Citations & Reviews
(3) Reviewed in Dublin Review of Books May 2018
Solace and Silliness
News arrived within the month of Richard Murphy’s death in Sri Lanka, and then of Philip Casey’s passing in Dublin. Now, as much as ever, it’s essential that we continue to read each other. Murphy left us, among much else, with In Search of Poetry, a series of diary entries made while constructing the sonnet sequence The Price of Stone. From these entries, it seems that he was in constant search of a kind of certainty: of place, of home, of how to raise a family. He was honest enough with himself, though often too late, to admit these certainties would not bring solace.
Iggy McGovern is also a poet of certainties. The certainty of the slow ticking of a public house clock, “a quarter-hour ahead”, the certainty of scientific exploration, of a life clearly recalled, the certainty of the BBC Home Service and of course, the certainty of ageing: “From broad bean to broadband / From royalty cheque to reality check / From scrapbook to scrapheap.” Or has McGovern has it in “The Bony”, a Russian doll revelation of a poem of father begetting son begetting father from his debut collection “The King of Suburbia”: “behind him / lay his bony father and, behind, / his bony grandfather, his bony great- / grandfather …all that long-lined / boniness, lying in state.” And surely the greatest certainty of all, McGovern’s formal choice throughout his career, the certain step through the sonnet.
And yet there’s danger here too with McGovern scientifically positing the question “Who forced Lucifer / to carry the Big Bang inside / the centre of the Universe / and give the panicked particles / three minutes to get out?” This danger though, – as we’ve far too often come to expect from our poets born north of the border – is not a persistent presence in these poems. Though we find uncertainty in the most unexpected of places, “around the village pump” for one: a trickster play on doubt, or her academic younger sister, deconstruction, where McGovern tears through a tall tale well told at a Northern clip-along pace of a riveting story told two ways! Leaving you not so sure of who’s who or what’s what, but knowing, at least, you’ve been spun a good yarn as he pours water on some of the Northern conundrums: ‘but, here’s a thought to keep them occupied: / between them and The Orange Hall live neighbours / and lifelong friends, but from ‘the other side,’ / So, how does this Greek tragedy unfold? How quickly we shift from the calm ticking clock to where “a careless match, or revenant campaign, / could send the whole place up in smoke again.”
Recently on John Kelly’s Mystery Train –a most welcome return to the airwaves – Marina Carr spoke about our need for tragedy, our need for a “little death”, of witnessing the tragic arc onstage from beginning to end while not having to go “the whole hog” as she put it. Of the experience of tragedy onstage or on the page for that matter as a moment of purification, “a little of us is purified before we go back to all that malarkey”. And so we have the solace of tragedy.
Yet we seemed to have lost or forgotten somewhere along the songlines the etymological branches of the word solace. Not just “comfort in grief, consolation”, but also, from the Old French solaz, “pleasure, entertainment, enjoyment; solace, comfort. […] from sol-a-, suffixed form of root sele- “of good mood; to favour,” source of Old English gesælig “happy;” see silly. (Source: etymonline.com)
So there’s solace in the silly, according to the dictionary. And here, between these two is where McGovern sneaks a peek. With his “trademark ironies”, he manages to draw Shakespeare back to the street, with Macbeth placing an ad in the personal column of the Dunsinane Telegraph, describing himself as someone who “likes to take long walks across the heather, / wittering on about the bloody weather.’ McGovern’s humour works best when dry, or when used to take a wry look at the world of science:
The burner that still bears his name
belies a price too high:
The journey on the road to fame
Cost Bunsen his right eye.
The fly in the cathedral flew
crisscross that mighty room.
Then settled on an empty pew
and softly whispered “Boom”.
In fact, many of the poems dealing with the world of science offer up some of the most arresting openings to a poem I’ve come across in years. “Pupil” for example:
I know the pupil of the eye dilates
according to the loss of ambient glow;
the pupil, properly an empty space,
Now here is a poem ready to take off, to be launched into space, with scientific observation right behind and the suggestion of revelation to come. However, McGovern is too tightly tied into a half-rhyme and corrects the flight with “a framing of the window of the soul”, and so the cliché collapses the great potential of the poem.
