Wall, whatcha got?

My son, a college sophomore, is a fiend for math and loves teaching it, too. Since he’s finishing the term at our dining room table, I get to eavesdrop on the tutoring he does by Zoom as well as his study groups’ conversations. Sometimes he and I break for a midday walk in the middle of it, and yesterday he reflected that when he comes to an impasse in his work, he’s more willing than his friends to just sit with the problem and wait for inspiration. He told me something like, “When I hit a wall, I’ll just sit and look at it and say, “Wall, whatcha got for me?'”

This is mostly just temperament–he and I are both stupidly resistant to asking for help, and we both enjoy puzzles. But he also said that he prefers hard math problems to easy ones because the answers to easy problems are just “coincidence,” whereas you know you’ve solved a “proofier” question because the solution comes with a deep click, a sense of rightness. I’m not sure I fully understand that, but I’ve been thinking about it as I bash my head against poem revisions, unable to decide when each ornery little piece is finished.

This hasn’t been a good workweek. My simple goal for Monday was to gather some poems to submit to the annual Poetry Society of America contests. I rarely throw in, but I thought that hey, this year I have time, right? But mostly these awards are for unpublished poems so I thought I’d finish up recent ones, pieces I haven’t sent elsewhere yet, and it’s NOT going well. I know none of us should be beating ourselves up for poor concentration right now; the soaring virus rates are horrifying and the political circus depressing. I had the added suspense this week of a couple of family members waiting for test results (everyone is negative and feeling fine). I never handle suspense well! Still, my fuzzy-headedness feels frustrating.

My son is right, though, that facing hard problems can lead to more interesting math or art–and that the way forward involves just showing up, again and again. None of these poems is easy: my tabs are open right now to pieces about giant tube worms, domestic violence, viral replication, divination…So I try to solve for x, take breaks, and circle back, hoping for flashes of intuition. History suggests that tough writing patches eventually end. I didn’t like it when my phone autocorrected “I was told” to “I am old” recently (!), but aging does bring a kind of equilibrium in knowing that time, careers, etc. aren’t just linear. They’re cyclical, too.

In the meantime, here’s my latest little mag publication, two poems occupied and preoccupied by catbirds, with thanks to Carol Dorf at Talking Writing. And if you missed my unusually cheerful post-election reading with the brilliant Anna Maria Hong–part of the Hot L series, it launched Sunday–you can catch it on YouTube (and below). Stephen Reichert is a great online-event organizer and promoter. After another stupid workday, I’m about to raise a glass to Stephen and to everyone else who is helping poetry shine in these dark nights.

Mathy Radioland

I was tickled that JoAnne Growney wanted to put “Concentric Grooves” from Radioland on her blog “Intersections–Poetry with Mathematics,” but her request also jogged a memory of an unpublished poem from the same era that was even MORE mathy. I finally found “Disaster Math,” a poem I sent out a couple of times then gave up on, never entirely confident I had it right. After a several-year gap, however, I saw a few tweaks that might help, so I brushed it up and include it below–another Radioland outtake.

It probably overlaps too much with the sonnet crown “Damages” to have worked in the book. I do that a lot, writing numerous poems about a single crisis, trying to understand it, so some versions get factored out. Mathematical language features in a lot of writing from this part of my life because my father was a civil engineer–I remember his slide rule being replaced, in the 70s, by an obsession with programmable calculators. Oddly, while more mathematical than “Damages,” “Disaster Math” is also more focused on stories. What I often felt, trying to process my parents’ break-up from a great distance, was that I was a creature made of stories, and the universe had suddenly insisted on radical revisions, unbalancing an equilibrium I’d lived with for decades. Thanks so much to JoAnne for featuring one poem and reminding me of the others!

Disaster Math

Before instruments detected
his infidelity, one man began deleting
his wife, three children, bridge partners.
85 leaves 71 for 45.
Everyone a node of intersecting stories.

One snap among the snagged lines
reengineers a whole system:
20,000 on the withdrawal slip, therefore
a wife opens drawers and solves for x.
Reports it to their daughter, 43,

who lives on a strike-slip fault
9000 miles away, just north of a 6.3
shock as Australian and Pacific plates grate.
Death toll 159, but it rises in the falling action.
How can these outcomes coincide?

the daughter wonders, vibrating
alongside the numbers, waiting
for their force to dissipate. Propose
it never does. Propose broken columns,
integer debris. She studies the latest stats:

central business district closed till Christmas at least;
some bodies may never be identified; the cost
may never be tallied. Tangles wires and roads
and words and digits and code:
dividends of underground geometry.

She tells it over and over. Buildings collapsed and I
was too far away to feel it. I am safe. He
is a fissure emitting no signal but people build bridges
all the time, they cross as I am crossing, fibers
of plot chafing my palms. Listening ahead, calling behind.

Triangles–my father’s ruler and a Mobius strip he carved