by Emily Galvin
Tupelo Press 2008
Reviewed by Bryan Stokes II
Expectations run high for a debut book of poems; critics and readers alike search for the intangible that merited this particular manuscript’s salvation from the slush pile. Even higher expectations await the progeny of famous writers who must prevail over the assumption that they have achieved publication by connections, rather than merit. In her first collection of poetry, Emily Galvin – daughter of renowned poets Jorie Graham and James Galvin – sets the bar higher still by employing a wide array of complex and challenging interdisciplinary devices. Do the Math spirals out of the mathematical foundations of Fibonacci and Euclid, at times risking clarity, readability and meaning in search of new literary ground.
The collection opens with a wholly unnecessary and unintentionally patronizing introduction by Barry Mazur, a Harvard mathematics professor. While Mazur makes an earnest attempt to explicate the inner workings of Galvin’s mathematical verse structures, the very presence of such an introduction undermines the idea of the poems as viable creative works. An introduction should, at its essence, argue before the reader that turning the page will prove worthwhile. It should not supplant the ability of the reader to discern the meaning of a poem or interpret its structure independently. Galvin’s reliance on a mini-mathematics lecture to prepare the reader to view the poems in a certain light is troubling.
Introductory transgressions aside, Galvin immediately redeems her literary efforts with the first poem, “Spiral,” a challenging and rewarding simulacrum of a word search puzzle. Without spaces between words, and without a guide to navigating the maze of words, the reader must fail many times before ultimately finding the method to the poet’s madness. The poem ultimately consists of several smaller poems, seemingly unrelated but equally confessional, one consisting of only a single word – “Insidious.” Yet, even in this brilliant reformation of the traditional poem, Galvin is challenged with a pervasive detachedness – the poem often seems disjointed and unconnected, crystalline forms without rhyme or reason.
What follows “Spiral” pushes the limits of poetry further, as Galvin introduces elements of drama into her verse. The aptly-named “Premise” sets the stage for performances yet to come, creating the sort of detail-obsessed theater set that might be demanded of an overbearing director. Yet, strangely, the performance itself exists solely for performance’s sake, as “at the moment, there is no audience but the chairs. Bolted-down chairs with folding seats, rounded tops and metal backs, upholstered in coarse red cloth.” As the crescendo of details and descriptions builds, what was once a theater set transcends the stage and becomes a distinctive moment in time. Galvin calls for “winter afternoon light, the light that hits an Iowa cornfield at about 3:00 pm on a sunny day in February.” These intense stage directions set the scene for the next set of poems far better than any introduction might.
What Galvin does next redeems many qualms that a reader might have with this collection, as she develops her setting into a series of dramatic vignettes, sparse interactions between two characters. The building patterns of conversation between simply named characters – First and Second, A and B, Greater and Lesser – provide an engaging insight into interpersonal relationships and dialogue. In the seventh stanza of “Euclid’s Algorithm,” Galvin creates an entire scene without words. Simple and repetitive, yet powerful, movements supplant the need for language without denying the poetic essence in each line:
(B. looks at the ceiling. B. looks at A.
B. moves hand towards A. B moves slightly
(A. looks at B. B. freezes. B. brings feet
together. (Add) A. opens mouth.)
Without words, A and B transform their conversation into an elaborate dance, bringing the literal rhythm of their movements into the meter and pattern of the poetry.
Near the middle of the collection, with the poem “Rhinestone Hair Clip,” the novelty of Galvin’s conversational poetics begins to wear thin. The fascinating form fails to overshadow a lack of fresh and engaging content. In this poem in particular, the two characters, Ann and Ben, search for Ann’s new rhinestone barrette to no avail. Ann evokes a potent anger and desperation for this inconsequential and seemingly vapid object. An eventual revelation that Ben possessed the hairclip all along serves not as catharsis, but as a source of infuriation for the reader.
Galvin abandons the binary conversations for a more traditional sort of poetry later in the collection, adding a much-needed sense of balance. “Light Warning” makes excellent use of Galvin’s well-honed ability to capture the essence of a scene in compact, three-dimensional verse. “You know how / The air feels after everything / Has been carried out, doors and windows closed?” These more conventional forms challenge her playwright’s voice and yield fascinating verse and witty interludes (“I think when you ask for advice, you really want accomplices”).
If Galvin wishes for this collection to demonstrate her mathematical prowess, then her highly regulated and patterned dichromatic conversation poems serve this end admirably. In serving as her debut as a poet, however, the mathematical forms risk creating a false difficulty, obfuscating meaning and form under layers of algorithms and fractals. While it is fascinating to read Galvin’s “Notes” section and learn of the mathematical secrets lurking in her syllabic arrangements and line numbering, it is imperative that the poems of this collection be allowed to stand on their own. Do the Math is a promising start from a brilliant poet, but it can only be hoped that her next collection will throw off the scaffolding and present the caliber of lyrical verse that she affords only glimpses of here.