By the numbers
Total pages: 100
Number of poems: 49
Despite my occasional whining about the evils of Facebook, I love how it connects us with others that we might not otherwise meet. Poet Jessica Goodfellow is one such person: She and I are part of an online group of poets. Several months ago, in hopes of giving poets and poetry a bit more visibility, I started an interview series on my personal blog and extended an invitation to poets in that group. As a result, I was lucky enough to secure an interview with her. (You can read the interview here.)
In preparation for the interview, I immersed myself in her online work and was blown away. Folks, her poetry resonates with me at a physical level. When I read one of her poems, I feel like that second tuning fork in that physics experiment on sympathetic tuning forks, vibrating at some resonant frequency with the poem. Anyway, suffice it to say I ordered her book and read through it several times. Other poetry books are important to me for various reasons, but on a purely personal, aesthetic, and emotional level, Mendeleev’s Mandala is one of my favorite books of poetry that I’ve read, not just this year, but ever.
As is the case with my other reviews here on Poetry Matters, my hope is to give you an overall description of the book by touching on each of its sections and to give you a peek into the book by looking a bit more deeply at one or two of the individual poems. But I’ll say this now: People, read this book.
—Nancy Chen Long
Much about poet Jessica Goodfellow could be viewed as the beautiful blending of seeming opposites. An American poet now living in Japan with her husband and sons, Goodfellow grew up in Pennsylvania in a family where religion played a prominent role. Her educational background is heavy in math and science, with an MS degree from the California Institute of Technology (she’d been pursuing a PhD in Economics but stopped short in order to pursue creative writing) and an MA in linguistics from the University of New England.
That beautiful blending—the integration of dissimilar, even antithetical, things—is one of the features of Mendeleev’s Mandala, which is filled with poems that mix religion and science, myth and math, fact and fable, speaking and silence, dark and light, chaos/randomness and order. In addition to such fusion, other themes in the book include an obsession with sight and the process of seeing, repetition and the need to repeat, time, and relationships, especially family. Most of the poems are free-verse and innovative. Some might even call a few of the poems experimental. And language in all of its glory—connotation, denotation, sound and rhythm, some of it playful—is the one of the driving forces in every poem.
Let's begin at the beginning. If we consider the title (the book is titled after one of its poems), we can see this blending or inclination towards integration that runs throughout the book: Mendeleev is of science and mandala is of religion. Dmitri Mendeleev was a Russian chemist who, among other things, devised the periodic table of elements that predicted undiscovered elements. Mendeleev’s predictive model was based on patterns and repetitions of those circles of atoms and electrons that make up the universe. And a mandala is a spiritual symbol representing the universe that includes circles as a predominant geometric shape. In addition, Goodfellow is a master of layering meaning. In the title, not only are science and religion combined by juxtaposing a science name next to a religious one, they are unified in a variety of ways, two of which I’ll mention. First, the two names are unified sonically. That is, both are pleasingly similar in sound. Secondly, the two names are unified through similarity in function: Both bring some level of order to the chaotic universe. Through the periodicity of elements, Mendeleev brought structure—a bit more order—to our understanding of what makes up our universe. And the mandala, as a religious icon, supplies a symbolic structure, an organized wholeness, to our universe. The title is an excellent indicator of the weaving of different subjects and the layered meaning that permeate the book.
The poems in Mendeleev’s Mandala are divided into five sections. The first section is about many things, but for me, the unifying theme is relationships—father, self, brother, friend—with a number of motifs including beginnings/births/starts. A number of the poems feature famous people and characters from science, the bible, myth, American history, for example Medeleev, Sarai, Iphigenia, Wilbur Wright, a fortune teller, a soul guru, to name a few.
There are a few genre-blending pieces in the book, and this first section opens with one such work, "The Problem with Pilgrims," which spans two and half pages. It could be a prose (or mostly prose) poem, could be flash fiction, could be essay, could be a riff on zuihitsu. The opening line to the poem, and therefore the book, is "The problem with pilgrims is they think words are souvenirs." Pilgrim: a person on a sacred journey as an act of religious devotion. Pilgrim: a newcomer. Pilgrim: any wayfarer. Souvenir: a memento, a memory, a keepsake, curio. The line is indicative of the journey through the book, one in which the speaker seems displaced, out of place, a newcomer, wayfarer, one always in transition or transit, a speaker that collects and uses words as mementos and keepsakes, sometimes even as a curiosity.
