Rebooting Electronic Literature: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media

Critical Essay on Mary-Kim Arnold's "Lust"

Repetition in Mary-Kim Arnold’s “Lust”

Sexual lust, blood lust, lust for love––all are explored in Mary-Kim Arnold’s “Lust.” Published along with J. Yellowlees Douglas’ “I Have Said Nothing” in The Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext, Volume 1, Number 2 in 1994, [1] “Lust” was hailed by critic Robert Coover as a “miniature gem” (Coover). The story, told in 3rd person, recalls raw emotions experienced by the protagonist, referred to only as “she,” through her relationships with four named lovers. “Lust” is as much a work of poetry as it is prose, achieving the former, in part, through its extensive use of repetition.

Repetition in the Hypertext Structure
After the work is launched, the Prologue appears. It is presented as three stanzas of poetry containing 36 words. Each one of these 36 words links to a lexia. For example, “Nearly,” the first word of the poem, links to the lexia “Counting.” This means that there are 36 lexias beyond the one that constitutes the Prologue. This is the extent of the number of lexias accessible in the work. [2] All other links are derived from these 36 lexias. This means that once readers land on “Counting,” they can click on any of the words of that lexia and go to the lexia, “He Wishing,” the lexia connected to the 23rd word of the Prologue, “of.” The structure continues in this manner throughout the entire work: [3]

What is interesting to note is that Arnold does not link each of 36 lexias to a unique lexia. She uses only 27 of them, repeating nine lexias. “Summer,” “Innocence,” “She Aches,” “John,” “Morning,” “Innocent,” “Wishing,” and “Dave” are used twice, and “Jeffrey” is repeated three times. 
Repetition of Words
“Lust” is a short work comprised of only 1738 words, and only 239 of them are unique. [4] The rest––1499––are words or forms of words used repeatedly throughout the work. Most used is the pronoun, “she,” which appears 120 times; “he” is second, appearing 79 times. Examples of repeated words include:

He: 79
She: 120
Him: 43
Her: 74
Blade: 5
Blood: 9
Child: 29
Face: 8
Fibers: 7
Flesh: 14
Knife: 11
Naked: 17
Skin: 8
Slowly: 8
Surface: 7
Ache/Aching: 5
Fall/Falls/Falling: 6
Remembers/Remembers: 36
Tears/Tearing: 8
Touch/Touching: 14
Scream/Screams/Screaming: 10
Speak/Speaks/Speaking: 30
Repetition of Sounds
Not only are lexias and words repeated but sounds themselves, an approach that contributes to the poetic quality of the work. The Prologue, for example, is filled with the repetitive lushness of the silibant “S” sound found in 10 of its 36 words: 

Nearly naked
this summer night
sweet and heavy,
he comes to her.
This night, she follows him,
sweat between them.
They speak of the child
and the summer sun
with words that yield
to the touch.

“[S]ummer,” “sweet,” “comes,” “This,” “follows,” “she,” “speak,” “sweat,” “sun,” “words”––the use of internal rhyme here is not uncommon in print-based poetry, but what makes “Lust” to stand out as a work of hypertextual writing is the way sounds and words are linked together to emphasize the raw emotional experience of the protagonist.

For example, the lexia, “Summer,” is linked from the 4th word “Summer” (Word #4:  “Summer” -> goes to lexia “Summer” -> goes to lexia “She and the Child” -> goes to lexia “Knife”) and reads:

She is aching. She wants to sit down. She sits on the carpet, touches her toes.
He speaks to her, asks her to follow him, to stay with him. Here he is like a child,
slowly deliberately.
There is no mourning. They do not speak. There are no screams. There is no blood.
That night, there are no tears. There are blankets of words, the fibers fraying.
The summer sun is sweet and heavy.

The two lines, “[T]his summer night/sweet and heavy,” from the Prologue repeats in this lexia. Due to the addition of the word "is," however, it is now presented as a statement of fact: “The summer sun is sweet and heavy” (my emphasis). Also in the Prologue the protagonist is referred to as “her” in a prepositional phrase where “He” is the subject. This lack of agency for the protagonist shifts in the lexia linked to it, “Summer.” Within the 74 words of this lexia the word, “she,” is used three times. “He” is also used twice, but we find he’s literally subsumed in the “h” and “e” in “her” and in “she” six times, highlighting in this lexia for the protagonist's ability to take action. Both "her" and "he" are yoked together in the word, “there," an adverb that pinpoints the two characters in a specific location. Yet this is not the case in this lexia since there is no reference for one. Space, like the male character alluded to, remains vague and indistinguishable, meaning it can be anytime and anyone that these emotions were aroused. The use of "There"+ present tense in the singular form of to be (“is,” “are”) in the third stanza reflects three different types of repetition, including an anaphora, diacope, epimone. [5] Such rhetorical strategy further emphasizes the exhaustion from spent emotion felt by the protagonist.

