Cubist Grammar and the Ambiguity of Pi: Charles Hartman’s “Tambourine”

One spring evening many years ago I stood in the balcony in a bar in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, waiting for the next act in the Seattle Improvised Music Festival to begin. Two percussionists laid brass gamelan keys, blocks of wood, glass bottles, a metal sheet and assorted other objects on the floor next to an antique washing machine. This was a large enamel tub with a spindle in the center driven by an electric motor. Jutting out from the top of the spindle was a short wooden arm, to the end of which a piece of string was attached, and at the end of the string was a small hard rubber ball. As the spindle turned the arm the string yanked the ball around, and the ball bounced against the deeply resonant enamel walls of the tub. The turning of the spindle and the shape of the tub gave the sound its regularity, its pattern, while the play of the string and the bounciness of the ball gave it its random quality. It was never quite clear from moment to moment if the machine would keep the beat or change it, but it always seemed to return to some fundamental ur-rhythm, not an actual rhythm but a potential for many rhythms. The musicians improvised with this lunatic metronome, using mallets on the things they had laid out next to it. The biggest challenge they faced was not to fall into any set rhythm, but instead to respect the irregularities of their guiding instrument—to listen carefully, not to let their playing become stereotyped, but constantly to hover around the edges of rhythm, maintaining the tension between the ear’s desire for pattern and the arbitrary fluctuations of the apparatus. It was one of the most lucid demonstrations I have ever witnessed of that basic tension in all art, between the desire for order and the demands of the contingent, whether in the world at large or in the materiality of its medium.

It was also funny, and exhilarating. In that respect it reminded me of watching concert footage of Thelonious Monk. The camera hovered over his right shoulder, his sweaty forehead a kind of looming outcrop in the upper left of the screen, his two hands hovering over the keys like hummingbirds. There are moments in between the notes where you see him thinking with his hands, wondering where they will fall next, striving against time and predictability, composing in the split second from one note to the next. Those two percussionists had something of that same intensity, only in their case their collaborator was this machine they had invented for generating order within disorder, disorder within order.

Arguably, achieving and maintaining this tension is the central aesthetic demand in all constraint-driven writing.1 The author surrenders some degree of control to an external system, and strives to produce within the constraints of that arbitrary system sentences that are in some sense “meaningful.” The arbitrary constraint, like the washing machine, cuts across and disrupts habitual patterns of thought, conventional ways of creating meaning, while the author and/or reader works to make or discover some sort of intelligibility within the field of the system’s potential output. Some types of constraint, such as most chance operations, place a relatively large part of the onus of this discovery on the reader; others, as with many arbitrary constraints devised by the author, leave a great deal of responsibility for constructing meaning in the hands of the author.

In “Tambourine,” Charles Hartman’s 34-page pi mnemonic, this balancing act is impressively sustained. A pi mnemonic is a text whose successive words have the number of letters indicated by each successive digit of pi. Thus, the first word has three letters, the next word has one, the next four, and so on. Traditionally used to help students and mathematicians remember the digits of pi, or simply as a linguistic-mathematical diversion, in Hartman’s piece the form becomes the occasion for a sustained and self-reflexive meditation on identity, the self’s relation to the world, and on the form of the poem itself. The piece comprises 2149 words, or 2149 digits of pi, making it one of the longest pi mnemonics written in English, although at this length the term “mnemonic” is clearly inappropriate.2

Zeros pose a special challenge for the composer of pi mnemonics. Hartman chooses to let zeros mark the end of stanzas, which also comprise complete sentences; multiple zeros mark off sections. Unlike many pi mnemonics composed as memory aids or simply for fun, “Tambourine” does not use words longer than nine letters to represent multiple successive digits. Each word stands for one digit only. And, in the words of the Note accompanying the poem, “line breaks are free, but each one entails an additional indent from the left margin” (107).

The poem describes a journey by foot around the Greek island Aegina. This recalls the function of pi in determining circumference, while immediately troubling that association: as the poem makes clear, this perimeter is anything but regular or smooth. Instead, it has the fractal jaggedness of all real objects, a recursive squiggle. A single stone’s as rough as the outline of the island. As the poem says: “Tumult sieges each boulder.” Already, as later stanzas will make clear, the poem here is also recalling the irregularity—which is to say, the infinity—of pi itself, while suggesting the impossibility of determining the exact boundaries—the definition—of anything, whether island or self.

