Excerpts from Reviews of Sensual Math
W.W. Norton, 1996
In Sensual Math, Fulton “combines in deliberately unsettling — and often deliciously funny — ways a multiplicity of styles, tones, and registers linked to various genres and diverse cultural contexts, so that the reader is kept constantly aware of the play of lanugage and never allowed to rest in the fiction of unmediated personal expression. The breaks between Fulton’s frequently enjambed lines generate puns or semantic ambiguities that further foreground the processes of language and interpretive choice....
Like the Language writers, Fulton approaches poetry as possessing larger intellectual powers and cultural responsibilites than personal expression, even though she remains comfortable, as they tend not to be, incorporating such expression into her writing....
Her inventive work, which stretches the linguistic, tonal, vocal, and emotional range of contemporary lyric, points ultimately to resources that lie between recognized categories, in liminal states, and at the cultural margins as offering hope for significant social and aesthetic change. Her double equal sign and other rejections of patriarchal binaries aim ... to counter the destructive othering that pervades all aspects of our lives....”
“In two dramatic sequences ... the writing is electrifying, and a group of lyric elegies ... proves deeply moving.”
The New Yorker
“Alice Fulton possesses a fingerprint-distinct voice…. Darwinian musings, whiffs of Emily Dickinson and cameos by Elvis…. The above-mentioned elements vibrate, hum, and rumble about in the reader’s mouth like flavors in a complicated head-and-heart stew. There’s a line in one of the poems … that seems to zero in on much of what this lively book does: ‘… put new wrinkles / in the sedentary wit of self / and state….’ ”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“The poems not only interrelate beautifully … they swarm … long after the book has been shut. Fulton’s acoustic signals reign, giving the impression that behind their creation lies some kind of unimaginable technology, telepathic jazz, or just plain genius. Various obsessions are developed … such as the vitality of textiles, the artistry of sex, the language of transfusion. Elvis is understood as a integral part of the American psyche, a fallen element, a qualm about decay, vulnerability, the ‘embarrassment’ of living. Sensual Math disturbs, as if trying to indoctrinate unease. There are moments of sheer lyric beauty … and there are moments of weird yet apt associations … which Fulton makes somehow larger.”
The Boston Book Review
“She may be Dickinson’s postmodern heir.”
“For both poets [Dickinson and Fulton], the interest in hinges, in connections, in incongruities and contiguities reveals itself in verbal and syntactical structures as well as in themes. In short, while these are poets of big ideas, they also are very much poets of language.
I find the most riveting element of Fulton’s poetry to be this controlled, complex exuberance of her play with language. Fulton’s poems are dense, rich, often difficult, but with an immediacy of presence and spontaneity of wit that do not often occur in such textured verse.
Strikingly idiosyncratic and flexible in their diction, her poems — like Dickinson’s — both reject autobiography and retain the immediacy of vocal presence. Similarly, while the diction of the poems makes great use of colloquialisms and slang, the topics are deeply serious.
The poems are epistemological in their concerns — what is it possible to know? how does scientific knowledge affect the perceptions of common sense? how do the powers of language relate to media culture, scientific discovery, imperialism, gender, and the petty inhumanity or graciousness of everyday feelings and events?
At the same time, the poems are generous, reminding us through the experimental complexity of their forms and language that (as Fulton writes in the Dickinsonianly titled ‘Art Thou The Thing I Wanted’) we are not just ‘towers / of blood and ignorance.’ Like Dickinson, Fulton makes us see the pomposity, ridiculousness, and fragility of our beliefs, hopes, and attitudes as well as the sometimes terrible wonder of human interaction and the universe beyond ourselves.”
The Emily Dickinson Society
“At the outset of her career, Fulton sounded less like other poets than most poets setting out sound, and by now ... she has developed an unmistakable voice. Her poems are identifiable by virtue of their ... highly particularized amplitude. Ebullient, breathtakingly fluent, prolific, yet somehow always exact, she writes poems that teem with exotic terms and recherche facts yet also accommodate the multifarious postmodern world. Passionately curious, she knows about such things as echo location and complicated gymnastic maneuvers, Elizabethan invective and African-American spirituals, dirty rhymes and palladium, babytalk and pop songs. About sensuality and math. Her poems compose a gallimaufry, a delicious tossed salad, a farrago of work, full of hybrid brides, for instance, and figurative hippogriffs. Hers is a maximalist poetry, exploding beyond its boundaries....”
