Saturday, January 2, 2010


for Stephen Jay Gould

Should you wish to span the gap between fact
and fact, why not slap a handy spandrel--
the ornamented panel between an arch
and its right-angled box--on the spot?

It slots so neatly, like a spanner
in the gears of a clock. Stare long enough
at the air beneath the string of a stair
(where we store bucket, mop and excess stuff

--unless a second stair's secreted there),
or at the circumflected hats about
the peg (round) in the hole (square)
that indicate an absent "s" and tell

us how and where to stress a vowel's sound,
and you're bound to have ideas expand
and spread into spearheads arrowed,
however off-mark, straight at the bowels

of this perplexus. So what if they bounce
back? So what if what they posit's merely
noumenal, nominal, epiphenomenal?
So what if it's a scoundrel's tack

which does nothing so much as explain
the by-catch of your hyperactive brain?


Rachel said...

I don't get it.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

I like challenging pieces like this! A nice tribute to the multi-dimensional 'gears' ("between the nominal and noumenal") at work in Gould's imagination & intellect

Title's nicely ambiguous mixing of two phrases, separated as much by spelling as by sense, is really the poem's capstone. Everything after it stretches that idea of playful ambiguity through layer after layer (plateaus) of Gould's many purposeful writing projects but not to a breaking-point: everything about the man and his ingenious ideas resting (and balancing)on a single "tack" or "by-catch".

I commend you on a very imaginative piece.

YLM said...

WHOSE hyperactive brain?

Carmine Starnino said...

A "spandrel" was a term co-coined by Gould. Borrowed from gothic architecture (where it defines a decorative, dome-spanning space between arches) Gould used the word to mean the emergence of an evolutionary trait otherwise unexplainable by natural selection (the belly button, for example). Gould and his team believed that pro-adaptationist evolutionists were making up explanations about traits that were merely accidental by-products of other traits (umbilical cords). I think Zach is extending the term into literary criticism, and poking fun at the academic obsession with finding explanations for literary effects that merely "spandrels" or unintended consequences.

Zachariah Wells said...

You've shed some light, Carmine, but it should also be noted that Gould saw almost everything relating to human psychology as a spandrel and that Daniel Dennett pointed out that what Gould originally called the spandrels of San Marco were actually pedentives and that the designers could equally have chosen corbels or squinches to use instead. I.e., Gould saw spandrels everywhere, to the point that the idea of a spandrel became an easy way to stop thinking about the evolutionary import of many universal human traits.

Carmine Starnino said...

Ah, didn't know about Dennett. But then that wouldn't make Gould's brain one-track rather than hyperactive?

Zachariah Wells said...

Guess that depends on whether you see Gould's explanation as requiring more or less imagination. Given that he saw "most of our mental properties and potentials" as non-adaptive spandrels--by-products of our big brain which he did see as adaptive--I like the irony of the spandrel idea itself being the by-product of a big busy brain. Which he certainly had, even if he seems to have been wrong--sometimes obtusely so--about a number of things.