An Unraveling: Catastrophe Theory by Susan Yount


A “catastrophe” is a disaster, a sudden calamity, a falling apart, a complete failure, an undoing; it comes from the Greek word meaning “to ruin, undo.” There are all kinds of calamities in Susan Yount’s chapbook, Catastrophe Theory, from a house collapsing in on itself to a man getting shot in the leg to a man “beating a woman’s face into the sidewalk.” It’s scary stuff.

But out of it comes a figure of resilience, spirit, and strength:

The house slumped,
doubled over,

collapsed—
and bore a woman.

It’s a painful labor, but the folding house (a persistent symbol in the book) gives birth!

“Catastrophe theory” is a particular mathematical theory about how small changes in circumstances can build to sudden dramatic shifts in behavior, and that comes true in this book, too, with actual equations pursued through the speaker’s biography and psychological state. It’s pretty amazing. The folding house corresponds to the “fold catastrophe” equation, V = x3 + ax, which corresponds to personal symbols telling a dramatic story we can follow in other poems.

Even the meaning of “catastrophe” in classic Greek drama—as the event precipitating the play’s final resolution, sort of the ultimate disastrous moment in a tragedy, leading inevitably to climax and dénouement (unraveling, untying the knot)—resonates in the book, and the speaker herself is an actress, by necessity:

When I was in grade school, I was afraid
to tell the truth so lied about everything.
Everyone told me I’d be a great actress.

Those lines come from the poem “Outages—Cats—Jobs—Fiancés” in which actual cats are characters (Samantha, Bandit), adding a bit of dark humor and, yes, dare I say, cat-astrophe. There’s also dark humor in poems about work and bad bosses. Classically speaking, that dark humor fits: it helps transform this tragedy to a comedy, where the main character ends up better off than she started out; she has changed her fortune!

You can read the book’s title poem and “Fold Catastrophe” at Susan Yount’s EIL solo feature, here at Escape Into Life. You’ll find other poems in the feature, and another scary one in our Halloween 2012 mini-anthology, Poetry of Fear, though Yount’s poems do take on frightening topics fearlessly!

And find Catastrophe Theory and see the burning-house book cover here, at Hyacinth Girl Press.

For a look at actual catastrophe theory, and the formulas and diagrams that Yount explores as poems, Wikipedia is very handy!

The collage art you see here is by Dayna Thacker. See more at her EIL Artist Watch feature.

–Kathleen Kirk, Poetry Editor