“The Digital Self: Poems and Illustrations” by Wesley Bishop

“It felt like a time apt for apocalyptic writing,” says Bishop in his note at the end of The Digital Self (Lulu 2023). “Yet,” he says, “we continued to create countless traces of ourselves with each day spent in the digital sphere. The things we liked, or shared, or rage posted about, or emailed, or tweeted, or recorded were testaments to continuing to live. We are a literature, I found, in a vast sea of electronic connectivity.” His collection is true to both the apocalyptic sense and the human drive to carry on, hoping for the best, in spite of fear and despair.

The opening—a concrete poem, presents a terrible irony in juxtaposing a little “plane” of self-congratulation aimed at the twin towers.



Soviet-Afghan War!

USSR falls! Empire crashes! Down!

End of History!


The poem presents 9/11 as opening as connected to twentieth century events which we as a nation saw as victories, but which did not forestall (to say the least) a devastating terrorist attack. This opening establishes the importance of that tragedy to the current sense of dread shared by so many today. Later poems refer to other causes for the fear and despair that have evidenced themselves even among the young since the COVID-19 pandemic. Surprisingly, in spite of its misgivings about the future, the collection doesn’t seem fatalistic. An irrepressible spirit underlies the poems and illustrations; the forms, verbal and figural, are imaginative and beguiling.

Bishop’s collection is the first collection of poetry I’ve seen that makes art out of pervasive twenty-first century experiences, pervasive in the lives of the nation’s relatively privileged—those with access to college education and fairly decent jobs. Though much of the narrative is in the first-person singular; it often represents a current plurality. The poem, artifacts, begins this way:

when the end came we did not save everything there was barely

room for us and so what we deemed “us” was saved what was

“not us” was left behind and thus we learned who we really

were by the mountains of archives artifacts, and ways of being

we left for destruction


The prose poem, “Relatively Speaking,” offers another reflection on the relatively privileged majority’s viewpoint, beginning with this observation: “You gotta understand. People like me were not immune, just relatively safe.” The narrator’s monologue ends with another observation:

                                 This thing killing us is aging at a

rate hardly any of us can see. It is pulling us along in

gravitational undertows. This despite the continued fight.

This, in violation of countless theories of the physics of human


The poems portray a bleak future and an afterlife in which our digital traces are valued as sources of information. In this post-(but not quite) COVID, post-(but not quite) inflationary, era with its catastrophic (strange) weather, and recent Ukraine-(US) Russia war, the ether into which our words and “shards of soul” travel is electronic; ethereal primarily in its relation to a quantum mechanical reality composed of probabilities and ghostly connections. The poet questions not only how we denizens of the twenty-first century society got to where we are, but where we are exactly. In a way, the collection calls to mind Rimbaud’s famous proclamation of the “self” as obsolete—and the “I” being without boundaries. Bishop’s “iPoet,” for example, is a lyrical poem about the shared fate of man and machine: Though I’m sure the poem’s title is alluding to iPods, iPads, and iPhones, I hope Bishop is also alluding to Isaac Asimov’s classic science fiction novel, I, Robot, first published in 1950, and which—unlike the movie inspired by the novel—speculates with amazing foresight on future relations between humans and intelligent machines:

Machines are forbidden to create.

But the robot continues to create. It multiplies and multiplies. Soon we are swimming in poems stories, and the occasional novel. The market is saturated. The market crashes. A depression, no not so great, but a depression nonetheless ensues. I stand in line with the robot to jump out a window. “There is a poem in this,” it beeps sadly.

We say nothing more.

Holding each other, we fall. Man and machine. Poets both.

Racing to meet the pavement below.

Most of these poems are examples of what literary critic Terrence Des Pres, in his Praises and Dispraises: Poetry and Politics, the 20th Century, describes as the imagination pressing back against violence against self. And our poetic selves include nature. However, these poems don’t construe nature as transcendent and full of hidden meaning, as so much American poetry does. Rather, Bishop’s poems present nature as vulnerable and threatened.

the planet was dying before our faces

and after our thoughts

in the in-between spaces

of obvious and



.    we walked on it

with our careless words

(not like eggshells)


thinking it would not crack

thinking it would continue

to conceal

The work comments too, on how we (most of us) serve a power that is in many ways, destructive, even of beauty, including nature’s beauty.  Here are lines from “Elegy to a Young Hopeful”:

Beauty was decided, 5-4,

not to be necessary.


I became a scarecrow

in this new regime,


scarring and scaring the world

with a mutilated hayseed grin.

Corn fed.

Criticisms of particular groups are relatively rare in this collection, but the ironically titled “Dialogue with Brick Walls” suggests a contributing predilection:

it was oppressive for them

to accept what they

could not label

These were the humans

who walked the earth?

and were told the act

of feet accosting the ground

was invented only for them

a special vehicle from Jesus-God,

rationed only to them.

. . .

The world stopped at the sovereignty of

their comprehension.

And we burned


to that





In contrast to these poems, but as political in its own way, is “Big Belly.” Not just a response to prejudice against people considered overweight, this defense of corpulence may also be in response to the current irrelevance of the corporeal as opposed to the virtual:

My big belly

rolls soft, and kind.


“It will cause dementia.” – Doctor

One of the surprising things for me was Bishop’s idea of our future after-life as a searchable literature, shards of our souls serving as data to other humans and to future machines. Here are four concluding stanzas of “Cyber Pamphleteer in an Imagined Station”:

These strangers, bathed in

blue white light

wade next to me

in pools of infinite connectivity.


And they like me,

and they share me, and they give me plenitudes of hearts, thumbs, and

winking yellow faces,

. . .

Narrator hits send and

Living but dead,

a zombie cyborg,


Me, a member of their ontology,

adding a layer of new to their growing

archaeological phenomena

of our shared carbon conscious silicon existence.


The last poem in the collection asks if even those who are “in control” are in control:

                    The moderators told us to be calm. They pleaded with

us to REMAIN calm. But the ocean was moving, freed from

ice and the waves grew taller and taller. . . . .

. . . Into the dam our waves crashed. Our energy became

the energy for a man atop the dam who pulled the levers and

let us out with fixed regularity. He hoped to power his fortunes

of design. The dam creaked and on the face of the operating

dam man I saw . . . panic. Hysteria perhaps?

This final poem ends on a more fantastic note than the opening poem. It suggests that it is our society has gotten away from us, perhaps created a monster, if an unwitting one, beyond the control even of those who have assumed power. In The Digital Self: Poems and Illustrations, readers will find not only a new poet, but a new take on our human condition.

Wesley R. Bishop

Wesley R. Bishop teaches American history, public history, and community history at Jacksonville State University (AL) and is the founding and managing editor of the humanities journal The North Meridian Review. He lives in Anniston, Alabama, in the southernmost part of the Appalachian Mountains. Bishop is author of two forthcoming nonfiction books, Coxey’s Army: The Path of Protest from Populism to the New Deal, 1893-1936 and co-author of Liberating Fat Bodies: Social Media Censorship and Body Size ActivismThe Digital Self is his first poetry collection offered by the new Alabama press, North Meridian Books.





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