Real Chaos Astrology Book Reviews, Vol. 1: What’s Your Sign?

Love, Robot by Margaret Rhee. The Operating System, 2017. 94pp, poetry.

The greatest modern astrology song, with the possible exception of Harvey Sid Fisher’s magical and eponymous sun sign inventory, has got to be Alex Chilton’s rendition of Danny Pearson’s xtra cheesy 1978 epic “What’s Your Sign, Girl?” It’s a series of plaintive crescendos in which hope soars and bends back on itself: “Is it compatible / to mine…yeah,” seeking, as we all do in love, to love specifically and particularly and inevitably. It’s the inevitability of love that trips us up, of course; we’re programmed to do it, and we are going to run these scripts regardless of who their object is. Here’s the secret: it’s not the beauty of the script we’re running, but the object that orients it that makes a love story. Love in itself is not interesting any more than football in itself is interesting; it’s the hows of the game that make us gasp and weep.

Before you object because you watch the World Cup every two years and still weep to think of Oliver Kahn, or because you are convinced that it is the substance of love that makes its engine, consider that your very objection is littered with examples that spring from particulars. Oliver Kahn and his fearsome, massive, wide-legged stance (the impossibility of getting around him as certain as the imperative of trying), the relationship you had that was different and which you are mentally imagining can stand as proof that love is its own object. No. The program needs an object to run, but that does not mean the object is determinative; it, like its grammatical counterpart, can only make the demands of approach. Direct or indirect. That’s it. Everything else happens to it in the same way most of our love stories happen to us, accidents of timing and of circumstance.

The late, great Alex Chilton, to whom I hope you’re listening as you read this, knew that it was not the what (your sign) but the how, and had an approach for every variation: “Now Libras, they like security / and you can get plenty of that from me; Tauruses are stubborn and I know that that’s a fact / but baby, I swear I can deal with that…”

But he starts with Capricorn. Alex was a Capricorn (and a December one at that, if you remember the cues from elsewhere in his oeuvre), and as he croons, “We believe in life and living / we trip on love and giving / oh yeah.” It’s true. People don’t tend to recognize this, because they’re too busy thinking of that Scorpio voodoo gaze or that charming Leo arrogance, but Capricorns are the truest lovers. And the hardest.

(If any of my Capricorn exes are reading this, that’s not what I meant. In that way, Virgos are the hardest.)

They’re the truest because they accept that we are, in fact, programmed to love, and that it’s as futile to try to tweak that script as it would be to try to return to the primordial swamps from whence we came. And that’s not a problem for Capricorn.

Unlike some of the more bloody-minded members of the zodiac, Cap sees its duty and destiny merging and goes, Okay. I’m on it, says Capricorn. Hold on, let me just drop these bills in the mailbox and then I will be there to love you with more single-minded purpose than you’ve ever been loved before. They’re the hardest because they’re realists, and as much as they love you, as much as they specifically love you, with exquisite attention to detail about your preferences in wine, chocolates, reading materials, and foreplay, they’re not telling themselves some fairy-tale about how it was meant to be or how you’ve got some soul-level connection that was pulling you two through time and space to be together.

True Capricorn love is next-level mature. Too mature for most of us, by the way: Libras in particular should stay the fuck away, no matter what Alex claims. (We’re too vain for practical Cap.) Capricorns might try to let you get away with the fairy-tale, but deep down they’re robots doing what they were built to do, and they know it. This is what enables them to be fantastic, accommodating partners (I know a Capricorn who makes her husband an Easter basket every year when she does one for their young son because HE HAS TO HAVE ONE; my question upon learning this was AND YOU STILL MANAGE TO HAVE SEX WITH THIS PERSON??? To which she merely smiled demurely and changed the subject because she possesses a wisdom and tolerance to which I cannot aspire). In short, Caps are robots. Love robots. And that’s not a bad thing. More of us should love robots. They do their jobs with far more efficiency — and perhaps even compassion — than humans.

