Saturday, July 2, 2011

Mathematicians divide

One of my fine graduate courses at Hunter College was a "World Poetry" course taught by William Pitt Root.  One of our texts was Against Forgetting:  Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (W W Norton, 1993), edited by Carolyn Forché.  In this collection is found "To Myself," a poem that confronts fear, by Abba Kovner (1818-1987), a hero of anti-Nazi resistance. Kovner dares to open the poem with the word "Mathematicians."

   To Myself     by Abba Kovner

   Mathematicians take a huge area like a whole world
   and divide it into smaller areas, identical,
   smaller than the eye can see.
   Parts so exact don’t need
   an empty space between them.
   do it with only three forms:
   isosceles triangle, square,
   and hexagon, reliable instruments,
   of course. My fear taught me
   to try something else; when I could no longer bear
   the space surrounding me, I wanted to manage
   something smaller
   like a cell, dividing itself
   without fission. Not looking for answers
   to every question. Only to discover what is
   nagging me. Still trying: forty years
   and more. Why did I want to get rid
   of that hidden fear?
   After all, if I fall dead in the empty space
   its not the mathematicians who’ll be surprised.

“To Myself” was translated into English by Shirley Kaufman and first appeared in Kovner's collection My Little Sister and Selected Poems,( FIELD Translation Series 11, Oberlin College Press, 1986).

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