All Things Lead to Chaos, From Chaos All Things Emerge: Tim Green’s American Fractal

I wrote a review of Tim Green’s American Fractal a couple of years ago, and then was a bit lackadaisical in shopping it about, so I’m posting it here.  It wants light.

American Fractal
by Timothy Green
Red Hen Press
P.O. Box 40820
Pasadena, CA 91114
ISBN: 978-1-59709-130-5
2009, 102 pp., $18.95

All Things Lead to Chaos, From Chaos All Things Emerge

 I don’t know much about chaos theory, but I do know that a chaotic system is one in which a miniscule, almost undetectable deviation in initial conditions creates unpredictable, large-scale change.  Take, for example, two identical universes.  They’ve been exactly the same for millions of years.  Then, one day, in the first universe, a butterfly flutters its wings.   A million years later, those two identical universes are completely different.  What happened is that the first universe became chaotic.  That teeny, tiny change created a deviation in the complex patterns of the universe’s system. Some systems turn chaotic if you let them run long enough, even those that appear absolutely ordered, such as fractals, those talismans of pattern, repetition and self-replication from inception to infinity.  Think of a snowflake.  Think of rock crystals.  Think of grains of sand along a coastline making up the coastline.  We find them attractive in part because they appeal to our innate desire to locate order, to be able to predict, to keep ourselves safe by knowing what comes next if we know what came before.  But that sense of order is illusory.  Hidden in the fractal is that undetectable chaotic deviation that will eventually spin it out of control.  So some of us cling tightly to order and the sense we make of it because order is often temporary: one stage of chaos’ progression mistaken for cohesion.[*]

Timothy Green, in his collection American Fractal, plays with this tension between chaos and order, and it is fitting that he titled his collection American Fractal and not, say,  American Chaos for two reasons.  The first is that he is working primarily from the need to make order, to find the cause, to make sense of our histories and conditions and relationships.  The second is that even though fractals can be expressed through mathematical equations, they are most often experienced visually and expressed through form, and form is a crucial element of Green’s poems.

The initial poem of the collection, “The Body,” introduces Green’s main theme, that chaos underlies what we perceive to be ordered, knowable wholes.  The poem depicts a dream packed with juxtaposed images and memories that weave in and out of each other, building connections between abstract ideas (like hope) and objects fixed in the unconscious (in this case, a cave):

starspecks in the foxglove       her hair is blue grass      & the first thing

I think of are the wet walls of howe caverns          that tourist trap back

east             the pipe organ             the bridal altar             the river styx (8-10)
This isn’t disconcerting.  Readers expect dreams to be associative and chaotic, to be fraught with a sequencing that doesn’t make sense.  What is unnerving is the destabilizing cohesion that Green creates by titling the poem “The Body” and then ending the poem with “& the wind that follows / a second later    to wake the body        from its only available dream” (36-7).  The poem, Green indicates with the title, is not about the dream, but about the body.  Bodies are the subject of biology, anatomy, medicine – sciences that place the subject of the body solidly in the realm of the comprehensible.  But Green insists that the body possesses and is possessed by the dream it inhabits when it is sleeping.  The body is permeated with disorder.  It is just as hectic as its dream.  That the dream is the “only available” one complicates Green’s message beyond the easy metaphor of body/order and dream/chaos.  The theory of chaos isn’t a theory of randomness.  It is a theory of unpredictability.  The dream isn’t one that is randomly conjured.  It is the direct consequence of teeny deviation in the past.  It is the only dream “the body” can possess, but the body couldn’t have predicted it because the body cannot pinpoint its source.

“The Body” is a long poem, consisting of long, fully-justified, double-spaced lines with random spaces between words and phrases.  Its form does an excellent job conveying disorder masquerading as order.  The fully-justified lines present a block of text that moves up and down, from left to right, mimicking the orderliness of a page, the solidity of its four corners.  Within the lines, however, the poem meanders.  It leaps.  It fills the page greedily, taking up all the space it is permitted.  Upon first encounter with the form, I was taken in.  I was ready to meander and leap through a whole book written like this.  But Green has transferred the concept of the fractal – along with its complex patterning and repetitions – to the book as a whole.

Disrupting my anticipation, the next poem is written in staggered couplets.  The next, in right-justified couplets.  Two poems later, and most surprisingly, I encounter a traditional sonnet that scans perfectly.  Skip a poem, and I find one that seems to take the form of a fractal, tercets that repeat the structure of long line / short line / medium line, with the final tercet incomplete, suggesting that the poem’s form will self-replicate ad infinitum. While I embrace formal variety in a collection, the movement between Green’s forms seems almost schizophrenic, at least initially.  As the collection progresses, the long lines repeat, the staggering repeats, the sonnet repeats, the fractal-like tercets repeat.  There’s no telling when one particular form will appear again; like a chaotic system, the pattern is too complex to be discernible, appearing as if there is no pattern at all.  Yet the unpredictable repetition of form would be nothing but a cheap trick if was simply a template into which the poems must fit.  In order for the book to be its own fractal, the repetition of form must be generated by its initial conditions: the content and language.

