Amy Quan Barry's "If dy/dx=(〖4x〗^3+ x^2-12)/√(2x^2-9), Then"

Math and poetry aren’t commonly found together in the wild. Though I’m sure some mathematicians wax poetic about perfect proofs. And formal poets certainly count syllables. But how many poems do you know that include mathematical equations? And differential equations at that? What, if anything, do math and poetry have in common? Can they intersect meaningfully?

Well, the answer to that is yes, if you read Amy Quan Barry. Barry is the author of four books of poetry and one novel, and she teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She calls herself “the kind of person who’s really interested in making connections,” and this, among other things, is what her work does—makes striking connections between disparate subjects. This—not incidentally--is just what good metaphor does, too: brings together two unlike things in a way that creates a flash of insight, a new neuronal pathway in our brains.

This poem I’m about to read has a mathematical formula in the title, which makes it a little cumbersome to read out loud--not to mention to try to reproduce here in this blog! So, bear with my representation here of the equation. Here’s “If 'dee-why dee-ex = 4 ex cubed plus ex squared minus twelve all over the square root of two ex squared minus nine,' Then,” by Amy Quan Barry.

If dy/dx  =  (〖4x〗^3+ x^2-12)/√(2x^2-9), Then
you are standing at the ocean,
in the moon’s empirical light
each mercurial wave
like a parabola shifting on its axis,
the sea’s dunes differentiated & graphed
If this, then that. The poet
laughs. She wants to lie
in her own equation, the point slope
like a woman whispering stay me
with flagons. What is it to know the absolute value
of negative grace, to calculate
how the heart becomes the empty set
unintersectable, the first & the last?
But enough.
You are standing on the shore,
the parameters like wooden stakes.
Let x be the moon like a notary.
Let y be all things left unsaid.
Let the constant be the gold earth
waiting to envelop what remains,
the sieves of the lungs like two cones.

You can find Amy Quan Barry’s poem, “If dy/dx  =  (〖4x〗^3+ x^2-12)/√(2x^2-9), Then” in the May 29, 2000, edition of The New Yorker