Timothy Green recently read at the Pasadena poetry series I host and was kind enough to give me a copy of his book, American Fractal. He was not, however, kind enough to give me an autograph or to explain to readers, in a footnote or epigraph, what exactly a fractal is. I realize I should know this–still, some help would have been nice. One online dictionary has this helpful definition: a fractal is “a geometrical or physical structure having an irregular or fragmented shape at all scales of measurement between a greatest and smallest scale such that certain mathematical or physical properties of the structure, as the perimeter of a curve or the flow rate in a porous medium, behave as if the dimensions of the structure (fractal dimensions) are greater than the spatial dimensions.” Yahoo Answers has an answer a little bit closer to my own level: “The very simple version is that it’s a shape that looks like something. Let’s say a pear. So you can zoom in to the edge of the graphed pear, and you see… more pears, completely identical to that first big pear. You wouldn’t know that it was a zoomed-in pear if you didn’t know that you’d done it. Then you do this over and over again on the edge, now you’re at 1 billion times zoomed in on the edge, and it still looks *exactly* the same.” Where would we be without the Internet? In the old days I would have had to go to the library (if open), or consult my Encyclopedia Britannica. It would have taken quite an effort! I might have had to go to a nearby university to have a math professor explain all this to me. Luckily, we have Yahoo.
Applied to an individual poem or a poetry collection, this concept of the fractal has a lot of potential! In the hands of someone like Albert Goldbarth, the results might have been astounding. As it is, the title poem has passages like this: “I’m in the bathroom / close the door / shut the light / down the hall the tv too loud / bob barker & the price is right / shut that out too / I’m on the other edge of something / of adulthood / of a gulf / a canyon / looking down down / no vultures circling picking bones though / no heaped bodies to climb over / no fall to cushion.” A brilliant concept–if only the language were brilliant to match! I would have liked this project to work. As it is, we are at quite an intellectual (or should I say mathematical?) remove from the “events” or the “inspiration” or the “matter” of this poem. It is about growing up and family crises, etc.–that is clear. But we don’t feel anything, at least I don’t. On the other hand, a background in science or math is an advantage in our age. It is beautiful to see science and math come to life in poetry and fiction–whether in the form of entire concepts being explained, or simple everyday events/facts/experiences being sprinkled with a bit of expertise from fields that are generally remote to both the general public and most literary people. Proust, Flaubert, Chekhov all wrote partly with the cold eyes of scientists. The aforementioned Goldbarth also does this dazzlingly. Goldbarth has not only read deeply in the sciences; he also has a heart. Somewhere in Green’s volume there is a heart beating, too–feebly, distantly.
This does not mean that there isn’t a mind working–far from it: what he lacks in heart he more than makes up for (if this is possible in poetry) with a first-class mind. There are a few fine poems in here. In one of them, “Cutlery,” a person living alone does not leave the house for five years and is assaulted by cutlery everywhere: “It’s like the house is / sweating metal…maybe the walls are just sick of me & this is all the / defiance they’re capable of.” This poem somehow reminds me of Disney’s (and Goethe’s! and Dukas’s!) “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” A surreal world of household appliances out of control! This poem is written in the same fractured style as the title piece cited above, but it holds together better. We aren’t really emotionally involved, but the quirkiness and the oddness of the vision are striking. And we can really feel these metal objects, as in this passage: “when the / toilet bowl won’t flush I find the bowl / stuffed like a turkey / with salad forks & soup spoons / the plunger won’t work / I reach into / the dirty water & pull / it takes both my hands & all my weight to / rip them out / I fall backward / & it’s raining cutlery / bare / arms shielding my face from the tinny drizzle.”
I wonder how “Cutlery” reads when read aloud. Green memorizes much of his own poetry and when he recites it to audiences he has to look into the distance (since he doesn’t look at the text in front of him). This could be awkward, but I think he smiles (ingratiatingly) through most of these readings. This is the same kind of “pretty poetry” reading style that James Ragan has; the latter poet has, not coincidentally, written a blurb on the back of the book. What does Ragan say? This book “is a remarkable study in the refraction of language.” (Is it?) “As with memory, language bends and shapes itself, defining and redefining images like opposing mirrors, reflecting an infinite succession of epiphanies.” (I have to stop there: “an infinite succession of epiphanies”? Does Ragan really believe this? Does he know how greeting-card he is sounding? Does he believe this is in any way helpful or insightful besides just sounding smart?) “The effect is evocative, energized and sure-footed, full of nuance and thematic dexterity, as in his exquisite poem ‘Hiking Alone’ where insights like glimmerings in a ‘box of moonlight’ are made translucent by the kind god of this fine poet’s imagination. This book has the gift of passion. It has fire at its core.” (Moonlight? Moonlight? Ragan forgot “delicate” and “luminous” for this blurb.)
The poem Ragan references contains the obligatory “moon.” It is a good poem with a post-adolescent atmosphere about it. It is a poem with a fine ending: “Buckle myself back into habit / with a metal click like the sound of my one hand // clapping for joy–however briefly–at all we / ever wanted: a little darkness to climb out of.” Well, that’s as good an ending as one could ask for in a poem.
Much better than “Hiking Alone,” however, is “Apocrypha,” easily the best poem in the book, up there with “Cutlery.” And like “Cutlery” it is a sly and subtle indictment of the mechanized age we live in. Again like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” machines grow out of control: “Machines meant more machines: / the car, the photocopier. Labor / was divided: on the one hand / input, on the other all this putting / out, this putting up on shelves. / Stuff needed someone to sell it / until mail order merchandise, the mechanical mailman, hard- / wired electronic mannequins / at the register, breath a perfume, / zirconium jewels in their colorless / eyes. / And so: Nothing but this. / A billion service workers, one / for each of us. The great conga line / of capitalism, call it.” The sophistication in this voice is remarkable–and the restraint, too. I wonder how this poem would work at the famous Wednesday Night Poetry Workshop at Beyond Baroque! Probably they wouldn’t have the ability to get any of it, or most of it. This is, after all, very much poetry for the page, poetry for late at night. When Green recites, the words fly by too fast, too much in an atmosphere of “moonlight,” “luminosity” and “delicacy.” Definitely a poem for the page. And how does “Apocrypha” end? Let’s see: “The great conga line / of capitalism, call it / Ouroboros high / on over-the-counter supplements. / Every itch and ailment covered. / And still we’ve got each other.” A flesh-and-blood human encounter still possible in this mechanized world! Green’s last line here (this poem as a whole) is surprising and fascinating. He achieves a level of subtlety and complexity here only possible with poetry and rarely if ever with prose. In this instance he sounds like a very mature and seasoned poet, and not just a polished one. This is a poem anyone serious about poetry could study and learn from. Most of Green’s work in this volume, however, does not rise to these heights.
Apparently Green believes that one doesn’t need to read these poems in any particular order. One could open to a random poem and then to another random poem, etc., and this would be as good an experience as going “in order.” And this was how I chose to read American Fractal. Like Green’s knives, these are cold, shiny, polished little creations that one can admire, perhaps, but not fall in love with. They are very much for the page, very clean and young. Journals such as The Florida Review and Fugue have been publishing them, and will no doubt continue to do so as often as they can.