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Alice Fulton's poetry stands as one of the most representative examples of intellectual exchange between contemporary experimental poetics and modern science — as represented by quantum physics, chaos theory and complexity theory.  Fulton's most compelling experimentalism appears in Sensual Math, and it is encapsulated in the structural and thematic postulates of Fulton's fractal poetics.  Fulton constructs her poems as chaotic systems, with characteristic features such as hidden order (a pattern so complex and intricate that is perceived as disorder), non-linearity, constrained randomness (random behavior within set boundaries), and self-similarity (an organizational principle based on the repetition of a pattern at varying scales).  Fractals, geometric patterns that repeat identically at various scales, are structural devices crucial to Fulton's experimentation with chaos theory.  Such experimentation renders a particular feminist discourse that pays special attention to the space in which subservience operates.  

Complexity theory and Darwinism invest Fulton's poetry of a cogent macrocosmic dimension that constitutes what I call Fulton's poetry of emergence, which examines individual and collective emotions (such as detachment and compassion), and behavioral patterns (such as cruelty) from the perspective of emergence and emergent patterns.  Emergent patterns — patterns that emerge in complex systems or systems constituted by multiple interconnected parts — and other paradigms of complexity theory allow Fulton to develop a poetics aimed to engage us in a consciousness-raising act of poetry opposed to that of a narcissistic poetry only concerned with the self. 


Phenomenological hermeneutics — with its de-centering of the human subject from its dominant position and subsequent dialogue with the material world — saw its counterpart in Science with the advent of quantum physics theories — Einstein's theory of relativity, Bohr's theory of complementarity and quantum theory, and Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.  As critic Steven Carter indicates, these concepts describe "a system or systems of mutually interdependent and irreconcilable relations.  As a scientific way of knowing, [they deny] strictly classical notions of contradiction, either/or, and binary (or digital) oppositions,"[1] and challenge the classical scientific thinking of Isaac Newton and others that encompasses a complete, stable world order in which there can be predictions of phenomena.  Quantum theories pose an additional operational concern: representation.  "What we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning," asserted Heisenberg almost seven decades ago.  If we, the observers, are an integral part of the system we are analyzing and attempting to describe, can we accurately represent a reality beyond the extent of our descriptive tools?[2]  Heisenberg's observation and quantum physics confront the contradictions of the object/subject or the either/or ethical structure of Western consciousness, prefigure postmodern metaphysics and engage Science and the Humanities in a vital dialogue; metaphor and other aspects of literary expression — structure, form, rhythm, syntax, voice — become relevant and provide the means for oral and written representation of a world now ruled by blurred boundaries and interconnectivity.  Alice Fulton is an exceptionally sophisticated practitioner of such dialogue; her poetry is deeply engaged in conversation with theories, language, and paradigms of modern physics and biology.     Fulton's engagement with Science—which began modestly in Dance Script with Electric Ballerina and Palladium — became particularly compelling in her third collection Powers of Congress, and has continued to develop up to her most recent volumes.  Through an intense experimentation with metaphors and poetic forms deeply influenced by modern science, Fulton has found in the paradigms and diction of quantum mechanics, chaos theory, complexity theory, and Darwinism a new way to revisit classical philosophical controversies and diverse cultural binaries. 

            Fulton's remark that "the search of a style [is] a search for a language that does justice to our knowledge of how the world works" (FFL, 51) represents her own attempt to address language and poetics within the context of quantum physics theories, specifically using core concepts such as uncertainty and complementarity.  "[Q]uantum theories [”] [teach us] that reality consists of a steadily increasing number of parallel universes; that consciousness creates reality; or that the world is twofold, consisting of potentials and actualities" (FFL, 53), she explains.  Early poems such as "Cusp" and "Palladium Process" reflect such a preoccupation, and have been masterfully analyzed by Cristanne Miller and Lynn Keller.  Fulton's search for a poetic style "that does justice to our knowledge of how the world works" and her dialogue with Science continues and culminates in her fractal poetics and poetry of inconvenient knowledge.  Her experiments with poetic gestures based on chaos and complexity theories aim to explore "the field between gibberish and traditional forms" (FFL, 63), or the non-binary, a space that she refers to as the inbetween.  By engaging in a range of "culturally incorrect"[3] positions Fulton's poetry attempts to unsettle the existing culture values and to provide an alternative to current tendencies in contemporary poetry, which appear to be dominated by the personal and "[e]xperiences [that do] not levitate into illuminations above and beyond the slice-of-life." (FFL, 282).  As I will argue here, Fulton's fractal poetics represents an intense formal exploration and experimentation deeply influenced by chaos theory and fractal geometry.  Fulton's fractal poetics develops in later poems as a social poetics that I have termed poetics of emergence, which is based on theses and paradigms of chaos theory and, more specifically, complexity theory.