Such is one of the insights of Margaret Rhee’s Love, Robot (The Operating System, 2017), a treatise on the beauty of love, Capricorn-style: focused, specific, repeatable, and replaceable (more on that later, but if you think your Capricorn will languish and molder when you’re gone, well…keep dreaming).

Capricorns may object to this assessment, but this book is about them: deeply preoccupied with the operations of love, regardless its object. Make no mistake: Rhee’s sequence of “robot love poems” does not make light of love. Rather, it focuses on the situational details rather than the characterological ones, immersing the reader in the algorithms of love’s processes. At the beginning of Love, Robot this process is literal, the emotive experience of love lighting the traffic lights red or of the second law of thermodynamics’s inevitable action on gears and bodies translated into something like programming language. Later in the book, in the sections “Radio Heart” and “NSFW,” the poems become more discursive, but they are always poignant. Poignant not despite, but because of the inevitability of the robot’s trudging steps toward the beloved, the constancy of its operations.

Capricorns aren’t given to sentimentality, or at least not to admitting it. But the moment that guts them in 2001: A Space Odyssey is when HAL sings “Daisy, Daisy,” even as his circuits begin to shut down. They feel that because they know it, the pain of persisting in one’s task even as the world crumbles around or, perhaps, within them. They are very often the ones holding together the world for everyone in their orbit, and so Rhee’s robot love is the perfect metaphor for their plight: as she writes to the robot, “I loved you because you could make beautiful things,” and then “I never asked what you dreamt. / I never thought about what you saw.” This is the plight of the Capricorn and one that many of us recognize (not Aries, though. Aries never recognizes this plight), the one of being there and doing for the loved one who someone allows themself not to notice us, the simultaneous honor and discomfort of being there to serve. And yet they need us, and we know it. They need us not only for the glimpses of pure crystalline beauty Rhee so pithily encapsulates (“You fall deeply into the small of moonlight”) but also for the constancy of our love: “My name is / Engraved into your board, don’t ever suck the / Solder off.”

This is the mystery Capricorn knows: our name is physically scored into them, and yet they are capable of overwriting it if it becomes necessary. To love so deeply and yet so fungibly is not something mortals can understand. It is, as Rhee notes, addictive: “Lesson 4: one day, you make love to a human being and realize you could never give up robots.” How can you when they are so much more trustworthy and so much more consistent in the making of beauty? How can you when they so far outclass the human ability to love? And yet Rhee’s robots have feelings too: as my favorite section, “Machine Testimonials,” whispers, “robots are not just machines. not here to just listen to your commands. have you really listened to the hum of your robot & let her vibrate into your vessels?”

Well, have you? Or are you still tripping on all the love and giving she provides?

This is the message of Love, Robot and the one that Capricorns, and those who have the great good fortune to be loved by them, could stand to learn. Love is a motor. Love can stop running. But while it is still humming, while its servomotor is performing all the functions you desire, listen to that hum. Let it vibrate into your vessels. It knows some things that you do not:

First, that love is achieved not through containing but through opening, or as Rhee puts it, “this is the algorithm you may never learn: love is letting go.” Second, that damage is not equated to intent (and maybe, therefore, forgiveness is not only possible but inevitable: “I know it hurts. But / code fails.” Third, that love is not a feeling or a fairy-tale, not illusion or habit, but an electrical loop closed with carefully maintained red and black wires: “This is a circuit with a return path / This is how I know you.”

Alex Chilton is still wondering if your signs are compatible. Oliver Kahn is still standing, arms crossed, in front of the goal, but that twitching vein in his temple indicates that perhaps all is not lost. Margaret Rhee’s robot is sending out queries to map the electrical paths of your heart, reminding you that “being a human being is the best joke.” Reminding you to live the story of love and its impossible constancies again and, finally, when the story has been lived and relived, broken and re-broken, that ultimately neither compassion nor passion is the sole province of humans.

…and that, though “your maker may not know / we all deserve a song that is untranslatable.”