Kelly Krumrie’s figuring

Figuring is a monthly column that puzzles over (to figure) and gives shape to (a figure) writing, art, and environments that integrate or concern mathematics and the sciences.  This month’s column examines Will Alexander’s A Cannibal Explains Himself to Himself.

Kelly Krumrie’s figuring

Figuring is a monthly column that puzzles over (to figure) and gives shape to (a figure) writing, art, and environments that integrate or concern mathematics and the sciences.  This month’s column examines Will Alexander’s A Cannibal Explains Himself to Himself.

While I was dipping in and out of A Cannibal Explains Himself to Himself, thinking of how I might approach reviewing or responding to it, Bin Ramke put a photocopy of Wallace Stevens’ “A Collect of Philosophy” in my mailbox in the English Department. Neither of us can remember what prompted him to put it there. Stevens writes about the role of imagination in poetry, specifically on wondering about impossibilities of the world, such as imagining an infinite universe. In arguing that Leibniz’s writing on eternity is poetic, Stevens describes a passage as “a compact of figurations.” 

Compact as a noun is a little makeup case, an abbreviation for something small, or in metallurgy “a mass of powdered metal compacted together in preparation for sintering.” To sinter is to “make (a powdered material) coalesce into a solid or porous mass by heating it (and usually also compressing it) without liquefaction”; related to cinder. Compact can also be an agreement or contract.

Figuration: ornamentation or allegorical representation.

A compact of figurations: an agreement among ornaments,  a packed metallic powder of allegory prepared to coalesce around something else.

While I was dipping in and out of A Cannibal Explains Himself to Himself, thinking of how I might approach reviewing or responding to it, Bin Ramke put a photocopy of Wallace Stevens’ “A Collect of Philosophy” in my mailbox in the English Department. Neither of us can remember what prompted him to put it there. Stevens writes about the role of imagination in poetry, specifically on wondering about impossibilities of the world, such as imagining an infinite universe. In arguing that Leibniz’s writing on eternity is poetic, Stevens describes a passage as “a compact of figurations.” 

Compact as a noun is a little makeup case, an abbreviation for something small, or in metallurgy “a mass of powdered metal compacted together in preparation for sintering.” To sinter is to “make (a powdered material) coalesce into a solid or porous mass by heating it (and usually also compressing it) without liquefaction”; related to cinder. Compact can also be an agreement or contract.

Figuration: ornamentation or allegorical representation.

A compact of figurations: an agreement among ornaments,  a packed metallic powder of allegory prepared to coalesce around something else.

Stevens connects the poetic imagination to science and ends with Max Planck’s “The Concept of Causality in Physics”—which I read. And then I read Planck’s “The Meaning and Limits of Exact Science” and “Phantom Problems in Science.”

Planck’s constant was a plot-point of season three of Stranger Things, and it’s also now being used to determine the true kilogram instead of the physical kilogram-object under a bell jar in a vault in France. The object’s weight is changing.

Stevens connects the poetic imagination to science and ends with Max Planck’s “The Concept of Causality in Physics”—which I read. And then I read Planck’s “The Meaning and Limits of Exact Science” and “Phantom Problems in Science.”

Planck’s constant was a plot-point of season three of Stranger Things, and it’s also now being used to determine the true kilogram instead of the physical kilogram-object under a bell jar in a vault in France. The object’s weight is changing.

This is what I was reading to show how I was reading.

You see, I’ve read a lot of Will Alexander’s writing in the last year, heard him give talks and readings. He’s published over thirty books, across genres; he is a visual artist and a pianist. I hesitate to summarize his writing because it covers such a range, flies among fields, picks up language and contorts it. From a talk he gave at 2019 AWP, my notes include the comments in order to understand, you have to bend language—take the nouns and break them—more available for motion—can’t use linear techniques for something that’s bending—bend understanding in order to travel. From his talk at Entanglements: A Conference on the Intersections of Poetry, Science, and the Arts hosted by Amy Catanzano at Wake Forest last May, I have written short phrases like warfare on a particle, poetic engineering, reality of the anterior of the universe, psycho-neurological cartography. I have in my notes from both events the creative writing prompt, What does a bird do? This question is meant to spread thinking lateral, to make lists and webs, draw connections among ideas. In epigraphs, footnotes, and in talks Alexander mentions the books Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn. I bought these.

