Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Let’s begin at the beginning, or, rather, let’s begin at the title. Titles are important as they not only serve as ID tags they serve the purpose of an object hypothesis, which is to say they tell us something about where the work (in this case the poetry) is going, where the work will or is intended to end up (where it will take us, its readers). Sometimes a title, in addition to its being an ID tag (which in many cases is enough), serves to point out something important for us, something we must take notice of if we are to “get” at the psychology behind the work.
As a phrase, “crossing the equal sign” brings to mind a number of things. First, in mathematics, we know that to cross the equals sign is to turn an equals sign into an “unequals” sign. And so it is to change, to transform, to redefine the meaning of: things which were once equal (=) are now no longer equal (≠).
This act of change, of transformation, of redefinition, this “crossing” brings to mind, beyond mathematics, a sense of passage. I think of the story of the crossing of Jordan river, which opens the Book of Joshua in the Bible. The crossing of the Jordan river is a story, a miracle story, of crossing a boundary (the Jordan was the natural eastern boundary of Canaan). It is a story of passage, and so, symbolically, of overcoming, of transcendence.
The scholar Roy Harvey Pearce, in his book The Continuity of American Poetry, quotes Richard Chase writing about Emily Dickinson: “Expressed in the most general terms, this theme is the achievement of status through crucial experiences. . . . The kinds of experience which confer status are love, ‘marriage,’ death, poetic expression, and immediate intuitive experiences which have the redemptive power of grace. . . . And each of the crucial experiences which confer the different kinds of status is a type and emblem of one of them: the coming of death.”
In what sense is this poetry “mathematical”? This poetry is mathematical by point of reference. This is not to say that this poetry makes reference to a specific mathematical element — say, the point, the line, an equation, an operation, a formal symbol — and it ends there; no, the reference is to a characteristic of that element, in much the same sense as when Hugh Kenner writes of Samuel Beckett in his Samuel Beckett A Critical Study: “The processes of mathematics offer themselves to the Beckett protagonists as a bridge into number’s realm of the spectrally perfect, where enmired existence may be annihilated by essence utterly declared.” And so it is not the point as this point or that point but the point in its essence, which is to say in its perfection, and which cannot be known except by definition.
Yes, points were blinking.
Lines were flirting.
Spaces were trampolines.
I could have consulted the Math Reviews.
I could have leafed through a graph theory text.
I could, that is, have notified the authorities.
But I’m a do-it-yourself-er.
I’m a rugged individualist.
I’m a learner and a lover.
I’m a very foolish heart.
Crossing the Equal Sign by Marion Deutsche Cohen.
Plain View Press
Marion Cohen's Website.