Green Hills Literary Lantern





slonimsky cover




The Mathematics of Destiny


Lee Slonimsky, Tibbetts Brook Park, 1953: New York, Spuyten Duyvil, 2019, 69 pp.

Part of my plan for going on sabbatical to complete my latest novel manuscript was to not take on any reviews of books this year.  I found a few of my best poetry students who were willing to tackle reviews, one of whom, Kimberley Ramos, executed a great review of Mark Belair’s latest book; you can read that review in this issue.  However, before I could get other books assigned Truman State University like the rest of the schools around the country closed its doors and I lost my chance to hand any other books over.  There was one book, then, that I felt compelled to review myself, since, as in the case of Mark Belair, it came from one of our best and most frequent contributors, Lee Slonimsky.  And so it is that I now take the time to say a few words about Tibbetts Brook Park, 1953.


The book is divided unequally into two sections, the forty-five poem long “Concentricities” and the fourteen poems that make up “The Limits of Entitlement, 525 B.C.”  The latter section is mostly a “stunning sequence of sonnet-based poems about the life of Pythagoras” (from the back-cover blurb by Liza Bennett) a subject already familiar to any fan of Slominsky’s (and particularly one of his earlier books,Pythagoras in Love) so I’ll place my focus on a discussion of “Concentricities.”


In the first section of the book readers of Slonimsky’s opus will also find familiar topics, what writer Liza Bennett terms “a number of recurring obsessions- dragonflies, gnats, birds and chicory.”  I might include trees in that list, (see p. 7, “Do Trees Have Parents Like We Do?”) but the thinking which impels Slonimsky so often to return to nature and these particular denizens of the natural world is both compelling and illuminating for any careful reader. 


Lee Slonimsky can certainly be classified as a lover of nature, but his love is never sentimental nor anthropomorphic. Rather, this poet uses his knowledge and love of math and science to bring his readers to a humbler sense of our place in the universe.  In “85%,” a poem that first appeared in GHLL, the poet gently admonishes  someone (perhaps himself, perhaps the reader) for killing a gnat and he concludes, “Blood, a tiny speck, glints now,/  85% the same as yours/ as sun begins its afternoon decline.”  In “Straight Dart,” Slonimsky’s admiration for the dragon fly is both complete and profound: “You soon confess/ to barely grasping how such glides evolved/ from single cells.”  He also reminds us as humans, so proud of our many accomplishments and so settled in our sense of primacy on this planet, that “The earth revolved/ far longer round the sun to stir this flight/ than to create the great ape from the mouse!” (Ironically, this month’s Missouri Conservationist has an article about dragonflies and how they have been around for over three hundred million years, a staggering amount of time compared to human existence).


In “The Duel” the poet reminds us of the inevitability of winter, something none of us would dispute, but which he still makes us feel rather than just admit, “Snow piled everywhere in the woods,/as if clouds have descended and frozen.”  Mostly, though, Slonimsky doesn’t emphasize death or gloom, but rather the precise, orderly and inevitable nature of nature, as in the poem “Black Flower,” where he smiles at us and exclaims, “the universe can count!”  He has the math to back up that claim:  “Where else did petal numbers come from?/ (Seventeen or eighteen, twenty-one;/ erratic but specific, mostly prime.”)   Slonimsky is purely appreciative of the ways of nature concluding “Black Flower” with another exclamation: “Profound equations with a single goal:/ complexity!” 


I’ve always enjoyed the wisdom and wit of Lee Slonimsky’s poems, almost to the point where he makes me actually like math, since he shows its pulse and purpose in all life really is about.  Still, I say “almost” because my own “Romantic” view of the natural world, my own inclination towards anthropomorphism, is thwarted by his truths.  For example, we have a wren house just outside our back deck and for years have enjoyed watching the wrens as they raise their next generations.  They are intrepid, industrious and pretty loud considering their size, all things I appreciate.  The past few years a pair of English sparrows has been harassing the wrens and I’ve done what little I could to try to keep them away, especially when I read those birds sometimes will murder wrens.  In general, I’ve loathed English sparrows for many years, as they disrupt the lives of native birds with their ubiquitous bullying and mayhem.  However, I felt a very Slonimsky-like epiphany when, while trying to find out the life span of house wrens, I read that wrens very often break the eggs of any birds with nests in their vicinity, including those of other wrens.  This was a fact I didn’t really want to know, since it undid my ability fully to see wrens as the “good guys” in the story of my backyard, but once I had it I could not let it go, could not undo the sense that wrens are driven by the math of the universe, the urgings of their DNA, not by my imaginings of their virtues. In the same way whether or not I ever realized a gnat shares way more in common with my own blood than seems possible, or that a dragon fly is far more the breakthrough and advance in evolution than any human could ever be  these are true facts which I can’t unlearn once this poet has taught them to me.  The universe will not conform to our desires no matter how ardent those fantasies are. What I have to learn next from Lee Slonimsky is how to be more at peace with these facts, more appreciative of the math that drives our atoms, that defines our life cycles, that ties us to not just the recent but the most distant past.  For now, I must be content to admire the wry humor and considerable skill of Lee Slonimsky’s poetry; perhaps the wisdom will come later. 


Joe Benevento, poetry editor for GHLL and Professor of English at Truman State University, has published thirteen books, which include four novels, a book of short stories and eight books of poetry. His most recent volume is the poetry chapbook Playground out this year with Unsolicited Press.