This is what I’ve gathered: a surrealist breadth, twists, a tangle of strings but sentient ones, animated threads: history, science, art, philosophy, language.

Scientific thought must link itself to something, and the big question is, where.
—Planck, “The Meaning and Limits of Exact Science”

This is what I was reading to show how I was reading.

You see, I’ve read a lot of Will Alexander’s writing in the last year, heard him give talks and readings. He’s published over thirty books, across genres; he is a visual artist and a pianist. I hesitate to summarize his writing because it covers such a range, flies among fields, picks up language and contorts it. From a talk he gave at 2019 AWP, my notes include the comments in order to understand, you have to bend language—take the nouns and break them—more available for motion—can’t use linear techniques for something that’s bending—bend understanding in order to travel. From his talk at Entanglements: A Conference on the Intersections of Poetry, Science, and the Arts hosted by Amy Catanzano at Wake Forest last May, I have written short phrases like warfare on a particle, poetic engineering, reality of the anterior of the universe, psycho-neurological cartography. I have in my notes from both events the creative writing prompt, What does a bird do? This question is meant to spread thinking lateral, to make lists and webs, draw connections among ideas. In epigraphs, footnotes, and in talks Alexander mentions the books Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn. I bought these.

This is what I’ve gathered: a surrealist breadth, twists, a tangle of strings but sentient ones, animated threads: history, science, art, philosophy, language.

Scientific thought must link itself to something, and the big question is, where.
—Planck, “The Meaning and Limits of Exact Science”

I can’t get over the title of Alexander’s most recent book. I’m wondering if or how cannibal relates to measurement. A measurement is comparing something to a known thing, an established standard. It’s a tool you can use. Cannibalizing means to consume the flesh of your own kind, or to repurpose parts of something. Alexander’s cannibal is explaining which means to make level, to spread flat. Himself to himself, a double reflexive, a mirror on itself—a cannibalistic looking?

Alexander answers this in the title essay in a way I can’t tell you, which is maybe part of what he’s getting at: cells with auras, myself to myself. It begins with grammar, specifically nouns:

This is not language sculpted to brusquely intervene in what is considered as consciousness wrought from blind design, but language that actively transmutes the respiration of the cosmos… The noun by its very nature yields at surcease a disembodied husk as proof of its once cognizant properties. This husk is static and yields none of the richness and power it yielded to visibility.

We look at things and measure them. With language, especially content words, I go to the dictionary and sift through etymologies. I build webs among phrases. How many ways can he use yield? I look up Suetonius and Uranium 238. This is his range. This is what we do when we read. Reading Alexander is like trying to track manic paths of an ant colony, but the ants are words.

Every measurable physical magnitude, every length, every time interval, every mass, every charge, has a double meaning, according as we regard it as directly given by some measurement.
—Planck, “The Concept of Causality in Physics”

I can’t get over the title of Alexander’s most recent book. I’m wondering if or how cannibal relates to measurement. A measurement is comparing something to a known thing, an established standard. It’s a tool you can use. Cannibalizing means to consume the flesh of your own kind, or to repurpose parts of something. Alexander’s cannibal is explaining which means to make level, to spread flat. Himself to himself, a double reflexive, a mirror on itself—a cannibalistic looking?

Alexander answers this in the title essay in a way I can’t tell you, which is maybe part of what he’s getting at: cells with auras, myself to myself. It begins with grammar, specifically nouns:

This is not language sculpted to brusquely intervene in what is considered as consciousness wrought from blind design, but language that actively transmutes the respiration of the cosmos… The noun by its very nature yields at surcease a disembodied husk as proof of its once cognizant properties. This husk is static and yields none of the richness and power it yielded to visibility.

We look at things and measure them. With language, especially content words, I go to the dictionary and sift through etymologies. I build webs among phrases. How many ways can he use yield? I look up Suetonius and Uranium 238. This is his range. This is what we do when we read. Reading Alexander is like trying to track manic paths of an ant colony, but the ants are words.

Every measurable physical magnitude, every length, every time interval, every mass, every charge, has a double meaning, according as we regard it as directly given by some measurement.
—Planck, “The Concept of Causality in Physics”

A Cannibal Explains Himself to Himself is a collection of essays on thinking: poetry via the brain’s psycho-neurological cartography. It’s about thinking and writing and writing about thinking, mapping synaptic associations from Alexander’s encyclopedic mind. But I don’t necessarily want to say mind because that implies a container: that what he writes comes out from inside him when everything I’ve read suggests otherwise: that Alexander’s mind is like one of his paintings: swirls and lines unbounded by body and time.