Clicking on any of the words in "Summer" takes readers to the lexia “She and the Child,” which contains 44 words. It reads:

Dyed in the woolen blanket. Fraying ends. Fibers.
Sand, gravel against soft flesh.
She remembers being put on hold.
She remembers very fast. Very fast wind in the hair of sand.
She remembers cold.
He speaks to her slowly, deliberately.
She remembers the child.

“Slowly, deliberately” from “Summer” is repeated in this lexia and, at the same time, juxtaposed with the word, “fast,” used twice in the same line. The sibilant “S” sound from “[s]lowly” is repeated in the word, “fast,” exemplifying the internal rhyme, consonance. Furthermore, the “F” sound, introduced earlier in the lexia by “[f]raying,” “[f]ibers,” and “flesh,” presents us with a voiceless stop at the beginning of the word, producing the effect of literally being spit out of the mouth when uttered. “Fast,” is, thus, both a violent and lush word, evoking the full experience of lust in the narrative. Interestingly, the two lexias connect through the idea that “he,” whoever he is, is “remember[ed]” as a “child.”

Every word in “She and the Child” leads to the lexia, “Knife,” consisting of 20 words. Unlike the other two lexias mentioned earlier, this one is composed as a statement: 

She picks up the knife, thinks of his face, runs the smooth cold blade across the surface of her skin.

The emphasis on the “F” sound continues with “knife,” “face,” and “surface. The “P” in “picks” jars the ear in a purposeful way. Like “F,” “P” is voiceless and articulated with our lips, but because it is emitted due to a temporary blockage of the airstream, it literally explodes from the lips. We hear the sound repeated in the word that follows, “up,” the “P” sound once again stopping the flow of the words. So, the phrase "picks up" punctuates the line, stopping its flow like the “blade” of the “knife.”

“Summer” is the title of two lexias and appears the second time in the fourth stanza as the 28th word in the Prologue. This word takes the reader to a lexia “John” consisting of 24 words:

John had sand colored hair and eyes of sea. He drove a motorcycle, never wore a
helmet. “I am a dyed-in-the-wool Republican,” he said.

He is one of four lovers the protagonist alludes to in the narrative. It is only in this lexia that his name is ever stated. We cannot know how many of the 79 uses of “he” or 43 uses of “him” refers to this character. In fact, three of the men––John, Jeffrey, and Dave––appear each in only one lexia by name. Michael, the fourth lover, appears only in a lexia title. The lexia pertaining to John, like the ones in which Dave and Jeffrey appear––the 34th and 35th words, respectively––are written in the past tense. The one pertaining to Michael as well as all other lexias in “Lust” unfold in the present tense. This repetitive use of past tense among all other of the 33 lexias comprising the narrative makes these three lexias stand out in stark difference to Michael’s. Additionally, all three lexias relating to these men are prosaic rather than poetic, unfolding in statements outside of stanzaic form. Reading them together, we see a shift between types of lust, from casual desire to passionate longing.

John, for example, was a risk-taker who would not wear a “helmet,” whose conservative politics belied his lust for life and his insouciance toward danger. Jeffrey was a pragmatist with “a past,” who “wrapped it around him like a blanket to keep him warm, to keep him safe from harm. The blanket of steel, less penetrable than the surface of his skin.” She tells him, “[I]t didn’t matter to me, I wanted to know all of him, not just the good things, the dark side, too. He told me I had seen one too many movies” (Arnold's emphasis). Dave was a “guy’s guy [who] hung with the boys. He wore a baseball cap, only touched her when they were in bed. He called her “dude” and told her that didn’t understand ‘penis things.’” The matter of factness by which these men are described is devoid of emotion, standing in stark contrast to the rawness the protagonist expresses elsewhere in the narrative.

