The Invention of the Zero

When the poet Emily Dickinson once encountered a serpent, she identified her intense feelings of terror and surprise as a condition she called “zero at the bone”—one of the more memorable uses of the word “zero.” Yet Western culture is replete with references to this wondrous cipher, the algebraic midpoint between positive and negative infinities, the key term in NASA’s ritual countdowns that preceded the launching of rockets. The freezing point in Celsius measurement, the absolute value of gravity in space, and the colloquial term for total failure. Richard Kenney taps all these meanings—and more—in his unique historical poem, THE INVENTION OF THE ZERO, an amalgam of geology, physics, history, alchemy, cosmology, and literature.

Using the device of the twelfth century “frame-tale,” Kenney creates this book-length poem from four true narratives enclosed by a “Colloquy of Ancient Men” at the beginning and an “Epilog” at the end. The “Colloquy” creates the tone and style for the entire book by setting up an entirely imaginary discussion between Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Charles Darwin, Joseph Conrad, Isaac Newton, Herman Melville, Neils Bohr, and Mark Twain, among others. Their topic is creation and destruction, the birth of the universe and its possible demise, beginnings and endings, all “zero” moments.

The four tales at the heart of the book are all based on historical fact: “The Invention of the Zero” (atomic tests at Frenchman Flat, New Mexico); “The Encantadas” (the psychosocial collapse of Captain Leslie Buchman’s antiaircraft battery in the Galapagos Islands); “Typhoon” (the near-destruction of the U.S. Third Fleet in 1944); “Lucifer” (the tragic death of Navy SEAL Lew Elsey in a disastrous parachute jump.) Richard Kenney’s language mimics apes and computers as well as more literary influences such as John Milton, Hart Crane, and James Merrill. THE INVENTION OF THE ZERO is a dense and rich book, rewarding on first reading, and even more pleasurable on rereading.