I was one of those kids who had it easy in school (except for gym class, the bane of my asthmatic existence). I didn’t have to work hard to do well, and this ease of success formed slacker tendencies I still struggle with. My academic life was great (not so much my social life-- there’s probably a correlation there), I was coasting through, riding the waves of a strong memory and aptitude for problem solving, and then it hit me and took me down: 9th grade math. It was the one subject I couldn’t half-ass. There was something about calculus and trig that I just couldn’t grasp intuitively. Perhaps it was their abstractness, their unbridgeable distance from what my senses were telling me about the observable world. Perhaps I just encountered one of the limits of my higher-order thinking. Whatever it was, for the next four years of math class I found myself having to work hard, having to struggle to comprehend, kicking furiously to stay afloat. And I didn’t like it.
So for someone with arithmophobia, why is it that I feel so much joy when I read Liat Berdugo’s The Everyday Maths (see excerpt here)? A chapbook* that explores the poetics of mathematical diagrams should send me running, and yet, the same figures that used to make me want to stab my math textbook with the needle end of a drafting compass repeatedly now fill me with fuzzy warm feelings, make me smile, make me ponder.
Berdugo reinterprets figures she encountered in textbooks while studying for her degree in mathematics. Recontextualized through her mischievous brain the diagrams become playthings, symbols that now represent many meanings. The original figure in the textbook was meant to illustrate and clarify a mathematical concept, but surrounded by Berdugo’s text it becomes a contest of interpretations between the expert and the layman, between those who know what the figure is used for and those who know that each image can tell many different stories.
Over the course of the forty seven figures we begin to not only rethink the meaning of mathematical diagrams, but also to get a sense of the strange and humorous brain behind the words. I love the way in which Berdugo’s text sometimes points to the obvious association, the image everyone can see (why yes, how can this curved plane in a box be anything but a caged bird?), and yet how sometimes I have to bend my mind in order to figure out the connections, the new interpretation, a meaning only the author could find (a closed jagged shape becomes an opportunity to consider the arbitrariness of national borders). And even though there is no I in this chapbook, no arrow-signs pointing to the author, Berdugo is very much present throughout the text, meditating on the obscure and the obvious, and in that sense this poetic chapbook is very much an essay.
There is a statement here about the beauty of math and its accessibility. Berdugo’s texts point to the power of these images to at once evoke feelings of terror and awe, frustration and joy. While reading them I fall into that 9th grade self, the one stupefied by ideas just beyond his comprehension, drowning in a sea of confusion. Except this time I’m given a way out-- a lifesaver with a note attached saying: “You can make up your own story. It’s OK not to know what this figure means.” And on the back of the note it says: “But don’t you wish you did?”
* Winner of the 2012 Anomalous Press Chapbook Contest. To pre-order a copy email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Noam Dorr's work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Seneca Review, and Wag's Revue. He is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Nicosia, Cyprus. He is still afraid of math.