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!

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