Again in “Horse”:
the nictitans, or third eyelid, perforce
a T-shaped piece of hyaline cartilage,
has been the windscreen wiper of the horse
And once more we’re excited for what’s coming down the road, or what we’re cantering towards, but again McGovern has reined himself in to rhyme, and forces himself to stretch to “since many moons before the horseless carriage”.
And this has to be my only quarrel with these poems. What is certain is that at his best, as he’s shown in previous collections The King of Suburbia, Safe House and A Mystic Dream of Four, McGovern’s is a clear line walked confidently through the well-marked trail of his predecessors as he talks us through his childhood, the North and the Dublin of science and unheard chat. But his close adherence to form, the sonnet in particular, as well as to rhyme, mean the poem often doesn’t get a chance to run away with itself, to take flight. And yes, I’m aware of the folly of chiming “what if you did this with your poem…?”, but I for one would be intrigued to see what McGovern would produce from his laboratory if the steps of the experiment weren’t so clearly delimited. Or, in the words of Richard Murphy: “Rhyme and metre must not sound like an imposition … give the poem another day’s drenching in the old brain, where thought and feeling intersect, till the voice of the poem has the pulse of its heart … as with the first pangs of giving birth, you think the poem is about to come, when there is much more labour to be endured.”
It’s as likely though that I too have forgotten the solace in the silly. While reading The Eyes of Isaac Newton, I kept thinking of the Beatles tune A Day in The Life, the “drudge and boredom bit” of the daily grind, suddenly exploded into a dream world by the orchestral glissandos heard from the top of a bus, or in McGovern’s case, on the DART “the 3:10 to Yuma, the 6:12 to Bray”. And surely, if anyone could tell us “how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall”, it is Iggy McGovern who may have first heard the Beatles from his homemade radio set:
The single Bakelite headphone
was smuggled into boarding school
in a dayboy’s lunchbox;
the red-nosed diode was stretched across
its brass terminals, likewise two curls
of electric flex.
If you crouched down in the dormitory
for the radiator’s pipework ‘earth’
while your own body’s saline aerial
completed the simple circuit,
you could catch the plummy voice:
This is the BBC Home Service …
McGovern manages to find solace in this life, in these poems, and that in itself is commendable; particularly in reminiscences of his father. It was noticeable listening to him read during one of the online Attic Sessions the change in his voice as he read “The Male Line”, “a child too keenly drawn / to adult action, always on the search / for something new […] I saved my breath to cool my porridge, and he / just winked to seal our first complicity.”
There is no doubt solace for McGovern in remembrances of things past, of his family, the home place; that place where you might “like to stay forever / or at least till the fighting is over”. It’s no coincidence then that his second collection was titled Safe House. These Eyes of Isaac Newton then, keep us watching for the solace found and shared from the safe house he has playfully penned around us.
(2) Reviewed in Irish Times 13th January 2018
It’s a rare poem that can make a reviewer laugh out loud, but several of the poems in Iggy McGovern’s fourth collection, The Eyes of Isaac Newton (Dedalus Press, 77pp, €12.50) did just that. The moving To Seamus Heaney in Heaven, which describes the poet midway through a letter to Heaney when he receives the news of his death, contains one of McGovern’s best jokes: “And keeping to the last/the joke I knew you would enjoy,/the one about the Greek tailor:/Euripides? Eumenides?” The combination of tenderness and wit is characteristic, as is the experience of reading and enjoying the poem before realising it is a craftily constructed sonnet.
McGovern’s technical skill is of a piece with his humour: lightly worn and deftly handled. There is of course a strong formal element to wit, so it is no surprise that a craftsman of such dedication can make you laugh, but these poems also make you think: from the brilliant Parodies Lost in memory of Dennis O’Driscoll, to the economy of Memoir: “From Bisto to bistro/From Osmiroid to haemorrhoid/From shamrock to glam rock/From Alice Liddell to Alles Lidl . . .”
Elsewhere, there are nods to McGovern’s long career as a physicist. The title poem is a tribute to Newton, the greatest and “oddest of them all” and his understanding that “sight is ‘intromittist’ – light received/and not that light from their captains’ piercing eye/caused soldiers to shield theirs. . .” There is also a sequence of Quantum Clerihew (or should that be clerihews?) which somehow seem the perfect poetic vehicle for a discussion of Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg and the famously anti-poetic Paul Dirac, who is reputed to have remarked to Robert Oppenheimer: “they tell me you are writing poetry. I do not see how a man can work on the frontiers of physics and write poetry at the same time. . . In science you want to say something that nobody knew before, in words which everyone can understand. In poetry you are bound to say something that everybody knows already in words that nobody can understand.” Surely if the work of any poet is capable of providing a riposte to this intemperate remark it is Iggy McGovern’s.
