Today, we’re In Conversation with R. Kolewe, author of the long poem The Absence of Zero, a slow-moving haunting work which explores time and memory in both content and form.
The following long form interview is a suitable companion to a work of poetry—consisting of 256 16-line quartets, and 34 free-form interruptions—which takes care with language, opting for depth over brevity and rhythm over perspicuity. Kolewe speaks about the Riemann curvature tensor, the mathematical object which serves as the structural inspiration for the book. He talks about the weather, the value of difficult writing, the use of memory, forgetting, and more.
B*H: The structure of The Absence of Zero is derived from a mathematical object. Can you tell us a little bit about how that mathematical object is defined? Why did you choose to construct/constrain the poem in this way?
RK: The mathematical object that underlies The Absence of Zero is the Riemann curvature tensor. Its definition is given in the epigraph to the book, which isOk, that probably doesn’t help much, even if it looks cool. What the Riemann curvature tensor does is describe the way a space is or isn’t curved. So, how can you tell if a space is flat or curved? One way is to take a vector (think of it as a tiny arrow) and move it a little distance in some direction, then turn 90º and move the same distance, turn 90º and move again, and turn 90º and move one last time. You should now be back where you started, right? If the space you’ve been moving through is flat, the vector you’ve dragged around those right angle turns back to the starting point will be pointing in the same direction it was when you began. (Try it by drawing arrows on a piece of flat graph paper.) If the space isn’t flat the vector will be pointing in a different direction, maybe close to the original vector if the space is only a little curved, maybe wildly off if the space is strongly curved. This is pretty easy to visualize if you think of two-dimensional surfaces like a piece of paper (flat) or the surface of a sphere (curved) but it applies in higher-dimensional spaces as well, like the four-dimensional spacetime Einstein told us we live in, or the eleven-or whatever-dimensional thing some string theorists think about, but let’s not go there. These are hard if not impossible to visualize. The Riemann curvature tensor is a way of describing the curvature of a space at every point in that space, and essentially that formula describes what happens to a vector when you transport it around a tiny circuit back to where you started, and how the transported vector points in a different direction compared to the original if the space isn’t flat.
A tensor equation like the definition of the Riemann curvature tensor is a shorthand way of writing a lot of similar equations. The indices of a tensor (those are the Greek letter superscripts and subscripts in the equation above) are a way of labelling all those equations. One way to think of a tensor is as a computer that calculates a bunch of numbers (labelled by the indices) for every point in a space. A tensor can have as many indices as it needs: for example a tensor with two indices, say gµν, can be thought of as a table, where the indices label the rows and columns. So if the indices of the gµν tensor ran from 1 to 2, the tensor is shorthand for 2 rows and 2 columns, or 4 numbers, defined at every point in space. Each cell in that table described by the tensor is called a component of the tensor. A tensor with more than two indices obviously isn’t a table anymore but a sort of generalization of a table.
The four indices of the Riemann curvature tensor each run from 1 to the number of dimensions of the space, 2 for a piece of paper, 4 for spacetime, etc. (Except that physicists like to start the index numbers from 0, so the indices are actually labelled 0 to 1 for 2-d, 0 to 3 for 4-d etc. Details!) For a two-dimensional space, that means the Riemann curvature tensor has 2x2x2x2 = 24 = 16 components; for four-dimensional spacetime there are 4x4x4x4= 44 = 256 components. So the Riemann curvature tensor computer has to calculate a lot of numbers at every point in space to describe the curvature at that point. It turns out, though, that you can prove that a lot of the components of the Riemann curvature tensor are actually zero, and that many of the non-zero components are related to each other, either the same or the negative of each other or some other simple relationship. In the two-dimensional case this means that, of the 16 components of the Riemann curvature tensor, all the ones that aren’t zero are actually the same number: if that number is also zero, the 2-d space is flat, if it’s non-zero it’s curved. In four dimensions it’s not quite that simple but again a lot of the 256 components of the Riemann curvature tensor are zero, and the non-zero ones have simple relationships.