As the speaker makes his way around the island, he begins to meditate on journeys, place, self, change. “Buggerall stops still,” he declares, and, “No rockdove says I.” Time imposes its own irregularity, and nothing in this landscape is troubled by the need to measure, name, define itself. This leads soon to the stanza around which the poem’s later meditations will coalesce:

The variable I
          rehearses values
                    that like to approach constant X

The mathematical signifier X becomes a key metaphor for this notional identity, the “constant” that the “variable I” approaches, in the strictly mathematical sense, asymptotically, nearing it but never quite arriving.

A word here about algebra.3 In ordinary mathematical notation, “x” is typically not a constant, but a variable. Constants are conventionally represented by letters early in the alphabet. At first glance it appears that the poem misuses the convention, and in so doing undercuts a central theme, the contingency of identity, suggesting that, like an ordinary “x,” identity can be solved for. But in fact this reversal is deliberate. As the poem repeatedly stresses, our sense of ourselves as knowable is, at best, problematic:

Each figure trains waves to a new hypnotic ease I have
          copied painfully
                    while I confirmed
                              when I seize X
                                        X eludes

By calling the “constant” X, the poem incorporates this error at the level of form (a single-character term invoked by the constraint: the next digit was 1), suggesting that it is precisely our (delusional) belief in our ability to know ourselves, and in our constancy, that is the constant. About this Hartman has written:

I was acutely conscious of at least troubling the conventional algebraic understanding of “x”—since … conventional algebraic understandings of variability and certainty have nothing to say directly about the world because they win their meaning by radically abstracting from it—and perhaps further extending that to a reversal, in which the “I” which naively acts as though it were “constant” turns out to be the malleable unknown. Living a life then becomes the process of solving a completely ass-backwards equation—a fair description, if you ask me.

Pi, of course, is an ideal metaphor for this condition of constant unknowability, in both senses: It is a constant, yet it is perpetually unknowable, irregular to infinite decimal points—hence the tradition of which the poem is a part.


If the constraint of finding words of the proper length is the poem’s most salient formal feature, its syntactic ambiguity is perhaps its most pervasive. As complex as the thought is in the poem, it is rarely less than lucid. Yet that lucidity is achieved, paradoxically, by means of a highly compressed style that exploits both the lexical and the syntactic resources of the language in order to proliferate readings, alternative glosses. While the ideas are clear, the sentences frequently require careful parsing.

For example, here is the stanza that immediately follows the “variable I” stanza quoted above:

Character happens while selves attend other urgencies
          and the form that unseen X is
                    intuited from vividly drawn dreams
                              mind projects on the odd daytime seascape
                                        barely noticed produces
                                                  the I Steady Stand
                                                            or phantom I am

The second independent clause, starting with line two, has four, maybe five, possibly even six verbs: is, intuited (unless is intuited is a single complex verb), possibly dreams, certainly projects, noticed and produces. (I exclude stand and am as they are obviously quotations and so not part of the syntax of the main clause.)

The uncertainty is simultaneously amplified and resolved by the line breaks. The break between lines two and three asks to be read as a case of strong enjambment. For one thing, “intuited” is clearly in the passive voice, and the simplest gloss would be “the form from which unseen X is intuited.” This phrase, with “form” as its head, then acts as the subject of the clause, of which “dreams” would be the verb. So far as the end of the third line this all works, but in the fourth line “projects” frustrates this reading, and in the fifth “produces” makes it even less tenable. It turns out that this is a garden-path sentence, and the seeming strong enjambment between lines two and three is actually nothing of the sort. On the contrary, line two is an end-stopped line: “the form that unseen X is” is the subject of the main clause; all of lines three and four, and most of five, comprise a relative clause (itself containing a second relative clause) modifying “form.” Thus: “The form that unseen X is, / [which is] intuited from vividly drawn dreams / [which the] mind projects on the odd daytime seascape, / barely noticed, produces / the ‘I Steady Stand’ / or phantom I am.”

To render this in a less compressed form: “X” is both unseen and a “form” “intuited from … dreams” that “the mind projects” on external reality; this form, “barely noticed, produces” the illusion of selfhood (the self-creating utterances, “I Steady Stand” or “I am”). The self is a product of a complex loop of perception, interaction, and illusion.

