Monday, November 22, 2010

Butterfly Effects

An equation or system of equations is said to be "ill-conditioned" if a small change in input data can produce a very large change in the output.  This inverse relationship between input and output has become popularly known by the phrase "butterfly effect."  Two poets from Eastern Pennsylvania, Gary Fincke and Harry Humes, have written poems about this phenomenon. 

    The Butterfly Effect     by Gary Fincke

        If a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil,
             it might produce a tornado in Texas.
                                     from The Law of Chaos

   Early in the newsmagazine
   these Haitian women are wailing,
   and those that are not are holding
   their breath and the hands of men
   tense with a bullet expectation.
   And I've read, too, that the wind
   tonight may have originated
   from their mourning, the beating
   of their arms in the air sending
   the record warm front north.
   I've read about fractals,
   the Russian Dolls of the universe,
   diamonds made of diamonds made
   of diamonds diminishing in size;
   I've learned the Butterfly Effect,
   how chaos is not chaos,
   how some slaughter in Haiti flaps
   its wings and churns into my grip
   on the arm of my son, my clenched teeth
   and hiss as he flutters his free arm
   and wails and changes the future
   of weather in a country east of us
   where a father will choose, he thinks,
   to stun his son to obedience.
   And when I leave him to let the dog
   walk me into sense, the unnatural wind
   chatters the branches that skitter her
   to a barking panic on our street
   of sculpted shrubbery where Chirstmas bulbs,
   in one yard, might be arranged
   into language if you're properly
   angled, upstairs, across the street,
   positioned like an antenna straining
   for a distant station, my son in his window
   watching me handle the dog, my breath
   without its winter clouds, nothing he'd believe
   could join the southern grief of a warm front.

Fincke's poem (above) comes from Inventing Angels (Zoland Books, 1994).   Humes' poem (below) is found in Butterfly Effect (Milkweed Editions, 1998). 

   Butterfly Effect   by Harry Humes

   Think of it in Beijing,
   the swallowtail on its white blossom.

   Over there a man sleeps
   beneath a bo tree.

   A woman walks by a pond of red carp.
   It is the last of September,

   and the sky is clear all the way to the mountains.
   No one sees the butterfly's wings move

   nor feels the air stir
   in the afternoon,

   the small disturbance on the pond.
   And when the swallowtail flies off

   it is just a little more of the same,
   a branch creaking, a ripple

   over some geography like light over wheat,
   except a month later,

   thousands of miles away,
   a wind knocks trees over,

   it snows for days.
   Children no longer turn somersaults.

   women turn away from sifting and measuring,
   a man watches a deer stagger,

   starving, across the frozen river.
   The horizon hardly stirs,

   and all the pianos are silent.
   The bright wing of the sky

   drifts so close you could raise a hand
   to it, the air delicate

   and your fingers itching a little,
   as if something had landed there.


  1. f j craveiro de carvalhoDecember 2, 2010 at 8:23 AM

    I suppose there is enough material and it would be quite interesting to have an anthology on Poetry & the Butterfly Effect.
    I can think of one other poem at least on the subject:

    Fatal Consequences by Roger McGough:

    I don't believe that one about the butterfly -
    The air displaced by the fluttering
    of its wings in Brazil
    causing a tidal wave in Bangladesh.

    Mind you,
    The day after I shook out
    a tablecloth on the patio
    there was an earthquake in Mexico.

    (Or was it the other way round?)

    R. M., CBE, comes from Liverpool, UK, where he was born in 1937.He presents the BBC Radio 4 programme Poetry Please.

  2. Thanks, Francisco, for this contribution.
    Indeed I too have wondered about the number of butterfly-effect poems; perhaps it is like this: since there are at least two from Eastern Pennsylvania, there may be two hundred in the US and two thousand in the world.