Mathematics & Other Poems

by William Wall

This book is out of print.

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Kathleen McCracken (writing in Poetry Ireland Review, 1997)

At some stage perhaps all poets enter into the art versus nature debate. It is rare, however, to discover one whose forms and figures bespeak an informed engagement with the philosophy of science. In his first published collection of poetry, Mathematics & Other Poems, William Wall manages to do just that, sustaining from start to finish an idiom and a tone that, in conjunction with the overall vision, are finely tuned to the links and disparities between physical and metaphysical worlds.

The title poem, a sequence of ten sonnets, is prefaced by an epigraph from Bertrand Russell, which establishes a clear analogy between the "truth" and "beauty" of mathematics, and that of sculpture, or art in general. The initial poem humorously contrasts the light-weight, euclidean lovemaking of two insects with the grounded 'leviathan' gestures of human lovers, to end with the question:

        So where is your Euclid now, my love,

        whose elegant proposals postulate the

        perfect forms by laying on of lines?

The substitution of 'lines' for the anticipated 'hands prepares for the next poem, in which the life cycle of the butterfly is both evidence and emblem of an existential universe, where "the ultimate appearance of order/& symmetry in the butterfly's wings" is no guarantee of meaning and in the "pattern of recurrence, each term is appetite." In 'Parabola a’ bird is shot down and "There is no swan-like end and the time comes/& snuffs the light & the sun is zero." What is also noted, though, is that "she had the trajectory/in her bones," The scientific mind is not closed to mystery and epiphany; like the poets, "the mathematical eye . . , knows die leys/that mark the space between the as & bs/of lexicon, & reads the arcane signs." Wall's own poetics is delineated in aristotles bat', a crearure whose "sphere is theory" and which navigates "an imagined geography ... a world where what is not immediate/is infinite." Blind to the world of light and surface (as Aristotle noted humans are to that which is most obvious), the bat flies through vast, complex internal zones, parallel universes of theory and poetry.

Mathematics is an accomplished piece, its language and metaphors exact and liberating, its network of ideas and associations expansive yet totally focussed. The sonnets are accompanied by the drawings of Peter Dobson, whose pen and ink responses make their own intense impact while at the same time expanding the scope of the poems. All of which might seem to make Mathematics a difficult act to follow. Wall, though, succeeds in maintaining the set standard throughout the collection, particularly in the long poems The Wake in the House' (with its haunting refrain "Every return is a misdemeanour") and 'Orestes in His Youth' ("This is the first disaster/We have come upon together"), both meditations on the cruelty and the consolation of memory, both tours de force in their own right. There are moving elegies ('The Topology of Shells', 'House of Cards'), eloquent love poems ('Garden Near Cognac', 'Radiance), pointed indictments of Irish prejudice and insularity ('The Seer, 'The Fire People') and a clutch of compassionate addresses to women and their experiences. 'Out of Doors', for example, sets the "closed and smiling" face of a local male politician against:

        The tall blond girl on Wellington Road

        resting her hand on a boy s sleeve

        I see that her life is open-air,

        her face is a sea of gifts

        an engagement without armour.

This is an accomplished collection, marked by its intellectual and emotional range, and a corresponding control of form and language.