Monday, January 23, 2006

Poem of the Week 1/23/2006: An Ode to Asymmetry

An Ode to Asymmetry

What you unearth is an unearthly thing:
what clings to it is neither root nor soil
nor any *thing*, but evanescent, scentless
thought, a hovercraft that crosses on twin foils,
back and forth the agitated waters of the mind,
and never lands. And what it crosses, it negates;
it crosses out.
Like the antimatter
of the universe, with all of matter's properties
reversed: when it meets a particle of
matter, the pair annihilate each other--
in their place: pure energy, radiant light,
as if destruction were divine. Not so!
For symmetry is broken from the start,
from which all things descend, and here we are.

When the universe began--Creation
as Big Bang--for reason science can
not explain, the balance tipped toward
matter: more was made of matter
than of its absent antimatter twin.
Perfect symmetry would have equaled
pure annihilation, that nothingness
of which both Indian saint
and French logician
dream, exquisite binary machine--
Being and Nothingness: ka-boom.

And knowing that, the thought, unearthly,
which these lines at first unearthed, dissolves,
a cloud that had obscured the sun:
the ocean waves continue as before, embrace
with foam the swimmer on her board
(each bubble a lens to catch the light),
the mountain rises from the ocean's floor,
and out in space, the galaxies spin on,
the stars wink back at everything:
root, plant, orangutan,
blue planet, rutabaga, kitchen sink.

Eleanor Wilner 2005

Sometimes I want to stop everyone I see and tell them that yes: poetry exists, and I love it, and then I love them. Is that strange? Perhaps. In any case, I think that it is one of the byproducts of reacting to something aesthetically. The reason I took so long to write this Poem of the Week is that I love it so much. I can't write about many of my favorite poems. I almost don't want to - I make notes in my book, but I don't want to come at the poem with ropes and a thesis. Sometimes I just want to surrender to it.

This is something we talked about in my aesthetics class - great works can move us to silence. And yet we chatter endlessly about what James Joyce meant if the period in the third episode was just a typo and what could this mean etc. Some might say that the entire field of literary criticism is an attempt to intellectualize what we ought to just be loving. There are certainly professors, students, and critics who fall away from their love for literature, but I think that most of us are just desperately trying to understand what we love so much. I know that that's what this blog is for me - an endless attempt to express my love for poetry. I hope that you can all see that. I try to hold on to it as much as possible. If I go into literary criticism, I want to attempt to always infuse my work with love. I don't know if that's forever possible, but it is certainly possible to try.

This is a poem that traverses the universe and the properties of matter to end with extraordinary love. Asymmetry glimmers out at every level, and we appreciate it. There is a Romantic twist in the title; "An Ode to Asymmetry" perhaps references Keats' famous "Ode on a Grecian Urn" or "Ode to a Nightingale." It's thus probably about beauty or truth. Or love! I think, in the end, it's a poem about love, beauty, and appreciating what is around us.

The structure is circular; it begins with a thought and flies to the edges of the universe before returning to that thought. In the first stanza, the dominant metaphor is that of the human mind as the earth. You dig up this thought as if from the mind's soil and it hovers over the brain's "agitated waters." This thought is never named. Much of the poem attempts to describe this thought, and, by the end, we get the idea that it is something disturbing and destructive. Perhaps even symmetrical.

We know this thought is "like the antimatter / of the universe, with all of matter's properties / reversed." It destroys what it touches, albeit in a flash of "pure energy, radiant light." The next line, "as if destruction were divine," does not mean "as if destruction were holy:" rather, "as if destruction were the way of things." Luckily, the universe does not have matter and antimatter in proportion. It is unbalanced, and from that inequality we descend. This idea is familiar - humans descend from a break in creation, from imperfection, from some original sin. Perhaps this poem is another theory of the fall of matter.

It is positive, though. Luckily in the creation of the universe, "the balance tipped toward / matter." The poem suggests that it perhaps favored asymmetry because "perfect symmetry would have equaled / pure annihilation." I am not sure who the Indian saint is (any ideas, anyone?), but the French Logician is probably Jacques Derrida. He started Deconstructionism, a movement arguing against meaning. Essentially, he writes that language is an inconstant structure, and that we can never really "know" any word's definition. There is an infinite looping of definitions - each word is defined by more words, so each definition cancels out the word. Meaning doesn't exist. I could be wrong about the reference - any feedback is welcome! The phrase "exquisite binary machine" takes a little dig at technology's binary system because it's connected to symmetry, perhaps pushing against our society's idealization of machines.

The last stanza is a love stanza. The disturbing thought dissolves, and the mind's earth recedes to the real one. This earth embraces its swimmers, the mountains and the ocean move in harmony, and the very galaxies wink at the odd, lovable elements of this world. It reminded me of the title of one of Richard Wilbur's poems, "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World." Perhaps asymmetry does as well.

1 comment:

Alicey said...

I really love this poem. Really, really. From a physics perspective, I will tell you that Wilner captures the numinosity of physics fairly well. I mean, how beautiful is a universe where two things can come together and leave only light? (I will have to tell you about my musings on light later.) I know there is probably a lot more to this poem in terms of literary analysis, but it has beauty for a scientist too.