The Yale Review
“Fulton simultaneously extends and cuts our notions of rape, violence, and mass culture.... Absurdity, grace, and brute possibility are played off against each other in the most arresting ways.... When I read Sensual Math... I thought of ... what great poetry must do and be. Rich, smart, irreverent ... formally and thematically, Fulton’s poems are like no one else’s today. There’s an on-again, off-again elasticity — a stretching smoothness to some lines, and a snapped back, taut quality to others — that manages to sound both eloquent and scared.... The result is a poetic version of the change-up pitch or a 5.6 earthquake, rhythms that leave us repeatedly feeling uncertain, off balance. Knowing and feeling ... are rallying cries in her search for unveiled experience, the in-between, the unconsidered, rendered tangible and clear of the hysterical hype of consumerism and pop culture. Without using surrealism, or the accidents ... so fondly embraced by the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, Fulton amply conveys the quality of not-knowing-what-comes-next that typifies contemporary existence. Fulton writes with fiery intelligence, and unapologetically so, for it is in the acts of thinking and rethinking that this poet believes we stave off the brute world’s numbing assault. Intelligence, like humor, is its own consolation in Sensual Math.”
The Gettysburg Review
“Alice Fulton, in a poem that takes its title from an invented symbol, ‘==’, also explores language in an exhilarating way. Instead of employing metaphor traditionally, using words to describe one thing in terms of another, Fulton utilizes an ideogram to explore undefined images and ideas. The interpretation of the sign (which she calls ‘a bride / after the recessive threads in lace’) is limited only by her imagination. We're invited to a place in which == becomes ‘mortar between silo’s bricks,’ and a ‘dash to the second power,’ among other definitions. But Fulton doesn’t rely on distinctive subject matter to carry the poem. Music pervades, as in the line, ‘when we admire / the holdfast of the tiles (their copper of a robin’s / breast abstracted into flat).’ And the pleasing final line, ‘the snow that is / the mortar between winter’s bricks == the wick that is / the white between the ink.’ Fulton’s terra incognita is all about possibility, and moving beyond the staidness of habit, even in poetry. She suggests and demonstrates using == as an alternative to the comma which has ‘gone to pure / transparency.’ Because as she states so well, ‘The natural is what / poetry contests. Why else the line == why stanza == why / meter and the rest.’ Fulton, in this poem, pushes our capacity to contemplate language ‘without dilapidating mystery.’ ”
“Some geometers say that mathematics is the science of pattern. But it is also the science of sameness and difference, the science that governs the different guises the same thing may take. It is also the science of the connections bridging those differences; it is the science of the subtle glues ... that bind different ideas together, and yet keep them distinguished. One senses that this collection of poems, in its music, its syntax, and its story, is grappling with the delicious algebra of connectors. The very connectors themselves come out into the open in the poem entitled ’ ==.’ We are reminded (or, as in my case, we learn) that one meaning of the word ‘bride’ is ‘the recessive threads in lace == / the stitches forming deferential / space around the firm design.’ In contrast to the dash-puncuation in Emily Dickinson ..., Fulton uses the symbol == as one of those silent servants, place-holders, that hold together, yet not quite together, two phrases, two ideas; that attract these ideas to each other and yet keep them separate. The priming is indeed the negligee and the ‘==’ between the oils and canvas.”
The William Petschek Professor of Mathematics
Fulton "rejects the mode of reading enacted daily by the checkout scanner in favor of the ‘treason’ of immersion, which demands real presence, the dissolution of self into the poem’s dark matter:
Metaphor is pure immersion. Pure sinking
one into another and the more
difference that’s dissolved the more ==
often I'll sink
into a book that swimless way.
("Fuzzy Feelings" p. 59)
...Fulton offers us wonder. If the poems resist us at times — and they do — that only serves to draw us in, to demand that we dissolve our difference in the poem’s fluid meanings, to be — at once — both ‘rapt’ and ‘wrapped.’
To this same end, Fulton creates her own punctuation, a sign (‘==’) that she calls ‘a bride / after the recessive threads in lace.’ She deploys this symbol to compel the reader’s attention to ‘ the unconsidered / mortar between the silo’s bricks.’ ...Fulton offers it as a symbol for immersion, ‘a seam made to show,’ which compels our attention to what our reading ignores, ‘the white between the ink.’ Yet, this symbol also serves as a summary device that draws together Fulton’s complex themes. It embodies, at once, horizon, immersion, lace, and suture, Fulton’s images for what the mind embraces — and represses — as it contends with the world.”
“Alice Fulton’s poetry has received a great deal of attention recently, and rightfully so. her newest book, Sensual Math, is perhaps her best yet; it is impressive first as a stylistic achievement, filled with all the flair and linguistic energy for which Fulton is so often noted, and second as a intelligent and sometimes hard-hitting critique of contemporary American culture mired in the inadequacies of consumerism and ensnared, still, by persistent and destructive attitudes toward women.
The most remarkable component of Fulton’s writing, however, is the language itself.... Fulton’s newest poems convey both an acute awareness of the meaning and effect of each word and a sense that the poet herself is constantly examining the exchange between the written phrase and the mind of the reader....