(Incidentally, this analysis reveals the central role that punctuation, or more precisely the complete lack of punctuation, plays in the poem. Reading the poem can fruitfully be thought of as trying out different punctuations.)

There are simpler, more local ambiguities here as well. The phrase “barely noticed,” for one thing, can modify either “form” or “X” or “intuited” or “projects” or “seascape” or “produces.” Each reading is consistent with the larger ideas the poem develops, although in different ways. The “phantom I am” is also ambiguous. One reading simply inserts the relative pronoun that English allows the author to elide: “The phantom that I am.” I am a phantom, and that phantom is produced by the projection already described. But the structure of the sentence encourages a different reading. Partly because of the lack of a definite article after “or,” there is a strong suggestion of parallelism that would treat “I am” as a quotation like “I Steady Stand.” Thus, X produces the “phantom ‘I am’”—the phantom utterance, selfhood being, it turns out, not a tangible fact but a matter of assertion, story, myth. This echoes God’s assertion to Moses: I AM THAT I AM, the ultimate declaration of self-sufficient existence—in this case, reduced to a phantom. Both readings, again, accord with the poem’s themes.

If the overall intention is clear from the outset, tracing the precise movement of the thought is possible only after careful parsing. What emerges from this work is the powerful sense of ambiguity, and specifically syntactic ambiguity as opposed to lexical: ambiguity in the structure of the sentence more than in the meaning of individual words.

Once noticed, these various parsings pop out all over. At times they are quite fleeting. Particularly with the shorter stanzas, and shorter lines, a word or a phrase will frequently suggest a particular reading that cannot be sustained beyond the boundary of that line, or a few surrounding lines. Yet the insistent presence of larger structures whose syntax is so dense, so packed, and in places so available to alternate analyses, enhances these smaller ambiguities, so that each line, at times each word, comes to feel as though it is surrounded by a penumbra of possible meanings, rather like those descriptions of subatomic space where particles constantly flare into existence and then out again in an instant.

An example:

          what is up
                    ahead I go
                              bound to

One way to parse this sentence, although its syntax might seem a bit convoluted, would be, “Surely I go bound [inextricably connected] to that which is up ahead.” Destination is destiny; I am in some important way defined by this thing I have not yet arrived at. All well and good, and quite in keeping with some prominent ideas in the poem.

At the same time, the enjambment promotes another gloss, which I might punctuate as follows: “Surely, what is up: ahead I go—bound to…” Or, to flesh it out with a slightly less compact and inverted syntax: “Surely what is up, [what is afoot] [is that] I go ahead; I bound (leap) to … [something, some unnamed, perhaps unnameable and unknowable, destination].” The inversion “ahead I go” promotes this, with its archaic bounciness, its evocation of “away we go,” as does the radical ellipsis of “bound to….” Whereas a more conventional ellipsis might have simply “bound…,” the “to,” aside from permitting the first gloss, dramatically emphasizes the absent (nonexistent?) object, the (fictive?) destination.4

This reading requires some violence to the sentence—some willingness to read against the grain of expectation. But violence is precisely what the enjambment does to the syntax, and in so doing proposes otherwise unlikely readings. In the final analysis it’s not that this particular reading is necessarily accurate, but that the poem courts such readings—multiple possibilities, some quite tentative, even evanescent, but whose cumulative effect is, as I say, to suggest an aura of potential around individual words and lines and around the poem as a whole.

Another example:

So this metrician
          X says I am
                    squares the spheres
                              we hear
                                        every footfall

Clearly “X” in line 2 is an appositive: “So this metrician, X, says …” But the lineation, by enhancing the pause after “metrician,” suggests other possibilities. “So” in the first line might mean “thus”: “Thus this metrician: …” Perhaps “this metrician” is not X, but the poet, who declares that X declares “I am.” Again, this reading may or may not be sustainable beyond this pair of lines. It may not survive the backward glance this gloss of “so” would cast at the preceding stanza(s); it may not mesh with the syntax of the remaining lines in this stanza. But the poem’s openness, its quite deliberate proliferation of possibilities, proposes this reading too, so that it hovers in consciousness around the edges of whatever understanding we finally settle on.

