The Post in Which I Explain Once and For All What Makes American Fractal a Fractal

conversationsindminor_by_stacy_reedYesterday I gave a new (for me) example of what fractals are — objects for which scale is irrelevant, because the same patterns repeat over and over again regardless of scale. Viewed from above, a photograph of a barren desert could be a mile wide or a meter, and there’s no way to tell the difference.

The idea for the book — and I won’t deny that it’s a mostly post-hoc idea that I contorted a collection of poems around — is that American culture exhibits the structure of a fractal.  Viewed from above, without any assumptions about perspective, there’s no way to tell what size social unit you’re looking at.  The same patterns echo like a standing wave through the personal, the familial, the political, the metaphysical, and back again.  Our national identity is just as nuanced as an individual mind — all the passions and paranoias of the microcosm reverberate through the macrocosm.

They only look like difference scales because we’re locked inside our singular plane of experience, full of referants to always remind us of where we are. We’re like the kid I was in the title poem, standing between two mirrors in my grandmother’s bathroom, staring at an infinite recession of smaller and smaller heads, stretching back so far that the horizon line becomes a point — and that point we’ll never see, because no matter how far we twist, our head is always in the way.

A good example has to compare two poems.  I won’t post either of them now, but you can read “Cutlery” in Rattle e.6.  In that poem, a woman with schizophrenia can’t sleep because it’s raining cutlery — “bare arms shielding [her] face from the tinny drizzle.”  Obviously, the poem is inspired by my time working at the group home — and it’s a story that may or may not be true (yes, I’m being coy) — but what might not be obvious to anyone but me is that the entire poem can be read as an allegory for American militarism.  (“Everywhere I look there’s more of it…“)  The obsession, the pride, the paranoia — the schizophrenic’s inability to distinguish between threats real and imagined.  (“so much to sort by sunrise…”)  There’s no a single reference to war in the poem, except for maybe the vague threat of cutlery used as a weapon, but it doesn’t matter.  The pattern is there.

Another poem, “Playing Our Part,” moves (or can move) in the exact opposite direction.  Ostensibly, this is a “why we fight” poem.  The epigram is from Nietzsche — “Under peaceful conditions, a warlike man sets upon himself” —  and it springs into a little narrative of a warlike God up on a hill, the villagers below resigned to fight so God won’t get bored and turn the rifle on Himself.  Honestly, the idea always strikes me as a little too quaint, but kind of funny.  Maybe it works for you, maybe it doesn’t.  But when you look through the lens of the fractal, you start to see that the poem isn’t just about militarism — it can also be read as an allegory for the perpetuation of violence within a family unit.  Every bully at school has a bully of a father (or father-figure).  It’s often explained as hierarchy, where the bully is stripped of power at home, and so desperately seeks to fill that void while at school.  But there’s more to it than that — there’s also this Lacanian psychological certainty that the father, the king bully, must be justified in his behavior, and so the cycle of violence is really a kind of pyramid scheme, always working to restore faith and solidarity with the father above. (“And so our factories whir incessantly…”)

You can play the same kind of games, finding various structural dualities, with every poem in the book. Every poem can be read as a metaphor for some broader or smaller subject.

That might sound impressive at first, like I did a lot of work burying all these meanings, but the truth is that the fundamental structure of human experience — and thus, the universe — is a fractal.  All of thought is metaphor and metonymy; it’s all relative, always.  We’re just locked inside our isolated plane of individualism, so we don’t usually notice the whole.  We confuse all these mental objects for concrete.

Zoom out into near-earth orbit, leave all your preconceptions about what it means to be human on the ground, and try to distinguish our civilization from a colony of bacteria in a petri dish.  We clump into cities that quickly expand outward, sometimes connected by arteries, consuming resources and excreting toxins at an exponential rate in a race to see if we’ll suffocate before starve ourselves out.  Some bacteria even give off light.

Not that I’m necessarily criticizing humanity or American culture, I’m just pointing out the repeating patterns.  I’m just talking about America because my experience happens to be American.  Fractals don’t judge; they only wave.  After all, who knows if we might be making champagne.

Fractilic Landscapes

Yesterday afternoon I recorded an interview for KPFK’s Poet’s Cafe with Lois P. Jones, which will air in a couple months (obviously I’ll let you know when it’s scheduled). As I was sitting in the studio, babbling into the big padded mike about fractals for what seems like the hundredth time this month, I had one of those delightful experiences where something surprising pops out of your mouth, and you’re forced to listen warily to your own voice like a backseat driver, wondering if there’ll be enough room to turn around when the now-gravel road becomes dirt.

When I got to the point where I give an example of a fractal — electrons in an atom vs. planets in a solar system, or the veins in a leaf vs. the angles of the branches of the tree, etc. — my unconscious brain decided to take a detour to the Red Planet. But despite my initial horror (and maybe as a representation of poetic epiphany), I think this new example might work better than the others.  Or at least it’s only one picture to ask people to imagine.

