The Poetry Project

Sibylline Gray On Sibylline Gray

Review by Nora Fulton

“I want to create the possibility of a meeting between minds where the immediate cognitive reality is incompatible with the presuppositions of cognition underlying the propositional attitudes of any of my present writings. The writing only serves as a bridge, it must be taken more lightly than the new territory to which it ultimately leads. This is a preparation for an altered cognitive reality. This is why the argument is perpetuated.”

Catherine Christer Hennix’s new selected writings, Poësy Matters and Other Matters, is iconoclastic, singular, and difficult. Blank Forms Editions has produced a beautiful two-volume collection of the Swedish artist’s textual work, which spans fifty years and includes unpublished and revised pieces in a variety of genres. Hennix is mostly known as an experimental musician with connections to the later New York Fluxus scene, but even this perhaps overstates her renown: prior to the intervention of Blank Forms, who also released her Selected Early Keyboard Works in 2018, Hennix has been a somewhat “unattended” figure in the history of the 20th century avant-garde. This collection can thus be seen as an important intervention in her reception that acknowledges the many other fields she has worked in – poetry most extensively, but also mathematics, psychoanalysis, theatre and visual art. While the first volume of Matters compiles poetry, drama and polemics, the second volume compiles Hennix’s writing more broadly, and centers on a facsimile reproduction of her far-reaching logical work The Yellow Book. Hennix’s inspirations are everywhere eclectic: she engages with her longtime collaborator Henry Flynt, John Coltrane and the jazz tradition, the lyricism of Sylvia Plath, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s antiphilosophy, Jacques Lacan’s notions of sexual difference and the sinthome, algebraic renditions of the Rigveda, and more. But given how many of the pieces in these volumes were nearly discarded or left unfinished by Hennix, one gets the sense that the artist herself feels indifferent about this revival and her legacy or canonization. As Hennix repeatedly makes clear, for her these works are only provisional, preparatory, and it is what lies after the encounter with them that counts. Therein lies the difficulty.

The conjunction of her poetics with mathematics is the most difficult and interesting dimension of Hennix’s work. She worked as a mathematician for much of her life: she was a student of Alfred Tarski and a colleague of Alexander Esenin-Volpin, both of whom made important contributions to the fields of topology and set theory, and her writings make constant reference to the intuitionist mathematics of L.E.J. Brouwer. For Hennix, poetry is notation in the same way that mathematics is: if mathematics in its set-theoretical mode builds a notational system from the “empty set” on up, then poetry does the same, but begins with the “empty word.” According to Hennix, both the poem and the matheme are in the end “unsolvable,” however, and in their inevitable incompleteness (of meaning, of proof) they are able to “trigger a philosophical investigation” that she likens to the “teisho” of Zen Buddhism, which demonstrate Zen realization. Her poems in the first volume of this collection are even ordered, she says, according to their “degrees of unsolvability.” So we begin with brief imagistic poems whose degree of unsolvability is low—

Chasing clouds are
chilling autumn’s sky.
I was finally breathing

—and proceed towards longer serial poems whose degree of unsolvability is high—

but never

we don’t
if someone arrives.

But there
where every-
one once
arrived …

as they never
covered by somber
dusk, they



—without ever reaching poetic “solvency.”

The alignment of poetics with mathematics has always been an uncommon project, and more often than not the two disciplines have been opposed. The philosopher Alain Badiou has claimed that mathematics is ontology, is being itself, and that ancient Greek philosophy “interrupted the poem with the matheme.” Badiou argues that the “presence” to which the poem is devoted was supplemented with the “void” that mathematical thought endlessly presents. Hennix proceeds from many of the same axioms as Badiou, but her work instead attempts to think the unity of poetics and mathematics in a presentation of the void, even if their common ground is a shared failure. Her highly original approach to mathematics, with its intuitionist conception of the mathematician/poet/subject as a sort of phenomenologist of the matheme, seems to be more in tune with Fernando Zalamea’s philosophy, which holds that mathematical creativity should be seen as a synthesis of both invention and discovery rather than just one or the other. For him, “the elaboration of a transitory ontology and epistemology, better matched to the incessant transit of mathematics, is the order of the day. The peerless strength of mathematics lies precisely in its exceptional protean capacity, a remarkable transformative richness that has rarely been philosophically assimilated.”

One example of how Hennix stages a similar assimilation of mathematics into poetics can be seen in her work with the Japanese Nō form. On the level of content, her Abstract Nō Dramas allow her to track the “disappearance” of the subject into the “impenetrable darkness” of notation, which she likens to “the flowers of a Black Chrysanthemum.” Hennix’s plays weave together propositional and dramatic speech, and contrast a subject ready for the “total personal transformation” that immurement in the stage requires with a subject who is hesitant and unable to let go of permanence. Despite their dutiful obeisance to the traditional rules of Nō, these plays also become a kind of symbolic logic, as when Hennix presents the choreography for one of her protagonist’s dances like this:

( A statement which was not exact )

( ( A statement which is not exact ) )

( ( A statement which is not exact ) )


( ( A statement which is not exact ) )


( ( A statement which is not exact ) )


Whereas the “endless drama of enlightenment” plays out on the level of content just as it does in traditional Nō, on the level of form Hennix treats Nō like a mathematical system. After we read the plays, we are shown the logical machinery behind each statement, which Hennix annotates according to topological color theory, and from this she extracts a wholly original topological system built around Nō’s principles of gestural movement. So—

I was awakened in the Moon as the
Blue Lady of Mental Events
My body being gradually produced
by the ten winds as it was entering
projections of diamonds


—which becomes:

Even though it sometimes feels like it’s virtually impossible to understand what is going on in Hennix’s work without a firm grounding in mathematics, she is just as often deploying and constructing notation in an aleatory way, as if always starting from scratch. Her simultaneously creative and rigorous practice reveals the “foundationality” of mathematics as a fundamentally poietic, or productive, dimension. But the poetry itself can at times be less describable than its theoretical scaffolding. In these looping and recursive works Hennix operates on similar principles as she does in her ambient, minimalist drone music. (Hennix was a disciple of Pandit Pran Nath, an Indian classical musician who also taught figures like Don Cherry and LaMonte Young.) In the moment the drone of the poem breaks, the poem folds what was invisible into what becomes briefly visible, or reveals the visible as the sedimentation of the invisible. Her long poem No One’s Memorial ends this way:

Burned by the
Burned by the

Burned by the
We eat
Blue corn tortillas

Hunting dawn the
Blue Deer. In

Volcanos are
awaiting the
Visions of the

In silence, the
Hunters are
Glowing like

(A train passes by –
no one can board it

A world passes by –
no one can read it

A mind passes by –
no one can see it)

All of this raises the question: if mathematics has more in common with poiesis than it appears, and if the matheme is thus more protean than it looks, then what of poetry’s supposed “antifoundationality” – what if the poem is less protean than it looks? What does poetry look like when it accepts the paradoxical rigor of its unsolvability, and begins to discover and invent in the same way that mathematics does? It seems like the answer to this question is a way out of the opposition between the matheme and the poem entirely. It is also a way out of the immutable subjectivity that is said to take up such pursuits. Hennix is a figure who works from the first principles of mutability, and embraces her subjective insolvency and transparency. She has constantly transformed her artistic and theoretical practice according to what such a rigorousness demands – she has transformed herself – and she asks her reader to be ready to do the same. If that reader can accept the argument and the companionship of someone so sibylline, so clear, they will find more than a common comfort.

#260 — Feb/March/April 2020