A review of Mendeleev’s Mandala by Jessica Goodfellow

Reviewed by Elvis Alves

Mendeleev’s Mandala
by Jessica Goodfellow
Mayapple Press
ISBN-13: 978-1936419494, Paperback, 100pages, February 16, 2015

Spoiler alert. The carpet gets pulled from under you in Mendeleev’s Mandala by Jessica Goodfellow. This happens in the second of the five sections of the book when Goodfellow confides that her husband is going blind and that she fears the same fate belies her young son. This declaration sheds light on much that comes before and after it. Goodfellow takes the reader on a ride taut with emotions. Among other things, the book showcases her intelligence in that she willingly handles words as a seasoned juggler handles that which is juggled.

Goodfellow elaborates on the declaration in “Three Views of Mars”. This poem paints the picture of a family’s visit to an observatory. A child is asked if he sees the big red star and he replies “I don’t know.” This response triggers fear in the mother. Goodfellow writes, “ ‘I don’t know” could mean “Yes, “ or “No,” or “I have my eyes closed like last time.’ It might even mean he is already night-blind, the first symptom of retinitis pigmentosa, the disease blinding his father” (46).

Her husband will become completely blind in time. And maybe her son too. This happening explains why Goodfellow seems fascinated with time and instruments that measure it. She writes, “as long as there is in this world a clock, we have no chance of acting without a reason, no hope such purity in being or in guttering –beguiled, like piebald priests who spent candles to clock sermons, like tonsured monks pushing their illumination only to calculate when it was safe, at last, to stop praying” (“In Praise of the Candle Clock”, 33). The poem points to the inherent inevitability of life and the need to take note of it, even though it cannot be controlled.

A similar sentiment is expressed in “Ode to the Hourglass”, a poem that takes the shape of its title, “No matter how many times you’ve seen her slide sideways on her axis you still insist time flows in one direction, like you do, lock step, all cause and effect, while she is of two everythings, or more, and equally. That’s why, when she grants you the dainty twist of her wrist, you never ever know if she’s waving good-bye or waving hello” (38). Here, Goodfellow explores the boundlessness of time, that it cannot be ordered liked the periodic table of elements where Mendeleev “dream chemistry out of chaos and into a grid” (“Mendeleev’s Mandala”, 12). For Goodfellow, “There is so much chaos even order is made of it” (“The Book of the Edge”, 67).

The color gray or eigengrau encapsulates the position that Goodfellow finds herself in. Eigengrau is the color seen by the eyes in complete darkness. The book consists of a series of poems about a girl whose favorite color is eigengrau. This girl is “able to exist anywhere and thus at home nowhere, except in the dark which is lit by her consciousness although she cannot see that, and also cannot help but see it, and thus it is not the dark” (“Pity the Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau”, 53). (It is important to note here that the life of the mind, and one would hope that of the heart too, serves as reprieve for the girl). A series of traits and events are shared about the life of this girl, including that she “marries a blind man whose eyes are the color of a Rembrandt iris. She and her husband never discuss eigengrau in the same way that they don’t discuss red and green and yellow” (“The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau Gets Married”, 61). This poem, and others in the series, is similar to “The Bind Man’s Wife Makes a List of Words She Must No Longer Use” because “what’s happening to him is biblical, smitten by God’s curse counted among madness and astonishment of the heart” (41).

But Goodfellow’s book is not chock-full of despair. There is a welcomed humor that shines through the poems, because of her ability to play with words. This is present even in a poem as serious as the above mentioned, where Goodfellow lists avoidable words, “blind date, love at first sight, second sight, stars in your eyes, only have eyes for you, blind love, blind devotion, sight for sore eyes, see-through blouse, easy on the eyes, roving eye, eye candy, bedroom eyes” (42). Goodfellow’s work reminds us of Camus’ encouragement to picture Sisyphus smiling as he carried out his punishment. This reminder is noteworthy, especially when this battle is herculean like blindness.

About the reviewer: Elvis Alves is the author of the poetry collection Bitter Melon (Mahaicony Books, 2013). Find out more at http://www.poemsbyelvis.blogspot.com