Check out this false-color image of the Martian surface:


Those blue rocks in the basin aren’t really blue — that’s the false color.  But can you tell how big they are?  Are those blue rocks meters wide, half-buried in an ancient river bed, photographed by a satellite — or are they millimeters wide, scattered in the cracks of the desert floor, as seen by one of the Mars rovers a few feet away?

The caption doesn’t help: “The dried ocean bed of Meridiani Planum is the flattest plain in the solar system.  The mud of this ocean bed has dried into billions of mud polygons, some large enough to be seen from orbit.” Are those lighter objects some of the massive mud polygons or are they small pieces of one?

The only reason I know that this is a small-scale photo is because I know that I’m visiting the Mars rover website, and that I got to this image by looking at the Opportunity gallery.

That’s what fractals are.

Because the same patterns repeat across different levels of magnification, you can’t tell the scale of a fractal image just by looking.  What’s more, true fractals make scaling virtually irrelevant, because those same patters repeat over and over again into infinity (and into the infinitely small).  And so they make time and space virtually irrelevant — meaning only exists as a kind of ratio, a comparison of one portion to another.  In other words meaning only exists as metaphor.

That’s enough for now, but tomorrow I’m going to try to partially explain once and for all what makes American Fractal a fractal.


p.s. The only reason I was looking at Mars images in the first place is this article about potential fossils on Mars.  There are a lot of people who’ve been claiming to see fossils in the Spirit and Opportunity images for years, and it’s kind of like watching a horse race as mainstream science flirts with catching up.  Not being a geologist or a marine biologist, I have no idea what I’m looking at when I’m comparing vague shadows in the rocks to earthly sea shells.  But it’s damn cool to think about.

Hiking Alone


I shimmy out on sandstone and slate rock,
past the soft ledges where the last shrubs

grow. I’ve got my camera, unshuttered and
silent, ready to take back with me whatever

I’ve come here for—sore arms and a sunburn,
blue sky like something new. At the floor

of the canyon far below a stream flows from
nowhere to nothing, from one unseen cavern

to the next. I could think of a fish gazing up
at that quick flash of sky as it passes through

the white froth of the rapids, the silky silver
where the water pools. Oh, I am grey, I could

have him say, personified—moved, even
full of emotion. Oh, my scales are golden-

green—I could give him color just as easily
in the kind God of my imagination before

plunging him back into his comfortable
dark, this eyelet the only opening for miles.

How easy it is to paint epiphany, I think, like
the gaudy sunset now settling above the tree-

line I could call a bruise or a blush, windburn
on a woman’s cheek, though it’s only the

scattering of dust in low light, what one shakes
from a shoe, combs out of stiffened hair.

How easy, too, it would be to slip off this ledge,
to get lost out here, fall asleep on this rock and

let the cold night wake me. I could hold out
on figs and freshwater; I could chew the fibrous

bark off a Joshua tree. I could love the moon
like a mountain lion, stalk shadows, sharpen

sticks. Come morning I’d find the dirt road
and then my car at the end of it. Brush the dust

off my pants. Buckle myself back into habit
with a metal click like the sound of my one hand

clapping for joy—however briefly—at all we
ever wanted: a little darkness to climb out of.

–from American Fractal
first appeared in Confrontation

The Sense of Being Looked At


Around the corner, footsteps. A heel
clicking stone. The slosh of loose gravel

and then the no-sound itself conspicuous—
even the crickets hold their breath, hush

their rough legs while deep inside houses
women reading bedtime stories pause

to change their endings, one good wish
at a time. A car sails by with its lights off,

but Elvis on the radio still crooning after all
these years, still young—like nothing’s gone

wrong. When you turn, the trees spring back,
defensive. They point to each other all at once,

a dozen limbs like the Scarecrow’s saying,
He went that way. No, no, he went that way.

–from American Fractal
first published in Cranky

The Memory of Water


It can be demonstrated with thermo-
      luminescence: the salt solution
retains knowledge of what it once held,
      though nature, though logic
would tell it otherwise. Dumb as a bedpan,
      the hydrogen bond remembers
the lithium, the sodium chloride no matter
      how long distilled. There is so
little purity left in the world. Desire it,
      dilute it, strip it down till nothing
remains, onion eyes wept dry, last flake
      of the artichoke bit clean,
sour stalk swallowed whole. The homeopath
      stirs his mug, glass rod
guiding poison to balm, balm to poison,
      nothing settling, nothing
dispelled. With every loss the ache
      of a phantom limb he never
believed in. And still he finds himself
      awake at night, clutching the
cool insistence of a pillow to his chest.

–from American Fractal
First appeared in Crab Creek Review