Poet Thylias Moss’ most recent book of poetry, Tokyo Butter, is inspired by her love of Pi. When I asked her if she would talk to me about her work, she replied by sending me Pi figured out to 101,550 decimal places.
I took that as a yes.
From the ancient period until 1873, mathematicians had only successfully calculated Pi (on paper) to 527 digits. Eighty-eight years later, in 1961, computer scientists had only just coaxed computers barely across the 100,000 digit threshold.
Today, trillions of digits are known, but Moss is less interested in how many digits are parsed out than how much of the number still remains unknown—and unending. Pi is both irrational (its decimal sequence never ends, and it never repeats), and transcendental (it’s impossible to ever square a circle using a compass and a ruler). “In Tokyo Butter,” she says, “I don’t mean for any of those poems to end. There is not a beginning or an end. We join things in progress."
Moss is an LSA professor of English and of Art & Design at U-M. She is the author of numerous poems and essays, of seven books of poetry (including the 1998 book Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry), two children’s books, and the widely lauded memoir Tale of a Sky-blue Dress. She is a Pushcart Prize winner, a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and she was named a fellow of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (the so-called “Genius” grant) in 1996.
In her long poem “Deidre: A Search Engine,” which serves as something of a focal point in Tokyo Butter, Moss explores the idea of unending poetry by framing out a poetic space without clear order or sequence. The lines and stanzas are scattered across the page, much like random arrangements of fallen leaves. Readers are invited to collect these images and ideas into pleasing “piles,” so to speak. This technique, which Moss calls Limited Fork Poetics, takes the basic poetic concept of metaphor and brings it into the permutational and unbounded mathematical realm implied by Pi.
“It’s all about making connections,” Moss says. “A metaphor is a kind of equation, is it not? But with Limited Fork, you don’t just have two things.” The road is a ribbon, for example, is a metaphor with two basic elements. But with Limited Fork, Moss says, “You can have as many as you like.” For Moss, the metaphors can endlessly bifurcate, going “through time, dimension, everything.”
We might consider, for example, just one stanza-like unit from the middle of the first page, positioned close together but not ordered precisely.
her ex-husband's laundry
where he left it
folded like cliffs
leg holes of his briefs
whose lost substance
Three pages later, in the middle of another scattering of lines and stanzas, is written another cluster of images:
his orbit was to be her engagement and wedding
rings, but she'd have to do the actual traveling in
The stanzas aren’t visibly linked, but Moss invites readers to move through the text in this way, creating their own parameters for appreciation. We can read left to right, bottom to top, or even three dimensionally, pushing through the pages of the book like a drill.
Moss grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Her mother was a maid, an African American evangelical, and her half-Cherokee, quarter French, and quarter-African American father was a tire re-capper. She was writing poetry even as a small child, and when she was 16 she won 25 dollars from the Cleveland Public Library for her poem “Coming of Age in Sandusky.”
She says that one of her strongest memories from childhood is taking long walks with her father after church. “He wanted to make sure that I understood that the world was not the way people were ordering it,” says Moss.
As a mixed-race woman with a mixed-race father, Moss has always treasured her “outsider” status. “I think my work is the Other of Others,” she says of her poetry. “I don’t think I fit well into any established traditions.”
“If you are going to work with paper,” she asks, “why does work start at what is considered the top of the page? Why? It doesn’t have to.”
Then she said to me, “I don’t think the story, or whatever you’re writing, has just started. It’s been ongoing. This is just the moment that you begin to record it.”
Fritz Swanson teaches in LSA’s Department of English Language and Literature and runs the letterpress studio Manchester Press.