Family Mathematics: Continued Fractions

By and | 1 August 2021

Says Tricia Dearborn …

When Ros McFarlane, the collaborations editor of Cordite Poetry Review, contacted me to see if I’d like to be commissioned to do a collaborative piece ‘exploring what is possible between poetry and mathematics,’ I was intrigued. I enjoyed maths at school, and in my teens and beyond read books featuring mathematical facts and puzzles. I still remember being shown a Möbius strip as a child,1 and, later on, being struck by a Scientific American article which explained that, topologically speaking, the human body is essentially a torus (a doughnut shape, with the digestive system as the hole).

I’d written poetry with a link to mathematics before: a sequence called ‘The mathematics of the first time’, about my first relationship. The titles of the poems within that sequence were taken from a book called Mathematics: From the birth of numbers,2 an engagingly written and idiosyncratically illustrated history of the field.

I agreed to the collaboration, and a few months later Ros got in touch to say she’d found our mathematician. I was introduced to Marty Ross, and he sent along some information about one of his particular interests, continued fractions. Marty’s explanation evolved as the collaboration proceeded, but it was his original explanation that sparked my poetic response. I often find myself writing about family dynamics and trauma, and this is the subject matter that emerged when I considered the material Marty had provided.

Margaret Atwood has said, of writing about her own writing, ‘I have nothing to say about it because I can’t remember what goes on when I’m doing it.’3 I find this to be true when it comes to describing the actual writing of poems, but some larger movements of the process I can retrospectively trace.

The first poem I wrote opened with different ways you could look at a family in terms of fractions. It had the working title ‘Irrational numbers’, and by the time I sent it along to Marty and Ros it was called ‘Continued fractions’. Ros wondered if one of the concepts within it could usefully be expanded … at which point I had the idea4 for the poem that would become ‘Infinity’ and saw that this could be a sequence. The sequence was eventually titled ‘Family mathematics’ and that first poem was renamed ‘Nest’. Marty had used the word ‘nested’ when describing continued fractions, and the title, for me, suggests a hominess and cosiness that the poem goes on to undermine.

The continued fraction for the golden ratio is an extraordinarily beautiful equation. The poem ‘The golden ratio’ was sparked when I looked at that equation (which I used as the poem’s epigraph) and saw the 1 immediately after the equals sign personified, gazing at the other 1s as reflections of itself: a visual metaphor for narcissism.

Continued fractions can be used to represent irrational numbers (numbers that can’t be expressed as a ratio of two integers). The third poem in the sequence, ‘Infinity’, explores the idea that neither memory nor human responses to trauma are rational – in the sense of ‘proceeding or derived from reason’ (Macquarie Dictionary Online, 2016). For me, one of the pleasures of writing is being challenged to find ways to convey phenomena that have preoccupied or fascinated me for some time – for example, in ‘Infinity’, the body jumping in alarm at a harmless sound the mind has already identified.

The epigraph for the sequence is a quote from Marty’s original explanation. It alludes to nesting, a central concept in the first poem, and notes that continued fractions and infinite decimals can ‘go on forever’ – echoing the way in which responses to traumatic stress can continue to affect survivors’ lives indefinitely.

I have an academic background in science as well as in arts, and in my poetry I often make use of the rich, vivid and sometimes startling metaphors that science abounds in, crafting the poems so that they will be intelligible to readers without a science background, without sacrificing complexity of themes or ideas. For example, my most recent poetry collection, Autobiochemistry, is named for a long sequence that is largely autobiographical but in which each poem is linked to an element of the periodic table.

This collaboration gave me an opportunity to explore what would happen when the starting material came from another person’s particular area of interest, and I found it a fruitful experiment.

Read ‘Family mathematics‘.

  1. A Möbius strip is a strip of paper given a half-twist and joined at the ends to form a loop that has only one side – if you take a pencil and draw a line down the middle of it, the line will go right round both ‘sides’ and meet itself.
  2. Jan Gullberg, Norton, 1997. As an example, the poem ‘Fall through a resisting medium’ – about falling in love with a woman over the course of a year while being completely oblivious – took its title from a section in the book about the differential equations used to ascertain, for example, the maximum velocity of a body in free fall, taking air resistance into account.
  3. ‘Nine Beginnings,’ in Janet Sternburg, ed., The Writer on Her Work: New Essays in New Territory, Norton, 1991.
  4. Although ‘idea’ never seems to me like the right word for what happens at the inception of a poem, which feels more like an awareness/perception of the energetic potential for the poem and/or an involuntary emergence and conglomeration of words and lines.
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