Sunday, December 9, 2012

Loss of Identity

     Some of the richness of a poem comes from the multiple meanings available for the poet's words.  We read "line" and think of the geometric straight thing and of the type of work a person does and of a particular list of products and  . . .   .    For mathematicians, a given term may have a precise mathematical specification that trumps all the others.  (See, for example, the discussion of "random" in the 5 December 2012 posting.)
     A math term that especially interests me poetically is "identity."  One has a unique "identity" and experiences "identity theft" or an "identity crisis"  --  each time I hear the word my cross-referencing brain links to the mathematical notion of identity.  In the integers, the element zero, 0, is an identity for addition since 0 added to any integer produces no change.  Likewise, 1 is an identity for multiplication since 1 multiplied by any integer produces no change.
     When I read Jerome Rothenberg's poem "45 / I Give Up My Identity," my considerations included not only personal ones but also speculation about the integers without 0 or 1 -- indeed, a sort of crisis.   
     Here, to reflect on, is Rothenberg's poem:

     I Give Up My Identity       by Jerome Rothenberg 

     My name is smaller
     than it sounds.
     I work & polish it
     until a light
     shines through.
     I thrust a thorn under
     my tongue.
     I drop the little stones
     behind me. Striding
     I can feel my height extend
     up to the rafters.
     My voice is thin,
     still thinner
     is the space between
     my footsteps
     & the earth.
     I do not want you
     calling me
     except at the allotted
     times. I scratch my head
     because I know
     it's empty. Hot & cold
     are equal terms.
     I give up my identity
     to write to you.
     The notice on the board says:
     Stay at home
     Be vigilant
     The aim of medicine is
     I can hardly wait until
     Signals everywhere
     are fraught
     with terror.
     In the deepest
     waters spread around
     the globe
     there is a sense
     of life so full
     no space exists
     outside it.
     I will go on writing
     till I drop
     & you can read my words
     beyond my caring.

Jerome Rothenberg is an emeritus professor at UCSD; this poem is from A Book of Witness (New Directions, 2003).

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