During my last semester as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I took a poetry workshop with Thylias Moss. I’ve only had a few teachers whose classes I anticipated—typically in secret—in a I want to learn to think like her kind of way. Back then, I was super practical and wanted to be a poet (I hadn’t even begun to dream about theology, yet). Moss was one of those teachers. Her work was powerful, formally formidable, elegant, and ultimately inimitable. On one level, of course, I knew I was never going to think just like her. Race is inextricably a part of her poetry, illuminating a world of things that I only understood from a different orientation. But—though not unrelated to this—her poems are also (to use a category I wouldn’t necessarily defend) “nature” poems. Her poems have birds, and dogs—and not just as filler. They also have exposed optic nerves. There is a nature there, but its proximity is at turns amicable, benign, and damning. People are animals, which is a problem (for both people and animals), yet also something incandescent. Her poetry used language to world the world in a particular way: it did things that I knew (in theory) a poem was supposed to do, but often (in many poems) failed to. Her poems had their own optic nerves that made these strange and pulsing sub-visual connections between things that were apparently alien to one another. I didn’t have expectations about what the course would be like. But I admit that I was surprised to get to the campus bookstore and find a short stack of texts—for her class—on fractals.
Fractal art—in the form of digital graphics, or macro photography—wasn’t entirely new at the time. But I don’t think anyone besides Thylias Moss was fractalizing their poetry. Ultimately, for her, this was taking her further outside of that poetic tradition of the page—one that she existed in a degree of tension with—and into something else (like this, “The Glory Prelude”). Looking at some of her newer work, I get the sense that she’s been reading up on entanglement, the multiverse. But, back then, what she brought to us were fractals: those fragile, yet still powerful, highly abstract, yet deeply embedded, infinite patterns within things. She would have inhabited the stuffy tradition of poetry-on-the-page with a difference, with or without fractals. That’s how she worked as a poet. But the fractals helped. Injecting a discussion about them into our conversations about language, about the way we were each using language, changed the way I think and write. There was a kind of sci-fi adventurousness to it that made poetics both far stranger, and far more accessible, than it had been before. I still wrote poems about the same boring things: content pulled mostly from the small world I knew how to access. But I used language in a totally new way, I learned how to make fire from new materials.
When I chose to study with Catherine Keller, for the PhD, there may have been some residual expectations on my part—that I would find a similar kind of sci-fi adventurousness in the study of theology. I was drawn to the chaosmos in Face of the Deep, the way it made theology both more alien and yet also more accessible. In some ways those hopes for sci-fi weirdness were foiled. I was doing a PhD, after all. The bureaucratic patterns of academic life don’t take well to sci-fi. And Catherine’s work, too, resists sci-fi. The most prominent literary interlocutor in Cloud of the Impossible is, after all, Walt Whitman. Catherine has worked very hard to absorb scientific literature on entanglement, and I sense that sci-fi may be too unserious for her. Perhaps sci-fi (to use a figure Marika roused in her recent response) is a little too witchy. Theology is also, of course, risky in ways that poetry is not. The establishment has a long history of violence. Its relationship to power and politics are more structurally intimate. I mention Thylias Moss in this discussion of Catherine’s work, however, because I do think that, over time, I’ve come to see certain resonances between the way they do poiesis—the ways they world the world into language. Studying with each of them, I do feel like I’ve been encouraged to find those sub-material optic nerves, and to experiment with arranging them in new ways, to create differently organized filters through which to view the world. I think both of them have granted full reality to the relations between things—pliable, but difficult to render representationally—and taught me to work with this raw material. And I think, in each of their cases, using tools that are emerging in interdisciplinary conversation between the sciences and the humanities has helped to rupture the staid and stolid fields they work in. On a good day, this ruptured and ruffled sort of theology can almost be like the drag queen of the sciences. But only when it’s really put together. Something to aim for, at any rate. Read the rest of this entry »