Now what does all this have to do with The Absence of Zero, which is a poem and not a textbook on differential geometry? One of the ideas that The Absence of Zero plays with is the nature of time, and our understanding of what time means changed drastically in the early 20th century with Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity. Prior to 1905 the concept of absolute (Newtonian) time ruled: no matter where you were or how fast or in what direction you were moving, your clock would agree with everyone else’s, everywhere. It’s as if we all set our clocks according to God’s pocket watch, and that was it. Special relativity changed that, telling us that there’s no such thing as absolute time: two clocks moving at different speeds will not tick at the same rate. So you can make a return trip to Alpha Centauri in your nearly-as-fast-as-light starship in nine years, and find that 900 years have passed on Earth in the meantime. General relativity then goes on to tell us that the rate at which a clock ticks also depends on the strength of the gravitational field at the location of the clock. So when your starship falls into a black hole, it takes 200000000 years before it gets really really close to the black hole’s event horizon, measured by the clocks on the ship, while everyone watching all this on the Space Channel at home sees your starship annihilated in a few milliseconds.
General relativity also tells us that gravitation can be described in terms of the curvature of spacetime, and that curvature is influenced by how much matter or energy is nearby. Concisely: spacetime tells matter how to move (because spacetime is curved) and matter tells spacetime how to curve. The curvature also tells clocks how fast to tick. The connection between matter and curvature is given by the Einstein Field Equations, which, in their simplest form (ignoring dark energy) are
It really does look simple, doesn’t it? The details: Gμν is the Einstein tensor, which is derived (by a commodius vicus of recirculation, as James Joyce put it in Finnegans Wake, in a slightly different context) from the Riemann curvature tensor, Tμν is the stress-energy tensor, which describes the distribution of matter and energy in spacetime, and κ is a constant related to the Newtonian constant of gravitation.
Unfortunately, the Einstein Field Equations are not as easy to solve as they are to write down.
Ok, I was supposed to be talking about a poem and we’ll get back to that. But now you understand general relativity! How cool is that? Worth the digression, surely.
So, The Absence of Zero is interested in the nature of time, which, since 1905, means spacetime. The curvature of spacetime influences the rate at which time passes, and is described by the Riemann curvature tensor. The Riemann curvature tensor for four-dimensional spacetime has 256 components, some of which are zero, and some of which are related to each other in various ways.
The Absence of Zero is made up of 256 pieces, each of which is made up of four 4-line quatrains, so let’s call those 16-line pieces quartets. There are rules that govern the relationships between the 256 quartets, similar to the rules that describe the relationships between the components of the Riemann curvature tensor. Some of those rules are described in a note at the end of the book.
In a way you could say the structure of The Absence of Zero is an homage to general relativity and how it shatters old ideas of the way time works. The only problem with this is that general relativity doesn’t take into account quantum mechanics, so it can’t be a complete description of the world, the universe, whatever. And The Absence of Zero has more than 256 parts, as well as incorporating randomness, reflecting the quantum nature of the universe. But let’s not get into that here. But let me just say the word “interruption…”
B*H: What do the textual echoes, the repeated lines and phrases, say about the texture of time and memory?
RK: Two things, essentially: that memory isn’t linear or sequential or even coherent, and that (perhaps as a consequence) time as we experience it isn’t either.
(Something I thought about but didn’t do much of in The Absence of Zero was to make the repetitions inexact, reflecting the inaccuracy of memory. This is something I’m playing with in some things I’m currently working on.)
B*H: Time and the weather are often coupled in this work. How do they resonate for you?
RK: The time and weather markings in The Absence of Zero probably have their origin in Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets, where variations on the line “Dear Margie, hello. It is 5:15 am” recur. At the time I was writing the notebook precursors of The Absence of Zero, I had an app on my phone which gave me the weather forecast for the next few hours, always using the same few phrases (“overcast for the hour” etc) and I would just make note of that, along with the date and time, as I wrote. It became a way of saying, here are all these ideas, all this abstract shit, all these broken memories, but at the same time, right here and right now, “3:09 pm. Overcast for the hour and snow until tomorrow morning.” So: a way of grounding the poem in the moment and place of writing. Like the huge old maple tree on the street over from mine which I can see from my writing desk, which appears and reappears in the poem.
