To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Friday, December 23, 2011

Amy Catanzano: from “Quantum Poetics: Writing the Speed of Light” (Part Three)

[For Parts One and Two, see here and here.]

“To be in any form, what is that?” –Walt Whitman

To be in any form, what is that? In my sense of quantum poetics, to be in any form is not only a question of the poet and of the poem, but of spacetime. To be in any form, what is that? Quantum poetics does not stop at semiotics or politics or procedure. To be in any form, what is that? By applying principles in theoretical physics to poetry, quantum poetics investigates how physical reality is assumed, imagined, and tested through language at discernible and indiscernible scales of spacetime. To be in any form, what is that? Developments in theoretical physics illustrate that uncertainty and ambiguity are expressed in physical reality, suggesting that uncertainty and ambiguity are not just modes of aesthetics but also forces within spacetime. To be in any form, what is that? Isn’t the poem always something else? To be in any form, what is that? The poem might be a shifting-eye picture keeping watch on an ideology or an un/framed protest against convention. To be in any form, what is that? The poem might be a sweet criticism of the super-serious or an unfathomable ur-song. To be in any form, what is that? The poem might be a visual translation of canonical poems created from algorithms within graphics programs that produce inky-winged humming-creatures outspreading sharp trails (see Eric Zboya). Poets are faced with their extinction when their poems stop asking their questions: To be in any form, what is that?  The questions of quantum poetics are asked in its U+F+O+L+A+N+G+U+A+G+E, which moves in scales—along with the accelerated expansion of the known universe—toward. Novelty? Isn’t the poem always something else? “… Let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles…” (Whitman again).

If Only I Had a Unifon Keyboard


kevin mcpherson eckhoff’s rhapsodomancy (Coach House, 2010) occurs in my life: first, through a quick study of the Unifon alphabet, which the book presents, and then in an exercise in which I attempt to write a letter in Unifon—but that felt like looking into twin suns. In class, a few days after an AWP Conference, I tell my undergraduate students about the two new languages I had learned, Unifon and Christine Wertheim’s litteral poetics.” They ask me to write something on the board in one of these languages, so I whip out my unsent letter in Unifon and transcribe the first sentence. They were excited! “It looks like text messaging,” one student says. Yes, and we talk about alphabets as shorthand as I try to recall a conversation about Unifon’s elimination of redundancy, wincing at the memory of a lazy comment I made about democracy, and thinking about how efficiency is related to consciousness or transmission. Then, later, a friend, Bhanu Kapil, writes me an email, asking: “I have a question about what bombards the dense knot of matter to release a quantum content.” I respond by quoting from rhapsodomancy, which includes a series of Unifon letters constructed as Gordian knots:

Three Notes on Knots

Quipu is suspected to be an ancient Incan system of writing composed as knots on connected strands of rope. Most of the recovered Quipu remain undeciphered.

When faced with the Gordian Knot, which was prophesized to reveal the new leader of Asia, Alexander the Great sliced it apart with his sword, declaring, “I have undone it!”

Treated as entire poem in itself, the Unifon alphabet appears here as a series of looped and tethered ropes that, if pulled, would unravel into unknotted strands.

I continue writing to Bhanu: Speaking of knotting and unknotting, I am working on a project, “Borealis: Time Signatures,” where each iteration of the “borealis”—a legend of 23 writers who hold space in my imagination, deciphered and ciphered with words and the image of a tesseract—is worked through a series of “time signatures” or poems that enact the theories of time posited. As far as what bombards the knot to release a quantum content, I like your idea that it is a sort of light vibration—which makes me wonder, is the vibration’s propulsive energy aimed to tie or untie? What I enjoy about the Gordian alphabet knots in rhapsodomancy is that the “end” of each letter has an arrow (of time?) pulling away from the knot, so that it’s all you can do from “untying” them in your mind and imagining, then, what else is formed as they reconfigure …

I realize that if the Gordian knot in the Unifon alphabet used a linear arrow of time, such as depicted in the book, the knot would not release. In the book, time is what “bombards the knot,” and thus the arrow would have to be a different time signature in order for the knot to resolve its own paradox. One of the elegant demonstrations of eckhoff’s Gordian knot poems is that with linear arrows, the knots stick, caught in their own limbs. The assumption I made in Bhanu’s question, “what bombards the dense knot of matter to release a quantum content?” is that the knot itself must be released in order to provide a content. But poems don’t necessarily work that way. In poems, the knots get tighter, and they multiply. In my “Borealis: Time Signatures” project, I am posing distinct versions of spacetime at the end of each “letter” (the time signature) to release a novel content. The propulsive energy that bombards the knot could be aimed at both tying and untying or something else. In biological terms, some knots have knotted limbs. That the Gordian knotted alphabet poem is made of letters in Unifon, a tomorrowland “alphabet of the future” (see the book’s delightful comic book accompaniment), suggests that in order to encounter the knot’s paradox, which releases “a quantum content,” a shorthand messaging system is needed that speeds up the processing time it takes for the “light vibration” of Bhanu’s comment to reach the “dense knot of matter.” The alphabets of the future are wormholes. In rhapsodomancy, eckhoff also points out that sound poetry, by resisting linguistic logic, resonates with the unmitigated voice that shorthand seems to record. It would seem that such experiments in shorthand, or what might be called the speed of light—whether of sound or sight or thought—must extend to physical reality, including the reorganization of the self. In the future (now), poems are quantum supercomputers, where each information-bit exists in more than one state at once, making processing billions of times faster. This is not a binary language. I no longer question the motive for speed.

The Juggler

As part of my exploration of quantum poetics, I have developed thought experiments in which writing can be generated and critiqued through the context of theoretical physics and Alfred Jarry’s ’pataphysics. For example, during a summer writing workshop I taught at Naropa University called, “Quantum Poetics and New Narratives: Writing the Speed of Light,” after familiarizing student writers with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, I had them experiment with the visual and temporal spacetime of the page by writing poems that might exist in a rocket ship traveling at the speed of light, where space gets compressed, mass increases, and time slows. We also discussed a question posed by Shanxing Wang in his book Mad Science in Imperial City (Futurepoem, 2005)—“Is there a 4th person narration?”—in relation to point of view and the fourth dimension. At the end of the week, the student writers performed their rocket ship poems and higher-D narratives. The workshop was open to undergraduate and graduate students as well as to non-credit students. One student enrolled was a juggler from a travelling circus group. In other-worldly timing and talent, she juggled crystalline balls while reciting her poem, each phrase meticulously synched to the sparkling electrons revolving above her. Similarly, the protagonist and her suitor in Rachilde’s The Juggler (1900) juggle between them, through decadent conversation and letters, a higher-D language for love:


“I want,” she said in a very soft voice whose softness contrasted with the violence of her words, “I want you to know what I know, for you to go as far as me, I demand I have the right to demand that you choose me as I choose you. You must learn about me before you earn me! and if you are already tired, you must allow me to want it in your place!”


 “I love you! You’re right. You’re right slowly, little by little, the way a bird builds its nest…”

In addition to such orbiting balls is Rachilde’s commentary on sexual politics and power delivered in iridescent detail:


“I dreamed, last night, that you were like a column of smoke. You started at the center of the globe and touched the clouds. I could see the whole world in its spherical form. You, you kept your face above the column, a waxen face illuminated by pupils of precious stones, and you swayed from left to right, right to left, in an absolutely intolerable rhythmical motion. And I struggled to reach you the way one struggles, alas! in dreams, remaining immobile. The column you were, always swaying, ended up turning, the folds of long veils, those of black dresses, blended into even blacker thicker smoke, the night of the whole world turned with you in whirlwind gyrations, and it sucked in the clouds, diluted the earth. I was thinking: ‘If I fired a revolver into the base of that column, just a powder shot, from a child’s pistol, she would collapse because it’s well known in sea voyages that a canon shot fired at the base of a whirlwind makes it dissolve into a salutary little rain.’ Only I didn’t have to hand any revolver or child’s pistol suitable for reducing feminine importance. I had to suffer to the point of nausea, to the point of vomiting up my soul and is superfluity, to see you playing this trick of the column….My god, madam, how I suffered unnecessarily! and now, tired of running, your waxen face looked more human, your eyes had charming looks of pity, but you were very distant, for you seemed to diminish in a huge regression. And in an instant you were a woman, of normal height, as big as a doll. However, you seemed to leave me, to leave the world, for your little feet were distinctly placed on the declivity of the globe. I held out my arms, calling. Your face, a distant little face of agony, was transparently pale, all illuminated by two stars…then, the stars went out, the face was dead, eyelids closed and mouth twisted, your feet left the declivity of the globe, and you disappeared…completely. There remained the thick night, smoky, a globe that looked like the vulgar globe of a lamp of black crystal. And the stars, through space, to me looked like appliqué on tulle. Something even more false than your smoky dresses.”

Whether the love between Eliante and Leon is false or authentic is of less concern than the novel’s preoccupation with the role that artifice plays in the relationship between reality and illusion. In a delightfully strange illustration of this concern, Eliante, early on in the story, brings Leon to her salon where “there was one admirable objet d’art placed in the middle of the room on a pedestal of old rose velvet, like an altar; an alabaster vase the height of a man, so slim, so slender, so deliciously troubling with its ephebe’s hips, with such human appearance…” And later:

“Isn’t it beautiful! Isn’t he beautiful,” continued Eliante feverishly. “Oh, he is unique. It’s impossible to think of anything more charming. You would think, when the light penetrates it obliquely, that it’s inhabited by a soul, that a heart burns in this alabaster urn! You were telling me about pleasure? This is another thing entirely! This is the power of love in an unknown material, the madness of silent delight. He will never say anything. He is very old, centuries old, he has stayed young because he has never cried his secret to anyone.”