The process is intensified in the following lines. The “spheres / we hear” are of course the ones that famously make music, and X, phantom mathematician as it is, achieves the elusive alchemy of squaring them. It’s a compound predicate with the “and” implied: “X says I am / [and] squares the spheres / we hear.” The following lines are most simply read as implying another elided “which” or “that”: “X says I am / [and] squares the spheres / we hear / [which—that is, the spheres again] every footfall / centers.” Every step we take arranges the cosmos around us.

But then again “we hear / every footfall”: this couplet can constitute its own complete statement, which makes you want to go back and re-hear the spheres as finishing their clause: “X says I am [and] squares the spheres[; meanwhile,] we hear / every footfall.” All well and good, except that “centers” de-centers everything again, throwing us strongly back on the idea that it’s the spheres we hear and not our own footsteps. Only now the line “every footfall” has been loosened from the syntactic grip of the preceding clause, suggesting another case of extreme ellipsis: “X says I am / [and] squares the spheres / we hear[:] / every footfall / centers [us, or the world, or itself].” Or, alternatively, the whole shebang from spheres to footfall is the second elaborate part of a triple compound predicate (“says I am” being the first part), while “centers” is the radically compressed third part: “X says I am / [and] squares the spheres / we hear / [with] every footfall / [and] centers [something or someone].” (“Centers” here is nudged toward intransitivity, its object, like that of “bound to” in the stanza analyzed above, dispensed with but here beginning to feel unnecessary.) Balance, in this version, is achieved through a dramatic asymmetry, as in much Japanese landscape painting.

By now the syntax has shaken so loose that the sentence refuses to be pinned down at all; multiple ways of parsing it all shimmer in consciousness at once, each one valid, at least within the immediate force field of its line or couplet, not contradicting the others but suggesting a slightly different way of thinking. At moments like this the poem achieves a kind of cubist grammar, slowly shifting the angle of perspective around an axis, giving us a series of views, each a few degrees off from those surrounding it.


To what end, then, is all this potential put? If, as Hartman has said, “Proliferation is the poem’s ethos,” what exactly is being proliferated? One answer, as already indicated, is the idea of the self’s uncertainty, the self’s own proliferations. As the speaker moves about the island he constantly returns to this theme.

Once offered
          I is the present I was
                    forever promised
                              island centering summit

On the one hand, the self is a gift, paradoxically received after offering itself. It is in the act of offering oneself—that is, in the act of subordinating oneself to some larger, supra-individual relationship, perhaps (in an extreme version) in self-sacrifice—that the self achieves fulfillment, achieves that plenitude that has always eluded it but which has always been its desire.

On the other hand, self is a story: “‘I’ is the present ‘I was,’” as the lineation suggests. It is a story we tell, now, about what we used to be, or do. It is a fiction, a construct of stories. The next line then would mean that the ontological presence of the self is forever promised (implying, perhaps, that it is never actually attained), while the final line connects this idea metaphorically to the poem’s setting: the self as an island, oriented around this summit of story. This recalls Jung’s image of the ego as an island rising out of the ocean of the unconscious. As for the first line, “offer” is, after all, synonymous in certain contexts with “posit.” One offers proposals, hypotheses, suggestions, that sort of thing—and why shouldn’t the self fall into that conjectural category? Once posited, the self is a story, forever promised. This is entirely consonant with certain key ideas in the poem, not least the idea that “The variable I / rehearses values / that like to approach constant X.”

Identity, then, is a problem, in the mathematical as well as the everyday sense: something to be solved for. What is the solution? Not, as we soon learn, what we think. It’s possible to read the early, “variable I” stanza as hinting that the self errs in identifying too strongly with X, that the “approach” is like that to a mirage. This hint is continued in the next stanza, with its vocabulary of “dreams” and “projection.” X, on this reading, is an illusion. Or at least our belief in our ability to master it through abstract knowledge is. And certainly some later stanzas seem to agree: “when I seize X / X eludes.”

