I realize I am not done with Claude Closky’s “The First Thousand Numbers Classified in Alphabetical Order,” which I excerpted in my last post. Or rather, it is not done with me. With the repetitive insistence of an autistic it demands that I try to explain its effect on me, to plumb – or if that depth-model won’t work, then at least to enumerate – the sources of its delight.
In it— But what is it? A poem? A prose poem? A “conceptual” poem? A “piece”? A piece of “conceptual art”? Is it art? Whatever we choose to call it will make us look at the designation itself in a new way; it reclassifies its own classification.
In it, our two most fundamental ordering systems meet, and each translates the other. The quantitative and rationalized system meets the qualitative and conventionalized system. Is it a clash? A correspondence? A collaboration? Is it a dissonance or a consonance? Certainly it seems more Classical than Romantic; it is witty rather than strenuous, cool to the touch, with a Mozartian lightness . . . it tickles, but it troubles as well . . .
It begins— But should I use quotation marks when I reproduce parts of it? Can it really be “quoted” in any meaningful sense? How do notions of authorship apply to it? Can it be plagiarized?
It begins, “Eight, eight hundred, eight hundred and eight, eight hundred and eighteen, eight hundred and eighty, eight hundred and eighty-eight . . .”
A split-second of perplexity is followed by delighted clarity as we see that the first number in the alphabetized sequence is not one but eight. Can it really be that “e” comes first? Are there really no numbers that begin with a, b, c, or d? Suddenly it seems strange, even a little . . . unnatural. We’re like children again, or almost, counting on our mental fingers if not our physical ones and running through strings of alphabet, just to cross-check and verify. But no, it’s correct, “eight” comes first.
As we advance through the eight hundreds we think we can sense a pattern emerging. But it’s all thrown off the minute we go from the Es to the Fs; the pattern does not repeat. We had semi-consciously primed ourselves to expect five, five hundred, five hundred and five, and so forth, but instead we’re given “fifteen, fifty, fifty-eight, fifty-five, fifty-four,” etc.
This is severe and straitened parataxis, and it throws our operations of connection-making, of conjoining one thing to the next, into stark relief. At every turn we find our ingrained reflexes – the habits of long conditioning – exposed. In this world, five comes before four. What next? Will two and two finally make five? We feel the echo of something primordial, revisiting in brief but vivid flashes the tediums and pleasures of our first efforts at mastering these systems, so long ago. Is this what it is like to be recovering from a stroke?
Repeat anything enough times and the vertigo of nonsense threatens. It starts happening in the nines. We think we must be getting close to the end – it’s but a skip and a jump from nine hundred and ninety to a thousand, after all – but a glance ahead chills us: we’re not even quite halfway there. And the repetition is turning everything to gobbledygook; sign and sound delink, the letters of these numbers stop adding up to a sum of sensible words. Nine hundred, ninety, nine . . . nigh-un, nigh-un. . . nyah, nyah, nyah. Are we even being mocked? Have our two most foundational systems of ordering been brought together only to produce disorder? A moment ago we were revisiting our childhoods – are we now being thrown back into the original chaos?
But suddenly the nonsensical nines give way to a new term, and we're saved – “ninety-seven, ninety-six, ninety-three, ninety-two, one” (emphasis mine). A reprieve! It’s an inspired moment, sublime and simple - and simply funny - at the same time. One! The long march continues (or has it started over?), but we’re renewed. We even manage to convince ourselves that we now have a firmer grasp on the true order of the thing.
Our base 10 or decimal number system, written in words rather than numerals, gives us One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, and Ten. Only six letters from the alphabet are used as initial letters, however: O, T, F, S, E, and N, which in alphabetical order gives us E, F, N, O, S, and T. In the land of Efnost, it makes perfect sense that one comes after nine. The fact that the sequence will end with the Ts feels almost like a homecoming, so quickly are we acclimating.
But no, the sequence still has the power to expose and defy our ingrained expectations – and therefore to delight us as well. Ten must yield to the three hundreds, and only when these have exhausted all their permutations are we ushered into the home stretch of the terrible twos: “two hundred and twenty-three, two hundred and twenty-two, two hundred and two.”
What a lovely touch, to end with that echoing "two." An allusion to the two ordering systems themselves, numbers and the alphabet? "Two" suggests balance and therefore stasis, but it is also pregnant with the dynamism of relationship, as if new sequences might, at any moment, start spooling themselves out. Binary systems, mitosis, ones and zeroes . . .
Closky’s “The First Thousand Numbers Classified in Alphabetical Order” takes us through something that feels very modern and very ancient at the same time. In terms of its richness and complexity, it can stand with seminal works of modernism such as Eliot’s “Prufrock,” or for that matter with the works of the metaphysical poets that Eliot admired. With its beguiling simplicity and symmetry, however, the piece can just as easily stand with the works of minimalist composers such as Phillip Glass and Michael Nyman, or even with the baroque-era works of J.S. Bach. But in the next instant Closky’s piece rebuffs such comparisons; it is a shiny provocation like Jeff Koons’s statues of balloon animals or his brilliant, incisive Michael Jackson and Bubbles. But no, surely it is more like something scored into a tablet of clay on the banks of the Euphrates. On the other hand—