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Geometry -- Rita Dove

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.
-- Rita Dove
It is always refreshing to see a poem that truly appreciates the twin
beauties of nature and mathematics[1]. 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.

[1] 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.


  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]


The anthology that prompted this week's theme:

Here's a much fuller biography:

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.


31 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Anonymous said...

great poem

Anonymous said...

made me sleepy boring as all hell.

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