And yet others contradict this straightforward understanding. They suggest that it is equally an error to hang back, to refuse or fail to encounter X:

Possessed of a brainpan
          facing X
                    I blinked
                                    grasping a mischance for it
                                            facing X I forbore
                                                      mymisself and I

Known X
          I imagined
                    would lose vitality

Suppose that this heresy be now finally abandoned
          supposing dinner is frankly more startling after having
                    starved for years a hopeless abnegant quite tightly
                              woven in weblets of self dominion espousing
                                        a by no stretch universal law
                                                            I remember now

I a patchwork from wayonback
          I an epiphenom emergent
                    for the moment
                              compact for the moment am
                                        hard work

Suited labor charms
                    past due

If X cannot be seized, yet it is a “heresy” to forbear, what’s a “patchwork” self to do? The poem finds its answer in “hard work,” which for it is one with “attention.” (In Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody, Hartman defines a poem as “the language of an act of attention.”) It is not a Puritanical hard work—not instrumental, not directed toward some end—but the hard work of complete engagement, joy in exertion, of which a vigorous walk around and over an “island centering summit” is an apt example. This relation to X is neither rejection of an illusion nor mastery through abstract knowledge such as that which mathematics claims to achieve, but instead immersion, absorption, offering.

Steadily since morning creation puts out
          radiance for radiance
                    as someone willingly driven without
                              resentful scruple should expect
                                        whenever X gets mixed into I

This idea of willing surrender is also a theme, cropping up for example in the stanza already quoted that begins, “Once offered / I is the present I was / forever promised.” It appears as well in this early pair of stanzas:

Giving in
          finesses giving up

Electing something devouring
          finesses giving up

And here:

Blood struts lordlier
          I do believe
                    a body given to taking
                              joy where bidden

The whole construction (“given to taking / …where bidden”) is a tangle of reciprocity, of “lordly” self-assertion and submission to something else, some not-self.

In fact attention is its own reward: “Fortunes in delight pervade anyplace sense awakens.” It turns out that when the mind projects its vivid daydreams on the odd seascape, it is not (just) deluding itself.

Seeing invents
          otherwise anywhere
                    is a same nonplace

All this suggests that we are engaged in a complex recursive process of projection and fulfillment; we achieve full selfhood by throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into the world, both imaginatively (through projection) and physically, a process which also fulfills the world.

          mirabile dictu
                    fulfills the peculiar
                              wistful name

If, then, the self achieves fulfillment through this complete absorption in the world, the contradiction (X cannot be known; X must be known) achieves the status of paradox. We see X all around us, and while it may be unattainable, “intuited from” a projection, possibly even an illusion, we are at our best when we surrender to it actively—not, as an earlier stanza has it, “halfwise,” nor trying to “seize” it, but offering and losing and finding ourselves in the work and the “fortunes in delight” that emerge with careful attention to all the places “X saturates”—which is to say all places: “The very searocks exhale X.” Fulfillment lies not in repudiating that which we intuit from our projections, nor fearing to damage it through too close contact (“known X / I imagined / would lose vitality”) but rather through complete immersion. This is the Zen of walking, not of sitting.


The poem performs this attention through its rendering of the island the speaker walks.

Fortunes in delight pervade anyplace sense awakens
                    a guy with an octopus
                              turns seawall
                                        through thorough thwacking

The casual diction (“thwacking,” “a guy with an octopus”) reinforces the sense that “anyplace” is to be taken literally. The example appears serendipitously at precisely the moment that calls for it. And all of the language—the alliteration, the inverted syntax (prepositional phrase intervening between the object, “seawall,” and its complement, “tender”) mirroring the inverted narrative (seawall, not octopus, turned tender), the economy of the single word “example”—evokes those “fortunes in delight” that the poem promises in return for its “act of attention.”

All these ideas—delight in the physical, the contingent (“a guy with an octopus”); the impossibility of ever perfectly measuring or defining self or world; the mind’s need to make sense on its terms of its experience; self as a construct or fiction; the inescapable ambiguity of most propositions—converge in the poem’s reflections on its own composition. Subtly at first, then with growing explicitness and elaboration, the poem comments on its governing constraint. It is aware of itself as performance, aware of the reader’s awareness of its balancing act, that tension between the urge for sense and the arbitrary demands of its method. Sometimes this awareness is implicit, as when registers beautifully clash, calling our attention to the diction and so reminding us of how the words are chosen: “Most theolatry bullshits about X;” “Donkeys / loudly abound.” The poem revels in its own felicity and unexpectedness as in that of the world at large.

