MENDELEEV’S MANDALA by Jessica Goodfellow reviewed by Camille E. Davis
by Jessica Goodfellow
Mayapple Press, 102 pages
reviewed by Camille E. Davis
Jessica Goodfellow was trained as a poet and a mathematician. In an interview with The Japan Times, she admits that as a child she would “recite poems, usually rewritten nursery rhymes, where [she] would change the words to what [she] wanted…but with the rhythm of the rhyme behind it.” However, her family, though never precisely dampening her poetic spirit, pushed her to explore her natural ability in mathematics instead. She came to reconsider her career choice when she found herself deeply unhappy while pursuing a Ph.D. in microeconomics and econometrics at CalTech.
So it is not surprising that Goodfellow is completely at ease when flirting with poetic mathematics. Her first book of poetry, Mendeleev’s Mandala, sprinkles logic equations to the meat of its poems. Goodfellow is interested in the crossroads where mathematical logic and history meet both free verse and more classical poetic forms. Split into five sections, Mandala also feels like a compilation of Goodfellow’s work. The fifth section incorporates Goodfellow’s first chapbook, The Pilgrim’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland, and thus Mandala feels like a reverse chronology.
A poem in the first section that typifies Goodfellow’s ability to tear down the stereotypes associated with the division of a “left brain” to a “right brain” is “Imagine No Apples.” Within the poem, Goodfellow twists the form of first-order logic. Unlike say, Inger Christenson, whose poetic form in alphabet is structured by using the strict rules of the Fibonacci sequence, Goodfellow uses mathematics abstractly, and not necessarily in form or meter.
From the very first stanza of “Imagine No Apples,” Goodfellow subtly upsets stereotypes by stating, “All beginnings wear their endings like dark apples. / A is for apple. B is not for apple. / C, also not for apple. And so on.” In this, she is playing on two givens: the first, of a child’s introduction to the alphabet beginning with “A is for Apple, B is for Boy, C is for Cat” and the second, of formal logic equations that states, in this example, “If A is not B and C is not B, then A is not C.”
By doing this, Goodfellow sends up the idea that people are taught formal logic and language separately. In fact, children are taught to link ideas and letters in their minds via “A is for apple,” as if “A” were a fixed variable. Instead of giving “A” a specific numerical value, children are given the idea of an apple, which from that point on becomes inseparable from the letter “A”. Not only this, but they are also taught, in a logical way, that apple can only be an “A” word. It could never be categorized as a “B” word or a “C” word, and so “C is also not for apple. And so on.” Therefore, Goodfellow uses her poetic form in order to undermine the idea that there are distinct divisions between poetry and mathematics when the reader has learned them in tandem.
As a poet in the stricter sense, Goodfellow leans confessionally, or about as confessionally as Berryman did in
Dream Songs. I say this because she explores her more intense feelings on her life in Japan and her status on being a poet, wife, and a mother by displacing herself in a speaker that mirrors Goodfellow’s own personal history. Some of the speakers are unnamed but one of them is very specifically named The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau in the third section of Mandala. (As Goodfellow quotes from Wikipedia, “Eigengrau” is the German word for “intrinsic gray,” and can be sometimes be “dark light, or brain gray.”) All of the prose poems in this section confront the boundaries between philosophical thought, confessionalism, and loneliness.
One of the many situations the speaker confronts in this collection is what it means to be married to a man who is slowly becoming blind. This section questions the morality of silence and of what it means to remain silent. The narrator in “The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau” rarely speaks and yet there are many voices that swirl through the poems. As though on repeat in her head, there are quotes from Wittgenstein, da Vinci, or personal friends from the past. It is only in the final poem of this section that the reader becomes privy to the voice of the husband of The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau’s. Yet, the two speakers cannot connect:
How do you / explain a shadow to a blind man, wonders the girl, not for the first time… “Oh,” says her blind husband, “you are drawing the window’s tears.” / The girl frowns. “It’s ablutions,” she corrects. Her blind husband hears the word / blue in ablutions; he doesn’t know blue but he knows the blues, so he / begins to whistle a tune. “Quiet please, I’m concentrating”…
Instead of having a dialogue about color, form, and shape, the reader enters a mental space in which the repetition of thought ends with a forced silence. Time and again, E. M. Forster’s words of “only connect” floated back to me while I read this section, where the overarching message is that The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau cannot do just that.
The theme of (lack of) connection returns forcefully in the fifth and final section of Mendeleev’s Mandala. This time, it is the form that collides numbers and words in the most experimental and enchanting way. In this section, Goodfellow journeys across America with her son in the backseat, and numbers, like stars, invade the traditional poetic space to transform it into visual art.
However, Goodfellow doesn’t use these numbers like leetspeak to turn words into numbers but rather generates as a pseudo-random phenomenon where numbers are sprinkled into letters. This section also ends in a crescendo, the numbers beginning as almost-muted sounds that open up into a vastness that fills the reader with a sense of awe. The poem that emblemizes this is “6. 015Random N6umber Tab8le.” To quote it as a clipped form in this essay would be like snipping the bottom off of a Rothko. The poem achieves wide-eyed astonishment of the world so starkly reimagined within it.
Stereotypically, there has been a “right brain” and “left brain” divide within the canon, where any mathematics entering into a poem have been considered to be strange. However, Jessica Goodfellow proves that poetry as a genre is flexible enough to allow for both. Her strongest poems are those that push the expectations of both classical mathematics and poetic tropes within the same stanza. Goodfellow’s playfulness with voice and form explores these new waters. And when she is most in her element, giving old conceptions a new rhythm to run on, she pushes this new form to open it up to all of the possibilities that it might achieve.
Camille Davis recently graduated with distinction from Temple University, and has been elbow deep in rare books while working at the Kislak Center at the University of Pennsylvania ever since. Lately, she has been writing poetry, building websites from scratch with the help of the New York Code and Design Academy, and diving into Philadelphia’s avant-garde jazz scene.