Thursday, December 16, 2010

Can we trust numbers?

Poet Lucia Perillo was honored Monday evening, December 13 at the Library of Congress -- as her collection Inseminating the Elephant won the 2010 Bobbit National Prize for Poetry.  It was my good fortune to be there to hear her read.  She is direct and upretentious, tough and witty.  An evening of good poetry read well.  Perillo has an undergraduate degree in wildlife management and her deep understandings of the natural world are evident in her poems.  In  an earlier collection, we find "In Light of the Absent Constant," a Perillo poem of science and number: 

   In Light of the Absent Constant      by Lucia Perillo

   I don’t trust the few fixed sums, like the speed
   of the light that falls precisely on the lawn,
   there, but not there, clap on, clap off—
   to indicate the shadow of the tree.
   Something suspicious about that kind of precision
   coming from something moving as fast as
   the speed of light: you would think
   we’d be dealing with a blurry edge. Blur I could trust
   in what comes from a distance: the static,
   the garble, the disconnect. But too clear
   is your voice from this bone-shaped white thing
   that looks as if it belongs in the nose of a giant pygmy.
   And always I’m either talking on the phone or else
   I’m switched off: the automaton me, the binary me, the me
   who’s a string of zeroes behind the wheel.
   Like Mr Magoo, who offends me not
   for his depiction of the visually disabled
   but more because when the rest of us happen to drive
   off the metaphorical drawbridge, how come
   the barge never happens to be passing underneath?
   I mean, haven’t we simplified a bit here?
   Told little white lies, to put someone s mind at ease?
   Though some say the world will boil down
   to one equation, once we get the physics squared away,
   one number like Avogadro’s 6.023
   times 10²³ having to do with molecules and moles.
   Though say the word “mole”
   and no doubt most people will think of a creature
   burrowing through the dirt, with hands
   like old leather gloves crushed up
   against its cheeks. What scares me is not
   just the fracture hazard posed by the holes in the lawn,
   but more this idea that we don't even know what’s going on
   under our own feet. Come back soon,
   I am troubled. I’m like that woman whose voice
   inhabits the machines: if you’d like to make a call
   please hang up and dial again...  & not so much that part
   as the bwoop bwoop bwoop bwoop. It’s hard to maneuver
   with so much dirt raining down—I am a mole
   whose number is fixed at minus one.
   Minus one minus one minus one minus one.
   Then the phone rings, and I blunder back to light.

"In Light of the Absent Constant" appears in The Oldest Map with the Name America (Random House, 1999).  Additional poems by Perillo may be found at the Poetry Foundation website.

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