I'd like to linger a bit on a poem in this first section as an example of the layered meaning found in the book and Goodfellow's exquisite work in imagery, language, and metaphor. It's a poem in which the speaker is traveling with her father to visit the copper-mine town where he was born. During their visit, they list past and current uses of copper:
How to Find a Missing Father in a Town that Isn’t There
The town where my father was born
was long ago swallowed up
by the copper mine it was birthed to serve:
my first first-hand experience of a parent
eating his child. Since we could not visit
the town, we stood instead at the edge
of a nearly-mile-deep pit, watching trucks
corkscrew the walls until they disappeared,
like my father’s father who’d worked one season here.
Mine, my father joked, pointing into the gaping hole.
Not mine, he waved his arms in large gestures
in no particular direction. To distract him
I read aloud, Used anciently to make mirrors.
He nodded, The sheathing on the hulls
of the Pinta, the Nina, the Santa Maria.
The Statue, we said in unison, of Liberty.
Before we left I bought myself
at the mine gift shop a ring, a copper band
of hearts that turned my finger green
and soon snapped in two. I handed one half to my father,
tossed the other into the pit, losing sight of it
before it hit its lineage. When he pocketed his piece,
I frowned, but my father shrugged, and said,
Semiconductor chips and tea carts.
I nodded, Coat trees and undersea cables.
Saxophones, stained glass, and pacemakers.
I did not mean to mean the mine was a mirror
or vice versa. What I should have said was
Lightning rod, something needed, in theory, only once.
Like a father. Which may be of scant comfort,
or untrue, as any gauge that measures the depths of the pit
is likely made itself of copper. (18)
There's so much in this poem. For brevity's sake, I'll focus on the treatment of copper (or the copper mine) that is woven throughout poem. In line 3, we encounter "copper mine." 'Copper' here is a metal deposit, one that had sustained a town, had been the town's livelihood. Then in lines 9-10, ("Mine, my father joked ... Not mine"), 'mine' here could mean the copper mine. Or it could be the pronoun meaning something that belongs to me. In the last four lines of the first stanza, we encounter a short list of historic uses of copper ("used anciently to make mirrors," etc.), as if to affirm that copper was important in the past. In the second stanza, we have the copper band that the speaker buys in the mine store (or alternatively, the "mine" store, as in the store where everything belongs to the father). Here, copper is a metal that makes for a cheap ring, one that turns the skin green and breaks a heart in half; it is a metal of little significance to the speaker because she throws her half of the broken-heart ring back from whence it came, that is, back into the pit, the father’s "mine." Later in the second stanza, there is the list of more modern applications of copper ("semiconductor chips...," etc.), as if to say that copper is still important. Then that final rumination on copper in making lightning rods, a thing that protects by attracting the danger: “Lightning rod, something needed, in theory, only once. / Like a father…” By the time we get to the end of the poem, copper could be read as a metaphor for the father.
[A quick comment before moving on to the second section: Folks, stop right now and go over to the motionpoem of "Crows, Reckoning," which is one of the poems in the first section. Seriously. Check it out.]
The second section of the book coheres around the theme of time. You can see that theme in the titles alone, for example "In Praise of the Candle Clock," "A Sundail Explains the Uncertainty Principle," and "Metronome is the Opposite of Wind." Also in this section, we learn that the speaker’s husband is going blind ("The Blind Man's Wife Makes a List of Words She Must No Longer Use") due to an inherited disease retinitis pigmentosa and that she fears her son might go blind as well ("Three Views of Mars.") The last poem in this section, "Night View from the Back of a Taxi," as the speaker tells us she chooses not to go home, she prepares the reader for an upcoming switch that transitions us away from the motif of beginnings and starts found in the first section, to a later motif of moving away:
The taxi slows for a yellow—no, red light.
Color is the Babel of the eyes. For example, in Ojibwe
there’s a verb tense for what was going to happen
but didn’t. As in, I was going to ask the driver to start homeward,
but then the light turned green. ...
Section 3 is one long poem titled "The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau." It's a poetic sequence comprised of twelve prose poems that center around a character who is identified only as “The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau.” It serves as both a disruption in the flow, as well as a centering point, of the book:
• Disruption, because its poems are tightly coupled with respect to 1) character focus—they’re all about one character, in contrast with the other poems that are about the speaker, members of her family, historic figures such as Mendeleev, biblical characters, famous artists and scientists, etc., and 2) form—they’re all prose poems, in contrast with the other poems, which are free verse or received form.
• Centering, because its tightness functions as a pivoting point around which the other poems turn. The information, themes, and motifs woven into these poems deepen as well as augment the other poems in the book.
