Pushcart 2014: Timothy Donnelly, “The Earth Itself” (Poetry) from Poetry Northwest, Spring/Summer 2012

Turris Babel

Turris Babel

To quantify the foolishness of the already long since failed
construction project, the famous German polymath
undertook to calculate the precise number of bricks
the Tower of Babel would have required had it ever been
finished. The figure he came up with ran an impressive
eighteen digits in length, climbing all the way up
to that rarely occupied hundred-quadrillionths place.
Looking at it now, between loads of laundry, the figure
calls to mind an American telephone number…

I’d never heard of Athanasius Kircher before reading this poem (it’s available online). He was indeed a famous German polymath of the 17th century, a Jesuit priest whose studies spanned the arts and sciences, from magnetism to Zen philosophy to acoustics to Egyptology to music to, yes, the physics of the Tower of Babel. But this piece is a poem, not an encyclopedia article.

I was struck by the rhythm as I read the poem out loud: no matter how I tried to read in lines, or sentences, I ended up reading in phrases, phrases of different meters strung together. The iambic tetrameter and kin stuck out the most – “To quantify the foolishness… undertook to calculate…The figure he came up with ran… I feel a little lost / through the hypnosis of those zeroes, but I still pick up / the phone and dial …” I felt a little lost by the hypnosis of that excerpt, but except for that last one, these are interrupted enough to keep it from becoming sing-songy. I wonder if that’s what’s happening here: a Tower of Babel of phrases, in different meters, laid in neat pairs of rows/lines.

Maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe it’s an intersection of the extraordinary and the mundane: the Tower of Babel, and the laundry. Physics, and a phone number. The World is Bound with Secret Knots (one of Kirchner’s studies of magnetism).

The last couplet, fulfilling the promise of the title, leads to an entirely new line of thought; it’s quite remarkable, though I may be the only person on earth who hasn’t heard this one before. No, I won’t quote it here; the poem’s out there; it’s short, it’s accessible. Go read it. And when you get to the last line, remember, I told you so.