Mike Alexander’s “We Internet in Different Voices”

The strong mythological turn of this narrative is only barely indicated by the examples I’ve given; within the sonnet cycle the mythic correspondences are densely layered. As myth the poem is highly successful: intricate, dynamic, seamlessly integrated, and it really does transform a squalid Springer-Oprah episode into legend, and legend into today’s Springer-Oprah episode.

A major dynamic of this sequence is generated by the tension between stasis and process, enacted by a binary opposition of archaicising and contemporaneous elements. On the archaic side of the opposition, along with the ancient mythic material, is the sequence’s Spenserian poetic structure, evocative of the English renaissance, and looking back further to the Italian sonneteers, particularly Petrarch.

Alastair Fowler has suggested2 that many Elizabethan sonnet sequences (including Spenser’s Amoretti) “show a correspondence between structure and meaning on a numerical plane”. Certainly it is possible to find such numerically-based structures in We Internet In Different Voices. This twenty-one sonnet cycle is a corona, with each consecutive sonnet taking the last line of the previous sonnet as its first line, until the last line of the last sonnet is the same as the first line of the first sonnet: thus suggesting a cyclical structure mimetic perhaps of life-cycles. This is apt, because the original myth of Persephone enacts the cycle of the seasons, with Persephone a vegetation and fertility goddess who visits and fructifies the daylight world in Spring and Summer, but who retreats to the deathly Underworld in Autumn and Winter, when green vegetation and crops fade and disappear.

Within the larger cycle of this sonnet corona there are divisions. The twenty one sonnets (a number which itself has various powerful numerological implications) fall into two groups of ten, with one pivotal sonnet at the centre. This is sonnet XI, where Kori’s plane lands in Athens after she “cuts loose” from her home; it’s the portal point where she actually enters Tod’s Otherworld, “her metamorphosis complete”. Thus sonnets I-X are set in America, pre-abduction; sonnet XI marks her arrival in Tartarus; sonnets XII-XXI show her immersion in the world of pornographic sex and her return, transformed, to mundane America.

The sonnets can also be divided into three sets of seven, with I-VII showing Kori’s emotional seduction via the chatroom; VIII-XIV chronicling Mom’s discovery of the “love-tokens”, Kori’s flight and last image as a virgin; and XV-XXI showing her physical deflowering (pun intended), debauchment, and return to America — albeit as micro-mini clad nymphomaniac with serious ‘tude. And where the cycle began with her watching another girl on the daytime talk show, in the final sonnet it is Kori herself flouncing “knowledgeably” in front of the talk show audience. Cycle complete.

One reason I’ve tried to draw out a Spenserian connection here is because the individual sonnets in Alexander’s We Internet In Different Voices cycle are written (expertly, as one would expect from a practitioner of Alexander’s skill and experience) in the Spenserian sonnet form, with a rhyme scheme of abab bcbc cdcd ee. Thus quatrain is linked to quatrain by interlacing rhymes, just as on the macro-structural level sonnet is linked to sonnet by last-line/first-line chains. These mathematical and structural harmonies serve not only to resonate the seasonal-cycle/life-cycle nexus, and to suggest change and continuity, but also to invoke the archaicising classical and renaissance intertextualities that support the work’s archetypal mythic structure. And as Spenser transformed the Petrarchan love-sonnet conventions to fit his own local context, so Alexander subverts those values into something more hard-edged, contemporary and entirely less platonic: the Petrarchan/Spenserian Ideal Lady becomes a teen Porn-Queen.

Many sonnet sequences are patterned mosaics of self-contained individual sonnets, each one of which can easily stand alone and be read as a discrete unit; as for example, Shakespeare’s sonnets are. But not, in my opinion, this one: I read We Internet In Different Voices as a single unified poem of twenty one sonnetic stanzas. Such is the momentum of the overall narrative drive and interlinked imagery and thematic material that it is hard to pluck one sonnet from the flow and read it as an isolated poem with its own internally self-sufficient logic.

2 Fowler, Alastair, Triumphal Forms: Structural Patterns in Elizabethan Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 2010 edition.