This also accounts for a great deal of the moment-by-moment pleasure of reading. Hartman’s control of diction, of register, is breathtaking; reading him is like watching an aerialist perform. His work recalls, more than that of Ferlinghetti himself, Ferlinghetti’s description of the poet: “Constantly risking absurdity / and death / … / the poet like an acrobat / climbs on rime / to a high wire of his own making.” Knowing the constraint that produced “Tambourine” adds to this effect. (Tambourine: a circle that makes music, defined by pi.) As you read you pause periodically and marvel that these words, these lines, these sentences that are so surprisingly apt were all selected according to an arbitrary and inflexible rule, and you wonder how much the author let the meaning be guided by the need to find the words that fit. Here is where that tension between constraint and purpose is most evident.

At other times the poem’s self-awareness is explicit:

Most truth lies
          but in strict rhythm lies
                    accuracy in a way
                              now arbitrary
                                        now direct

Although “rhythm” is not the obvious name for this poem’s method, it serves as metonymy for its primary ordering principle. That principle, the selection of words according to the digits in pi, is both “strict” and “arbitrary,” and, the poem suggests, “direct” as well. In privileging “rhythm” over “truth” the poem echoes its preference for “hard work,” “attention” and “giving in” over the illusory certainties of abstraction: “Impatient / prodigity rounds // Wryly / a fraction escapes.”

Inevitably, the poem recursively includes pi itself as part of its commentary on the impossibility of completeness, of perfect measurement:

          traces out
                    a rambling
                                        territory round

It maps
          this value beginning with
                    three point one four
                              wooing expansion

Measurement—a synecdoche for knowledge—is a trait of hindsight, imperfect and incomplete; the recursivity of rock and island, self and world, poem and pi (or is it pi and poem?) is one flavor of infinity. The coastline proliferates with attention, as does the poem. Here the poem, by way of this metacommentary, salutes its method, a different kind of mapping of pi, a different wooing of expansion.

By the final section the allegiance to method has become even more prominent:

Various ordinary graphemes
          enter a no longer terribly hard formal contract
                    and forthwith unawares
                              the light of naked gratitude
                                        comes dancing


The most satisfied estate of words to find
          takes a pattern from somewhere
                    and assembles windfalls inside
                              since a body has a mind
                                        to indemnify likewise

This stanza describes the poem’s principle of composition (“takes a pattern from somewhere”), its aesthetic (“assembles windfalls”) and its philosophical rationale (“since a body has a mind / to indemnify likewise”), which reverses the traditional hierarchy of mind over body. The contingent and arbitrary—the physical world, the body—comes first, logically and chronologically; the mind is a thing to be indemnified—secured against or compensated for loss or hurt, the inevitable outcome of its insatiable desire for meaning.

The idea of narrative emerges as an especially useful way of thinking about all of this—proliferation, imperfect knowledge, self as construct, ambiguity. Again, the poem performs the ideas that it plays with. They begin early on:

Narrative yearns
          to continue
                    as geography
                              is never done

Fittingly, this stanza is open to multiple parsings. Two can be distinguished by the placement of a single comma: “Narrative yearns to continue, as geography is never done,” or, “Narrative yearns to continue as geography, is never done.” In other words, either, narrative wants to go on indefinitely, just like geography; or, narrative both wants to go on in the form of geography, and is never done. Its very yearning, as the enjambment of the first line hints, is what continues endlessly. The first reading seems more clear; the second requires some fancy footwork, in the phantom punctuation or the mind’s ear, hearing it read—a long break, hanging fire, between “geography” and “is.”

In either case, the issue of closure is raised here in relation to narrative, which later will be associated with identity (“‘I’ is the present ‘I was’”), and serves as yet another version of the poem’s many takes on completeness, knowledge, truth and selfhood.

These versions are, of course, far from definitive or uniform:

Every I
          I imagine
                    and construct
                              in projected sections
                                                            completes itself

It would seem that the poem here declares itself for closure, although “completes” hints at a more sensual or corporeal satiety than “closure,” which also suggests a ban or prohibition. But this stanza is closely embedded with stanzas on the theme of engagement, attention. It immediately follows the one, already quoted, that begins, “Surely / what is up…,” which in both readings developed above (identity is bound to destination, or, the salient fact is the fact of going) reinforces the idea of fulfillment through active engagement, not detached Cartesian knowledge, with which certain critiques have allied the aesthetic of narrative closure. This stanza also precedes another that more overtly develops this same theme of completeness through action:

