Magical correspondences, part 6 of 6

Image by Andrew Joron (with alterations by Amy Catanzano) of eclipsed sun-images
Image by Andrew Joron (with alterations by Amy Catanzano) of eclipsed sun-images filtered through trees, casting zeros and almost-zeros on nearby objects.

What follows is part six of six written exchanges between me and Andrew Joron about poetry and science in 2012. Joron’s creative and critical work have been highly influential to me. When I contacted him after The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog ran an article,“From the Golden Age of San Francisco Science-Fiction Poetry to the New Age of Quantum Poetics,”about our shared interest in poetry and science, he generously responded to my poetry and speculative essays on quantum poetics published by Jerome Rothenberg on his blog, Poems and Poetics. Joron and I have decided to present our conversation here for Jacket2. 

See also parts onetwothreefour, and five.

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Hi Andrew,

Happy eclipse! We can’t see it here in Pittsburgh until 8:22 p.m. EST, and apparently the sunset is going to obscure it. I’ve always wanted to see the aurora borealis. My visual serial matrix poem is called, “Borealis: Time Signatures.” I’ve taken 23 writers, ciphered their names with words and the image of a tesseract into a “borealis,” which is then worked through a series of “time signatures” or theories of time posited in the natural sciences. 

In my essays I talk about open and closed texts in relation to open and closed strings. In string theory, an open string, topologically speaking, is a line. As poets we know what a line can do. A closed string, topologically speaking, is a circle. I imagine moving between forms, open and closed, by way of the quantum jump. Rather than seeing the closed text as a framework for something like servitude, I imagine it in hyperbolic space, as a circle flowering into a sphere or bubble.

In the hours before Heisenberg came up with the breakthrough component of QM—that the position and momentum of subatomic particles do not commute (the commutative law being AB equals BA) because of Planck’s constant, which is always non-zero—this is why uncertainty is at play in forecasting, because the present state of particles cannot be described with certainty—just before he imagined that the position and momentum of particles do not commute as in some binary operations, he was reading Goethe’s poetry. He wasn’t creating his own poetry or significantly contributing to philosophy himself, but he was reading poetry. That’s close to making a poem, I think, and probably just as special.

Yesterday I read your poem “Thunk” on Big Bridge. I imagined the point of view of the poem being the poem itself, looking out at the reader. Each line becomes the we, “A why, a wire we/Are”; the right margin’s wire is frayed but aglow. I see a morphological argument being made by sound. It is as if the reader is what is “thunked.” I imagine the poem thinking the reader through its alien speech. 

In my wishful thinking, QM is like an unsure crosshair becoming a question mark on the mark. Could Heisenberg have made the conceptual leap (the quantum jump) about position and momentum not commuting without being under the swervy influence of poetry? Poetry does not commute. Commutivity is a law of arithmetic that is broken in QM. It’s its logic that sets it apart from CM and relativity. Perhaps the tools of QM, as a theoretical physics, are its logics rather than its instruments. In relativity, Newton’s conception of time and space are retained. However, in QM, space and time are redefined; the future (particle in space) cannot be known with certainty because the present (particle in space) cannot be known without ambiguity.  When spacetime itself is reconceived in a theory of physical reality, the discourse changes from “what is the truth about nature?” to “what is nature?”

QM prompts us to consider something new about the eclipse: scale, of course, but also something within and between us, the sun, the moon, and the earth as subject positions: spacetime. As you point out, the imagination gets airbrushed out of the work of experimental physicists. (By “experimental” I mean those that experiment versus theorize). That contemporary experimental physicists often do not consider the philosophical dimensions of their work points to the strained relationship between theory and practice, in the discipline of science and beyond.

I disagree with the Slate.com reviewer’s proclamation that we all lose from theories that cannot be verified or “produce” results like nuclear power and computer chips. Science, like poetry, does not have to be an investment in a product. Like poetry there is an inherent creative value in science’s processes. By criticizing string theory for its inability to be tested, Krauss and his reviewer are applying Newtonian axioms to non-Newtonian concepts. Paul Feyerabend’s idea that once scientific theory moves into practice the imaginative leaps are no longer valued is being played out in the critique by Krauss and the reviewer. The poetic logic of Heisenberg’s quantum jump is that it can’t be observably verified; like the multiverse, a crucial concept for me and one that we know informs science fiction and string theory, the quantum jump must be imagined. If QM represents the shift of when science became philosophy, string theory, despite its problematic adherence to attempting a unified field theory, might represent the shift of when philosophy became poetry….

I feel that poetry can be a kind of witness to novelty in physical reality, but unlike a traditional witness, say, a scientist testing an experiment at CERN or someone simply (not deeply) observing an eclipse, poetry observes novelty by becoming it. When we chase our wonder we become wondrous. Our astonishment moves us beyond being observers; our relationship to the object becomes self-reflexive so that we are no longer merely witnessing but participating in an intersubjective exchange that dissolves our distinct borders so that something new emerges. This is like love, or it is love. It opens and touches through novelty. The Theremin, you say, didn’t teach you about poetry; it taught you about touch:

Because two objects cannot occupy the same space simultaneously, there is, in the deepest sense, no such thing as touch. Magnify anything enough and you will find it is neither here nor there. This undulatory essence may be heard as the wailing emanation of the void’s own disquiet: the sound of the theremin.

Yes, the poem is neither here nor there, existing outside space and time as we are thunked. However, I think about how in QM two particles can occupy the same space at the same time. This is a key element of QM, because it introduces the issue of simultaneity in space and time, rejecting strict linearity, which is also echoed in the quantum jump, and which displaced the more linear, observable proposal that electrons in subatomic space move in elliptical orbits like planets. This is where scale is paramount, because while the sun and moon probably cannot occupy the same space at the same time (though in an eclipse it can appear this way), at the subatomic level, multiple particles can occupy the same space simultaneously. Maybe it is like physical sex where living things are occupying the same space by entering and being entered and sometimes creating more life in the process.

Much like love and wonder and sex, poetry can embody the most radical possibilities of magnification, scale. I see poetry as a novel telescope-microscope, a literal spacetime ship, a ship I can now imagine being steered without touch…

with a Theremin at the helm…!

So I wonder if we do need to become scientists. I’m borrowing from Christian Bök here, because he is becoming a scientist as he injects the world’s most radio-resistant bacterium with a ciphered poem that writes new poems. He talks about the archival quality of the The Xenotext Experiment; the radio-resistant bacterium might be around longer than us. But I still believe in your Trance Archive. Unlike the archive in physical reality that Bök is invoking, the trance archive already exists, and not in time or space, but in what Alfred Jarry calls the “imaginary present.”

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Andrew Joron is the author of Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems (City Lights, 2010). Joron’s previous poetry collections include The Removes (Hard Press, 1999), Fathom (Black Square Editions, 2003), and The Sound Mirror (Flood Editions, 2008). The Cry at Zero, a selection of his prose poems and critical essays, was published by Counterpath Press in 2007. From the German, he has translated the Literary Essays of Marxist-Utopian philosopher Ernst Bloch (Stanford University Press, 1998) and The Perpetual Motion Machine by the proto-Dada fantasist Paul Scheerbart (Wakefield Press, 2011). Joron lives in Berkeley, California, where he theorizes using the theremin.