by Jenna Le | Contributing Writer
Glass Lyre Press, 2019
As an undergraduate student majoring in mathematics, I often felt insecure about my qualifications to be a poet. I had been a devout reader since childhood, toting home armfuls of poetry books from the library, including many of the English and French classics, studying their forms and techniques and regularly making earnest efforts to write my own poems, with a serious mind toward improving my craft and developing my own voice. Yet, like so many aspiring writers at that sensitive in-between age, I felt uncertain that I had any right to assert a place for myself in the world of letters. I was, after all, not an English major; I spent my evenings ensconced among fellow math majors in the dining hall basement, scowling at topology problem sets and trying to prove abstract algebra theorems.
The domains of math and poetry seemed irreconcilable, unbridgeable. It was only years later that I learned, to my validation and delight, of the existence of a longstanding tradition of mathematician-poets: true originals like the centenarian Chilean physics professor Nicanor Parra, whose self-described “anti-poetic” poems attracted admirers as diverse as Roberto Bolaño and William Carlos Williams; the Frenchman Jacques Roubaud, whose poetry fuses mathematical structures with moving reflections on grief and bereavement; Chinese mathematician-poet Cai Tianxin and American mathematician-poet Pedro Poitevin. Bertrand Russell, the 1950 Nobel laureate in literature, was a distinguished mathematician, co-author of the famous Principia Mathematica. And just this year, Glass Lyre Press has published Quantum Heresies, the debut poetry collection of Mary Peelen, another poet who studied math as an undergraduate.
In his 1986 masterpiece Quelque Chose Noir (translated into English by Rosmarie Waldrop as Some Thing Black), Jacques Roubaud imposed structure on his expressions of mourning for his dead wife, Alix, by dividing the book into nine sections consisting of nine prose poems each, many of them precisely nine lines long. In Quantum Heresies, Peelen likewise makes her poems wear a uniform of homogeneous structure: with few exceptions, every poem in the book is a free verse poem in twenty lines, divided into ten couplets. A typical Quantum Heresies poem takes its title from a concept derived from math or physics—“x,” “Zero,” “Supernova,” “Chaos Theory”—and then dances in verbal arabesques around that concept, drawing out its lyricism by tying the concept to a personal anecdote—often involving gardening or some other manner of engaging with nature’s beauty. This pattern is established quickly and efficiently, after which the pleasure in reading the book stems from watching the pattern repeat itself, sometimes in the repetition rising to an exquisite level of rarefaction and finesse. One example is the poem “One,” which explores the mathematical concept of unity via the concrete image of shiny Warren pears in the speaker’s garden:
When I come to you
offering one small green pear,
I’m asking you to believe in
every green there is,
at every hour.
The whole tree.
“One” is just one instance of Peelen calling the reader toward a more whole, unified, compassionate way of conceiving of one’s self and the world.
In his Antipoems, Parra used his unique vantage point as a poet who was also an insider in the world scientific community to express ambivalence about science’s contributions to society. Parra’s poem “Soliloquio del Individuo” (translated by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg as “The Individual’s Soliloquy”) chronicles the sometimes racially violent, ecologically destructive advancement of technological progress through the voice of an archetypal character called “the Individual,” who recounts how “Colored guys [tipos de color] entered the valley, / But I had to keep going, / Had to produce. / Produced science, immutable truths….”
Peelen’s poems similarly cast a clear-eyed gaze on how science, if not contextualized within an empathetic humanistic mindset, can fall short of healing us. Many poems in Quantum Heresies mourn loved ones lost to disease and death, their prickly humanity transcending their diagnoses, while other poems chart the speaker’s attempts to arrive at a philosophical understanding of her chronic suffering of incurable migraines. “Remainder,” a poignant poem about a coat bequeathed to the speaker by someone loved and lost, reminds us that, unlike the remainder in a long division problem, the remainder after a death is not a number, but a person:
They each say it unprompted:
Hey! That coat is nice! as if
it’s the only thing in the world to say.
Nothing special about it though,
Cut of an ordinary garment.
It’s her . . .
How she shimmers,
hangs onto shiny things, buttons and fire.
Looks good on me.
Here, a celebration of math gives way to a celebration of humanness.
In a parallel process, Peelen’s cheery enthusiasm for nature’s shimmery plenitude, its ranunculus and lavender and pears, evolves into an urgent environmentalist impulse across the course of the book. The prose poem “Birds of Japan,” one of the rare poems in Quantum Heresies that breaks the ten-couplet mold, conjures the angst of an American following news reports about the Fukushima environmental disaster and imagining phantom connections between the nuclear fallout and the crumbling of her private life miles away: “. . . the house is filthy as a dirt mine. I try to meditate, but I’m afraid, obstructed, air traffic is disrupted. The sky over Japan is emptied of planes, birds, word . . .” The outlook may be dark, but Peelen’s optimism survives. As she says in “Interim,” a mantra that would be acceptable equally to poets and mathematicians: “If beauty can be salvaged, / it must.”
Jenna Le (jennalewriting.com) is the author of Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Indolent Books, 2018), which won 2nd Place in the Elgin Awards. She was selected by Marilyn Nelson as winner of Poetry By The Sea’s inaugural sonnet competition. Her poetry, fiction, essays, criticism, translations, and visual art appear or are forthcoming in AGNI, Bellevue Literary Review, Denver Quarterly, Los Angeles Review, Massachusetts Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, West Branch, and elsewhere. She has a B.A. in mathematics and an M.D.