B*H: Do you see the poetry itself as a means to alter our experience of time? Thinking here about something Gail Scott writes in Permanent Revolution, that is, “The technique of art is to make objects unfamiliar, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”
RK: Definitely. Any reader who does more than glance at The Absence of Zero will notice that it’s not really a “book of poems:” if you try to read just one or three or four of the quartets you’ll likely come away more or less baffled. It’s only when you read for a lengthy stretch (at least one or two of the 16 sections at a time) that you start to get a feel for the long, slow rhythms of the poem. And when I read from it publicly (for example, here) I don’t read the quartet “titles” (the tensor component indices) which also helps to emphasizes slow the rhythm of repetition. In a way The Absence of Zero is a complete contrary to the short-attention-span instant-solution twittering world we are surrounded by. Dale Smith has used the phrase “Slow Poetry” and I think that’s a good description of The Absence of Zero (though I think he might mean something slightly different by that than I do here.) It’s very much a “long now” piece.
(I’d like to say I was inspired by John Cage’s musical piece Organ2/ASLSP (“As Slow As Possible”) which is currently being performed in Halberstadt, Germany. The performance began on September 5, 2001 and will finish on September 5, 2640. But Cage’s piece is a very different thing.)
B*H: This Absence of Zero is skeptical about agency in memory. There are these recurring concepts like, “memories rehearsed and mistaken,” or “canonical memories,” those things we take from the past and re-live or thoughtlessly incorporate. Do we have freedom of memory?
RK: I’m not sure what “freedom of memory” is. Can we choose what to remember or forget? I don’t think so. Some things we’d much rather forget keep coming back. Some things we’d very much like to remember fade away. And memory certainly isn’t reliable: what I remember of an event in which we both participated may be quite different from what you remember. Worse, (or sometimes, better,) what I remember of some event today may be quite different from what I will remember in a year or once remembered five years ago. And some memories (accurate or not) are rehearsed, endlessly recounted, and become canonical: there are the stories we all tell, again and again…
B*H: Is there power in forgetting?
RK: It depends on who is forgetting what. If we’re talking about society, there’s no doubt that those with power (those in power) chose to forget those without power, which just consolidates the power structures of the status quo. And sometimes we (chose to) forget that we’ve forgotten. A horrifying example of this occurs in the recently discovered unmarked graves of unnamed indigenous children at the sites of the residential schools many powers in Canada would have very much liked to forget. But the physical evidence of human action doesn’t know about forgetting.
On a personal level I might very much want to forget some incident in my past, and actually do so. If you confront me with your (different) memory of my actions (which I’ve forgotten) I might well deny that any such thing happened. Depending on the power relations between us and the nature of those past/forgotten actions that can play out in different ways.
I’m not sure that the power in either the personal or societal cases is in the forgetting though: it’s more like power makes use of forgetting.
And then there’s the psychoanalytic/psychotherapeutic dogma that repressed (is that the same as forgotten?) memories will inevitably resurface in altered form: the root of PTSD and other things. In that sense there’s no power in forgetting: rather, the forgotten has the power.
B*H: Is forgetting akin to loss?
Akin, certainly, but not the same. You have to remember what you had in order to know you’ve lost it. But there’s a way memory, even if it becomes inaccessible, isn’t really lost, but becomes part of the context or background of thought, an “unthought known,” as Christopher Bollas puts it.
One of the recurring quatrains in The Absence of Zero (which first occurs in full at 0.1.2.0) is
Perhaps forgetting is pure unknowing possible
understanding something of it as it comes apart.
No depth, no shadows. Navigate
clock time in silence / no return / one way
Perhaps that’s another way of answering this question, if indirectly.
B*H: What were you reading while writing The Absence of Zero?
The Absence of Zero was written between October 2013 and April 2020. I read an awful lot in that time! If I tell you that among the many books I read in those years were Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and its sequels, or that I read or reread most of Samuel R Delany’s books, or Virginia Woolf’s, that won’t shed much light on The Absence of Zero. And if I tell you I also reread a lot of Samuel Beckett that won’t be a surprise at all.
