Here is my reading of “SOS” by Haroldo de Campos. It’s possible to think about the SOS in the middle of the concentric circles as not so much a voice crying out for help but the words (or letters in this case) themselves, trapped in the middle of the maze, waiting to be found and studied for what they have to say. SOS is actually a pretty interesting story – and here I mean the Morse code alert signal, not the de Campos text. It’s been rendered in multiple languages and antecedents, from “save our ship” or “save our sailors” to “seeking out succor” (which sounds British to me). But in truth it doesn’t stand in for anything: Morse made SOS the emergency code because it was easy to remember but very deliberate to signal, so that you couldn’t telegraph the code by accident [dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot], in much the same way that, on the old touch tone phones, 911 is easy to remember but hard to punch in accidentally. It’s an intriguing mixture of meaninglessness and intentionality, and de Campos seizes on this and hauntingly visualizes it.
Here were some twitter redirects during the conversation my summer 2014 class had about this poem:
The Morse signal SOS is a completely arbitrary sequence of letters, in that there’s nothing particularly alarming about their sounds or even their combination of sounds. But it’s recognizable as the sound someone in distress makes when she or he reaches out for help, regardless or who the person is or what the trouble might be. It could be you were struck by an iceberg; it could be your boiler room is on fire; it could be that you are audibly slipping from identity to selflessness, all the while having that slippage captured within a concrete poem that gives form to your horrible dissolution.
So as you spiral inward toward the evacuated non-word emergency signal, you really are devolving from the persona of a stranded, perhaps shipwrecked voice, to a collection of white letters on a black background: the speaker is losing himself (“We wander without voice / Silence / SOS”) and as he does we lose touch not only with our idea of his persona, but also of the semantic register of language.
On the other hand, the outer circle is “I” in multiple languages, the particular first person pronoun of identity, and what replaces the outer circle in the center is the universal language of Morse code. You could think of this as: in order to get help the speaker must surrender what made him unique but incomprehensible to those around him, and he reentered a system of exchange and reciprocity (telegraph only works if someone is tapping and someone else is listening, so everyone using the same code is extremely important). But you can also think of this process as the death of the poetic persona as such, in favor of the triumph of communal language over extreme forms of individual subjectivity.