Consider for example, the two poems that incorporate the fractal-like tercets: “Midnight Mass” and “Beach Scene.”  “Midnight Mass” takes as its subject the speaker’s memory of finding a stray dog while walking home from church with his mother.  This is the poem in which the final tercet is incomplete, and it, like “The Body,” explores the relationship between memory and the present, particularly how memory informs the present.  The form does its best work at the end of the poem, after the pattern has been set with no apparent deviation.  In the depicted memory, the mother tells the speaker that they couldn’t take the stray dog home, and the speaker asks his mother “Would Mary tell Jesus / no?” (30-1).  The speaker continues,

[…] I was a brat.  A spoiled prince, enthroned.

But when I close

my eyes I see that mutt in

the manger.  Starving, lonely and cold.  Wisemen

around him stuffed

with straw, unmoving.  My

mother making sense.  One footprint falling

into the next. (31-8)
The poem finishes with movement, a footprint falling into the next.  The lines are blurred between the mother’s footprint and the child’s footprint, and as they move, the footprints conflate, suggesting possible understanding of the mother, or perhaps passive complacence.  Yet the poem doesn’t “end” in either its narrative or its form.  The child and mother never reach their destination; they are caught mid-journey, and the reader is left to project what happens the next. The form, too, is unfinished, giving the reader permission and space to continue the poem, to move it forward into the future.  Because this poem is a fractal, however, and because the pattern of a fractal can, at some point, become unstable, the ending is not predictable either in form or narrative.  A reader’s innate quest for order would suggest a neat ending, a medium length line offering closure.  But both endings (formal and narrative) cannot be certain.

“Beach Scene” is an ekphrastic poem after a painting, presumably of the same title, by Philip C. Curtis.  Recognizing the form, I entered the poem anticipating it would progress similarly to “Midnight Mass,” which would justify the repeated use of the form.  However, “Beach Scene” doesn’t explore memory and the present.  It doesn’t ask us to guess at the future using what we know of the past.  “Beach Scene” is encapsulated; its beginning and end are solid, capturing an observed scene.  How then, is the form justified in this poem?  Consider the following stanzas from the middle of the poem:

[…] One thing is always
mistaken for
another, as if accident were

the fundamental attribute of life – lightning strikes
a rock, the rock
becomes a heart, the heart

fits perfectly inside the hollow tomb of your chest
as you watch
their clothes come off, stitch by

painful stitch. (7-16)

Green uses the fractal-like form to explore another aspect of the fractal, that of self-replication.  Yet the replication in this fractal is chaotic based on an “accident,” a change in the initial conditions: a lightning strike.  As a consequence, the rock duplicates but changes into the heart.  Still, the heart “fits” the pattern, which is unpredictably complex. And it is possible, Green suggests, that we may mistake the rock for a heart, a heart for a rock.  He is craftily implying that the deviation in the pattern may not be discernible at all.

Despite my focus on Green’s smart and strategic craft, this collection is filled with stunningly beautiful moments that have nothing to do with fractals or chaos.  Much of this is due to Green’s finely-tuned ear, with which he creates surprising sonic moments. For example, in a poem about “Pluots and Apriums,” Green writes

What is touched

must then

be tasted.

What is bred

must then

be named. (16-21)
The repetition of rhythm and structure begs to be intoned as if prayer.  The alliteration between “touched” and “tasted” isn’t overdone.  The assonances of then/bred and tasted/named along with the consonance of “then” and “named” weaves the poem tightly, providing an aural coherence that is stronger and more memorable than the coherence of narrative.

At times, Green is a little heavy-handed with sound.  In “Thanksgiving Was Over,” the alliteration in the following two couplets had me counting H’s:

it barely buzzed, half-hibernating, his hand unstung

forever always, he assured the bee

dreaming itself somewhere else – the heart

of a hive, perhaps, at the height of the summer’s heat. (3-6)
The poem “Old Mother Tarantula” is gorgeous with slanted end rhymes, only to become aurally pat with the ending true rhyme of hat/that.  Overall, however, Green exercises an artist’s self-restraint, and most of his moments of aural loveliness are subtlely achieved.

Finally, Green shows much strength as a closer.  A few poems that I thought were perhaps of lesser quality than the rest were saved by the last two lines. The turn in “To Montevideo” was especially satisfying, and I won’t ruin it by describing it here.  Green closes the collection, too, in a fine manner: apocalyptically.  As we near the end, Green presents the darker side of chaos: corruption, idolatry, hauntings, destruction, violence, murder, suicide.  Yet Green knows that all beginnings start in chaos, and his final poem reflects that, ending on a note of hope.

[*] In the spirit of scientific accuracy, my friendly neighborhood scientist claims that this first paragraph, in which I try to explain chaos theory, is, in his words, “Crazy from beginning to end.”


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