Book Review: MENDELEEV’S MANDALA by Jessica Goodfellow
Poems by Jessica Goodfellow
|Mayapple Press, 2015
mandala: from the Sanskrit for “circle,” a schematized representation of the cosmos chiefly characterized by a concentric configuration of geometric shapes; in common use, mandala has become a generic term for any diagram, chart or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos metaphysically or symbolically; a microcosm of the universe
Jessica Goodfellow couldn’t have picked a more apt symbol as the face of her second full-length poetry collection, Mendeleev’s Mandala, out this past February from Mayapple Press. Cleverly represented by a diatom on the book’s cover, the mandala captures perfectly some of the lofty questions Goodfellow sets out to answer from the book’s first page.
How to revisit centuries’ worth of scientific, religious, and cultural development? How to do so in a new, unexpected way? How to accurately represent scientific, logical and linguistic concepts on the page? How to do so intelligibly?
By adopting the mandala as a guide, Goodfellow is able to show how each moment can be a microcosm of the entire human experience and, in turn, how the macrocosms of science, religion, language, and logic can be applied to each moment. Poems like “The Bargain,” “Night View from the Back of a Taxi,” and “Other People’s Lives” do so directly by examining the idea of fractals—curves or geometric figures, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole—but each section of the collection takes on the charge in its own way.
The first section sees Goodfellow applying scientific and logical concepts to everything from the myths of Isaac and Iphigenia to the story of her father’s hometown succumbing to a copper mine. These stories, along with that of her father’s eventual death, use physics and logic to test the limits of our capacity for understanding. The second section focuses on various types of measurement and perception—time, space, distance, and sight—and how they restrict. The third section is a delicious exploration of color’s effect on sensory perception, where we’re treated to the characters of The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau (“the color seen by the eye in perfect darkness… perceived as lighter than a black object in normal lighting conditions”) and her blind husband. The fourth section seems primarily to be an examination of language—its limits and its (in)ability to represent abstract concepts. Finally, the fifth section exists as an amalgamation of the various ideas explored in the previous poems.
As in Dmitri Mendeleev’s version of the periodic table, what is most interesting about this collection is what isn’t present. Like Mendeleev, who noted the absence of certain elements in his table and attempted to predict ways of filling those gaps, Goodfellow often meditates on absence and emptiness in an attempt to reunify the self.
For instance, she considers the idea of nothingness as Sarai, the Torahic heroine, in “The Mother of Nations Waits.”
In the time before zeros,
merchants marked nothing with nothing,
leaving space to show where something was missing.
But what shape was the space?
Sarai wanted to know, pressing on her midriff,
hoping that containing the emptiness was a possibility.
The poem continues with the Babylonian invention of zero—“All losses were made equal / which was a relief to Sarai / and which wasn’t”—and the language of zeros and ones in binary code. By the poem’s end, Sarai comes to understand that “while the opposite of being fertile is being barren, / the opposite of being barren is still being barren.”
Absence also proves a rich lens through which Goodfellow can examine her own father. “How to Find a Missing Father in a Town that Isn’t There” contains a pitch-perfect pun that succinctly sets the scene. “Mine, my father joked, pointing into the gaping hole. / Not mine, he waved his arms in large gestures / in no particular direction.” Not only is the father associated with emptiness here, but he comes to own it (semantically and geographically) as a central part of himself. Later, in “The Factory,” Goodfellow writes, “Kilroy was here means he’s not anymore—a kind of geometry nobody / cannot configure.” An emblematic American symbol, Kilroy, and a universal human loss, the death of a parent, are touchingly intertwined to expand our understanding of grief.
The collection is rife with other examples of absence. “Knot Sonnet” represents the space between two people in a relationship as the growing distance between geese flying in vee formation. “Night View from the Back of a Taxi” makes note of a verb tense in Ojibwe that conjugates “what was going to happen / but didn’t.”
But perhaps the most beautiful and interesting portion of the collection is its final poem, “A Pilgrim’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland.” Written in six sections, the poem begins to give way to chaos in its sixth line as random numbers begin to invade the words on the page. Is this an invisible science behind the scenes becoming visible? A visual representation of the randomness we all exist within? An attempt to fill the emptiness? In any case, it’s a wild experience to watch as spaces and the insides of words are consumed by a rush of numbers. As the final page fills with a block of arbitrarily sequenced numbers, the reader realizes she must agree with Goodfellow and her son on their opinion of night, and of life:
“It’s such a lovely dark.”