            And what are these theories?  Chaos theory encompasses the study of chaotic phenomena and chaotic systems, which — like patterns of vegetation in a jungle or the turbulences of the weather — lack an apparent order yet contain a deep logical pattern.  And what constitutes a chaotic system?  Any physical, abstract, or tangible system characterized by four fundamental tendencies: hidden order (a pattern so complex and intricate that it is perceived as disorder), non-linearity, constrained randomness (random behavior within set boundaries), and self-similarity — an organizational principle based on the repetition of a pattern at varying scales.  Fractal geometry, to which the science of chaos is intimately related, is concerned with fractals, geometric patterns that repeat identically at various scales.  Fractals are structural arrangements central to Alice Fulton's use of chaos theory in her poetics.  She explains:

 Mandelbrot's discoveries could change the way we look at the world, and, by extension, the way we look at poetry.  Certainly the discovery of order within the turbulent forms of nature should encourage us to search for patterns within the turbulent forms of art.  Fractal form may allow a more precise measure of those poetic shapes that aren't governed by the strategies of prosody (FFL, 57).


Fulton encourages poets and readers of poetry "to develop our ability to recognize subtle, hidden, and original patterns as well as the time-honored (and more obvious) metrical orders of prosody" (FFL, 57).  She envisions a poetry that "could use the irregular yet beautifully structured forms of nature as analogues," (FFL, 58) and names it fractal poetry.  The collection Powers of Congress (1990) is Fulton's first attempt at experimenting with the new poetics, a trend refined in Sensual Math (1995) — a collection that contains her most representative poems  — and in Felt (2001).

            "Disorder Is A Measure of Warmth," (PC, 5) stands as an early example of Fulton's fractal poetics.  The poem considers order and disorder from the perspective of modern science — that is, as variables that determine the state of matter and trigger self-organizing processes — and of the constructed binary.  In the first three stanzas, the speaker witnesses the crystallization of liquid water into "frost [crystal] forms" as it is happening on a window; it is cold outside, a fact that correlates with the influence of temperature in the degree of order/disorder (entropy) and works in connotation with the poem's title:

                                    In the window, frost forms cradles

                                                            more fail-safe than the beams

                                                of string kids knit

                                    between their fingers.

                                    Listening deeply, we might fancy

                                                            infinitesimal clicks

                                                as each tailored wafer builds

                                                                        its strict array[.]


Crystals in nature represent the lowest degree of disorder and occur at very low temperatures; their structural order, perfection, and strictness, engage the speaker in a thought sequence that penetrates the human sphere.  Thus, in the fourth stanza the speaker, in considering the trope of perfection, sees as "[n]o wonder" that "hundreds / named their daughters Krystal / after a goblet / of blond starlet // on TV." (ll. 13-7).  Order and perfection are then represented in stanzas 7 thru 9 by the eighties' popular soap opera "Dynasty," an embodiment of patriarchal, capitalist social dynamics, "rote gamut of affairs, / formulaic chablis evening / clothes" (ll. 33-4) that the speaker equates to "pleasing" "snowflakes or crystals: // ignorant things / that succeed in being / gorgeous without needing to be / alive" (ll. 36-40), thus returning to the lifeless, cold perfection embodied, at the beginning of the poem, by frost in the window.

            "Disorder Is A Measure of Warmth" shows tendencies of chaotic systems and is organized in a fractal fashion.  Recall that chaotic systems are characterized by four fundamental tendencies: concealed order, non-linearity, constrained randomness, and self-similarity.  All of these characteristics are present in "Disorder Is A Measure of Warmth."  For the sake of brevity, take for example the principle of concealed order and its dual aspect — disorder on the most obvious, superficial level, caused by the degree of complexity of the order actually present on a deeper level.  Such an order/disorder duality is illustrated in "Disorder Is A Measure of Warmth." On the surface level, there is an appearance of incoherence created by the mixture of tones, consisting of biblical quotes, reflections on natural and social processes, scientific language, and references to both popular culture and science.  On a deeper level, however, there is a thematic coherence provided by the speaker's point of view, through which all of the elements of the poem, whatever disparate they may seem, work synchronically and synergistically to present the speaker's view on conventions, patriarchy, the construction of gender and of gender roles, perfection, and the degree of dysfunction behind an apparent order.  Another tendency, for example, non-linearity is represented in the poem on several levels; on that of the process of crystallization, as "infinitesimal clicks" that cannot be perceived, just "fancied" materialize in snowflakes and snow, or on that of the plot, as an event that appears to be quite insignificant — frost in the window — prompts the speaker into an epistemic process that involves physics, chemistry, biology, religion, and social-politics.

