Sally Ball's Annus Mirabilis: Logical Affect

Ball, Sally. Annus Mirabilis. Barrow Street Press, 2005. (68 pages)

In Annus Mirabilis, Sally Ball's voice keeps a close distance, close enough to take careful notice of the world, to critique, philosophize upon, and still removed enough to not let it feel her breath down its neck. A collected logician, Ball’s voice plays language like symbols, interweaving through philosophical history, science, illness, and the very tangible effects of depression on human relationships. This voice is capable of vivifying impending breakdown without a glimpse of actual collapse.
       Through her three-part schema, Ball is interested in a very particular historical trajectory, the philosophical tension and intellectual competition between Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton. She recreates their lives, through large and small moments, through the minute details that disclose personalities,

Like all the Saxton children, Leibniz sorts through leaves...

...He’s six and his father/died this year...

...Curiosity/ and certainty collide: he knows he was making something/
patterned, something whole—not what it was—and now it’s gone.


Ball foreshadows the progression of the two scientists' thoughts and projects prudently; her own undertaking is transparent and a crucial part of the whole story, as demonstrates in the poem "In Hannover: Clairvoyance,"

I went in February, in the minor steady rain,/ with a sick child...

Leibniz traveled often in diplomatic service....

His rival, Isaac Newton, never saw the sea.

and later, in another poem:

Leibniz, who’s always earnest, usually full of pomp,/
it’s hard to imagine him entranced. So well anchored to the world
that he could always get the fervent insight down and pass it on.

Then Newton, hungry, refreshed, a little tipsy:

So matter-of-fact, so self-contained.

(“Annus Mirabilis”)

And in the dispute between these two characters, Ball offers a plain solution with a great consequence,

In retrospect there is no side to choose:
in math, Newton was earliest to make the formulas contort and yield
but never told a soul; and Leibniz, a little later,
did the same startling calculations somewhat differently,
and published them, as was his way:
wishing always to improve the world...

Ball ultimately identifies a similar battle for herself, though her own aftermath is far more human,

I have been so many places. I have tried to solve
real problems in the world-- not identify, not bemoan,
It is hard to love
and be loved
when you are thinking all the time.

(“Leibniz under House Arrest”)

Ball is influenced and inspired by her study of these scientists' intellect; their contention, their thoughts, by their equations on the nature of the universe, straight from their actual historical notebooks,

Cut that out: in math,
formula generates thought,
oh my idol.

(“f (N) = 6 (s + 7)”)

admittedly so,

I want another lens, or
I want to see the lens itself,
the one Newton made


Ball's response: a careful appropriation of theoretical deduction ranging from mathematics, to logic, to optics, and converting it to an analysis of emotion-- scientific thought as a hermeneutic on life's problems,

Heartbeat + Caffeine = Hyperbole
or: Heart+ Caffeine = Access to Restricted Areas...


or to understand the nature of human choice, its tangible components, their manifest affect relationships;

Why does a man choose fidelity
or not choose it? What notation
could represent despair
within that formula? What does such a formula
tell us about any one man, X

Y wants to save him; Y wants to punish him.
X was X once, and now X is one letter...

cause and effect, the consequences to simple actions,

If Y, then X....
If X, then Y...

This is what you forfeit when you love
everything around a weak spot:
your own must be eradicated or dismissed...

and ultimately, denouement:

Some choices are made utterly alone.

(“Function of X”)

Ball effectively constructs a unique lens though which she deciphers conflict in current life, as she did the tension between Leibniz and Newton, often having a particular effect: a distant voice. Ball is the observer, even when the identity of voice in the poem is central, even if she is one of her subjects. When treating human drama, the result can seem alienating.

I’m the one the others all reproach
for coldness, lack of exhibition.
said my mother once.

How do you do it?


Self awareness is key. It is the reason Ball is absolved—her approach is based on sheer ability, on craft. The detachment is adroit, clean-cut, a deliberate incision between internal and external worlds, between individuals, that discloses various states of being simultaneously. She accomplishes this with a simplicity and candor that ultimately cuts us. It can only be attributed to a distinctive eye for truth, perhaps one developed by her study of logic,

But I am telling you:
you would not always rather be dead.
Wrap that in whatever faith is left in you.
The world will enter you again.
You will unfold beneath the stars and see the sky.
(You’ll be with me.)

(“Candle under Glass”)

Tatiana Forero Puerta is an M.A. Candidate at New York University where she studies the intersection between Continental Philosophy and Poetry. She has performed her work in both the San Francisco Bay Area as well as New York City and is currently working on her first manuscript. She is from Bogotá, Colombia and resides in Brooklyn with her husband.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761