Thursday, January 19, 2017

Poem366: MENDELEEV'S MANDALA by Jessica Goodfellow

Jessica Goodfellow’s Mendeleev’s Mandala (Mayapple Press, 2015) was just what I needed today—quirky poems that nonetheless were full of heart and meticulously formed. The collection provided something different but still accomplished—the exact opposite of what we’re seeing on the national stage. There is no doubt that reading Goodfellow’s very creative work Made Poetry Great Again™, and at just the right time.

Goodfellow’s book is in five sections, and they’re all pretty dreamy, but damn, I’m smitten with the second and third ones.

Section Two is mostly about timekeeping, and the poems all offer a different take on the topic. Goodfellow begins with the candle clock, by which I am reminded of the so-called courting candy—a candlestick that can be wound up or down on its base depending on the parents’ opinion of a courter; when the flame reaches the top of the coil that holds the candle, the date’s over. 

But anyone who regularly uses a tallow candle or an oil lamp for illumination knows it is also a timepiece; after a certain amount of time, it must be replenished. And time is always on the move—one of the themes of the section and, indeed, of the collection as a whole. In “In Praise of the Candle Clock,” Goodfellow writes,

           […] as long as there is in this world a clock, we have no chance
of acting without a reason, no hope of such purity in being or in guttering—
beguiled, like piebald priests who spent candles to clock sermons, like tonsured monks
pausing their illumination only to calculate when it was safe, at last, to stop praying.

Goodfellow continues with “A Sundial Explains the Uncertainty Principle,” which begins by explaining the part of the sundial that casts a show is called “the gnomon—one who knows.” After a fascinating history of sundials, she notes, “Almost anything / casts a self-shaped shadow”—suggesting we all have in us a gnomon.

Her concrete poem “Ode to the Hourglass” follows, then “The Invention of the Clock Face,” with its most arresting claim: “wherever there are hands there must / also be a face for the hands to cover.”

Goodfellow’s “Portrait of a Clock as Repeating Decimal” is a wonderful, twisty thing, beginning,

The third hand, which is the second hand, is a one-armed bandit.
The second hand, which is the minute hand, plays an etude
for left hand only, in the lonely timbre of E flat minor’s umber.
The hour hand augurs crop circles cryptically out of ether,
augurs neither out of either, argues binary out of breathe.

It’s a poem that someone who is not writing a book review each day of 2017, like a fool, might wisely spend some of those second-hand rotations contemplating.

But why am I writing about clocks when I could be writing about “The Girl Whose Favorite Color Is Eigengrau”? All of the poems in Section Three are prose poems about this girl, and her whole unlikely moniker is in every title. 

Eigengrau, by the way, is defined as the color the eye sees in perfect darkness—lighter, as Goodfellow explains, than black for reasons of [insert science stuff here].

The first poem in this section—and this may be a reader’s high I’m experiencing, but I think it’s my favorite section ever—is called “Pity the Girl Whose Favorite Color Is Eigengrau,” with its perfect sentence, “The girl whose favorite color is eigengrau also has a least favorite color and it is eigengrau.”

In the next poem, “The Girl Whose Favorite Color Is Eigengrau Is Mocked by Those She Had Thought to Be Friends,” she begins, “The girl whose favorite color is eigengrau has a favorite road, edged on both sides by ancient trees that make in spring a pale tunnel, in autumn a patchwork canopy turning slowly threadbare, in winter a ribcage.” I swear Goodfellow has just painted a picture for me, entirely in tones of eigengrau. Seemed impossible at the outset, but there it is.

The section is a philosophical adventure, and the color/non-color of eigengrau is such a perfect vehicle for it, as in “The Girl Whose Favorite Color Is Eigengrau Fails to Think Nothing.” Goodfellow writes, “A third time she tries to think nothing but this time starts to notice that failing to think nothing is not unlike seeing eigengrau where black should have been.” It’s a bold contemplation on the nature of both seeing and knowing, and I think it may hit close to home for the poet, who writes elsewhere in the book about the blindness of a (poetic) husband.

This theme recurs in the poem “The Girl Whose Favorite Color Is Eigengrau Gets Married,” she begins, “The girl whose favorite color is eigengrau marries a blind man whose eyes are the color of a Rembrandt iris.” She quotes Wittgenstein as saying that light, like numbers, is colorless, then writes, “When her husband asks her what her favorite color is, the girl whose favorite color is eigengrau says, ‘Nine.’ “Galileo,’ she says, ‘was born on the same day da Vinci died.’”

As I said at the outset, I am smitten—with this book, with Goodfellow, with eigengrau, and with the opportunity to write the word “eigengrau” an unprecedented fourteen times. That is exactly fourteen more times than I’ve ever written “eigengrau” (oops! Fifteen) before.

I recommend this book so highly that if you hear a knock at the door, it may be me, waving it in your face and demanding you read it.

You’ll see me as a smear of eigengrau.

An interview with Jessica Goodfellow …

What did you want to be when you grew up, and why?

I wanted to be a weather forecaster. I made weather machines in my basement, using whatever I could find, including xylophone keys and old springs. I took weather orders from the neighbors when they needed rainless days for barbecues and such. My final weather machine my dad helped me to wire with electricity so it had flashing lights and spinning sensors. I was nine, and it is still one of the most memorable days of my life.

What is the very best word in this collection? Explain.

Eigengrau. That’s the color we see in perfect darkness. It isn’t black, but a deep gray we see because action potentials are still sent along the optic nerve even when there is no light at all. Fascinating, right?

Describe your worst poetic habit.

Too much mind, not enough heart. A reluctance to leap.

It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about ___. Explain your reasoning.

About anthologies. A meta-anthology. Not really; that answer just popped into my head and was too amusing not to mention. (See what I mean about too much mind, not enough heart.)

It’s your poetic obituary! Finish it up, but not with your bio—finish it with an essential statement about your poetry. [Your name] was a poet of/who/with …

Jessica Goodfellow was not trained as a poet, and it showed. 

Jessica Goodfellow’s books are Mendeleev’s Mandala (2015) and The Insomniac’s Weather Report (2014). Her work has been featured in Best New Poets, Verse Daily, and on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac. One of her poems has been adapted by Motionpoems. She was awarded the Chad Walsh Poetry Prize from the Beloit Poetry Journal. This summer she will be an artist-in-residence at Denali National Park and Preserve, where she will continue work on a manuscript about the death of her uncle as a mountain climber on Denali. 

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