Dark Matter: You Ain't Seen Nothing, Chet
A few days ago, I happened into the Dollar Store in Springfield, Kentucky, where I try to reside
as much as possible. Little towns in the middle of nowhere are sadly fading away but there's always something
interesting and strange afootand besides, it's home. At the Dollar Store, I was seeking some Christmas
stocking stuffers for my niece and nephew. In walks a woman named Dora, who says, "Whar's my boyfriend at?!
Me and him's a-runnin' off to Jellico and git murried." "Oh Lordy," the cashier said feigning
weariness and raising up a hand, "I ain't stole yore boyfriend! I wisht you'd quit a-comin' in here an'
harrassin' me!" "Honey!" Dora said, "You ain't seen nothin', chet."
I pay attention to exchanges like this, for I find the use of language electric and hilarious and moving, though it's floating through the air and not written down. To me, such moments are like those sometimes bawdy, always comical, scenes from a Shakespeare play, where a group of rustics and rude mechanicals as they are often called, provide a running, under-cutting commentary on the more serious matters of the playthe two clowns digging Ophelia's grave late in Hamlet come to mind. Two tidbits of the conversation between Dora and the cashier interested me in particular. First, the romantic scheme that Dora and her boyfriend had to run off to Jellico, Tennessee and get married. One must bear in mind, by the way, that Dora is rather long in the tooth, a bit along the lines of The Wife of Bath I suspect, hence the self-mocking but wry humor riding in her oath. The Jellico plan happens to be one my parents also concocted back in 1965, which led to me some months later, Jellico being the closest place a couple didn't have to wait in order to commence with the more important matter, the honeymoon, waylaid at some shotgun Jellico hoteldepending on one's perspective the laws governing marriage in Tennessee are either more progressive or simply more expedient than those in Kentucky. By most accounts, however, Jellico is not an especially romantic spot, though it may be the perfect locale for someone like Wallace Stevens to place a jar and see how the slovenly wilderness takes to it. The second thing that jerked me out of my shopping stupor was the fact that Dora said, "You ain't seen nothin', chet." No, the cashier's name wasn't Chet. Dora was speaking figuratively, of course, but heard from a more literal perspective, I think Dora was speaking wisdom, of a Shakespearean variety, a kind of mock-apocalyptic prophecy: you ain't seen nothing yet, but the implication is you will, and wait till you get a good look at Nothing, you complacent workaday people. Suddenly, our little Dora is in league with the likes of Lear, T.S. Eliot, and Jean Paul Sartre, Dora, the unintentional existentialist. Let's keep Miss Dora in mind as she peers over the cliff into the abyss of immeasurable time and apparent meaninglessness; she is taking a brave and necessary poetic step, but before we see where she's going, let me back out of all this for a moment.
I'm going to ask you to "work with me" because I'm going to venture into
treacherous territory of another landscape, one that we have presumed to be lovely and harmonious. While I hope
to discuss the dark unnamable places a poet sometimes goes in order to encounter certain thoughts and terribly
beautiful truths, I'm also going to talk about the more objective fields of physics and mathematics, fields I am
woefully ill-equipped to enter. The last time I gave serious thought to physics or mathematics was in high school.
In physics, the world of inclined planes and vectors, potential energy and gravitya system of unbendable laws
and formulas which explains the wheels and cogs of NatureI distinguished myself with a big fat F. In
trigonometry, Pythagoras's realm of sine waves and triangulationone might say, a way to determine place
and the character of that placeI managed to eek out a respectable D. Yet, I've lately thought there must
be some sinew of connection among physics, mathematics, and poetry, or more generally, language; I think, too,
that connection is not simply one of analogy, but more direct.
As writers, we weigh, plot lines of thought, and calculate all the time. We develop theories on the origins and nature of things and pursue them. We have devices which get us into the deep unseen world.
As writers, we weigh, plot lines of thought, and calculate all the time. We develop theories
on the origins and nature of things and pursue them. We have devices which get us into the deep unseen world.
What does a simile do in a poem except allow something that wasn't previously visible in the poem suddenly to
appear? Why would a poet bother with constructing an image if he or she did not wish to suggest total reality
has more than three dimensions? What about a more subtle poetic device like chiasmus, that highly mathematical
construction which makes an X of correspondence between sound and meaning, bringing such particles into
relationship, whereas before the Zorro-stroke of chiasmus they were discrete entities?
Poetry . . . must accurately describe physical reality, things as they actually are: two neighbors mending a rock wall together and the physical unease between them; the color of the snake at the water trough in the heat of the day; the fact that a man busily gilding the star atop a steeple has placed a Danger sign in front of the church. Making such descriptions requires the poet to be precise with language and to have a precise understanding of how language operates, in the way a mathematician must be precise with numbers and their operations.
It's not such a leap to say a poem is a little mechanical model which explains something, or
demonstrates how it works, its design revealed in the very body of the poem (Frost has a lovely poem about a
spider called "Design"); and like it or not, a poem must follow or at least acknowledge the rules and
formulas of logic and grammar. And, metaphor, the great-granddaddy of emotional and cognitive location in
poetry, which often drives the entire freight of a poem like a steam engine, is a most triangular
structurethe tenor and vehicle, provide two points, but their communion always provides a third,
and the three legs of a metaphor, much like a triangle, always have a proportional relationship to each
other which must work itself out with a measure of elegance.