Alexander illustrates sections of the collection. A painting by Alexander and Byron Baker is featured alongside one of the Cannibal essays, “Facing The Electron Field: The Primal Triptych of Byron Baker and Will Alexander,” in Entropy.

A Cannibal Explains Himself to Himself is a collection of essays on thinking: poetry via the brain’s psycho-neurological cartography. It’s about thinking and writing and writing about thinking, mapping synaptic associations from Alexander’s encyclopedic mind. But I don’t necessarily want to say mind because that implies a container: that what he writes comes out from inside him when everything I’ve read suggests otherwise: that Alexander’s mind is like one of his paintings: swirls and lines unbounded by body and time.

Alexander illustrates sections of the collection. A painting by Alexander and Byron Baker is featured alongside one of the Cannibal essays, “Facing The Electron Field: The Primal Triptych of Byron Baker and Will Alexander,” in Entropy.

In his short essay “Writing Itself: Passionate Navigation,” Alexander writes,

In order to inhabit a given subject matter as melodious repository, we must be analogous to the pressure of ore in arcane strata via a praxis of writing. Inner language needs to simply strike out, empowered by the kinetics of random imaginative cartography. Say for instance a few letters ignited on paper, subconsciously propelled by energy and events from the human kingdom, or by topographical contours, or through the incalculable realm that we understand as nature, full of roaming animals.

If an essay is wrangling something in writing, a revised demonstration of thinking, or something meant to look like thinking, Alexander is doing that, sure. But his semantic and syntactic alchemy elude containment. Writers are like compact minerals ready for sintering; language sets on fire; energy is harnessed and expelled at all possible angles, to all possible imaginations. Words like animals. A compact of figurations.

What Planck ends up getting at at the end of “The Concept of Causality in Physics,” what Stevens was interested in, is the translation from the physical world of sensory perception to the symbolic world of mathematical / scientific representation. And then, Planck says, there is a retranslation that takes the symbol back to say something about or do something in / to the physical world.

This thought is vision.
—H.D., Notes on Thought and Vision

In his short essay “Writing Itself: Passionate Navigation,” Alexander writes,

In order to inhabit a given subject matter as melodious repository, we must be analogous to the pressure of ore in arcane strata via a praxis of writing. Inner language needs to simply strike out, empowered by the kinetics of random imaginative cartography. Say for instance a few letters ignited on paper, subconsciously propelled by energy and events from the human kingdom, or by topographical contours, or through the incalculable realm that we understand as nature, full of roaming animals.

If an essay is wrangling something in writing, a revised demonstration of thinking, or something meant to look like thinking, Alexander is doing that, sure. But his semantic and syntactic alchemy elude containment. Writers are like compact minerals ready for sintering; language sets on fire; energy is harnessed and expelled at all possible angles, to all possible imaginations. Words like animals. A compact of figurations.

What Planck ends up getting at at the end of “The Concept of Causality in Physics,” what Stevens was interested in, is the translation from the physical world of sensory perception to the symbolic world of mathematical / scientific representation. And then, Planck says, there is a retranslation that takes the symbol back to say something about or do something in / to the physical world.

This thought is vision.
—H.D., Notes on Thought and Vision

If Alexander’s essays act as this kind of translation operation from the world, and especially the knowledge gleaned from it, what is retranslated back? What new sensory experiences does this writing create?

I seem able only to make lists, little bits pressed together.

If Alexander’s essays act as this kind of translation operation from the world, and especially the knowledge gleaned from it, what is retranslated back? What new sensory experiences does this writing create?

I seem able only to make lists, little bits pressed together.

For me, a curious puzzled joy, imagining a kinetic encyclopedia, a double layer to everything, a pull to figure out—all-consuming, a measure against and with itself.

For me, a curious puzzled joy, imagining a kinetic encyclopedia, a double layer to everything, a pull to figure out—all-consuming, a measure against and with itself.

About the Author

Kelly Krumrie‘s prose, poetry, and reviews are forthcoming from or appear in EntropyLa Vague, Black Warrior ReviewFull Stop, and elsewhere. She is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Denver where she serves as the prose editor for Denver Quarterly.