The sequence opens with three epigraphs. The first epigraph, a snippet from the Wikipedia explanation of eigengrau, begins
Eigengrau (German: "intrinsic gray" / literally: "own gray"), also called Eigenlicht ("intrinsic light"), dark light, or brain gray, is the uniform dark gray background that many people report seeing in the absence of light.Below the Wikipedia snippet is a quote by Swiss-born painter Paul Klee, "Color is the place where our brain and the universe meet." The last epigraph is by French artist Pierre Bonnard, "Color is an act of reason."
Each prose poem in the sequence has its own title that includes the poem title in it, e. g. “The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau Thinks About Thinking” and “Pity Not the Blind Man Who Has Married the Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau.” The poems in this section delve into the philosophical, advancing subjects such as thinking/thought, death, language, logic. Taken as a whole, the tone (the attitude of the speaker) of the poems is matter-of-fact, although the mood (the emotion evoked in the reader) is one of loneliness, at least for this reader. The cool, detached tone serves the mood because it leaves an emotional void that the reader can then fill with his/her own feelings of loneliness. The matter-of-fact tone is evident in the first poem in the sequence: “Pity the girl whose favorite color is eigengrau. She cannot say so without seeming to be pretentious. She is a lungfish, able to exist anywhere and thus at home nowhere, except in the dark."
Running through the book are the motifs of color and the eye, both of which support the theme of seeing (sight). This third section is no exception. The main character is identified by the color (or lack of color) she prefers. In poem titled “The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau is Mocked by Those She had Thought to be Friends,” we read "The girl whose favorite color is eigengrau says nothing, recalling to herself how Wittgenstein had written: "Imagine someone pointing to a place in the iris of a Rembrandt eye and saying ‘the walls in my room should be painted this color.'"" Then, in a subsequent poem we again encounter the eye and iris. However, this time the word 'iris' might not part of the eye, but possibly a flower: "The girl whose favorite color is eigengrau marries a blind man who eyes are the color of a Rembrandt iris" (61). Both of these passages set up a dissonance and a sense of loss. In the first passage, it's in the detailing of the eyes of a blind man—talking about the organ of sight in a man who cannot see. In the second passage, it's in the mention of color—something we see only because of light—with respect to a woman whose favorite 'color' is something we see when there is no light.
In addition, there’s a disconnect when imagining ‘iris’ to be a flower in a Rembrandt painting. Rembrandt is known for his portraits and historical paintings. He tended towards faces and people, not flowers and fruit. While I am no expert in art or Rembrandt, I know of only one Rembrandt still-life, Little Girl with Dead Peacocks. (In case you'd like to search for yourself, a catalog of Rembrandt's work can be found here.) So, when thinking of 'Rembrandt iris' as a flower, there isn't one. This means that the color of the eyes of her husband is no color or unknown or doesn’t exist, the way color doesn’t exist to a blind person, the way her favorite color is no color.
The poems in this section are wonderful. While each individual poem stands on its own, taken as a whole, I find the sequence remarkable. If you'd like to read them in their entirety, you'll have to read the book :) That said, you’ll find one of them printed in its entirety at the end of this post.
In Section 4, the unifying theme continues to be relationships, but with a turn here, away from beginnings/births/starts that characterized the first section, to endings and moving away. The first poem of this fourth section, "The Book of the Edge," is a poem about the illusory hard-edge of fact, especially in the context human relationships. When the speaker tells us that "there is so much chaos even order / is made of it," she could be referring to the chaotic universe, but (I suspect) she means relationships as well. When she says "There's so much history / even night is made of it. And walls. It’s why, / numb as numbers, we still burnish the urgent stained glass / of forgiveness, letting through light but not fact," I feel certain she means relationships, history that begs to be forgiven, situations that become walls that cordon us off from one another, histories we cannot allow to be fact, at least for a while.
Also in this first poem of the fourth section, the speaker offers redshift, what happens when an object in space moves away from us, as "proof all things move away from their center" and the next two poems "November Nocturne" and "Self Improvement Project #4" continue, among other things, the idea of moving away.
This section also confronts marriage in the poem "Possessed," which opens with "To have and to hold—the expression of possession… ." Marriage threads through the remaining poems in this section and the condition of the marriage is powerfully modeled in the poem "The Puppet," through the coupling—the marriage—of a hand and a puppet: “What a hand really wants but cannot have is a mouth. A puppet has a mouth …. // A mouth on the other hand doesn’t want a hand. … it knows the hand would cover it up." By the end of this section, we know the speaker and the marriage are in distress: "And the hurly-burly / of regret is two folded pieces of any bed I lie in." ("Self-Improvement Project #5")
In Section 5 the theme of marriage and moving away—vanishing—merge into that of a marriage in decline. In the first poem of this section "The Function of the Comma is to Separate," the speaker, in a fit of insomnia, writes while her husband sleeps next to her. She writes a poem about the various uses of the comma and illustrates such uses in telling, personal sentences, for example the open stanza:
One function of the comma is to separate items in a series. For example: In this room are a bed comma you comma me comma and a clock ticking loudly periodIn this poem, the speaker replaces the commas, which would have separated the items, with the word ‘comma’ and in the doing, has removed the grammatical separation. Nothing separates the words; all words flow without hesitation or stop. The speaker offers ten such examples of the comma’s ability-purpose to separate, all ten using as example sentences her thoughts as she observes her sleeping husband. By the end of the poem, one suspects the comma is a stand-in for other things that function to separate people in a marriage.
