Fetish of Ciphers: Brian McCabe’s Zero

According to the Pythagoreans and the Hebrew cabalists, the essential mysteries of life and creation may be revealed through the decoding of numbers. Brian McCabe’s new collection, Zero, is devoted to the poetics of numbers and numerological qualities, even including shape, colour, and taste. Intertwining literature and mathematics – ostensibly very different ways of approaching and understanding reality – these poems confront the problem of knowledge and representation. The author believes that, ‘though founded on certainty, mathematics is essentially just another way of probing the uncertain, the many – though not necessarily infinite – mysteries of the universe’.

Human understanding is a constant quest to impose pattern and form over chaos; this is expressed through McCabe’s rhythmic play with the potentially infinite combinations of the finite: ten figures and twenty-six letters. His skilful permutations transform numbers into flesh. He roots the abstraction of figures into a personal and graspable reality, ‘as a dream put into words,/ a notion put into dogma’.

Divided into three sections – ‘Counters’, ‘Perspectives’ and ‘Zero’, the collection runs the gamut of whole and irrational numbers, twin primes and fractions. It explores the unexpected charm of ciphers, the geometry of the body, John Lennon’s favourite numeral and the illogicality of Chaos. The infinity of a meadow is shown to defeat the men who are attempting to mow it – mockingly inscrutable, zero always appears in the grass. It provides an intimate gallery of poems about historical and anonymous figures, where we encounter such luminaries as Pythagoras, Möbius and Turing; among the unnamed are those who secretly long for the taste of ‘the thinness of 1′, students asked to ‘reinvent/ the computer from first principles’, and the child learning figures through a diverse arrangement of dots that disobediently ‘hatch into commas/ and grow legs to catapult them/ over the next page’.

The final section, ‘Zero’, consists of a single poem devoted to ‘the unnumber’, ‘nameless in its nothingness’. The poetic voice returns to the ‘the primal womb of all things/ before light before life before number’ and zero, that had ‘remained unseeable, uncountable, unacceptable’, is given its names and its forms, then enters into common usage, although retaining a stubbornly elusive nature: ‘appearing then disappearing’. This encapsulates one of the collection’s main leitmotifs: that experience resists absolute categorisation, and that all languages – ciphers and letters, doctrines and beliefs – refuse definite and stable meaning.

This collection of the memorably arcane and the memorably mischievous left me musing on the square root of a bunch of minus five bananas, the longing of the lines of a quadrilateral and the hypnotic powers of nine.


© Jessica Aliaga Lavrijsen 2009

For more about Brian McCabe and to purchase ‘Zero’, visit:
Publication Date: June 2009
Price: £9.99