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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Alphanumeric Soup

Recently I read a brief review of poet Noah Eli Gordon's new book The Source (Futurepoem Books), in which his process of assembling this particular work by borrowing text from the pages 26 of various books available in the Denver Public Library was described. Why 26? Because that's the number of letters in the alphabet. When I read about this process, a convergence of the alphabet and integers, I immediately put this book on my "to-read" list.

I have never liked the dichotomy of "English majors who can't count" and "math majors who can't read." I myself love letters and numbers equally, and see them as symbols which do roughly analogous work, drawing from me similar emotions. I'm even secretly jealous of synesthetes (people who experience two sensory responses in tandem), in particular those who have grapheme-color synesthesia, in which letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored. Such an individual will see the numeral two always as colored orange, for example, and she will feel that numbers or letters have a kind of personality of their own. (Synesthesia often runs in families, by the way, though individual perceptions of linked sensory responses will not be identical.)

I'm not that lucky. I do have a very strong preference for odd numbers over even numbers (and of course favor prime numbers further). I also confuse and transpose the numerals 4 and 7 with regularity, since those two seem to have very similar characters to me. Furthermore I would like to re-order the alphabet so that the letter H came before the letter G instead of after it, as I have always suspected the extant order to be unnatural. But that's about the extent of my feeling for the personality of letters and numbers. I merely love them indiscriminantly.

Thus I am always pleased to see writers who use letters and numbers together to create their work--Kabbalah-like or not, tending towards numerology or towards statistical analysis, I don't care. Just put numbers with words and I already start to quiver with anticipation.

A few weeks ago I read the late great Inger Christensen's alphabet (New Directions), translated from the Swedish by Susanna Nied (who won the American-Scandanavian PEN Translation Prize for this work). Christensen used two contraints (and I love a good constraint, let alone two), one based on the alphabet and one on numbers. Did I swoon? You know I did.

First, Christensen began each of her fourteen sections with a different letter of the alphabet, in order from A through N, and she kept the occurrence of that letter throughout its section way above the statistical norm.

Second, she used a Fibonacci sequence to structure the number of lines per section. A Fibonacci sequence is one in which each number is the sum of the previous two numbers, with the classical case being: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987, etc. Since only the purest stanza can have 0 lines in it, Christensen began with the third number in the classic Fibonacci sequence, so that her first section consists of 1 line, the second section has 2, the third 3, the fourth 5, etc. It gets a little hairy at the end, trying to get the line numbers to total a Fibonnaci number, but by then the pattern is established and deviation from it only emphasizes it. And if that wasn't enough, the stanzas within sections usually consist of a Fibonacci number of lines, often in order (that is, within a given section, the first stanza might have 3 lines, the second stanza 5, the third 8, and so on).

And did I mention the gorgeous use of repetition throughout this long poem? And did I mention the gorgeous use of repetition throughout this long poem?

Here's a final question for you: do you think it's a coincidence that the alphabet has 26 letters and the year has exactly twice that number of weeks? (Insert spooky music in your mind here.)

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