Complexity and Chaos: Sensible Nonsense

The woodcut print at the end of this post is its apt punctuation.  A part of a series of apocalyptic prints inspired by The Revelation of St. John, this one is called “St. John Devours the Book,” by Albrecht Durer, 1497-1498 AD.” What sense does it make to anyone?

Now: I wanted to add this link to a wonderful interview with president of the Santa Fe Institute David Krakauer, “Take me to the limit,” which appeared today on Science Radio Cafe.  His careful explanations of myriad limits are fun, as much as they are useful for understanding the complexities of the universe and realizing what we can/cannot reasonably communicate about them.

His interview reminded me of a recent lecture I attended at Virginia Military Institute where Kelly Dean Jolley tackled Wittgenstein’s paradoxical puzzlement: “if a lion could speak, we could not understand him.”  After a busy semester teaching rhetoric and composition, I could hardly stop and think about Jolley’s lecture, until today, and what a blessing to be able to spend added time listening to Krakauer tackle comparable communication breakdowns–when it comes to tackling limits!

Ah, this is the same with poetic expression, too!  There are times when I come to a place where the language is just that: sensible nonsense.  At those times, I know my poem doesn’t quite make sense, and so, while I can sense the experience, I simply cannot understand it, even when the words I use are mine.  Yet, there is comfort in knowing that this communication breakdown is still a gateway for communicating an experience.  Yes, poets can make no sense.

I will share one example, a poem I wrote in response to Winston’s mother’s suffering in George Orwell’s 1984, a novel which explores the limits of suffering:

The Immutability of Change

for Winston’s mother

What we have here, Winston,
Is tried terrain taken again
By another, and the mothers
Making do with a lick on the brink
Of what pours over and is lost:
Milk spills pursed lips;
Salt pours shorn shakers;
Water boils naked pails.
This is what I know
Of the immutability of change:
It is kept with the worm-worn crackers
And rolled between twice-boiled bones.

Here is another one, “Wainscot Rats,” published in Driftwood Press 2.2, pages 52-55, followed by an interview in which I share a bit about the terror of reading 1984 and the process I used to write “Wainscot Rats.”  How can anyone approach that limit where an emergent apocalypse hinges on unimaginable catastrophes and suffering?  How does a poet speak this clearly?

All together, I have fifteen of these Orwellian poems, all written in response to 1984 and energized by Kirsten Miles’ careful attention during a recent Tupelo 30/30 poetry project. Hopefully, over the summer, no matter how incommunicable, they will multiply into a book-length collection deserving of an audience!



Sacred Harp Singing: Glossolalia, Polyphony, and Participatory Singing

What possible value could untrained, localized voices have for singing?  None, especially in this age of commercialism where we can buy the best for our listening pleasure, passive though our listening is.  Could participatory singing be more valuable for community building than the more passive state of “listening” most of us are accustomed to today?  After all, we are comfortable with consumption and the perfection it houses, but is music consumerism best for the hearts and souls of men?

I wouldn’t be wondering about this at all, had my son Hal not asked me about shape note singing and shared that his music appreciation professor at Sewanee was requiring him to attend a shape note singing meeting.  When Hal mentioned shape note singing to me, I remembered my dad talking about singing in the churches he attended as a boy–some of them Primitive Baptist–and how memorable it was for him, though he is now a man grown divided against the Church.

More than once, my dad told me about Elder Golden Harris and my Great Uncle Monroe Simpkins travelling to New York City from Floyd County, Virginia, for a recording session.  Uncle Monroe became so frozen with fear that he could not sing at the recording sessions, leaving Elder Golden Harris to finish the sessions alone.  I even related this in a poem which appears in Floyd County Moonshine.  Just a little superficial research online connects Elder Golden Harris with the rich heritage of shape note singing and American music that emerged from it: blues, blue grass, country, and other popular music, even rock-n-roll.

Well, let’s just cut to the chase: shape note singing is a “low church” activity.  In fact, when the shape note singers are getting warmed up, they explore just four notes in melodies without words, and the warm up practically hinges on glossolalia.  These religious distinctions aside, what I want to explore, though, is polyphony, a type of singing which is disappearing worldwide, church or not.

Polyphony is a musical gift for the people, an awe-inspiring and disordered order which permeates folk as well as religious music.  I would go as far as to call it a “joyful noise.”  Most common in sub-Saharan Africa, polyphonic singing is known to be integral to community building.  Heartfelt, resonant, wrenching…these are words that I can use today to describe this singing, though polyphonic singing really just captures my heart and makes me shut up.

There is something of complex systems in polyphony, where the rules run the show, but the show shifts on a dime.  As the fabric of variable voices erupts, I am rapt.  Albanian, sub-Sarahan, Georgian, Appalachian American, as I search polyphonic singing worldwide, I discover a unity denied people by the recent academic march against universality.  Yet, there it is, universal expression, evident for anyone who really wants to inquire.

Please check out the embedded links below, and last but not least, the bowling balls.  They co-join in spectacular, predictable paths, even through phases of relative chaos.

Scaling: Michael Martone Explores Perspective in His Prose Poem “Scale”

“From the air, the world, falling away below, grew so small.” is the opener for Michael Martone‘s prose poem “Scale,” appearing in Pleiades, Volume 34, Issue 1.  This poem explores the lives of Art Smith, “The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne,” and Paul Guillow, a naval aviator whom Smith meets during the Great War.  The single word “scale” mediates this poem, appearing first as the title, three eighths of an inch tall, and repeated throughout to punctuate sections of the text at two-eighths, one-eighth, one-sixteenth, and one-thirty secondths of an inch, respectively.  Surveying the font size as it syncopates the text, the reader can figure that the narrative approach is divided against itself, scaling toward an epiphany, likely to be apprehended at zero, perhaps the point ahead where Smith somehow arrives after he “would, the next year, mistake light in a farmyard for the lights of the landing strip in Toledo” (35).

In the final section of Martone’s poem, “Your eyes can play tricks on you.”  It is here where Martone invites the reader to consider scale and perspective by taking the reader into Smith’s cockpit where he once “held up the coin, the thin little wafer tweezed between his fingers, held it at arms length, and saw it blot out any inkling of another nearby world in all that nearby closing darkness” (35).  That “nearby world” is the moon, or is it?

How many times have I tried the same moon-dime trick that Martone explores in “Scale,” bewitched in childhood by a large, glowing harvest moon slipping up from the horizon, only to rediscover that it has a dime’s worth of circumference, regardless of how big it appears against the horizon.  I hope I have broadened my perspective since then–past childish things such as the dime and moon conundrum–by realizing that it is also an illusion to believe that something measurable can be measured with certainty, for the measurement depends on scale and perspective.  I am not arguing against the objective existence of a thing, only that mankind cannot necessarily apprehend it by measuring, because a single shift of scale alters the measurement.

Martone’s “Scale” is an evocative poem where one man–filled with a child’s glow–confuses his perspectives and measures reality against the wrong scale, somehow slipping away in darkness.

However, there is something about scaling that could also speak to transcendence.  It is the power of scaling that enables my own imagination to reach beyond Euclidean space toward the fourth dimension, as much as scientists are now realizing the intermediate force of scaling in dynamical systems that allows them to fill so much space that they, too, can imagine the fourth dimension.

Perhaps a dime’s worth of circumference was the wrong scale with which to measure what Martone so beautifully calls “any inkling of another nearby world in all that nearby closing darkness” (35).

For anyone who would like it, please watch one of my favorite movies from my childhood: it introduces the viewer to scaling in powers of ten!

 Precision tools

Images of Chaos

Images of chaos, disorder, and carnage resultant from clashes, skirmishes, persecutions, and wars permeate Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, confluent with the internal disorder carried by the men and women peopling his screens, and none more than Andrei Rublev.  Produced in 1966, this film tortures the viewer with a despair so intertwined with the film’s multiple tragedies that the viewer is left crying, almost as if his/her feet are the ones shown resting, barely out of the reaches of the fire, and it is the viewer who begs for some epiphanic eruption.

From the flames of the fire, the camera opens and travels along colored surfaces of various icons, finally panning Andrey Rublev’s “Trinity,” an icon representing Abraham’s supper with three angels representative of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Thunder and rain resound, and the camera ends with a pan across a set of grazing horses, immersed in a pouring rain.

An imagined chaos swirls naturally and permeates Tarkovsky’s panorama of Russian history—swells of rain, currents of water, fires, winds, mists, smokes, suffering—somehow stumbling and dissolving mankind.  It is this dissolution mankind must endure as the result of what sin determines metamorphosed into the richly imaged indeterminate which Tarkovsky captures so well.

Once Tarkovsky defeats his viewer with the cruelties of man against man and terrifies him/her with the busy and disparate encroachment of foe on friend, the viewer is instilled with momentary peace: a glimpse toward heaven shared with the three at supper, heads surrounded in uncreated light, and a rinse of rain, shared with a set of horses grazing toward night.

Don’t know what I am even talking about?  Watch the film and leave a comment.

Andrei Rublev Trailer:

Andrei Rublev Part One:

Andrei Rublev Part Two:


Luna Ridge

I named this ridge on which I live Luna Ridge, because it seems the moon is never too far away, but the most scintillating moments here have actually been those experienced in the absence of her cool light, when darkness draws its own luminescence from galaxies abroad.  These are moments when I look up into the constellations and immerse my mind in swirls of the Milky Way.

Somehow, staring into this swell of stars electrifies my mind, almost as if the stars intersect with the synaptic networks of my brain cells and communicate fluid fire.  It is true: I am reinvigorated, even enlightened, by these pinpricks of electric light.

At these moments, I am as close to levitation as I will ever be, a helmetless escapee from gravity, reaching outside the confines of my skull.  Is it possible that revival is somehow seated in the stars?

Who really knows?  I am betting, though, that in her time, Marjorie Hope Nicolson knew something about the revival in the stars.  A forgotten American scholar who claimed to be “no feminist” in a time when women wrangled for academic respect, Nicholson pursued a gender free scholarship unimaginable today as she investigated the roles of nature and science in the formation of the literary imagination.  Due to her discipline, she gained an enviable prescience for the science of our day.

Similarly, when I am on Luna Ridge looking into the stars, I don’t waste my time imagining I am a woman.  Forgetful of that fact, I reach from the variegated shadows of night, to snatch revival from dark’s quick-centered time, a revival felt in a moment of timeless ecstasy.  In Nicolson’s words, I am reaching into the aesthetics of the infinite, though I have the benefit of breaking in on a different side of science, one which Nicolson did not know well—the science that remakes entropy, chaos, and decadence into “emergent complexity,” a place where there is an oxymoronic dance of chaos and order, a new order, if you will allow it to be said.

As we ponder the measurement of immeasurable and emergent complexities, even here on Luna Ridge, we can gain confidence—a new order is emerging from the disordered post-Romantic Twentieth Century.

This evening, I will end with Nicolson’s own words as expressed in her critical study published first by Cornell University in 1959, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite, where she argues for a position beyond Wordsworth’s “terror” and fear for Nature’s decay: “From mountains, the mind and soul of man rises again, through Space, to Eternity and Infinity, with awe and reverence for the power of God, to the serene and tranquil peace that passes all understanding.”

I am a respecter of this lady scholar.  She had prescience for what we are only beginning to uncover, a science of emergent complexity where what is beheld resonates between what is predictable and what is not.

Nicolson-228x300.jpg (228×300)


What drives mankind to pursue auto-iconography, sometimes to absurd lengths, such as the departed Michael Jackson who developed a plastic caricature of himself, a perfect and yet strangely alien face, framed by a few wispy, well-oiled curls?  Is it the pursuit of eternality in the eyes of the beholders that so motivates the auto-iconographer?

This is an apt question in the age of the Internet where anyone can fabricate an auto-icon, effectively substituting the perceived self for icons of the relic-littered past.  The iconoclast of the Twentieth Century has morphed into the auto-iconographer of the Twenty-First Century, and the auto-icon is often iterative for money and for glory.

When it comes to follies, nothing new has been created under the sun, so we can find plenty of historical precedents for comparable self-glorification—even ghastly auto-icons, such as the one Jeremy Bentham envisioned for his post-mortem glorification in the name of “science.”

The denser the self-absorption, the more grotesque the auto-icon is, at times otherworldly in its mendacity towards the common man, if not for simply saying: “Here I am, take a look.”  When I take a quick look at Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon, forever indwelling the Internet with its rich and storied past, I see a severed and shrunken head, but since the body could not be preserved over the long haul, I can only link to a waxen auto-icon, sans brains:

Since Bentham is the father of Utilitarianism, his head is his important part, for it is a storehouse of remnant intellectual brilliance—those glass eyes can’t do it justice.  Father of voyeurism; arbiter of pleasure and pain; minister of indirect, diffuse control; shape-shifter of the moral code, Jeremy Bentham’s philosophies and practices interweave with ideas and practices of institutions today.  At a minimum, his auto-icon intimidates me because it reminds me that I never had a head for calculus, but I’m afraid Jeremy Bentham didn’t either.


Under Pressure

      A single Mason jar filled with green, undeveloped cherry tomatoes I picked before the first frost and pickled with dill sprigs steals my imagination as I look up at the kitchen soffit where it sits.  For days, I have been caught in emergent expectations for what might be contained there—a storehouse of stories or a cluster of poems—sealed by atmospheric pressure.  Yes, it is true: the writer’s life exists in the indeterminate and vacillating boundaries shared by observation and expression, suspended between what is tactile and what is written, pressured somehow to desire release.

For me, it is gravitas that pushes me to associate observation with expression, to realize analogies and believe they engender communicable truths.  What is that element of grave solemnity that fuels expression, though?  Why can’t I separate gravitas from very real gravity?

The tomatoes float against each other like planets compressed in a closed galaxy, and because they are green and semi-translucent, they glow like so many moons and planets, a universe contained by gravity.  There they are, still and somehow somnolent, until a little shake sends them bumping and bobbing, jockeying to resettle in a pattern of least resistance.

Since I am not a physicist, I know the spheres in the universe are no accident, for they are remnants of something molten having been shaped and cooled by an invisible gravitational force.  I accept this and so many more invisible laws of nature, and I know they have made a difference in life—without us knowing or particularly caring—and we are likely to take them for granted, until somebody begins to think about laws acting in a universe of home canned green tomatoes, until something about their translucent nature spells want, even the gravitas of isolation engendering desire.

The tiny tomatoes have a dense, solemn quietude to them, or is it my own quietude I experience as I reach for them?  It took me hours to process them and to put them there, sitting on the soffit’s ledge, sealed under atmospheric pressure.

 I will likely get that affirmative pop—release—when I undo the seal and serve them to someone for supper.

 In the end, I can barely span the surface of what I want to say about canning these undeveloped tomatoes, even less about the unwinding universe that surrounds me, and yet there is contentment in the apprehension of the laws and the certainty that beneath them all, I have an expression to discover and a message to share.


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