With each poem that follows, the separation gets fleshed out more and more until the penultimate poem of the book, "If E Is Not for Eternal Love, What’s It For?," when it is clear he wants to leave; she does not: "You say Go away. I say / I can't ..." "You say you'll call the cops. I say they can't arrest a shadow."
The last poem of the book, "A Pilgrim’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland," is another poetic sequence. (You can read it at BPJ, http://www.bpj.org/PDF/V54N4.pdf, page 28.) This sequence is comprised of six poems about a road trip through the Midwest that the speaker takes with her son. Also in this section, random numbers increasingly make their appearance in the poems as the section progresses. (Goodfellow used random number tables to both choose which numbers to insert and specify where in the poem the numbers should appear.) And the feeling of what I experience to be emptiness or vastness grows as the section progresses, beginning in the first poem, "Road Trip":
And this I did not expect,
that the lon7eliness would be countable.
My son wants a tumbleweed for a pet,
now one is buckled in the back seat.
What a clever boy, choosing to love
a thing already dead and rootless.
At the motel, he watches me
lower the blinds against
the white noise, the presence
of all possibilit5ies in the night.
"It's such a lovely dark, Mama," he says.
The final poem of the book and of the poetic sequence, "6. 015Random N6umber Tab8le," is a page filled with random numbers. The epigraph to the poem is a quote by mathematician and philosopher William A. Dembski, "We know what randomness isn’t, not what it is." In the middle of that rectangle filled with numbers are five small islands, the words: "It" "is" "a" "lovely" "dark". And on the right hand side, below the number-rectangle with its island-words, this: "Br12eathe."
Mendeleev's Mandala opens with pilgrims ("The Problem with Pilgrims") and closes with pilgrims ("A Pilgram’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland"). It opens with words repeatedly rubbed like lucky stones—echo. bittern. egret. Echoing bitter regret. And it closes with numbers that cradle a lovely dark, sea of random order. For me, the genius of this collection is the unified whole that's created, the beauty and intelligence of Goodfellow's language as she marries one siloed domain with another—the slip of science into religion, dark into light, number into word—that I find compelling. It fills me with hope. The next statement likely says as much about me as it does the book: I find the poetry in Mendeleev's Mandala to border on the sublime. It’s one book I will still be reading years from now.
In closing, I’ll leave you with the poem below from Section 3"The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau." It’s representative of Goodfellow’s emotionally-moving logical leaps and weavings that I find exhilarating.
The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau Compares Words to Stones in a Japanese Garden
by Jessica Goodfello
When she was young, the girl whose favorite color is eigengrau liked paint-by-numbers, though she never cared for connect-the-dots. This she recalls as she walks along a stepping-stone path through a Japanese garden. She has read that in certain parts of the garden the stones have been placed at awkward intervals for a slow and contemplative passage, while elsewhere stones have been laid evenly to encourage a natural gait. Still elsewhere the stones’ placement suggests a hurried pace through where the garden is not yet finished, where it may never be finished. Darkness too, thinks the girl whose favorite color is eigengrau, changes the way we lope through it. Darkness, too, in some places may never be finished. And words, like stones in the darkness, are laid over here, haltingly, unevenly, and over there, as flowing and slick as gray paint.
"How to Find a Missing Father in a Town that Isn’t There" and “The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau Compares Words to Stones in a Japanese Garden,” © Jessica Goodfellow Mendeleev's Mandala (Mayapple Press, 2015)
Nancy Chen Long received a BS in Electrical Engineering Technology and an MBA, worked as an electrical engineer, software consultant, and project manager, and more recently earned her MFA. As a volunteer for the local Writers Guild at Bloomington, she coordinates the Lemonstone Reading Series and works with other poets to offer poetry workshops. Her chapbook, Clouds as Inkblots for the Warprone (2013) was published by Red Bird Chapbooks. You'll find her recent and forthcoming work in Pleiades, Bat City Review, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere.