Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics

When I joined the River of Words readers to read poetry at the high school where I teach, I introduced myself by asking "What is that math teacher doing reading poems?" Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics, edited by Sarah Glaz & JoAnne Growney, brings up similar questions for many readers. Both professors of mathematics, Glaz and Growney share an interest in reading and writing poetry, which led to the creation of this anthology.
The poems in this book cover a great deal of ground. The first section contains poems of romantic love and longing ranging from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways" to Tony Hoagland's "Self Improvement," where a character "more inspired than he ever was at algebra," practices turning a light switch on and off with his tongue, "seeing, in the tunnel vision of his mind's eye, / the quadratic equation of her climax / yield to the logic of his simple math."
The second section of the book primarily concerns more domestic love like Kathryn DeZur's "Fibonacci Numbers," connecting Fibonacci's "ideal fertility: rabbits in fields of buttercups, / .... reproducing at the rate of one / pair per month" to her own fertility questions in the second stanza "I, too, chant the count of hope / each night: one ovum. One sperm. Two eyes.... Fiver fingers per hand. A perfec t/ nautilus spiral of an ear. I long for the fertility/ of Fibonacci's numbers, that mystical statistical world / where one plus one equals three."
I found the final section of the book most compelling in the ways that it opened up mathematics in poems such as JoAnne Growney's "My Dance is Mathematics," concerning Emmy Noether, and Robert Hass' "...White of Forgetfulness, White of Safety" where he talks about his childhood reaction to learning mathematics, "Let A equal the distance between x and y. // The doves in the desert, / Their cinnamon coverts when they flew. // People made arguments. They had reasons for their appetites. / A child could see it isn't true."
Here is an excerpt from the chilling poem by Len Roberts "We Sat, so Patient:"
repeating the numbers as they flashed in the air, forming
the curved 3, the angular 4, the easy 1,
... as though we owned them, and we did, then,
counting the rain drops that wiggled down the gray window,
counting the hearts and cars on our desks, our crayons, ...
10 on each side for the spelling bee, counting silent
seconds when Sistar Ann Zita said 5 of us
would not reach 20, showed the chart
where children dropped off into 0, ...
Looking around, I though Al Aubon, Jackie Foster, Dorothy Blake
who already coughed blood on her gold glasses when she spoke,
the thin girl just come over from Germany,
and Ray Martineau who had no lunch,
reminding us that God was watching and could tell
who knew 9 times 9, 144 divided by 12,
telling us it was God's will that we die...
There are also a number of poems that play with mathematical concepts like John Ward McClellan's
limerick, "A Lady of 80:"
A lady of 80 named Gertie
Had a boyfriend of 60 named Bertie,
She told him emphatically
That viewed mathematically
By modulo 50 she's 30.
My favorite poem in the anthology captures the excitement of doing mathematics, and the transformations that mathematics makes possible. In "Geometry," poet laureate Rita Dove writes:
I prove a theorem and the house expands:
the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling,
the ceiling floats away with a sigh.As the walls clear themselves of everything
but transparency, the scent of carnations
leaves with them. I am out in the openand above the windows have hinged into butterflies,
sunlight glinting where they've intersected.
They are going to some point true and unproven.
Mathematics is a human activity. Poets sometimes incorporate mathematics into their writing; and Mathematicians sometimes turn their hands to poetry. Once when I was talking to a group of parents about math, I put baskets of Legos out on the table. I imagined that, like children (or math teachers at a workshop), they would begin to play, to build with the legos. One group scattered the legos in clusters on the table. When I asked each group to describe what they had constructed, that table's spokeswoman said, "This is my house, small toys scattered everywhere, waiting for me to trip and crush them." The materials are on the table, and this anthology allows us to see what 142 (by my count) poets create.
The strength of this anthology is that it looks at what both poets and mathematicians build with each other's tools. Sarah Glaz and JoAnne Growney, have put together an anthology that readers with interests in either camp will enjoy and want to share.
Reviewed by Carol Dorf.
Poetsâ€™ Quarterly  October 2009.