The concept of Guillevic’s Geometries feels distinctly French to me, combining Beckett’s minimalism, a constraint like those the Oulipo developed, and a light touch of the absurd, though the poems here lean more toward playful than dark or uncanny in the way Surrealism often tends toward. These are generalizations, of course—French literature is not a monolith—but they place Geometries, published in French in 1967, in a lineage.
As translator Richard Sieburth notes in his afterward, the book is arranged “almost like a school textbook,” each poem headed by a Euclidean figure. (The French title is Euclidiennes. Sieburth titled his translation Geometries to distinguish it from an earlier English translation by Teo Savory called Euclidians.) The poems are straightforward and clear, tightly drawn like the shapes they’re inspired by. There are rarely metaphors, only direct comparisons. “Six triangles got together / And erased everything / Except their outer borders” is how “Regular Hexagon” begins.
Each poem is short, no longer than a page and a half, sometimes as short as three lines, each a response to the shape in question. The book builds from simple figures—“Line,” “Ellipse,” “Parallels,” “Square”—to more complex shapes such as “Cycloid,” “Truncated Cone,” and “Rhombohedron.” “Isosceles Triangle” is fairly representative:
I have succeeded
In putting myself in order.
I tend to find myself
But the poems call back and forward as well, referencing and subverting one another. “Isosceles Triangle” is followed by “Equilateral Triangle:”
I have gone too far
In my need for order.
Nothing more can happen here.
Paired together, the poems spring off of one another in playful ways. “Isosceles” has two complete couplets, resulting in a complete, if short, poem that’s very balanced. By comparison, “Equilateral” cuts itself off one line short, though it is complete, in its own way: one line for each side of the triangle. A few pages later, another poem, simply “Triangle,” features stanzas of three lines each. A series of tercets that attempt to triangulate the triangle:
There is nothing
More basic than me.
All it takes
Is three stray lines
In a plane
Sieburth admits in his afterword that he has strayed from Guillevic’s originals (which are not included in the book), “inspired,” he writes,
by one of the central geometrical similes in Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” [. . .]: “Just as a tangent touches a circle lightly and at one point . . . so 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.”
Sieburth’s variations on Guillevic remain playful and sonically pleasing, using light touches of rhyme and metrical play to achieve satisfying results, such as the opening poem, “Line,” a sonnet. Here it is in full:
As far as you go,
In the belief
That the future
By every point
You cross the world
You cut it in half.
Having learned nothing,
Having given nothing,
Each line of the first four stanzas contains two stresses among three to five syllables. After the long line/short line one-two punch of the opening couplet, hinged on the go/no rhyme, the following three couplets fall into a roughly iambic rhythm linked by the slant rhymes of belief/conceived/supersede. There’s a turn here, marked by a slight change in rhythm and the switch from couplets to tercets, but the poem ends with the satisfying return of the earlier rhyme and rhythm: “You proceed.”
This translation, published in 2010, sadly appears out of print (sorry), but it looks like New Directions has kept in print the edition of Selected Poems translated by Denise Levertov (one of my favs), though Sieburth notes that the poems in Levertov’s translation predate the poems in Geometries. Regardless, I look forward to reading more of Guillevic’s poems.
As this is the first of these emails I want to take a brief moment to say thank you for signing up. I’ve been threatening to start a newsletter like this for a long time1 but was always stopped by the question “who cares what I think?” As I told my friend Lizzy the other day, I finally decided that this could just be a place where I talk to myself about the books I enjoy and if other people want to listen in then that’s great. I hope one of these emails introduces you to a new favorite writer or book or poem. Or that reading these can be a brief diversion from something less interesting.
I’ll also mention, as an enticement, that paid subscribers will receive some additional content such as my monthly reading list and occasional drafts of my own poems.
This newsletter is a work in progress and I hope it will change over time (flux/text, etc.), so if you have suggestions or feedback, please don’t hesitate to send it. Also, thank you to those of you who have expressed support for this idea. I hope you enjoy listening to me talk to myself.
The follow up to the linked tweet is apt considering the geometric subject of today’s book.