[Ugly Duckling Presse; 2023]
Can a text act as a Turing test if it cannot hear my response? Can it tell if the reader is human or bot? Introduced in 1950, Alan Turing’s “Imitation Game” asked, “Can machines think?” Turing’s experiments with artificial computer intelligence evolved into today’s tests that determine whether a computer user is a human or a bot. Turing’s question lingered as I read Nay Saysourinho’s The Capture of Krao Farini, published by Ugly Duckling Presse. Billed as “part Turing test, part circus flyer,” Saysourinho’s debut chapbook narrates the imagined inner world of a woman known as Krao Farini, a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sideshow performer often called “The Missing Link” for her hypertrichosis (the medical term for excessive facial and body hair growth) and supposed hypermobility and lanky limbs that made her appear, according to Wikipedia, “apelike.” Born in Laos, Krao was captured, sold, exhibited, and toured in Europe as proof of Darwinian evolution before she was brought to the United States as a circus performer at the turn of the twentieth century, where Saysourinho’s text begins.
Each poem in this seamless collection opens with the familiar captcha Turing test grid that determines whether a website visitor is human or a bot. Designed to prevent spam website attacks, the printed captcha catches a reader’s thought pattern like a visual koan. Rather than familiar captcha images like streetlights, buses, or motorbikes, the reader is asked to identify something else. The question of “human” is present throughout the text, flipping the narrative to dehumanize Krao’s captors, colonial conquest, and the idea of the circus. The first captcha reads, “Select all the squares with people. If there are none, undress yourself.” Behind the grid is an image of tightrope walker William Leonard Hunt (Farini’s captor and adoptive father) with a young, naked Krao pressing her cheek against his. The allusion to Krao as a prisoner behind the Turing test grid intensifies as the questions with each subsequent poem move further and further from the gridded image. “Select all the squares with names,” above a grid of the profile of a shaved head. There are no names. The next direction reads, “If there are no names, steal one.” Both directives and performance are highlighted throughout the text, citing Krao’s ability to sit still for seventeen hours. Positioned before each poem, the Turing test grids suggest there is no freeing Krao from the algorithmic test or from the spectacle of the colonial circus that brands her as “rescued” rather than taken from her homeland.
Saysourinho’s concise text lyrically voices Krao’s life and death in New York as a sideshow performer for Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus. Each prose poem unravels the construction of Krao’s identity, beginning with Hunt, who renamed himself “The Great Farini” before paying to take Krao from explorers who captured her and her family. There is a focus on invention and re-invention through both Krao’s inner voice and the historical facade of circuses. Saysourinho skillfully transmits alternative historical narratives in this collection, weaving moments of Krao’s life with her imagined voice and grounding the reader in Krao’s perspective. The book’s translingual poetics mirror Krao’s own life of fluency in English and German as well as the manipulation of her mother tongue by her captors and language loss.
The narrative of her sideshow life begins with the lie, “Krao he says, we’ll pretend you were missing, and I’ll pretend to find you,” setting the stage both for Saysourinho’s attention to colonial exploitation and Krao’s voice. “The children,” Krao says, “want to hear about monkeys and tigers, but New York is the only forest I know. I turn skyscrapers into ogres and freeways into snakes. I don’t miss the place I come from—you don’t miss a place that lets you go so easily.” Saysourinho explores what it might mean to be trapped, not just in a profession or a country but in a prescribed identity and public eye.
In the collection of a life so brief, exploited, and likely lonely, Saysourinho crafts an inspirational and feminist voice for Krao. In one of the final poems, Krao says:
The carnival is coming to an end. Now is the time to reveal the future. You expect Circe, but for your obol you get Cassandra. You will doubt me, disbelieve me, and laugh me away—but who better than show-women, exiled to the corner of your eye, to read the horizon? We don’t have to lie when we are incredible.
This line returns me to the Turing test. Who is human? Who is bot? Who is animal? Is someone “real” if their life is a spectacle? Saysourinho explores this through the life of a woman treated as an animal of spectacle because of her androgen levels. True hypertrichosis is rare, however, hirsutism (the endocrine disorder causing male hair growth patterns on non-males) affects 10 percent of people born without Y chromosomes, making a “bearded lady” more common than sensational.
The Capture of Krao Farini does what great historical docupoetics can do: lead the reader to learn more about someone’s past while also drawing parallels to modern colonial exploitation. “At the carnival,” Saysourinho writes, “everyone is a prophet.” I see this prophet in the writer’s other work, in which rich folklore meets historical account that alchemizes into cultural criticism so sharp I can’t put words to the effect of her imagination. The only wish I have for this book is that it were longer. According to her website, Saysourinho is working on a novel, an ecological fairy tale set in Southeast Asia, and I can’t wait to read it.
Amy Bobeda holds an MFA from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where she serves as director of the Naropa Writing Center and teaches pedagogy and processed-based art. She’s the author of Red Memory (FlowerSong Press), What Bird Are You? (Finishing Line Press), mi sin manitos (Ethel Press), Self Guided Walking Tours (forthcoming from Ghost City’s summer micro-chap series), and a forthcoming project from Spuytin Duyvil. She’s on Twitter @amybobeda & @everystoryisamenstrualstory on Instagram.
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