Becoming what I do
          becoming what
                              becoming harder to locate
                                        justifies this lanky rhumba

The “harder to locate” at first seems difficult to reconcile with “what / sojourns,” until one recalls the poem’s dominant metaphor of pi, the infinite decimal: things that “sojourn” are those that with careful attention reveal endless possibilities, which is to say delight. These things, whether the “orogenies” that make mountains or “a guy with an octopus,” are hard to locate in the sense that they cannot be reduced to simplistic understandings, clichés, simple measurements. One approaches them but never quite reaches them—never exhausts them. The imagined, constructed, projected “I” completes itself actively, in “becoming,” not by drawing a line around itself. “Buggerall stops still.”

In general, though, the reflections on narrative lean toward a more overt critique of closure, particularly as the poem nears its own conclusion:

History derides an ending
          nothing a landscape does insists remotely
                    on ending
                              puzzling what
                                        delights in ending

Here, too, ambiguity is a prominent feature. The final two lines can be glossed either as “[landscapes, by not insisting on endings,] puzzle that which takes delight in ending,” or as “it is puzzling to consider what does, unlike a landscape, take delight in endings.” The second line can be read as a complete independent clause, which could then be glossed more or less as “Landscapes do not insist, not even a little bit”—that is, landscapes simply are; they do not require any particular response or act by those who behold them. The unexpected addition of the prepositional phrase in the next line then does not so much complete as layer over this sentence with a new, closely related but not quite identical one: “Landscapes do not insist, even a little bit, on ending”—on closure, on narrative meaning—which, with hindsight born of enjambment, we can now think of as a synecdoche for “insisting” in the more general sense of the first gloss: narrative closure as the epitome of a certain type (metaphysical? existential? ontological? epistemological?) of “insistence,” while also distinct, a special case. Both meanings hover and hum, like two nearly identical colors placed next to each other.

If we insist on reading the second line as an independent clause, it is possible to hear “on ending” as attaching to the following lines, in the sense of “upon”: “On ending, [it is] puzzling what delights in ending.” Once you get to the end of something (line, song, story, life) you really have to wonder what would take pleasure in such a thing. At the same time, “remotely” of course means something else besides “not even a little bit,” and perhaps the line should be read as saying that landscapes do not insist (on closure or anything else) from a distance, at a remove. When we stand outside them and observe them from afar they don’t do this, which poses at least one general observation and two questions: First, things perceived at a distance, physical or psychological, might demand something of us—but apparently landscapes, at least, do not care whether we respond to that demand. They do not “insist.” Second, can one perceive a “landscape” in any other way than “remotely,” and, if so, do they then insist after all, on endings or anything else, once one’s in them? All this, again, not so much definitive as suggestive: hints and flickers, so that the poem shades off into a shape larger than itself.

1.^ I use the term “constraint-driven” broadly, including the use of chance operations, whether “systematic” (as in the work of Jackson Mac Low) or otherwise; arbitrary constraints devised by the author, as in Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition (translated as A Void by Gilbert Adair), whose only constraint is that the entire novel be written without once using the letter “e”; computer programs like Charles Hartman’s Prose, which combines a rudimentary syntax with a pre-defined lexicon to produce arbitrary sentences or lines; and forms inherited from tradition, as in the present case. This latter category, as Hartman once pointed out to me, really includes all the traditional verse forms, although their familiarity and long standing prevents us from seeing them as essentially arbitrary constraints like the experimental forms espoused, for instance, by the members of OULIPO.
2.^ At the present writing the record for longest pi mnemonic seems to be held by Not a Wake, a collection of short pieces that together are 10,000 words long. Written by Mike Keith, the work is described at
3.^ My thanks to Paul Shannon for explaining the algebraic problems described in this paragraph.
4.^ The sense of openness, of empty space, created by this absent object or destination parallels at once the physical setting of the poem (an island, surrounded by the sea; a mountain surrounded by open air: “Myself looking down this / no kidding / thousand cubits of it”); its visual structure, the indentations and the spaces between stanzas; and its lack of punctuation, which creates both visual and conceptual openness. The negative space created by the indentations even resembles a staircase, mirroring the hillside or—in some cases—even a literal stairway that the speaker climbs.


One thought on “Cubist Grammar and the Ambiguity of Pi: Charles Hartman’s “Tambourine”

  1. Book Reading Man

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