No Math Required: Emily Galvin’s Do the Math

Do the Math by Emily Galvin.
Tupelo Press, 2008 (80 pages)
ISBN: 978-1932195460.

Most poets work as minor mathematicians. We count syllables, words, metrical feet, and lines and create patterns out of these units to structure our poetry in established forms and even in free verse. In Emily Galvin’s first book, Do the Math, the poet takes this relationship between poetry and arithmetic even further by using more complex mathematical sequences, especially from Fibonacci and Euclid, as the structural framework for her poems.

While the concept of this book might seem daunting to potential readers, this poetry is not as abstruse as one might expect given its
numerical origins. In fact, despite the command of the collection’s title, Do the Math, this book does not require readers to do much calculation; it is done for us already. In his introduction, Harvard mathematician Barry Mazur gives us some tools for reading Galvin’s poems, including clear explanations of both the Fibonacci sequence and the Euclidean Algorithm. In case readers skip the introduction or still don’t understand the math after reading it, Galvin further reminds us of her chosen forms with her mathematical titles and with her attention to numbers and measurements throughout the poems. In the poem “Fibonacci Vignette,” Galvin even presents us with an explicit definition in the final lines:

Fibonacci Sequence: The infinite sequence
of numbers beginning 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13,… in
which each term is the sum of the two terms
preceding it. The ratio of successive
Fibonacci terms tends to the golden ratio,

The words disappear and everything goes black.


These occasions of heavy-handed explanation were my only disappointment with this book because I would have liked to discover the poems’ patterns myself. However, Galvin created a useful balance: such explanations do make the book more accessible to people who are not mathematically minded, but she still left more to be discovered by readers who want to puzzle over her poems’ structures.

Despite the focus on math in the book’s title, introduction, and poems, theatre is just as important to this collection. Poems like “Euclid’s Algorithm,” “Euclid’s Algorhythm,” and “Rhinestone Hair Clip” have all the appearances of a script with their speaker labels, dialogue, and stage directions. In fact, many of the poems in this book blur the genre distinctions between poetry and closet dramas, plays that are meant to be read rather than performed.

These poem-dramas progress from the vague to the specific. In the early poems, we see dialogue between pairs of nondescript characters: First and Second, A and B, and Greater and Lesser. Most of this dialogue feels dreamlike, reminiscent of the circular conversations in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Section four of “Euclid’s Algorithm” is a good example of this circularity:

But don’t wait up just because I’m not ready
to go to bed.
If you’re exhausted, you just call it a night.
(Leaving) I’m going to read.

I think I will, actually, I’ll go to bed.
You’re going to read? Just… going to read.
(Leaving) Goodnight.

Just go to bed.
Have a good night.

In these poems, we see the stage direction “Leaving” again and again, but the characters keep talking and never actually leave. We also experience the disconnection between the speakers, from whom we are also disconnected because of their anonymity.

The poem-dramas become more specific with “Rhinestone Hair Clip,” which uses named characters, Ann and Ben, who speak about and search for a dragonfly hair clip and a Rush CD. However, their dialogue still has a fragmented quality, full of questions and expletives that make them unable to communicate effectively with each other.

In the next poem, “Wendover,” Helen and Willis communicate more effectively, but it’s clear from the stage directions and multiple ending possibilities that there is something more going on than we can see. In “They Came Home,” Donald does all of the speaking, with Lily only uttering the final two words of dialogue. Then we reach “Dig,” a poem with only one speaker present, yet he says to an absent person: “I’m waiting for you to come back / Where I was any minute now.” After “Dig,” the rest of the book contains lyric poems as if we’ve moved in closely enough to be in one speaker’s head.

This overall progression of the poems from the vague to the specific makes it feel as though we’re moving ever closer to solving an equation and finding the answer to the separation between people. The final section of “Do the Math,” the prose poem that closes the book, even seems to provide the answer: “But nothing’s slowing down. Everything just keeps on in acceleration, and even the love of our collective life, this little bit of earth and light in transit round a star, remains as distances increase, the things we haven’t thought of run away.” In this way, the whole book appears to be an invitation to slow down and think. Galvin attends to the language as well as to the math of these poems, making them enjoyable and thought-provoking on both levels. Do the Math will reward multiple readings, and it is absolutely worth the time to read it closely.

Katie Manning is a doctoral fellow at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and poetry co-editor of Rougarou. Her poems and book reviews have been published in Bare Root Review, New Letters, PANK, Poet Lore, So to Speak, Trivia, and >Word Riot, among others, and she's currently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761