A Review of Timothy Green’s American Fractal

by Crystal Hadidian


All writers have experienced both the power and limits of language, but in American Fractal, Timothy Green extends this concept into a stunning and intricate inquiry into the complex relationship between order and chaos. The poems in this collection are themselves unpredictable – though always pleasurable – illustrating chaos within form and how even a form can emerge from what might first appear chaotic. A quote by Douglas Hofstadter that introduces

one of the book’s five sections says it best: “It turns out that an eerie type of chaos can lurk behind a façade of order – and yet, deep inside the chaos lurks an even eerier type of order.”


This tension is addressed at the end of “The Urge to Break Things.” Green writes:


There’s music in breaking glass. We all want to be

complicated. Both the adjective and the verb. An oxymoron

incarnate: mater that matters: chaos quietly controlled.


The appeal of the broken and disorderly, along with the contrasting need for stability and significance are concepts expressed throughout this book. An example of finding order in a peculiar context is described in “Meditation on the Six healing Sounds.” The poem begins describing sounds in a kitchen, how “the refrigerator hums a perfect / middle C but offers no intent.” Later these sounds culminate in a meaningful arrangement for the one who is willing to



the book says. Every tune needs

attention, an orchestra

of appliances whirling into

life, a universe of ambient noise –


The sounds expand beyond even the structure of music into “a universe” which again connotes both purposeful organization and a mysterious confusion. Returning to this same theme, “Microcassette” describes the story of a man who was given a tape recorder as a gift and “found that tapes were cheap and began taping / everything.” In this narrative, he “tapes the commotion and / spent each afternoon untangling conversations / from the squeaking chairs, the clattering

trays.” This man’s action is an example of finding order – even to the level suggestive of language and speech – among what is normally perceived as disorganized noises.


Many of the speakers in this lively collection of poems reveal obsessions and memories that return to the central recursive premise of the book. In “Beach Scene” Green layers a simple landscape with larger questions:


At the beach, a gray gull circles, eyeing the glitter,

the glitz, the pink

tassels like intestines fishermen

leave in heaps at the pier. One thing is always

mistaken for

another, as if accident were

the fundamental attribute of life


Order is mistaken for chaos and chaos for order over and over in this text, but from different angles. A writer pretends to have power over these elements, but because of the limitations of language, the writer’s control only goes so far, sometimes making the author the creator of confusion, even when order is the intention. In the meta-poem, “Hiking Alone,” the speaker imagines:


I could think of a fish gazing up

at that quick flash of sky as it passes through

the white froth of the rapids, the silky silver

where the water pools. Oh, I am grey, I could

have him say, personified – moved, even

full of emotion. Oh my scales are golden –

green – I could give him color just as easily

in the kind of God of my imagination before

plunging him back into his comfortable

dark, this eyelet the only opening for miles.

How easy it is to paint epiphany, I think, like

the gaudy sunset now settling above the treeline

I would call a bruise or a blush


Green draws attention to the urge to control and create meaning and order from experiences, whether mundane or critical. Language is one way we assign order. For example, in the last poem, “In The Parking Lot of Our Dreams,” the speaker observes how everything around him seems to be the same color: “Why brown? I / wonder.” Later: “Like any quiet man… I dig / for the profundity in this.” The sonnet, “What Passes for Optimism at Macarthur Park” is yet one

more portrayal of finding meaning and order among accidental sounds:


While on the gravel path the pigeons scatter

for crumbs, their tiny feet a kind of chatter

so empty and so full of soft demands

that everyone, not listening, understands.


American Fractal is a remarkable work, illuminating the fragmented nature of modern life and the search to assign meaning through language. Green expresses the multifaceted connection between chaos and order through his own use of language, theme and form. The book’s obsession with this dichotomy seems appropriately summed up in the ironic image which ends Green’s “Poem From Dark Matter:” “And this, my gift / to you, whatever you’ll make of it: The

soul, a ship / in a bottle lost at sea. Drops its anchor anyway.”