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
ISBN: 978-1891386-69-5

Marion Cohen's Website.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks to Gregory for such a thoughtful review of my book. Actually, part of what makes the poems mathematical is that I was working on a particularly intriguing math problem while I wrote them; the problem and the work on it inspired the poems. I've worked on math problems before (meaning math research) but I was particularly obsessive and just-plain interested in this one (It had to do with graph theory -- only I didn't know that at the time! The problem was to characterize comparability graphs -- I called it "characterizing comparability". )

    I was determined to solve the problem, and I somehow knew that I would. The poem about "rescuing the insides" is perhaps the one that best describes the feelings I felt, and still feel, around math. I've been determined about several things in my life and this was just one of them. (Others were having another baby after the loss (alluded to briefly in one of the poems); another was finding a new love after my first husband (paralyzed and displaying dementia, and verbal and financial abuse) was no longer a love.)

    Also, math provides many of the poetic images in the book, and in other poems I write. That whole experience of solving that problem and writing the poems was one of the most emotional (for want of a better word, right now) in my life -- comparable only to having a baby or falling in love. I was out of this world, not 24/7 but much of the time.

    As a mathematician, I don't consider myself a big-time problem solver; I'm more of a problem poser and math-enthusiast (and I hope I'm a pretty good math professor). So it was a big deal for me when I actually solved that problem (even though it turned out that somebody else had done it before me so it's not published.)

    Back to what makes the poems mathematical: I'd say they're not particularly mathematical in FORM (not more so than my other poems), but they're mathematical in CONTENT. The poems are ABOUT math, in particular about the math in my own life -- my (apparently) non-mathematical as well as my mathematical life.