All of the 24 words in John’s lexia takes the reader to the lexia, “Innocence.” It reveals a lover’s quarrel between the protagonist and one of the men:

She follows him that night, running into the street, blindly, tears streaming down her cheeks, heaving wildly. She is barefoot, the gravel hard against the soft flesh of her soles. She runs on, sees him walking. She slows to a brisk walk, trying to catch her breath and tugs at her nightshirt, riding up between her naked thighs. She rakes her fingers through her hair and follows him home.
He looks at her as if he has expected her to follow him like this, naked except for the
long cotton shirt.
For god’s sake, sit down.’
I don’t want to sit. (Arnold's emphasis)

Jeffrey’s lexia goes back to the lexia, “John.” “Dave” takes the reader to one entitled, “Wishing.”

She wishes he had stayed with her. She wishes like a child that he had followed her
and stayed that night.
The morning comes. Summer sun, heavy, falling across the carpet fibers. She is on her knees, facing the child.
The child aches. The child comes to her, nearly naked. She speaks slowly, deliberately.

The fourth lover, Michael, on the other hand, is presented differently. As previously stated, his name only appears in the title of the lexia. She tells us that :

Orange juice kisses and summer sun – she remembers him with a faint longing,
wanting nothing like love, nothing like sweat or wind. And when the traces of salty
sweet lay on her skin like a blanket breath and tears, she thinks of him, thinks of him, 
always thinking of him.

The repetition of the word “think” found in “thinks” and “thinking,” an example of a polyptoton––a play on words––emphasizes that Michael is the only one of the four men for whom the protagonist still “long[s].”

Repetition as Rhetorical Strategy
Generally, repetition is a strategy used in literary works for emphasizing and clarifying ideas. With as much repetition found in this work, one would think that readers would come away with a clear understanding of the narrative. But this is not the case. Michael Joyce writes in his essay, “Nonce upon Some Times,” that:

In the story a woman has hurt a man or the man her, there is a knife and blood and gravel and a rug, they have a child or she think him one or he does her or they each or both imagine or desire or recall then they were one, he abuses her or she him or we imagine as much, they make love or do not, they sleep or do not, she runs off or he brings her back, they may or may not drink orange juice. There are men named Dave, John, Jeffrey, and Michael; the woman is unnamed, always called “she.” (141)

A History of Twentieth-Century American Women’s Poetry reports that “Lust” is said to “combine just thirty-seven screens, but as their ordering is contingent on the choices of the reader what emerges is a (sometimes frustratingly) incomplete deliberation on the sensuality, violent emotion, and violence surrounding the unnamed narrator “she.” The repetitive intensity that emerges from a reading of “Lust” returns the reader to the insistence of the body.” (NP)

In truth, repetition does not function in “Lust” to make the narrative comprehensible to readers but rather memorable to them. We, like the protagonist, are forced to remember the feelings of raw emotion that lust evokes. The images of “running” the “blade” of a “knife” across “the surface of her skin,” running” “barefoot” on the “gravel,” “blood” on the “carpet,” “tearing,” “screaming,” wrapping themselves up in “blankets” of wool and steel, like a “child”––like the rest of the images Arnold presents us––are built linguistically and rhetorically to emphasize the emotions the protagonist feels or felt about the men with whom she was emotionally involved. We come away from reading “Lust” having received not a clear understanding of a story but instead a reminder of the damage relationships can do, the lust they can evoke, the raw emotion they can drain from us, and how deeply they can cut.
[1] As mentioned in the critical essay for the Douglas chapter, Douglas reported in her interview that "I Have Said Nothing" was actually the first publication of The Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext but is numbered “2” because the work slated for number 1 was not available.

[2] When the work loads on the computer, it shows 38 nodes and 141 links. This information is also found in the promotions about “Lust” on the Eastgate Systems, Inc. site. (See The missing node may be an example of a janespace, or a lexia with no inbound links. See Terry Harpold's Ex-Foliations, pp. 190-1 for more information about this phenomenon. Arnold responded to my question about this possibility, stating "I don't know or remember at this point. I remember 36 lexias and the "prologue," which I added at the end––as a kind of menu / entry point. The janespace is a lovely notion, and it is quite possible I did that, being influenced by Michael Joyce and Stuart Moulthrop as I was, but I cannot say with certainty (Arnold, Personal Email, 28 June 2018).

