February 3, 2009KR BlogUncategorized

Love & Algebra

Regarding the romantic puzzle of King Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere (that age-old, often misty tale of love and triangles) — Kascha Semonovitch lends fresh thought and scientific method in her poem “Trio” (featured in the New Voices section of the most recent winter issue of The Kenyon Review). The poem begins with the philosophic premise: “They were both good men,/ Only amplified. As if some infinite // Operation were performed: if N= /Love” — followed by a mathematical equation “where x/ Is x, and time is time.”

Semonovitch speaks to our deep human desire to understand love as algebra, with the variables – even the unknowns – accounted for in one place, simply. I believe algebra once saved my life as well: a particularly hard emotional time that happened to coincide with a job substitute teaching in an after-school algebra class. No matter what was going on in my head and heart, for a couple of hours each day I helped the kids solve for x, moving the variables in an orderly way until it all made sense to us, trusting that eventually it would. When all else seemed complicated and shaky in my life, these algebra hours became a much needed reprieve. Semonovitch’s poem works in a similar way: offering the hope that as complicated as the relationships between these three characters – and the speaker’s own understanding of desire – may seem to be, if we can properly identify the emotional variables and establish their true relationships, we might be able to solve something in our hearts.

But in love (perhaps in math as well), to solve is to understand, not to cure. So Semonovitch’s poem also moves away from any too-easy mathematical solutions — instead exploring the characters and their situation through lyrical or playful images while continuing to borrow from the language of math and science. Here’s one particularly fresh image worthy of being added to the Arthurian legend and handed down with the ages:

“Lancelot, body pungent as thyme,

As basil, stripped from the garden, a scent that made you
Hope, made you swallow. Sweating salt
That you could season with.”

Or the moment when Lancelot and Arthur get tense over Guinevere yet long to “take it back. Start over with a beer.” (Too long has this reconciliatory beer scene been lost from our collective conscious.) And kudos for the clever double use of the word “affine” to describe Guinevere’s desires: “She began to think, rather, hope for/ An affine set: small but intersecting/ If begun correctly.” (Suggesting both “affine” in its noun form, meaning “a person related to one by marriage,” as well as its mathematical meaning of “assigning finite values to finite quantities” or “of or pertaining to a transformation that maps parallel lines to parallel lines and finite points to finite points.”)

But the poem strives for more than just new descriptions or imagined highlights – it wants to untangle (or at least acknowledge) the mathematical/emotional problems suggested by the story in its myriad versions. Not just the problem of the characters (“a sad story, really”) – but also what it implies for the speaker, for us, for lovers, for women — when “the thigh is already stiff –/ Muscled with anger — at / Her, me. I don’t know. Events. Temporal linearity. Strength.” The poem makes us look again and ask, What happened? Why did it all get so bad? Both men were good – was Guinevere bad? It’s not that simple, though classically she gets a lion’s share of the blame. Was she just a “Scar of a miracle/ Nothing more”? Was the miracle to have loved, or been loved, or been loved too much, “Often. By / More than one, more than once”? Semonovitch ultimately solves for x with a difficult but resonant truth: “That everyone/ Has a past and certain operations are / Irreversible.” But the poem’s wild, often playful, multi-toned swerves take us through a process more meaningful than if we had just looked up the answer in the back of the book.