kathryn l. pringle’s fault tree is a poetic big bang—a linguistic singularity, with seemingly infinite density, that expands exponentially into a universe, a dark swath of the brain lit up by neuronal firings. As the poem takes shape, time takes place, involuting like cortical folds. In a universe—in a psyche—time is endlessly distorted: eddying, bending, stuttering, paralleling, slowing, and speeding. This lean work, which needs all the white space it makes, covers vast expanses of mathematical and philosophical thought by way of a convincing and engagingly idiosyncratic voice.
pringle begins her book-length poem with two prominent road signs: an excerpt from a Wikipedia article on fault tree analysis (FTA) and a quote from Einstein’s “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.” With these epigraphs, pringle lays out her central propositions: first, that the work intends to pinpoint the origin of an “undesired state of a system” by using Boolean logic (picture a decision tree); and second, that our daily understanding of time (the time that organizes our schools, workplaces, governments, militaries, and stock markets) is insufficient because it ignores spatial and kinetic considerations.
These two epigraphic passages also capture the richly divergent impulses of her project. While both quotes hail from scientific fields, they lend themselves to starkly different conceptual models. The tendency of FTA is to narrow down, isolate single frames in a moving picture, identify clear linkages between causes and effects, find the precise location of fault, and construct a plausible narrative of indictment; FTA relies on a static point of view that works from a predetermined notion of fault. On the other hand, the principle of relativity tends to expand, point toward the infinite, emphasize motion, complicate causation by highlighting contingency, and elude definitions of fault; it acknowledges multiple points of view and the constructedness of perception. Textually, pringle gets at these tensions through an artfully paced combination of narrativity—discursive biographical passages—and experimental lyricism—open psycholinguistic fragments.
So, pringle sets up from the start that methodology (and its social context) will be foregrounded just as much as the topic of inquiry, and any evidence will always indicate the observer and his or her milieu. The “end” result of this self-aware dialectic refuses to conform to an idealized notion of a whole and definitive truth. Instead, the truth of time and its effects is “a synthetic permutation of erasure” in which theses and antitheses sit side by side, change positions and appearances, repeat, disintegrate, and cancel each other out (63). pringle puts seventeenth-century French thinkers Blaise Pascal and René Descartes in the ring with British empiricists, letting them all duke it out.
In an interview with Rusty Morrison—the cofounder of fault tree’s publisher, Ownidawn—pringle explained that the initial impetus for her latest book came from a desire to investigate the foundational definitions in Einstein’s essay. She wanted to write through the concept that time is linked to place, making a poetry that would give a physical shape to time.
Feeling her first explorations were ungrounded, pringle put the project aside until she could find a way to tether it to a more everyday lived experience. The ballast for her self-described “ethereal” material came from an unexpected quarter: her father, a veteran of WWII, suffered from a short break with reality, during which he began to suspect the people around him and the mechanism of time. “Time had become his enemy . . . because time itself was a trickster playing games with him,” pringle said in the interview. Thus, she found inspiration for her book’s narrator, a former soldier whose quarrel with linear time can be alternately viewed as a heroic battle or a mental schism.
By creating a tragic hero/antihero narrator, pringle discovered her modus operandi and gave an awesome dimensionality to the work. The narrator’s “time-perception system ‘failure,’” as pringle puts it, is the subject of the poem’s fault tree analysis. And by channeling her ideas through a first-person narrator, she’s able to examine not only time’s concomitance with place and the effects of special relativity, but also personal, social, and historical constructions of time. Perception is inextricably entangled with empiricism, and so it is part of the data. The epistemological and the ontological must be equally scrutinized. You can imagine that under the pressure of all these contortions (time dilation, length contraction, the relativity of simultaneity, memory, anticipation, assimilation, historicization), clocks begin to melt à la Dalĺ’s “The Persistence of Memory.”
The unnamed narrator also provides a motive for the book’s central examination. The poem quickly reveals what exigencies could have impelled the narrator to break with linear time. In the first section, the speaker repeatedly revisits his imagined death: “last night i was shot through the head / three times clean through / and then the heart” (16), “they slit my throat, too” (17), “my transistor was hemorrhaging / exposed wires bleeding” (26), “but then i was killed” (31). A footnote to one of the speaker’s medications, a psychoanaleptic for anxiety, warns of the potential consequences of these situational deaths: “it became apparent that one of me was entertaining the thought of suicide and attempting to achieve it by constantly playing scenes of our own tragic death” (30).
