This week's theme - the poetry of mathematics
(Poem #599) Geometry
I prove a theorem and the house expands: the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling, the ceiling floats away with a sigh. As the walls clear themselves of everything but transparency, the scent of carnations leaves with them. I am out in the open and above the windows have hinged into butterflies, sunlight glinting where they've intersected. They are going to some point true and unproven.
It is always refreshing to see a poem that truly appreciates the twin beauties of nature and mathematics. Dove's quietly understated 'Geometry' is a fine example - very well constructed, and with a fine sense of balance between what many people would see as entirely antithetical elements. The poem's development is highly visual - the house fades into a geometrical abstraction in a manner reminiscent of a computerised animation (one is reminded, too, of architect's exploded wireframe diagrams, the components separated, everything rendered in transparent outline). The scent of carnations vanishes - another reduction, since smell has no place in the clean, austere world of geometry. And then, in a sudden reversal, the windows 'hinge into butterflies' and, glittering in the sunlight, fly off to 'some point true and unproven'. The whole reads like nothing so much as a scene from Fantasia 2001, complete with the wave of a wizard's wand ("I prove a theorem") to set the whole process into motion. The last line, incidentally, is what made the poem for me - indeed, were I writing the poem I'd have been strongly tempted to break the verse structure and set it off in a verse by itself. It is astonishing on how many levels it works. Carrying on the visual expansion, it evokes the image of a vanishing point at infinity, suggesting thereby the convergence of all the poem's elements. The 'true and unproven' could be a promise that the rich mine of mathematical discovery is far from played out, or even a suggestion that there will be things forever beyond mathematics. It is certainly a reference to Gödel's theorem, one of the most beautiful and surprising mathematical results of this century. And finally, it wraps up the poem neatly, counterbalancing the opening gesture and suggesting that every proof releases a flock of mathematical butterflies to hover just out of reach.  Yes, this is in part a dig at Whitman's 'Learned Astronomer', the poem that epitomises the other point of view, and is sadly what many people think of first when they associate science and poetry. Biography: Rita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1952. Her books of poetry include On the Bus with Rosa Parks (W. W. Norton, 1999), which was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Mother Love (1995); Selected Poems (1993); Grace Notes (1989); Thomas and Beulah (1986), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; Museum (1983); and The Yellow House on the Corner (1980). She has also published Fifth Sunday (1985), a book of short stories; Through the Ivory Gate (1992), a novel; and The Darker Face of the Earth (1994), a verse drama. Her many honors include the Academy's Lavan Younger Poets Award, a Mellon Foundation grant, an NAACP Great American Artist award, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundation fellowships, and grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She served at Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995 and is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. -- [broken link] http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?prmID=188 Links: The anthology that prompted this week's theme: http://www.kate.stange.com/mathweb/mathpoet.html Here's a much fuller biography: http://www.people.virginia.edu/~rfd4b/compbio.html It's interesting to compare today's poem to Kreymborg's similarly titled 'Geometry': poem #306 And the notorious Whitman poem: poem #54 As always, guest contributions to the theme are welcome. -martin