But among the other things I read that were relevant to writing the poem were St Augustine’s Confessions and some commentaries on that, in particular Rowan Williams’ On Augustine and Jean-François Lyotard’s The Confession of Augustine; the Middle English mystic text The Cloud of Unknowing and a bunch of things on Christian mystics; The Diamond Sutra and a lot of Buddhist commentary; Helen Gardner’s The Composition of the Four Quartets and the critical apparatus in Christopher Ricks and James McCue’s two-volume Poems of T.S. Eliot; a lot of Freud and some Nietzsche; Christopher Bollas’ The Shadow of the Object; John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) and Silence: Lectures and Writings, as well as James Pritchett’s The Music of John Cage; Gertrude Stein’s essay “Composition as Explanation” and other things; Marianne Hirsch’s The Generation of Postmemory and Hadas Wiseman and Jacques Barber’s Echoes of the Trauma and a bunch of papers on intergenerational transmission of trauma; Robert Storr’s essay on Gerhardt Richter’s six Cage paintings, as well as the essays in Zufall: The Cologne Cathedral Window and 4900 Colours and some of Richter’s own essays on the role of chance in his painting; Eihei Dogen’s amazing essay “Being-Time” (written in 1240!); some things by Georges Didi-Huberman; W.S. Merwin’s The Vixen and various commentaries on the Wild Fox koan; Moyra Davey’s “Notes on Photography and Accident” and others; Fred Moten’s Black and Blur and Nathaniel Mackey’s essay “Palimpsestic Stagger;” Jacques Roubaud’s The Loop; and I don’t know how many papers on arXiv.org on black hole entropy and the holographic principle and suchlike…
Looking at the previous paragraph I’m noticing there isn’t a lot of poetry there, though I was certainly reading a lot of it in those years, and still do. But the poetry I was reading then, even things I keep going back to (like John Ashbery or Paul Celan or Geoffrey Hill or Liz Howard or Erín Moure or Nathaniel Mackey or Rilke or Lisa Robertson or Gary Snyder, just scanning my 20th century poetry shelves to see what lights up, in alphabetical order) kind of felt outside the frame of The Absence of Zero, if that makes sense.
B*H: Were you influenced by other writers working in the long poem tradition?
RK: The long poem tradition is vast; even narrowing it down to the Canadian long poem tradition, there are a awful lot of examples. Look at the classic Canadian long poem anthologies, Michael Ondaatje’s in 1979, and Sharon Thesen’s in 1992 and 2001, not to mention the many instances of the form since 2001. In 2011 rob mclennan proposed a newer long poem anthology, and to be honest, when I look at his draft table of contents there are a fair number of names I don’t recognize. And that was 10 years ago! A lot has been written since.
Of course there are different kinds of long poem, narrative, serial, documentary, etc. and then there’s the question of what constitutes a “long” poem in the first place. The Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize contest has an upper limit of 720 lines. I don’t tend to enter contests anyway but even the shortest long poem I’ve written is longer than that… And what about thematic or “project” books, of which there are hundreds: are those “collections” or can we call them “long poems?”
But you didn’t ask me about the history or taxonomy of the long poem: you asked if it or what in it influenced me. I’ve never been interested in the documentary long poem tradition, for instance. But when I started writing what became The Absence of Zero I was definitely thinking of a long serial poem, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts was foremost in my mind, along with Robert Duncan’s “Passages” and “Structure of Rime,” and Robin Blaser’s work. (I didn’t have quite the megalomania to attempt something like Ezra Pound’s Cantos, though it’s certainly been an influence.) But the formal constraints that took over as I went on resulted in something quite different than any long poem I’ve seen. Maybe in a way the influence of the long poem tradition (other than just the idea of length or duration) fell away as I wrote.
B*H: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
Well, if I could wrap that up in a few words I wouldn’t have needed to write 450 or so pages!
But I hope that readers are drawn in by the long slow rhythms and repetitions of the book, and that those continue to echo in their minds after they’ve read, and, maybe, that The Absence of Zero becomes a book that people return to repeatedly over time.
R. Kolewe was born in Montreal and lives in Toronto. Educated in physics and engineering at the University of Toronto, he pursued a successful career in the software industry for many years. He now lives in Toronto and writes full time. His work has appeared online at ditch, e-ratio, The Puritan, and (parenthetical), as well as in the Literary Review of Canada and PRISM International. He is the author of two previous poetry collections, including Afterletters (Book*hug Press, 2014) and Inspecting Nostalgia (2017).