by Ayten Tartici
Published by Ugly Duckling Press, 2010 | 80 pages
“‘Englished’ by Richard Sieburth’. So reads the front cover of Eugene Guillevic’s reprinted Geometries (first published as Euclidiennesin 1967). ‘Englished’– the simple past tense and past participle of English, yet it functions as a verb. Why is the word so tacitly different from ‘translate’, translate being to adapt, to retransmit via relay, to move from one place to another, an inconceivable cross-border conversation, described by Derrida as “the trance of the trans” and therefore devoid of logic? Before the book is opened, then, we are primed to expect an alternative kind of deciphering, not simply an attempt at rendering the original. ‘Englished’ is a word which fits neatly into the field of Geometries, a deft, playful transposing of something that cannot be utterly quantified. The discipline of geometry relies on stark visual evidence: a shifting conglomeration of measurements, areas, and volumes. Formulas and postulates tell of length, volume, area and circumference. Points and lines have self-evident properties. But geometry, in itself, is not static, it is mutable. Mathematical reasoning has evolved through Euclid’s theories, non-Euclidian constructions of the 19th-century, and into the axiomatic rigor of the present-day. Three-dimensional space, differential geometry, symplectic geometry and algebraic geometry support the tenets of theoretical physics, yet the fact of symmetry (the circle, the square, the polygon, the hyperbolic solid) is thousands of years old. The language of mathematics is silent notation. Formulas can be abridged or misconstrued by words; even by lengthy verbal explanation. The connective phrase “if and only if” is represented by a symbol. Simply put, a range of meanings is abbreviated to signage.
If we acknowledge that poetry can be seen as algebra in its multiple composition sequences, then Guillevic’s work is already coherent. But how can the different mindsets be reconciled? How can the emotion behind poetry–whether plainly evident or secondary to craft and style—be aligned to the sharp intractable notation of mathematics? How can tonal difference be relayed, and so forth? Guillevic’s artistic life in some way provides an answer. Born in 1907 in Carmac, France, he was of the generation whose young adulthood was shadowed by World War II and therefore any professions were in some way connected to the war effort. Guillevic was no exception; following a B.A. in mathematics in 1926, he advanced quickly in his field. Appointed to the French Ministry for Finance and Economic Affairs in 1935, he was eventually promoted to Inspecteur d’Economie Nationale, and thus responsible for controlling the country’s financial state between 1942-1947. Alongside his public role, Guillevic was attached to a community of writers and intellectuals, all of a similar age and mutually resistant to right-wing politics. It is notable that irrespective of his official role as arbiter of government, Guillevic became a member of the communist party in 1942. The underground presses that flourished as a result brought him into contact with figures such as Jean Follain, the rebellious Paul Éluard – an ambassador of the surrealist movement – and another reactionary poet André Frénaud who, it is said, persuaded Guillevic to combine his numerical knowledge with an artistic drive to move away from the associative qualities of Surrealism and towards the normal significance of the Object.
One success of Geometries might be said to lie in its amalgamation of candor and complexity. The rigid arrangement on each page is, we soon realize, the signifier of an argument. Each geometrical figure is allotted its own poem, and deploys either personification or second-and third-person address. The opening piece, ‘Line’ announces “You cross the world/Without suspecting/You cut it in half”. Here is a description of the magnetic equator, balancing itself invisibly between the north and south poles, immutable: “Having learned nothing/Having given nothing/You proceed”. The 90-degree right angle waits for a “memory” to blow into the space, perhaps the curve to sit in its corners, to confirm its existence. The left-facing ‘Right Angle (II)’ with its longer horizontal line appears as though “[s]hadow, treason–/Always lies behind its back’. Flat and two-dimensional, Planes I, II and III are, respectively, “not held in esteem”, represent the “freedom to come and go” and ultimately serve to articulate certain boundaries: “I am what/Makes space speak”. Plane III continues:
When it comes upAgainst me
When it collidesInto a cryTo be heard
A cry to beSomewhat seen
With deadpan humor, the poems enact a playfulness that exists in a certainty– in the immoveable fact of a mark that can nevertheless be interpreted, even perverted. A shape that has always seemed so familiar, static and easily envisioned, is now given unique and unsettling qualities. A Hyperbola has “two long arms/Forever trying/To lose their elbows”. The six triangles who “got together/And erased everything/Except their outer borders” (‘Regular Hexagon’) give the speaker self-awareness. The ‘Bisectrix’ [a line that slices through an angle will never know if it made the right decision. The waviness of the Sinusoid with its tiny pauses in crests and troughs is offset by the Cycloid:
What would brother sinusoid sayIf he had to hit bottom
At the base of every curveAnd climb back
Up to the topAfter every shock?
All the ‘Broken Line’ can do is spend more time in search of itself, and as a result say “…all I do/Is complain”. The Isoceles Triangle finds itself “[q]uite pleasing”. Some figures may be read as elegiac depictions of human relationships; the ‘Parallels (II)’ exist as if they are “the only ones/Who had never/Been allowed/To meet”. The “unshapely” Ellipse has two stretched centers “Either oblivious/To each other/Or at war.”
In his Afterword, Sieburth states that the “sheer ludic pleasure” of Euclidiennes could only benefit from Walter Benjamin’s comment in The Task of the Translator (1969): “…a translation touches the original lightly, and only at the infinitely small point of the sense, thereupon pursuing its own course according to the laws of fidelity in the freedom of linguistic flux”. As the sum of its parts, Sieburth’s translation, or ‘Englished’ text reads as wittily, and “…wildly allegorical and anthropomorphic” as a collection of dot and dashes could be. Guillevic’s confession of “a certain amount of fooling around, [the] pleasure taken in exercise and application” is definitely retained. As in Vachel Lindsay’s poem, ‘Euclid,’ where a child stands by the geometricians for a whole day and night because they draw such perfect outlines of the moon, Geometries revels in the simplicity of structure, but knows that each profile has its own language.
Each defers a complete interpretation due to the blend of poetry [ambiguous] and science [definitive]. Behind every line is a suggested silhouette or rather a shadowy reconfiguring of the shape we see. Do we trust what is explicitly drawn, and if not, should we try poetic analysis instead? It may be said that Geometries enacts all the features of optical art: perspective, symmetry, illusion, positive and negative space, proximity, similarity and moiré [intersecting angles that overlay, like netting], but ask that we apply these features to the accompanying words. As a product of the 1960s, the text reasserts the vivid constructions of Cy Twombly—who, notably, attributed his own calligraphic style to his time as a cryptographer during World War II, analyzing letter frequencies. In these two cases, it seems that an inclination towards solving data nonetheless produces a statement of art that offers no precise interpretation. As poetry, Geometries does what Guillevic set out to do, to summarize his “relations” with the figures, “to rediscover them, or to make as if one wanted to discover them…..and then relate this encounter”. A good example can be found in the Pyramid, which moves from acknowledgment of its shape: “I feel like I’m a copy/A copy of what?…Who has edges this keen?/Who is as clear-cut as me?” to an observation of the whole: “We figures after all/Share something special:/We simplify the world?/The world offers itself/Our dream”.
Jane Lewty is an assistant professor of English Literature and creative writing at the University of Amsterdam and holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (2009) Her reviews and poetry have been placed in Blazevox, MAKE magazine, Otoliths, Blackbox Manifold, VOLT and others. She has co-edited two essay collections: Broadcasting Modernism (University Press of Florida, 2009) and Pornotopias: Image, Apocalypse, Desire from Litteraria Pragensia, who are issuing her chapbook later this year. She is also a co-editor of VLAK magazine.