I spend a lot of time with mathematicians (my partner being one), so I know people who could discuss the beauty and power of math, but they rarely do. Mary Peelen, who was an undergraduate math major, does. In her first book of poetry, Quantum Heresies (Glass Lyre Press), she tells us:
You can trust the math,
so hush now
and let yourself fall.
Lay down your rock-a-bye soul
in the unbounded darkness
where a billion stellar galaxies
unwind their spiraled arms.
Math as trustworthy parent. Math as infinite gorgeous support. What a delightful surprise for those who might fear math. In these poems, numbers come alive and math lets us see the beauty and devastation in the world, connects us to faith, and interweaves with all aspects of being human.
In “Sunday Morning” Peelen writes:
leafed branches curve into
ten dimensions so discrete
we’d miss them entirely
if not for the math.
The world’s natural beauty is there, Peelen tells us. Even paying attention, we may not notice it with our naked eye, but we can see its mathematical patterns. And looking from the opposite perspective, she shows us how the natural world can bring us the beauty of mathematics. An ash tree becomes a hypoteneuse. Lightning is “virtual particles / tracing Feynman diagrams / across the ciphered sky” as a summer storm blasts mathematical expressions into our lives.
Peelen sees math as hope, a counterweight to the devastation we are bringing to our planet. But she does not let us turn away from global warming, erosion, ice caps melting, all the ways our world is coming apart. In “Thermodynamics,” she tells us “even the sky recedes in the / shape of an exponential function.” I knew that the line in an exponential function shot up quickly, so the initial image was a powerful one, but then I looked up the technical definition: a function whose value is a constant raised to the power of the argument. I don’t know what “power of the argument” means mathematically, but I know well the arguments we are having about our planet and the terrifying results of behavior. Joining Peelen in the language of math let me add more layers to the image.
Peelen creates surprise in her poems by jumping between worlds. This starts in the very first poem in the book, “x.” She begins the poem with a philosophical discussion narrowly focused on math: “x obeys algebraic laws / but resists particularity.” But between one stanza and the next, Peelen’s simile explodes the poem open:
It’s the placeholder
like the notion
Suddenly this poem is no longer about math but God, as well.
Peelen has a Master’s of Divinity (as well as a Master’s in Fine Arts), and questions about God and faith permeate this book. In “Properties of Light,” she tells us the sparrows rising from a tree are “a chaos of semiquavers / struggling to contain divinity.” For Peelen, somewhere in the mix of math and the natural world is the divine.
Peelen’s interests open out to the theological, but also burrow deeply into the personal, the particular. In “Awake” she tells us of a migraine:
confounding as transfinite math
or the voice of Rilke’s angels in the firmament
luring us toward the end of the number line.
Every infinity is terrifying.
She compares suffering from a migraine both to a math concept and a metaphysical concept, all grounded in the human, the terror of pain. She asks the reader to both think and feel.
That combination of thinking and feeling, math and faith, come through in many of her poems. I was particularly drawn to “One,” wherein Peelen writes:
can’t prove everything.
Goedel proved that some things
are a matter of faith.
When I come to you
offering one small green pear
I’m asking you to believe in
every green there is
at every hour.
The whole tree.
I found the line break after “Mathematics” heartbreaking. In earlier poems, I felt that the speaker asked math to explain the universe or the fault lines in a marriage, and here the speaker discovers it can’t. The physical break shows an intellectual and emotional break. But Peelen has not given up on math in this poem. When the speaker asks the beloved to believe in “the whole tree,” I felt I was being asked to believe in math, faith, nature, and love all together, all at once.
Peelen has two main voices in these poems. A handful of the poems are conversational, especially those about personal illness, but most are in couplets and have a meditative tone and tight sound structure. You can see Peelen’s tight control of sound in lines like “Chaos is calculable, iterative.” It’s not quite a perfect dactylic trimeter, but the line definitely trips along with a steady beat. She adds to that confident meter, the hard c in “chaos” which gets picked up in the next foot with the hard c in “calculable.” Those sounds create an announcing tone. And what is being announced might be somewhat shocking to the non-mathematician. I had no idea chaos, which in my lay mind means out of control, actually can be controlled, or at least understood, mathematically. At the same time that some of the sounds in the line present an aggressive posture on the subject, other sounds like the repeated soft “i” and “l” sounds offer a countering flow, a quiet assuredness. I believed the line not because I know anything about chaos theory or because I trust Peelen as a theorist, but because her sounds made me want to trust her ideas. That’s a powerful use of poetic technique.
She uses technique on both the micro level of the line and the macro level of the book as a whole, like non-linear story telling. Having the poem “dx” about a cancer diagnosis happen after the long poem about the treatment, support groups, and friends dying makes this poem even more chilling. The reader knows where this story is going even if the speaker doesn’t, and so Peelen’s placement of the poem adds pathos.
The title “Quantum Heresies” holds, in almost magnetic tension, the two main worlds of this book (and Peelen’s academic background): math and faith. Peelen drew the phrase from her poem “Sunday Morning” where she states: “I put my faith in algebra. / And Wallace Stevens, of course, / his quantum heresies.” From the digging I’ve done, “quantum heresies” is not a term Stevens used, so this phrase is Peelen commenting on Stevens’ amalgam of science, poetry, nature, and religion, and her own as well. I love that the word “quantum” is a contronym. It can mean almost impossibly large or it can mean the opposite—relating to the very small increments that energy can be divided into. With energies big and small, Peelen forges her own mathematical way to the divine.