            Fulton does not restrict fractal poetics to the use of formal poetic devices.  As mentioned previously, she intends it as a means to engage both the poet and the reader of poetry into an intellectual immersion beyond the obvious; take for instance, the culturally or socially neglected  — the disenfranchised.  "Fractal poetics is composed of the disenfranchised details, the dark matter of Tradition:  its blind spots, recondite spaces, and recursive fields" (FFL, 69), she explains. The poem "The Lines Are Wound on Wooden Bobbins, Formerly Bones" (SM, 82) — a reflection on patriarchy and on women's role in patriarchy — constitutes a representative example of Fulton's immersion beyond the obvious and encapsulates the concern for the overlooked detail, the background, and all that is overpowered, recessive.  The poem is organized as a chaotic system.  Its thematic preoccupation is elaborated through three movements.  In the first movement (stanzas one through four) women and patriarchy are framed by myth.  "A daughter" (the nymph Daphne) "shies back" and is confined into being a tree "in order to let shine" (in order to let Apollo shine) so that the "raised motif" — the patriarchal powers such as Daphne's father Peneus, "suns" as Apollo, "sperm" — can exist.  In the second movement (stanzas five thru eight) the speaker compares such feminine background roles to loops in lace making, those "brides' / or pearl-ties' // airy flesh of net, wayward electrons / [that] spin // [”] through the opaque = = the dense" (ll. 9-15).  As Daphne receded to let Apollo shine, the loops "with their absent grace" recede into a negative space, an "airy flesh of net," thus enhancing the opaque pattern, which we see instantly as we contemplate a piece of lace.  In the last movement (stanzas nine thru eleven), Daphne and the bride loop are equated to a bride, conceptualized as the feminine background figure that sustains "the forth ground" of patriarchy and patrilineage  "that's lace.  She is to be that / yin of linen // that dissolves / under vision's dominion = = be the ground // of silk that's burned away with = = / the bride" (ll. 17-22). 

            Despite the fact that the bride mark and the position of women in patriarchy are deferential and take a background space, such position constitutes an "impossible-to-ignore" presence, as the poem's development and critic Lynn Keller suggest.[4]  Chaos theory and fractal poetics allow Fulton to analyze the complexity of social structures and cultural constructions through new perspectives in poetic form.  "When structure is imbued with substance, when form carries freight, the poem need not resort to polemical narrative or didactic anecdote as a means of airing its engagements," asserts Fulton (FFL, 69).  As an example, take "The Lines Are Wound on Wooden Bobbins, Formerly Bones."  

Fulton's fractal poetics reveals its grand cosmic dimension within the context of complexity theory.  As critic Katherine Hayles writes, "[c]omplexity theory focuses on self-organizing processes in the context of evolutionary change in a variety of media, natural and artificial."[5] Complexity theory provides the structural and conceptual bases for Fulton's poetical experimentation and her poetry of inconvenient knowledge, a "poetry of mindfulness rather than compliance: a poetry with the strength to be culturally incorrect" (FFL, 285).

            Complexity theory — closely related to chaos theory — looks at how complex systems can generate simple outcomes.  Complex systems are composed of a large number of individual units interacting intensely with each other and generating, as a result, a discrete outcome.  Classical examples of complex systems are living organisms and cities.  The functional abilities of either a person or a city cannot be inferred from examination of a single cell or citizen; the way in which a person or a city functions is different from that of any of their components and reflects in both cases an emergent property of the system — complex and on a large scale.  Cities or individuals can be considered, therefore, emergent phenomena.  Emergent phenomena exhibit characteristic features (intrinsic mechanisms, perpetual novelty, etc. regularity, and hierarchical organization), which can be identified in several of Fulton's latest poems — which I have framed within what I call Fulton's poetry of emergence.  An early example is "The Fractal Lanes" (PC, 23), where the central principle of self-organization is the unseen, those elements that are not apparent.  The poem also considers how the elements we choose to examine constitute and constrain our beliefs — as embodied in and illustrated by the acrostic running down the left-hand side ("BOWLING DEVELOPS THE RIGHT ARM").  In addition to presenting features of chaotic systems, the poem generates an emergent pattern through which its thematic preoccupation — systems of beliefs— is dissected, in turn, as an emergent phenomenon. 

