By the Numbers

by James Richardson
Copper Canyon Press 2010
Reviewed by John Deming


“…that not to think is to think everything, which is what the universe excels at”

James Richardson seems very interested in the interplay of macro and micro. He is one of few contemporary poets who actively pursues the art of aphorism, an art that is about saying something large in a small space. An aphorism is always an oversimplification, but in piling dozens of them on top of each other, Richardson at once delights and raises questions about the human capacity for knowledge and wisdom. His oversimplifications serve as a natural counterpoint to his dense, lyric explorations of a limited, yet potentially infinite universe. We find in the end that no matter how thorough or exhausting an investigation – be it lyric, scientific, or otherwise – one always return to the limits of personal experience, and to a generalized, sometimes caustic, sometimes ecstatic unknowing.

Richardson churns out aphorisms with surprising regularity. Two previous books, Vectors: Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays and Interglacial: New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms, are also full of them. The 170 collected in By the Numbers are a conscious extension of his previous work, and form the long centerpiece of the book, which is titled “Vectors 3.0: Even More Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays.” They range from charming to wise to clever to agitating, and recall constantly the human need to sum up the universe with an easy, blunt understanding. By piling so much “wisdom” on top of itself, Richardson reminds that a final understanding of what something is immediately exposes what that understanding is not.

You will feel like you have read some of these before: “When it gets ahead of itself, the wave breaks,” “Spontaneity takes a few rehearsals,” “Too much apology doubles the offense,” “The will has a will of its own,” “My best critic is me, too late.”

Some of the more limited in scope seem like they come straight from the wall of the dentist’s office: “Work is required play,” “Nothing important comes with instructions,” “Build bottom up, clean top down.”

Many of them simply invert or reframe received aphorisms – “Do unto others and eye for an eye have the same payment plan” – while others read like quips from stand-up comedy routines: “Office supplies stores are cathedrals of Work in General. They forgive, they console, they promise a new start. These supplies have done work like yours a million times. Take them home and they will do it for you.”

Yet many of them are undeniably lyric – “It is the empty seats that listen most raptly,” “All those days that changed the world forever! Yet here it is.” – and the final two provide a payoff that winks at the blend of limit and liberation in the physical universe: “That one thing in Life I’m meant to do?—well, I have to finish this first,” “Closing a door very gently, you pull with one hand, push with the other.”

All of these aphorisms have the potential to be “true,” but only if given context. As the goal of an aphorism might be to succinctly sum up the universe in a way that leads to moral action, we learn through this onslaught that any stated truth says as much about our need for truth as it does about whatever idea, example or metaphor is at play.

But Richardson doesn’t limit this idea to the realm of aphorism. To him, it seems, even the densest physical equation is, from a perspective of total knowledge, nothing but an oversimplification. The best poem in the book is a long poem, “Are We Alone? or Physics You Can Do at Home.” The poet dwells on parallel universes and the range of possibilities they create; he dwells on cosmology, and our fruitless attempts to find signs of life elsewhere in the universe:

…it’s a big empty universe, averaging only five atoms per cubic meter,
though wherever we are is by definition very crowded. I think of walking
          out in the snow
which would then be very, very crowded, for though the air seems
          clear, glassy with silence,

odds say in every breath there’s at least one atom of the breath of everyone
          who ever lived
and if to breathe them is to hold them all in mind,
which I hope is true…but surely this feeling of a thought being too big
          to think

is the accelerating expansion of the universe, which means I should try less
          and less
to think it, and be still like a tree letting stars and snow stream through
          its branches,
for scientists agree that not to think is to think everything, which is what
          the universe excels at…

The poet is dazzled by the physical universe and by its study. But every answer leads to greater questions, and human wisdom, it seems, exists only to satisfy a human need.

Richardson tests the limits of cleverness in this book, and those turned off by “wit” or even “charm” might find little use for some portions, including shorter poems that read like aphorisms broken into lines. Here is the three line poem “Birds in Rain”:

Studious silence in the trees.
Later they will tunefully dispute
whether the drops came down in twos or threes.

One could read a range of metaphors into this if asked to, but his knowingly absurd idea –that birdsongs following rain are actually a dispute about how the rain fell – is a willful imposition reminiscent of some of his weaker aphorisms, perhaps cheapened in its singsong rhythm and rhyme.

But generally, poems like this are in lock step with Richardson’s projection that even though the human need for understanding can never be completely satisfied, we need not be unpleasant about it. He broods, but never excessively. The book becomes a feast in its variety; there is a range of forums wherein our narrator finds himself haunted and perplexed by his own disappearing life, by his own memories and losses. He tries to shape them into something like meaning. But in the end, he does not so much seek wisdom, but finds himself charmed by the idea of wisdom. He is compelled by human need. By the Numbers is a book of incredible sympathy.