[3] The lexias and linking unfold like this: 
Word #1: “Nearly” -> goes to lexia “Counting” -> goes to lexia “He Wishing” ->
Word #2:  “Naked” -> goes to lexia “Nearly Naked” -> goes to lexia “Summer” ->
Word #3:  “This” -> goes to lexia “Try” -> goes to lexia “In noce” ->
Word #4:  “Summer” -> goes to lexia “Summer” -> goes to lexia “She and the Child” ->
Word #5:  “Night” -> goes to lexia “Wishing” -> goes to lexia “She Aches” ->
Word #6:  “Sweet” -> goes to lexia “Aching” -> goes to lexia “He Expects” ->
Word #7:  “And” -> goes to lexia “Knife” -> goes to lexia “Fibers” ->
Word #8:  “Heavy” -> goes to lexia “She Aches” -> goes to lexia “Jeffrey” ->
Word #9:  “He” -> goes to lexia “Remembering” -> goes to lexia “He and the Child” ->
Word #10: “Comes” -> goes to lexia “Coming” -> goes to lexia “Jeffrey” ->
Word #11: “To” -> goes to lexia “Fibers” -> goes to lexia “Nearly Naked” ->
Word #12: “Her” -> goes to lexia “She and the Child” -> goes to lexia “Knife” ->
Word #13: “This” -> goes to lexia “She Wishing” -> goes to lexia “Remembering” ->
Word #14: “Night” -> goes to lexia “Crying” -> goes to lexia “Coming” ->
Word #15: “She” -> goes to lexia “She Expects” -> goes to lexia “Morning” ->
Word #16: “Follows” -> goes to lexia “Indulgence” -> goes to lexia “Innocent” ->
Word #17: “Him” -> goes to lexia “Penis Things” -> goes to lexia “Summer” ->
Word #18: “Sweat” -> goes to lexia “Touching” -> goes to lexia “Indulgence” ->
Word #19: “Between” -> goes to lexia “Morning” -> goes to lexia “Wishing” ->
Word #20: “Them” -> goes to lexia “Things” -> goes to lexia “In noce” ->
Word #21: “They” -> goes to lexia “Innocence” -> goes to lexia “This Night” ->
Word #22: “Speak” -> goes to lexia “Michael” -> goes to lexia  “Jeffrey” ->
Word #23: “Of” -> goes to lexia “He Wishing” -> goes to lexia “Dave” ->
Word #24: “The” -> goes to lexia “The Child Speaks” -> goes to lexia “Touching” ->
Word #25: “Child” goes to lexia “The Child” -> goes to lexia “Innocent” ->
Word #26: “And” -> goes to lexia “Innocent” -> goes to lexia “Morning” ->
Word #27: “The” -> goes to lexia “He Expects” -> goes to lexia “Dave” ->
Word #28: “Summer -> goes to lexia “John” -> goes to lexia “Innocence” ->
Word #29: “Sun -> goes to lexia “She” -> goes to lexia “He Listens” ->
Word #30: “With -> goes to lexia “In noce” -> goes to lexia “She Aches” ->
Word #31: “Words -> goes to lexia “He Listens” -> goes to lexia “Michael” ->
Word #32: “That -> goes to lexia “He and the Child” -> goes to lexia “John” ->
Word #33: “Yield -> goes to lexia “This Night” -> goes to lexia “She Wishing” ->
Word #34: “To -> goes to lexia “Jeffrey” -> goes to lexia “John” ->
Word #35: “The -> goes to lexia “Dave” -> goes to lexia “Wishing” ->
Word #36: “Touch -> goes to lexia “Penis” -> goes to lexia “Things” ->

As Arnold reports about the way in which she developed the structure of "Lust," she "was aware that many of the hypertexts we looked at -- most notably, Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse, and Afternoon––were large and sprawling, and I was writing a lot of poetry at the time, these very short, fragmented pieces––and I sort of set myself the challenge of what's the smallest possible hypertext I could make. I think the 36 lexia limit came from laying out the Storyspace boxes on the scree––to form a tight grid––and then I wrote the text fragments on paper. I was very much thinking about repetition and wordplay, as is apparent. I made the links in Storyspace––guided by association and by wordplay (sonic textures) (Arnold, Personal Email, 28 June 2018).

[4] See this downloadable doc that shows all of the unique words used in “Lust."

[5] See Edward P. J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors' Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student: anaphora, p. 390-91. See "Repetition": diacope and epimone,

Coover, Robert. “Hyperfiction: Novels for the Computer.” New York Times Review of Books essay, 29 August 1993.

A History of Twentieth-Century American Women's Poetry. Ed. Linda A. Kinnahan. NY, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Harpold, Terry. Ex-Foliations: Reading Machines and the Upgrade Path. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Joyce, Michael. "Nonce upon Some Times." Othermindness: The Emergence of Network Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Moulthrop, Stuart. “Arnold’s Lust.” Personal Email. 22 May 2018.

Moulthrop, Stuart, and Dene Grigar. Traversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017. 

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