Fulton is often considered a ‘poet of style,’ yet the subjects addressed in Sensual Math demand perhaps even more attention. Fulton describes her own work as the ‘poetry of cultural incorrectness,’ a half-complete term since much of her writing questions not only the acceptability of certain cultural practices and assumptions, but also criticizes the willingness of individuals to push away these bits of ‘inconvenient’ knowledge.... Fulton’s poetry succeeds at many levels, and trying to classify her work as either poetry of ‘style’ or of ‘subject’ is unnecessary. Sensual Math is proof of Fulton’s mastery of her craft, and is a wonderful collection of poems from one of the most promising young poets of our culture.”
“Fulton reinvents the Daphne and Apollo myth with humor, impressive intelligence, and most of all, passion. Her stance as a poet is passionate; and that passionate stance is perhaps nowhere more prominent than in the music of her language.... The music of Fulton’s poetry is one of its particular strengths. For examples of this, pick up any of her books and read at random. Her poems, spoken out loud or ‘heard’ in the process of reading, offer a subtle, magnificent jazz: a music for the intellect, felt on the tongue and in the body, resonating in the mind. And nowhere is the music of Fulton’s poetry more stirring than in Sensual Math.”
Blue Penny Quarterly
“Let us take Ovid’s description of the nymph Daphne as Apollo first sees her, but before she knows he is in pursuit of her: ‘vitta coërcebat positos sine lege capillos.’ A very close rendering of this would be: ‘A hairband held her unruly hair.’ The renaissance English translator Arthur Golding has it thus: ‘Unordered doe hir tresses wave scarce in a fillet tide’ ...the translation is quite close. A century later, Dryden links the line more closely to the line preceding it: ‘With naked neck she goes, and shoulders bare; / And with a fillet binds her flowing hair.’ It is still close, but downplays the nymph’s unruly hair: Ovid’s ‘sine lege’ means literally ‘without law’ and refers to ‘positos capillos’ or ‘placed hair.’ A strictly literal, word-for-word translation using the same word order would render ‘positos sine lege capillos’ into the unreadable ‘placed without law hair,’ and in making the line flow, Golding stresses the unruliness while Dryden softens it to ‘flowing.’
Fulton amplifies the line:
her hair, redly restless as a vixen’s or dolphin-
from minute to minute. Frothing like white water it was
by a single ribbon so tributaries escaped and trickled down her
face. A dangerous
draw followed in her wake. Downstream, her current seemed
to negotiate and give. Upstream you had to fight the deep
meanders of her
Fulton here has made Daphne’s hair metamorphose in the mere description of its freedom. Dryden’s one-word description ‘flowing’ has here taken over and the hair is ‘frothing," ‘channeled (by a single ribbon),’ individual locks of hair, unruly, become ‘tributaries’ and, having ‘escaped,’ ‘trickled’ down. The river imagery — and Daphne’s father Peneus is a river, after all — seeps from her hair into the rest of her body-mind. There may even be a hint of Ezra Pound’s Canto 116, which starts, ‘Came Neptunus, his mind / leaping with dolphins.’
While such apparent liberties in translation may strike some critics as being excessive, straying far from the original words, I think that this marvelous improvisatorial cadenza upon the original theme in fact returns us more closely to certain aspects of Ovid’s Latin line that are missing from the more literal translations. For example, the verb ‘coërcebat’ reminds the modern English-speaking reader of ‘coercion,’ and even though my Latin dictionary’s first definition of the verb ‘coerceo’ is simply ‘to surround" or ‘to bind," the second definition extends this into notions of hinderance and suppression. If the hairs are placed ‘sine lege,’ or ‘without law,’ then the hairband, ribbon, or fillet represents a coercive force that seeks to bind that which runs free. This potential is contained within Ovid’s brief line; Fulton teases it out and lets it flow freely.
Fulton’s version makes the Daphne and Apollo story reach out to touch on a far deeper herstory from Western civilization before surviving records. After Daphne has been transformed into the laurel tree, and thus escaped Apollo’s rape, she speaks in the first person — or perhaps this is the voice of the poet; the distinction is not entirely clear — and refers to ‘Big Mama, Gaea, Earth Goddess’ who ‘was embodied as the python — dragonlady —’ a monster that was slain by Apollo. It is within this larger and deeper context that Ovid’s tale of Daphne and Apollo takes on, in Fulton’s version, an expanded significance: that of the suppression of women’s power by the Indo-Aryan patriarchal culture.”
“Invention is one of Fulton’s driving energies and greatest skills. In Sensual Math she goes so far as to create a new punctuation mark. It is, you might say, Emily Dickinson’s evocative dash on steroids. It’s called a ‘ bride,’ and it looks like this: ==. ‘ It might mean immersion,’ Fulton writes in a poem which bears the new mark as its title. It functions as a signal for Intense connectivity, and also for mystery: ‘ thus wed == the sentence cannot tell / whether it will end or melt or give / way to the fabulous == ....’ Fulton’s world of word-tones is stitched together by just such sentences, immersed in a remarkable passion for the act of meaning. Sensual Math is Fulton’s finest work yet.”
Kevin Walker, Michigan Alumnus