Physics, in its first modern incarnation is the domain of Sir Isaac Newton, whose governing
principle for reality is gravity. In Newtonian physics, the sciencewhich is largely mathematicalis
a means to describe and account for the known and knowable world, all the things we can see, how they behave,
and why: the configurations that must be in place to permit lightning to build charge and disperse in the clouds;
why smoke rises; why the apple falls down instead of up. Poetry has to operate similarly; it must accurately
describe physical reality, things as they actually are: two neighbors mending a rock wall together and the
physical unease between them; the color of the snake at the water trough in the heat of the day; the fact
that a man busily gilding the star atop a steeple has placed a Danger sign in front of the church. Making
such descriptions requires the poet to be precise with language and to have a precise understanding of how
language operates, in the way a mathematician must be precise with numbers and their operations. The
arrangement of subject, verb, and object, in conventional English syntax is, as any careful reader knows,
every bit as lovely as p = mv, mass multiplied by velocity, the formula for momentum. We know many poems
that possess momentum, exacted by factors such as anaphora or falling rhythms, or an Emily Dickinson dash
as if the she's thrown the mass of her subject out the window and it's rushing to the ground. Or,
consider W = Fx, Force multiplied by distance, the formula for Work. Force multiplied by distance, by the
way, sounds like a pretty good way to describe the poetic line. Listen to the work of this first line by
Dylan Thomas: "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower;" we both hear and feel how
the force of the repeated f-sound bears down across the distance of the pentameter.
Newton's approach offers the science behind what we see, a method to explain the empirical world; but early 20th century physicists, Einstein, Heisenberg, and others, realized there's a whole world we cannot see, and wondered what must be the science behind that invisible world, what kind of weird architecture holds it together and hides it.
Yet, by the early 20th centurycoincidentally or not, the dawn of what we now call Modernism in literary mattersphysicists realized there were some things Newton's formulas could not account for or describe, some things didn't quite add up. Newton's approach offers the science behind what we see, a method to explain the empirical world; but early 20th century physicists, Einstein, Heisenberg, and others, realized there's a whole world we cannot see, and wondered what must be the science behind that invisible world, what kind of weird architecture holds it together and hides it. They came up with quantum mechanics, which explains Nature in what we might call free verse or lyric imagismthe formulas which explain how one should read all those jagged lines in the shadows, or listen to the discordant music of disappearing light. Fortunately for me, the math associated with quantum mechanics is simpleit's mostly multiplication, of tall orders of course, since the theories of quantum mechanics seek to explain structures of matter which are either staggeringly vast or infinitesimally small, a scale that so overwhelms our ability to see, we might as well be looking at Nothing. But, as Wallace Stevens pointed out, there's something in that Nothing. He notes toward the end his one sentence-long poem "The Snow Man," it is a privilege to behold that Nothing and therefore to be beheld by It, "For the listener [and notice he abandons vision for another sense], who listens in the snow/ And, nothing himself, beholds/ Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is" ("The Snow Man"). Such a conception of Nothingness, or rather the stuff that gives structure and character to that apparent Nothingness, is what physicists more recently have called Dark Matter. This is, inadvertently, the Nothing Miss Dora was referring to back at the Dollar Store. In other words, there is no such thing as actual Nothing; there's apparent Nothing, but there is something there, acting, reacting, according to a pulse we can't yet measure. Is that dark matter made of tiny strings, as in genetic code, or of some invisible super glue? These seem to be questions our friends with the pocket protectors are still debating. What they do know about the theories of quantum mechanics, however, is this: it conceives of "space-time geometry" not as a smooth plane but as a "choppy microworld where change happens in leaps, where particles act like waves (and vice versa), and where uncertainty reigns." 1
. . . there is no such thing as actual Nothing; there's apparent Nothing, but there is something there, acting, reacting, according to a pulse we can't yet measure.
That sounds like a thoroughly modern description of our metaphysical reality, that peculiarly
tenuous existential question mark always floating over our heads. But it also sounds like an idea born in the
Romantic era, in particular, John Keats's idea of negative capability. Have mathematically-challenged poets been
ahead of the curve? I'd like to think so. Whereas physicists are concerned with calculations which can account
for the dark matter that appears to be hiding in the fabric of space-time geometry, poets have also been concerned
with the darker patches of space and time, as they occur in the multi-dimensional geometry of thought and feeling,
memory and desire, the shadowy, inexplicable motives hiding in the human psyche, the force which tells us some
simile isn't yet right, the matter to which our eyes are blind, but our internal writer senses perceive. Indeed,
I would say poets found Nothing first. The visible matter of any poem is obvious: concrete language coupled
with some kind of form and lineation, our way of representing that space-time geometry as if the page were a
grid and the poem a set of lines plotted on it. But what is the dark matter of poetry and should we, like the
scientists, wish to lay it bare? These are profound temptations for many of us, and in such precarious moments,
I've found it is usually a good idea to begin with our old capable friend, Keats.
Dark Matter enthusiasts in the world of physics claim that only 10% of the universe is actually
visible. That means Dark Matter accounts for a lot of the content, the matter, of the universe. Could the
same be said of poetry and fiction, could language, in fact, be viewed as the means by which we discover the
existence of Dark Matter? Is language our special lamp which allows us to see Nothing? Leading questions,
I know. Listen to this line from Yeats's sonnet, "Leda and the Swan:" "A shudder in the
loins engenders there." This is work: we have the force of the hard consonant sounds and the distance
of the pentameter, but we also have an indication of something other-worldly, an ineffable presence unbound
by iambic time or the physical space of the line, that vague, dark, and involuntary shudder. As young
writers, we all tried our hand at writing a Petrarchan sonnet. The primary task was to get the meter and
the rhyme scheme right, which probably left most of us counting on our fingers and calculating the subsequent
line. That approach makes writing a sonnet a bit like solving an equation. Allowing Dark Matter to seep
in between the seams of the equation is, however, another operation altogether.