnotic. I give up to it, over to it, watch it go by. “It's almost as if the reader is allowed passivity,” observe Michel and Vis, “but the reader's role changes.”
Of course, I might just as easily have ended it, maybe checked out what’s on Hulu instead. Works like Ah, despite sharing the same light as television, ask for a very different sort of attention. And that’s one of their challenges: to create a literary experience from a medium that usually invites us to check/veg/zone/space/tune out. Fortunately, with Ah—and with Claudia Rankine’s and John Lucas’s Zidane or Eliot Khalil Wilson’s and Rick Mullark’s “Designing a Bird from Memory in Jack’s Skin Kitchen,” to squeeze in a few more examples—we see that’s not only possible, but powerful. Here’s work that’s luminous. That’s lit, in the best sense.