Eliante goes on to explain to Leon that she loves this vase, that she amuses herself by dressing him up, kissing him, imagining he’s happy.

“No! No! You don’t understand me at all…but I like you enough to explain. I am truly in love with everything that is beautiful, good, that seems absolute, the very definition of pleasure. But pleasure is not the goal; it’s a way of being. Me, I’m always…happy. I wanted to bring you here to show you I don’t need a human caress to reach orgasm….”

With that, gripping the alabaster vase, she has one. Leon is “dazzled, delighted, indignant.” “It’s scandalous! Right there…in front of me…without me? No, it’s horrible!” Eliante: “Ah! A man who doesn’t know how to watch love is so silly. You really need a lesson. Now, run along quickly…”

Like her friend Alfred Jarry, Rachilde rejects realism in favor of symbolist and absurdist approaches to narrative. Consequently, Rachilde’s writing is often dramatic and distorted, though not nearly as dramatic or distorted as Jarry’s, which is, in my opinion, spectacularly grander in formal and thematic experimentation at both the molecular scale of the sentence and the astronomical scale of concept. However, like Jarry, Rachilde constructs a relationship between gravity and the matter/antimatter on the page like the juggler-poet “keeping time” by manipulating the “objet d’art”—the word, the sound, the script, the translation—through spacetime, which, we know from developments in physics, is not empty but populated with forces such as gravity that warp it, forces that physicists think can move into the invisible spaces between universes within the multiverse. Rachild’s The Juggler, like the juggler-poet, affects gravity by performing it.


Mary said...

I find his beautiful and fascinating
writing.Thank you.

Rusty Kjarvik said...

This is great! I would have enjoyed taking your class at Naropa if I had gone when I was seriously looking into it I'm sure!

Besides, I'm wondering, is there any further depth to the relationship between an unsent letter and quantum poetics?

Amy Catanzano said...

Rusty and Mary, thanks so much! Rusty, your question about the relationship between my unsent letter and quantum poetics is mesmerizing and one I have not closely considered until you posed it.

I have a poem that will be posted here on Poems and Poetics in the coming weeks that includes my ideas about Erwin Schrödinger, specifically the cat, you know, with it being both alive and dead at the same time, and also how Schrödinger’s wave mechanics were an attempt to challenge Werner Heisenberg’s more abstract matrix mechanics, which won out, so to speak, with its breakthrough uncertainty principle, despite matrix mechanics being more difficult and unfamiliar.

I imagine my unsent letter like any unsent letter or sCat, alive (in being given a form and frame) and dead (in not being sent) all at the same time, and the point being about simultaneity and not birth or death. But quantum mechanics—Heisenberg’s version—is less about simultaneity and more about the lack of causality in predicting the future. In quantum mechanics, there is no certainty without ambiguity in describing the present state of particles. If we increased the scale, the question about the unsent letter might point to not the easier all/all state of the sCat but to the very problem and complexity of description itself. QP: What is the present position and momentum of my unsent letter? A: It is lost, or it is buried in a painted pretty trunk, or it is thrown out. We don’t know.

In your other response you wrote: “1) I've been conceiving a literary proposition for the death of "Man" in the instance of the death of "God" as per Nietzschean thought and on through a densely mythologically informed theory of writing balanced keenly on an ever-thinning boundary between poetry and prose crafts, in which case I resonate deeply with the "impulse to revolutionize the condition of the species" as an "abolition of the species itself" this is brilliant!”

Yes! The boundary between poetry and prose is key, I think, too. What you quote are not my words but me quoting poet Christian Bök’s words about pataphysics, and I just extend this language and logic to poetry, which is not all that different from Bök’s statement. A letter to a letter. In Unifon.

More of your words: “Finally, I think this is leading us to a contemporary intersection between science as art and art as science in our socio-cultural dialectics, wherein we may move the guiding principle of our archaic animal identity into a universal shift through language, where we may experiment with English at its foundations, and consequently with all human language, to express a dynamic novelty of form, meaning and usage in thought, speech, perception, relation and experience.”

I feel kinship with your enthusiasm for what I think of as a transhuman posthuman you know what, except I will say that I am not convinced about a universal anything. Or even a universe. I am more pro-multiverse.

You also say, “Poetry is the multiversal science of intersubjective proof through experience in the creative act!”

Intersubjectivity is a siren for me. So, yes, a toast to poetry, among The Waves, the multiversal science of intersubjective proof through experience in the creative act!

A poem is like sending an unsent letter.