            Inclusiveness and engagement — concepts intimately related to Fulton's betweenness — are thematic preoccupations in "My Last T.V. Campaign," an extended sequence in Sensual Math.  In the poem's first section "The Profit in the Sell" (SM, 23), Fulton combines features of emergent phenomena, strategies of complex adaptative systems, and Darwin's theory of evolution to further examine universal engagement, the boundaries of the self, and otherness.  She does it by exploiting the biological example of the bee orchid's competitive reproductive strategy — a "cross-dresser" orchid that resembles a female bee.

            Involvement or immersion — a concept that Fulton equates to an expansion and melting of the self toward and with others — is a central preoccupation in "Fair Use" (F, 17).    Structural or functional units of complex systems are interrelated, a paradigm that the speaker conveys by stating, in the poem's first movement, that "what happens to others happens to me. / What joy, what sad" (ll. 13-4), which finds a metaphor in the making of felt, "formed by pressing / fibers till they can't be wrenched apart" (ll. 15-6).  In the second movement (stanzas six thru eleven), the speaker is confronted with the consequences of such interconnectivity.  Since "what happens to others happens to [the speaker]," he or she is irrevocably fated to feel all of the emotions, "joy" or "sad"  "[f]rom then till never = = time, space, gravity / felted to a single entity" (ll. 30-1).  "Is that fair use [of oneself], to find / the intergown of difference / severing self from = = nonself = = gone" (ll. 19-21)?  What good is there in suffering for others? the speaker seems to ask.

            Along with these stanzas, Fulton introduces an element to which she devotes several of the collection's poems — the inconvenient reality.  "By 'inconvenient' I mean to suggest the sort of knowledge that asks us to change our lives.  Of course, changing comfortable habits is hard,"[6] she explains.  Empathy, as she states, can be inconvenient.  Emergence allows Fulton to conceptualize compassion as a material interaction between units of the system rather than as an intangible feeling — or, at least, as a combination of both.  Such an emphasis reinforces compassion's inevitable essence and creates tension between the speaker's own rationalization and her or his emotions — the speaker would prefer detachment, to "get [everybody's] hearts out of [the speaker's]" (l. 54).  "Fair Use" illustrates the tragic aspects of human pathos, and the irresolvable conflict mind/body and self/other.  Such thematic concerns are further examined in the poem "Split the Lark", [7] which presents cruelty as an emergent property of the natural world.  Fulton, in framing "inconvenient truths" and "inconvenient knowledge" within the dynamics of complex systems, invites the reader to participate in an analysis of the complexity of natural behaviors under the perspective of emergence.  Fulton's poetical ethics is grounded in her deep knowledge of material natural and social systems, and in her cogent translocation of a language, thought process, and paradigms initially designed to answer mathematical and computational technical questions into the natural and human spheres.




[1].  Steve Carter, Bearing Across: Studies in Science and Literature, Burt Kimmelman, ed. (Lanham MD: International Scholars Publication, 2002), 75.

[2].   Niels Bohr provided a negative answer to this question: "We must be clear that, when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.  The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections."  As quoted in Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1972), 41.

[3].  Echoing Elias Canetti's demands for a poet, Fulton proposes "a poetry with the strength of being culturally incorrect [”] or of writing against the prevailing grain, against cultural correctness."  In FFL, 285-6.

[4].  Keller, " The 'Then Some Inbetween': Alice Fulton's Feminist Experimentalism", 326.

[5].   Hayles, "Enlightened Chaos," in Disrupted Patterns.  Theodore E. D. Braun & John A. McCarthy, Eds.  Atlanta GA: Rodopi, 2000, 1-5.

[6].  The excerpt is from Elizabeth A. Frost and Cynthia Hogue's recent edition of the original interview conducted by Cristanne Miller published in Contemporary Literature 38.4 (1997): 585-615.  See Elizabeth A. Frost & Cynthia Hogue  (eds.), "Alice Fulton" in Innovative Women Poets (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006), 134.

[7].  Split the Lark — and you'll find the Music — / Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled — / Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning / Saved for you Ear when Lutes be old. // Loose the Flood — you shall find it patent — /  Gush after Gush, reserved for you — Scarlet Experiment! Sceptic Thomas! / Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?, Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, Thomas H. Johnson (ed.) (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1960), 412.