Learning to Dance With Equal Signs
A review of Crossing the Equal Sign, by Marion Deutsche Cohen (Plain View Press, 2006) and My Dance Is Mathematics by JoAnne Growney (Paper Kite Press, 2006).
I am the first to admit I am not a mathematician — although I do believe in circles. When my eight-year-old son, a self-proclaimed math genius, stumbles in his “story problems,” I refer him to my husband, who refers him back to me. Still, I am intrigued by issues of space and time, by the intersection of boundaries, by the parts to the whole. Likewise, when I read the opening epigraph in JoAnne Growney’s chapbook My Dance Is Mathematics, my immediate response was, “Ah, yes.”
It is true that a mathematician, who is not somewhat of a poet, will never be a perfect mathematician.
Karl Weierstrass (1815–97)
Likewise, when, in the early pages of Marion Deutsche Cohen’s Crossing the Equal Sign, I encountered “through the night I swivel/between intuition and calculation/between examples and counter-examples/between the problem itself and what it has led to,” I knew to place the equal sign between these magical processes of writing and mathematics. As Cohen affirms in “Once I’ve proven a theorem,” “Math is full of muscles/which, despite the pain, I’m tempted/to tap or flex.” So, too, she implies, is poetry, as when in a later poem she asserts, “After a while crossing the implication sign is like crossing the equal sign./After a while a proof is collapsed to a point.”
Both authors explore the depth of this mystery — how we often discover on our way how the world works and our part in its working — as well as how we uncover through the journey the many philosophical and ethical queries adjacent to both disciplines. In “Small Squares,” for example, Growney urges us to look closely at the truth both in and hiding behind numbers: “More than the rapist, fear/the district attorney/smiling for the camera,/saying that thirty-six/sex crimes per year is a/manageable number.” (Incidentally, in each stanza, Growney tells us, “the number of syllables per line is the same as the number of lines.) In “Fool’s Gold,” she exclaims, “I like large primes/they check my tendency to subdivide/myself among the dreams that tease/like iron pyrites in declining light.” In “One morning I wake up counting,” Cohen asks, “What do you count to fall awake?” In “(Dream that the binary function, distance between, is not symmetric),” she says, “I dream the distance between a point and itself in not zero./Each point shivers./Each point is exiled/from its small country./There are preferred directions./There is a great wind./A general current/has begun.”
Thus, both authors use principles of mathematics to define or to analyze what is real or true. In “(The One Dimensional Man: Some Questions),” Cohen asks, “Can his lips part? Can the corners turn?/ What I mean is, can he smile?” In “One night I dreamed I’m dead,” she compares “the world’s only three-space” to “a soft grey whale squirming for escape.” In “Today we were alone in that room again,” she states, “Mouth yawning but untired/And possessing no symmetry about any line. I sat with him, healthy/but equally stopped, equally unable.” Likewise in “The Bear Cave (a poem of Romania),” Growney notes, “Cold rooms of cathedral/splendor now render tourists breathless/while the insistent drip of water/counts the minutes. There is no safe place.” The numbers and words the world uses are not always accurate witnesses of the suffering beneath the surface.
Of particular interest to me is the way both authors mathematically and poetically address time. In the appropriately titled “Time,” Growney, describes how “The clock goes round—/showing time a circle/rather than a line./Each year’s return to spring/swirls time on time….I/am punctual,/and you are late./You waste/the savings/I spend on you.” In “Conditionals,” she states, “If you take a rose with petals curled/and put it in a vase beside the clock/that has no hands, someone you thought/was lost returns for morning tea.” Cohen, in “(First try at Zen meditation),” proclaims, “Only the clock sails counter-counter-clockwise./Provided it’s not digital, it persists/insists/and resists/the flow of the room,” and in “I have said that math can feel nostalgic,” she muses, “these hellkites/are in the PRESENT tense./They’re twigs/or stems/with flowers at neither end.”
With theorems and equations like these in both My Dance Is Mathematics and Crossing the Equal Sign, how could I not assent to another of Growney’s epigraphs?
The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than a man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry.”
Bertrand Russell (1872—1970)
Certainly, “the sense of being more than a [wo]man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence [for all persons], is to be found [for JoAnne Growney and Marion Deutsche Cohen] in mathematics as surely as in poetry.” And now, as a non-mathematician poet, I, too, can begin to glimpse the venn diagram of these two disciplines. I, too, can affirm, as does Cohen, about poetry and mathematics, “The idea is not to solve….[but] To love a patch of space/even if it’s empty./And to love that for which/there is no space.”
Marjorie Maddox is Director of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Lock Haven University. She is the author of the poetry books Perpendicular As I (Sandstone Poetry Book Award); Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (Yellowglen Prize); Weeknights at the Cathedral (WordTech); When the Wood Clacks Out Your Name: Baseball Poems (Redgreene Press); five chapbooks, and over 280 poems, stories, and essays in journals and anthologies. She is co-editor of Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania (Penn State U Press) and author of a forthcoming children’s book on animal groupings (Boyds Mills Press). She lives in Williamsport, Pennsylvania with her husband and two children.