Sunday, January 6, 2013

Cities of Mathematics

Judith Johnson's multi-part poem, "Cities of Mathematics and Desire" is geometric in its descriptive power; scenes are constructed and mapped with the careful attention of a mathematical proof.  At a math-poetry reading a year ago today (January 6, 2012) at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Boston, Johnson read part 4 of this poem -- and it is included here in the July 2012 issue of the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics.   Read on for part 2 of this 9-part poem:

2.  Of the Power of Chess to Feed the Starved     by Judith Johnson

   If straight lines from need to done, if playing by rule
   move grain from Iowa to Biafra, if pure science chart
   trajectories from want to fill or pure
   art rename the world to its will
   these Long Island bluefish that scatter in random flight,
   should, at my call, leap to shed their chemical residues
   in a clean fire, sequin Brazilian shantytowns
   and rebuild lost Aztec cities in the South Bronx.
      With the glitter of broken glass and prisms, of rainbows
      making a jeweled court robe of their fins, their scales,
      they pour up out of that generous water
      whose surface also, rippled by the desert wind,
      weaves a glitter of half moon arcs and laughter
   interlocking, repeating each other to the circling shore,
   a diadem so far away that we'd lost all sight of it.
When we cast our nets      /      not needed, because the fish are ours
                        and leap to us as if drawn by magnets,
                  the small water-beads
            coating the half-moon meshes echo aloud,
            laughing, shouting curses underground.
                  The rippling scales,
and the cirrus clouds spread, dimpled on the blue sea above us,
take up that laughter, throw it back in our faces.

[Dialog of the Cirrus Clouds and the Bluefish]

Like answers like, their laughter says,
         (these clouds that will be shredded to rain
         before i lie down again in a lover's arms).
         Because the sky is a net, and the dimpled water
         a net, you are caught and can't escape.

                                          But the bluefish
         all buck and flurry     /     pulled by that current
               whose laughter is a curse      /     fling back at them:
         like answers like, yes.  Because we are caught
         and will be stripped by the flat of a knife
         our half-moon scales popped up in waves
         the sails of our fins stripped from us, our needle
         spines lifted from the flesh they owned,
                                          (though that flesh
                                          keep still printed deep
                                          the ripple of our bones
                                          as we pass
                                          through the world's huge mouth,)
         you are caught in that self net.  The steel
         crest that draws its line between flesh and bone
         will cleave you like a propeller's blade, leave
         a wake deep enough    /    and so    /    wide
         galaxies pass through.  Though we don't swim
         the Neva here, and the lost don't come
         like Akhmatova's, at your summons, when the drops close
         behind you their deep ravines will still cleave
         in every molecule's code the maps of being.

     Copyright (2005 and 1989), Judith E Johnson; "Cities of Mathematics and Desire" first appeared in Exile (Toronto, Vol. 13, #4, 1989).  In her poetry, Johnson has been drawn (as have many mathematicians) to the defiant geometry of Maurits Escher; her poem "Maurits Escher's Impossible / Buildings" is also found here in JHM.
    Next Friday, January 11, at JMM in San Diego, a poetry-with-math reading has been scheduled.  If you are nearby, plan to attend!  Following readings by poets who have presubmitted work, there will be an OPEN reading at which time others in attendance will be invited to read their mathy poems.

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