Five Reasons to Read: Mendeleev's Mandala, Jessica Goodfellow
Review by AK Afferez
These poems are Cubist; they tease the meanings out of the words, turning them upside down and inside out until their inner workings – artificial flesh and clockwork cartilage – are exposed. Oh, the multiplicities of worlds a word can hold.
Science here does not shun poetry: quite the opposite. Human consciousness cannot be reduced to such a simple binary. Mathematics seek out metaphors. Geometry and logic embrace myths. In the end, electrons and angels are more or less the same thing. Iphigenia, the “stochastic stoic,” lays out her life in conditionals and converse statements and contrapositives. These poems are intimately aware of the secret associations that link one word to the other. The lines jar and glide into each other, playing with punctuation, spacing, and layout, surprising us but also revealing, through sonorous juxtaposition, how words echo off each other. A group of crows is called a murder, and this becomes about biblical gardens and brotherly betrayals. Seed and cede; altar and alter; hungry and hung. Riffs and variations, pantoums and cavatinas: periodicity with a twist.
There are obsessions here. Clocks, for example. The mechanics of everything, both living and not. The division of time is a slippery concept, as elusive as that string of threes that sear the page in two in “Portrait of a Clock as Repeating Decimal.” Vision is another one: many people throughout the poems go blind. What do we see when we cannot see anymore? The color we see in perfect darkness is not black; it’s Eigengrau, German for “intrinsic gray.” Once again, no answer is provided within the binaries we know so well; it’s always elsewhere.
The title poem is a visually sinuous one, interweaving the classical vision of elemental physics (we are all fire, water, air, earth, in diverse proportions) and the one Mendeleev helped bring about, rooted in a periodical chart that methodically tracks down the new elements and their atomic properties. But those poems are not ones to nicely fit into little squares. They are experiments, to see how much language can actually say and reveal of the complexity of our minds and of our worlds. These experiments are never gimmicks, not even when numbers eventually crowd the page, almost eclipsing the words: the value of chance and randomness is not to be underestimated, not in writing, not in science.
Mandala, as in the universe: squares and circles assembled to give a visual representation of spirituality. We are reminded of kaleidoscopes and fractals, “windows within windows within something window-shaped.” The collection is a palimpsest, constructed like those fossils that look like Fibonacci’s spiral, their “linked chambers whorling / like a galaxy or a thumbprint.” These poems contain the infinitely great, and the infinitely small; they remind us how everything is connected, how much is still hidden.