In the second section, we listen to the narrator recount how he enlisted in the army, presumably during WWII (though the broadness of the description would bear many modern wars). He describes the collective wound of war: “i know the bombs fell on all countries / i know that children were killed / i know that i can’t hide on either side” (37). Then we see a brief, clear flash of a specific site of trauma: “i did not kill him / i let him die” (48). But this recollection is redirected almost immediately to the moment of the speaker’s transformation, the moment when time took a new shape. A tombstone marks the speaker’s self-death and his commission of murder. A vacuum opens up in the text—a quote from Pascal describes a non-dimensional space formed by self-canceling dualisms—and the narrator passes through.
Contrary to expectations, the speaker doesn’t fully convert to either Pascal’s Christianity or Descartes’s dualism on the other side. At first, the moment of conversion reads like an allegory of interactionism, a view from Cartesian dualism that the mental and physical, though made of distinct substances, causally interact (with language as the causal link in pringle’s version). Yet interactionism doesn’t give the full picture. Pascal’s mystical register and his awe for the unknowable infinite remain, but Descartes’s rationalism and Pascal’s religiosity and rejection of empiricism go out the window. This state is definitely felt, physically and emotionally:
the noises i made begat matter
atoms accumulated from within
a perforation appearing, i,
wrenched in pain, spoke words
each one dropping from my new hole
and sound (49)
Later, on the same page: “the words were elements / each atom making up the word was the word itself,” and “i spewed time // and time became itself.” The speaker conflates his body with the “enemy’s,” and his piercing becomes a mouth that vomits time-words like sacramental blood. The exigency is unveiled; the speaker’s condition could take on the appearance of severe delayed-onset PTSD. Or it could be a justifiable strategy for self-protection: if he can master betweenness, infinity, and special relativity, and craft his own perception; he might be able to slip from the grips of history and the collective forces that spin history from linear time.
Here, the target of the poem’s FTA begins to fluctuate. What system is under analysis, what is its failure, and who is the analyzer? Are we analyzing the narrator’s diseased perception or does his journey analyze that most heinous system failure of nations and time, war? War, after all, relies on armed forces that have been rigorously organized by time, and it stems from a collective identity that is organized, in large part, by time. pringle reminds us with a quote from The Second World War: Asia and the Pacific that “the art of war . . . was collectively discussed and carefully structured and revised before writing commenced” (34). It isn’t difficult to make the leap from Einstein to the “twin-tracked nuclei” that ended the lives of hundreds of thousands of people (43).
Because our soldier’s point of view is in the minority, he stands little chance of maintaining it undisturbed. One of the tyrannies of collective belief is that it often seeks to maintain its sense of realism by eliminating inconsistencies. The collective responds to the narrator’s pervasive distrust of “the system” by folding him back into its routine, starting with the family unit and moving on to the mental health apparatus: “invisibly, revoking i // the family as a substantial / unit exercises this communal / decree” (35); “physicians hand us pills / tiny pink ovals” (55); “the company transitioned us to robots”; and “the milligrams must content ourselves” (57). The scheduled regimens of war, medicine, and business can easily read as self-deceiving rationalism taken to an inhuman extreme; as the speaker notes sarcastically, “hospitals remind doctors you are human because it is good for business” (36).
As the narrator wends toward his prescribed “wellness,” his paranoia gives way, in small part, to nostalgia for the system’s self-affirming structure: “since the war (programming) ended (decimated US) i have been / keeping / to it (the program) // i miss the days when folly was easily forgiven” (72). He also tempers an indictment of his oppressors with an acknowledgment of his complicity: “knowing he was to die painfully then / he wanted me to kill him // but i wanted him to suffer / so i bled him, in the snow” (73). Even as the speaker returns to sanity, a definitive etiology or indictment dissipates in every direction.
Finishing with an irresolution/involution, the book leaves us with an incomplete conditional statement and a koan-like injunction: “if we can recall that time is / actually what we make of it / and not what they make us do” (71) and “you have to remember we are solitary people” (81). pringle and her veteran ask us to consider our own complicity in dehumanizing systems—even to the point of interrogating the nature of time, the causal relationship between mind and matter, and the truths systemized by the collectives in which we participate. In the words of The Smiths’s Morrissey, “In my life, why do I give valuable time to people who don’t care if I live or die?”
The affective and musical textures of pringle’s writing make handholds and footholds in this challenging terrain, and the expansive views along the way are more than worth the effort.