A MATTER OF MATHEMATICS


The garden is busy today. A robin

and a wren appear to be nesting.

The noisy blackbirds certainly are.

We are preparing for the partial eclipse

with the pinhole cameras we have made

from paper plates. In the event –

on the first day of spring – the sun is veiled,

as if by wisps of smoke, so we can glance

directly at the moon’s crossing, at this

dark geometry. There is excitement

in neighbouring gardens – and, over the road,

from the Pilates class at the Methodist’s.

 

*

 

Today we drive along the coast and see

the high tides yesterday’s configuration

partly caused – a spring tide in every sense;

water levels covering the stanchions

of a pier, lapping the top of a quay.

At the turn, the sea leaving the straits

hits the sea entering. A cormorant

twirls gracelessly in the rushing, tumbling race,

a dinghy with an outboard wallows,

the pilot bobbing like a marionette –

aware of the swift calculus of the waves.

 

*

 

How we gaggle like geese for, rightly,

a wonder or a marvel or a portent!

A feather falls. Intuitively,

we revere such elegant algebra.

 

 

 

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  1. #1 by Mary Clark - April 27th, 2016 at 17:10

    I feel as if I’m tumbling with the spring, with the cormorants.

  2. #2 by John Williams - April 29th, 2016 at 23:55

    “A Matter of Mathematics”

    The irony is that the poet is so selective in characterising human endeavour – Pilates, maths, geometry and a pinhole camera that he conveniently ignores the fact that he can write a poem, linguistically patterned and accomplished. How does poetry, language at its most articulate and ceremonious, relate?

    “A Matter of Mathematics” enlists the wren, blackbird, an eclipse, the seasons and the sea, the poem contrasts the natural order with processes in the human mind, “configuration” and “swift calculus”. The pinhole camera, a neat referent fashioned from a paper plate, allows for the poet to marvel how a tiny hole reveals “a portent”. There is something compelling about the juxtaposition of two spaces in this way, the size of the universe and the tiny hole, massive and minute. The eclipse, although an opportunity for a meditation on human ingenuity, also represents an ominous “dark geometry” (nice expression).

    Some verbs suggest a scene vaguely apprehended: “appear,” “partial”, and adjectives “veiled”, “dark” and “partly”. Perhaps they are references to the frailty of human perception, its darkness, contrasting with the bright scene at the vigorous sea that ‘hits’, “water levels …lapping… leaving… entering… tumbling …bobbing”.

    I suppose the scathing tone of “we gaggle like geese” underlines the triviality of the preoccupations of the human mind as it beholds the universe. Along with the Pilates class, it’s the best we can do, either “gaggle” or apply “dark” patterns to a magnificent natural display.

    However, the expression “A feather falls. Intuitively,…” gives pause. It seems another act of mind is at work her, intuition. Is it an act of mind? Of course, but one that doesn’t seek for patterns or predictions. The message of the poem, then, it’s better to act intuitively, instinctively even, rather than intellectual quests for order and purpose. Is that it?

    Am I’m misreading the end of “A Matter of Mathematics” here? I’m reminded of the great poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”. (1935)

  3. #3 by David Selzer - May 3rd, 2016 at 19:18

    Your mention of Wallace Steven’s ‘The Idea of Order at Key West – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43431 – prompted me to re-read that lovely poem (which I haven’t read for decades) and wonder yet again why he invokes Ramon Fernandez – http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/stevens/keywest.htm – to pose his (Stevens’) rhetorical question about order. Thank you for that – and I’ll return to ‘The Idea…’ in due course.

    To respond to your observations I think I need to explain to

      myself

    what the poem is about and how it came to be written. As you might guess, it was inspired by last year’s solar eclipse. The paper plate pinhole camera was, of course, as recommended in the Guardian! Birds were busy being birds in the garden and the Pilates class had just finished – Pilates that holistic equipment-less mental/physical fitness regime (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Pilates).

    The day after the eclipse we travelled to Ynys Môn (Anglesey) along the A55, past Raynes Quarry Jetty at Llandulas with the sea close to the top of the pier’s stanchions. When we arrived at Penmon Point on the island, the tide leaving the Menai Straits and the incoming tide met as described.
    The poem was begun on 21st March and finished in its present form the following day. The working title on the first day was A MATTER OF GEOMETRY/AN ACCIDENT OF GEOMETRY. The final title came to me on the second day as we travelled into Wales.

    I might have finished the poem with the last line of the second verse – ‘heedless of the swift calculus of the waves’ – which I was quite pleased with, much as Wallace Stevens, I suppose, might have ended ‘The Idea…’ with ‘Except the one she sang and, singing, made’ but his intuition was right to introduce the hapless Ramon – as I think mine was to provide a short conclusion cum commentary on the previous two verses.

    Intuition not only prompted the third verse but also, apart from the word ‘algebra’ – which I’d wanted to incorporate somewhere in the poem – each individual word and image. I believe there is a clear distinction between instinct and intuition – that the latter is learned behaviour and an intellectual act, and one that does ‘seek for patterns’. I also believe intuition is essential to creativity.

    I don’t think ‘gaggle like geese’ is scathing for two reasons: i) I think using the onomatopoeic collective noun as a verb is quite jolly and ii) it’s followed by ‘rightly’. (In addition, domesticated geese have been used for millennia as security guards. According to Livy, those sacred to Juno on the Capitoline Hill saved Rome from a sacking). ‘A feather falls’, as well as completely slowing down the pace of the piece and changing its tone, seemed to follow quite naturally from all the bird references – and I had Hamlet’s ‘the fall of a sparrow’ in mind. The last line – ‘we revere such elegant algebra’ – expresses my belief that the significance for us from a very early age of the concepts and processes of mathematics at whatever level of simplicity or complexity is one of the things that makes us human.

    I think I included the mathematics metaphor and theme because of the moon and the tides. (I always carry a copy of the Liverpool tide table in my backpack!) The concepts and processes of mathematics, in all its aspects, exist quite separately from human beings, cormorants or eclipses. If the universe were to disappear mathematics would survive. If there were nothing, 2+2 would continue to equal 4 – but ‘David Selzer once wrote a passable poem’ would literally be meaningless.

    So, the title is intended to be ironic . Mathematics is a description not an explanation of natural phenomena.

    Many, many thanks, John, for making me think hard and long about this piece. To my pleasant surprise it has withstood the scrutiny.

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