Poetry Sunday: Poems by Sandra M. Gilbert

Today’s poems are fairly traditional in their execution of the form, even if they do mingle Petrarchan and Elizabethan and take other liberties with rhyme. They feel more than a little unconventional though, and why is that? One reason is the spacing between stanzas. We are used to seeing sonnets presented as one stanza or, when stanzas are broken out, in ways that reflect traditional rhyme schemes: an octet and sextet, or three quatrains and a closing couplet. The last two of today’s poems, “(Eyes)” and “(Kite),” are presented in this way. “(Triple A)” divides its lines into an octet, a quatrain, and a couplet, an unconventional organization that heightens the effect of the volta in line 8. “(Machine)” deviates even more, breaking its lines into a tercet, a single line, a quatrain, a single line, and a rhyming couplet, and the result is something that looks nothing like a sonnet or any other recognizable form. The organization is fractured, and not along expected fault lines but in a way that mimics the chaos and grief happening in the action of the poem.
What else is it that makes me think of these sonnets as somewhat deviant, even subversive (in the best possible sense)? Maybe their subject matter. The traditional subject for sonnets is courtly love, and for centuries sonnets were the way lovers addressed the (usually unattainable) objects of their romantic and carnal desire. One subset of this, the blazon poem presenting a list of the lover’s attributes, was turned wonderfully on its head by Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun”). Over time, the subjects expanded to include sacred as well as carnal love, with the metaphysical poets like Donne, Herbert, and Hopkins writing well-known examples. In more recent times, sonnets have become vessels for individual self-reflection, self-discovery, and political expression; Terrance Hayes’ sonnets come to mind here. Plenty of sonnets have been occasioned by the death of a loved one, of course, but today’s poems do something different: They look at the process of dying, and they do it with a scientific and even microscopic eye. While reading these poems, I felt as if they were cupping my chin and turning my gaze toward all that the speaker sees, hears, and feels as her partner is dying, the experience of being bereaved in the moments it happens.
Another thing that distinguishes these poems is their use of images and language from the field of mathematics. It is one way the poet pays homage to her partner, a distinguished mathematician, and a great source of delight in the work. In the first poem, we see “tulips & autos fractioning the light,” and even the familiar term “(Triple A)” becomes mysterious and strangely symbolic of some ineffable mathematical concept. “(Machine)” borrows from calculus in “master of x & y” and from other mathematical concepts in “the lemmas, the points, & pi,” and in these two brilliant lines:

Or did the great constants haunt him in the dark,
the primes on their endless luminous parade

“(Eyes)” counts the dying person’s last breaths (“three”) and concludes on the word “absolute”—evocative under any circumstances but in this context also invoking the idea of absolute value in math. (If you want an explanation of that concept, readers, you’ll have to Google it or ask one of my kids.) “(Kite)” is geometry traced on air, shapes ultimately converging into a kind of argument or mathematical proof,  “proved” in the poem’s last line. Readers who enjoy the idea of mixing poetry and math will love this book. And those who don’t will appreciate it anyway for the way its poems engage—no, positively grapple—with what some call a patriarchal form, and in so doing manage to express the depth and complexity of human yearning, love, and loss.

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