Posted in Glit Lit

On Mandelbrot, Metaphor, and Measuring: Poets Do Math

Wing Tip Vortex in Colored Smoke

When those well-meaning but control-freakish Sisters of St. Joseph forced me to take college math in high school instead of the Spanish they’d (finally) introduced into the curriculum (if not for me, then who?), I copped a resentment that made me choose a college without any math requirement at all and shut down my left brain in solidarity with Teen Talk Barbie (“Math class is tough!”)—a monster resentment that lasted until 1992.

That’s when I discovered pi.

Anything radical, irrational, transcendental, or infinite grabbed me, and I joined the nerdy millions intrigued by pi and set off on a new math quest, a tangled path of paradoxes, dimensions, synchronicities, and fairies (I made up that last one, but, really, who knows for sure?). Math got entwined with physics—fun!—then circled back to Golden Ratios and Fibonacci, and, finally, to Benoît Mandelbrot (1924-2010). That’s when I completely lost it.

The most famous fractal of them all, the Mandelbrot set, in 2D

Fractals, in whatever world—natural or virtual–look nothing like the shapes I studied in school (Euclid’s). They’re coastlines, snowflakes, the inside of a nautilus shell, the human pulmonary system

and the city of Santa Fe, where I get lost every time I go because it’s not on a grid:

Fractals grow spirally bigger (trees) and smaller (cauliflowerets), they look like themselves as they divide, and they’re everywhere. (Your finger is a little duplicate of your arm!) A poet could go crazy around fractals because, one, they’re gorgeous; two, they’re fragmented and irregular (just like some of my favorite poets, I mean poems); and, three, the mind games! (You can actually zoom into and out of a computer image of a fractal for as long as the mathematician and/or artist who computed it has had the time and stamina.)

Thus I gave over to the psychosis of mathematics because it teased my brain to metaphor. Equations are metaphors, after all. Pretty too.

I don’t actually do math. Mostly, I apply ideas in that way that makes practicing mathematicians cringe. I did manage to impress a couple of calculus guys in Minneapolis once who told me my lyric rendition of “The Seven Undefined Mathematical Expressions” was elegant if apocryphal. Then they patted me on the head.

It’s the way poetry humanizes the questions that intrigues me: all the infinitesimals of history, science, mathematics, sex, even love.

The task today, in both poetry and science, is the measure of measure. (Stephanie Strickland)

There’s a multitude of poets who have succumbed to the power and project of measuring. In addition to Strickland (Zone : Zero), we’ve got Alice Fulton (Sensual Math), Josie Kearns (New Numbers), and Timothy Green (American Fractal), just to name a few contemporaries and their mathematical predilections. Plus the brilliant hybridists Italo Calvino and Jorges Luis Borges, who were always playing with space and time. And Whitman and Neruda and Amichai. So many busy measuring.

Counting What the Cactus Contains

by Pattiann Rogers

Elf owl, cactus wren, fruit flies incubating
In the only womb they’ll ever recognize.
Shadow for the sand rat, spines
And barbary ribs clenched with green wax.
Seven thousand thorns, each a water slide,
A wooden tongue licking the air dry.

Inside, early morning mist captured intact,
The taste of drizzle sucked
And sunsplit. Whistle
Of the red-tailed hawk at midnight, rush
Of the leaf-nosed bat, the soft slip
Of fog easing through sand held in tandem.

Counting, the vertigo of its attitudes
Across the evening; in the wood of its latticed bones—
The eye sockets of every saint of thirst;
In the gullet of each night-blooming flower–the crucifix
Of the arid.

In its core, a monastery of cells, a brotherhood
Of electrons, a column of expanding darkness
Where matter migrates and sparks whorl,
And travel has no direction, where distance
Bends backward over itself and the ascension
Of Venus, the stability of Polaris, are crucial.

The cactus, containing
Whatever can be said to be there,
Plus the measurable tremble of its association
With all those who have been counting.

                   (From Firekeeper: New and Selected Poems, Milkweed Editions, 1994)

Truth be told, poets do math happily, imperfectly, elegantly, profoundly—

each stone      I carve…      (I) convolve
with mathematical ideas…      the form

                                              that no one
                         has ever felt

                   (From Stephanie Strickland’s digital poem, “slippingglimpse”–

and often with great wit:

Math for Dummies

by Nancy Carol Moody

1. Calculating your way to good health

A bag of ridge-cut, salt & pepper potato chips contains 16 servings. One serving contains 4% of your body’s daily iron needs. If you eat 25 servings (approximately = to 1 & 1/2 bags + 7 medium-sized chips), you will have consumed your RDA of iron.

2. How to obtain a free television

Let’s say you’ve had your eye on a certain pair of shoes in the department store. The shoes cost $100. One day you decide to treat yourself to the shoes, but when you go to the store to purchase them, you find they’ve gone on sale for half price. As you had already decided to purchase the shoes before you even entered the store, you had effectively already spent the $100. Instead you pay $50. The fifty dollars that remain is free money. If you can make the commitment to purchase everything you have been contemplating, you will soon have saved enough money for a free television.

3. Supersizing The Last Supper

As rendered in paintings from the past 1,000 years, the size of the main course of that famous meal has increased 69% when viewed in proportion to the size of the human head in the same paintings. If the median weight of Jesus and each of the disciples is 162 pounds, then the total poundage of those holy men today would approximately equal the weight of one Honda Element, gas tank on empty.

X. Now try one yourself for extra credit points:

A killer whale weighing x pounds is performing tricks in a tank which contains one blonde, wet-suited trainer and y gallons of artificially-churned, chemically-managed sea water. If the whale earns z fish for each activity he performs correctly, how many mindless circuits must the whale make around the tank before he yanks the trainer by the ponytail and hauls her into the water, holding her beneath the surface until the bubbles stop?

                   By Nancy Carol Moody.
(First published in Pank, May, 2011.

It is impossible to be a mathematician without being a poet in soul.—Sofia Kovalevskaya

Further Math Questing:

0. Teen Talk Barbie:
1. “Pi Pages” (9999 digits of Pi recited in seventeen languages, and in morse code, Dr.
Seuss, and harpsichord):
1. Scene from Pi, 1998 film by Darren Aronofsky:
2. Another Mandelbrot zoom by Jonathan Wolfe at the Fractal Foundation, New Mexico:
3. Sacred Geometry with Charles Gilchrist:
5. Stephanie Strickland on hypertext (Electronic Book Review, 1998):
8. Everything is a Number (Wszystko jest liczbą), 1967 short film by Stefan Schabenbeck:
13. Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics by Sarah Glaz and JoAnne Growney (AK Peters, Ltd, 2008):

–Maureen Seaton, 6/8/11