The Absence of Zero by R. Kolewe

The premise of The Absence of Zero promises to turn many curious eyes away—it is a rare long poem (nearly 500 pages), it contains a lot of math references for a work of poetry, and the seemingly patternless repetition of phrases can be more confusing than it is worth for many. If you are intrigued, however, it is worth picking up. Rather than a work to read and absorb at once, it is likely best consumed across a long period of time. The reliable form of the poems and repeated lines that seem disconnected by any unifying narrative are, to quote poet Kirby from the back cover blurbs, “mesmerizing.” 

“It is a fruitless task to describe The Absence of Zero in concrete detail, as the structure refuses the certainty of concreteness. I will describe it instead with feelings.”

The Absence of Zero is an elegy to the 20th century via the poet’s journals, quotes from thinkers, and excerpts from within the larger poem. The poem’s structure is dependent on T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets and scientific elements such as the Riemann curvature tensor and results from a virtual Geiger-Müller tube to provide formulae and quotes from which to construct different parts of the poem. These structures, as described at the end of the book in “The Construction of the Poem,” are difficult to wrap my head around, as they would be for most who are unfamiliar with every layer of intertext. Kolewe does, however, provide the tools with which to discover more. 

It is a fruitless task to describe The Absence of Zero in concrete detail, as the structure refuses the certainty of concreteness. I will describe it instead with feelings; I felt drawn to pick up the book again and again, knowing that I had likely read the better part of the phrases to come already, but the immersiveness of the assembly continued to bring me comfort and challenge every night. It seems strange to argue that a non-narrative poem merits so many pages, but I cannot comprehend making it any shorter. Individual lines are as abstract as the concept—“The century pivoted on certainty & the clockwork came undone” is but one example—but the images and lyricism are still skillful enough to maintain a reader’s attention.

The Absence of Zero is a worldview, intentionally formatted to encourage negative capability—there are no notes to explain references or citations, and “The Construction of the Poem” is placed at the end of the book along with the sources. Most readers will not immediately understand every literary, mathematical, and musical reference—and that is allowed. We can bask in the unknown, the mysterious, knowing only the framing of the book by Dürer portraits and the premise of interruptions to a predetermined form. It embraces, as Kolewe details, the “hidden variables” inherent in our world as in poetry itself. If you are up for a challenge, this may be one to add to your bedside table.

R. Kolewe was born in Montreal and lives in Toronto. Educated in physics and engineering at the University of Toronto, he pursued a successful career in the software industry for many years. He now lives in Toronto and writes full time. His work has appeared online at ditche-ratioThe Puritan, and (parenthetical), as well as in the Literary Review of Canada and PRISM International. He is the author of two previous poetry collections, including Afterletters (Book*hug Press, 2014) and Inspecting Nostalgia (2017).

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Book*hug Press (Nov. 9 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 458 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771667265
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771667265

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Zoe Shaw is a writer, editor, and administrator based in Tiohtiá:ke/Montreal. She is managing editor at carte blanche literary magazine. Her major interests are in gender and sexuality, ecocriticism, and the elegy in British Romantic poetry, which she explored in her master’s thesis at McGill University. @zoestropes on Instagram. Her website is