(1) Reviewed in Poetry Ireland 123
…If [Mark]Roper and [Louise C] Callaghan speak in a mainly straightforward manner, the voice in Iggy McGovern’s The Eyes of Isaac Newton can be both tongue-in-cheek and archly knowing, self-deprecating and deadly serious – sometimes within the one poem. Coupled with this tonal play is an ability to give the sonnet and other forms real purchase for our contemporary moment by combining a delight in formal constraint with a wit that simultaneously mocks the poet for such attempts. The extended conceit on eyes and eyesight which permeates the book draws attention to the multi-layered approach of the poet to ideas of perception, beginning with the very first piece, ‘Hypermetropia’, with its story of a Dublin Tommy and his unsuitable glass eye.
This is poetry which interrogates its own artifice even as it implies an underlying wish for that artifice to satisfy. ‘Alliteration’ tells a domestic story that has a larger hinterland, that pits ‘Fuckin’ Fenian’ against ‘Gang Green’, and the ‘at least till the fighting is over’ of ‘Civilian’ marks one of the darker undertows of the work – related to Ireland’s ‘Troubles’, but also to wider concerns. The combination of scientific fact with a kind of forensic ability to hone in on self-delusion leads to a number of poems which end before they might have in another poet’s hands. This means that the reader has to work that bit harder and at times become implicated more explicitly, as in ‘Radio’:
No, none of you got this one but isn’t that all part of the fun?
McGovern is a modernist in this regard – he draws attention to the construction of the work in order to ensure a reader is not lulled into false senses of poetic security, and then he laughs with us too:
Call us if you find that sordid this programme was pre-recorded.
There are occasional moments when the serious intent behind the work is glimpsed. In a poem in three parts called ‘Love’, we encounter several moods. The first section, ‘The Request’, is the ‘Write me a real love poem’ request of an ever-loving wife:
not one of your trademark ironies; from the heart this time, not the head.
But a natural restraint and what almost feels like a fear of embarrassment on the speaker’s part leads to acknowledging the difficulty of meeting the request by pushing the poem further in sections 2 and 3. ‘Parodies Lost’, the middle section is a tour de force of parodic delight, borrowing from from everyone from Dickinson to Bishop but somehow also managing to reflect upon the subject of the dedication, the poet Dennis O’Driscoll, whose books of quotations from poets were both jokingly reverent and irreverent. This work provides more than one way to read it on the page, since the second lines of each couplet adds up to a separate story, anchored by the slightly doleful ‘I lost the chance to score when dispossessed’. It takes a half-line at the end, ‘Soccer is a bit like Poetry, it’s a funny old game’, to more fully imply the emotion which otherwise is deftly kept just outside the poem’s workings.
The third and final section of ‘Love’, ‘Leaving the Golden Hind’, makes another move. Ostensibly referencing the ship of Sir Francis Drake, these three quatrains are infused with human-sized moments of the ‘us’ in question who are ‘afraid / to wash away all the good luck’ in what is perhaps the speaker’s attempt to answer the first request. That this love poem becomes a contemplation of the difficulties of expressing love is testament to the control of the poet, who finds off-beat and striking ways to show a reader how it feels to be ‘masking the drips from a thousand tiny cuts’. Perhaps this poem is referencing the difficulty of capturing the Golden Hind of Artemis – in the guise of the Herculean task of poetry-making. On the evidence of The Eyes of Isaac Newton, Iggy McGovern is more than up to that task and he might even find a way to ‘risk collapse of this dark firmament’ – from ‘Pupil’ – slightly more often, as indeed, the import of the wife’s request in ‘Love’ may actually imply.
(4) Reviewed in The Mathematical Gazette vol. 99, nr. 546, 558-561
William Rowan Hamilton is the genius of Irish mathematics. He was also a philosopher, and not least a poet who composed sonnets by the score. These currents of a multi-faceted figure are captured in this biographical study of Hamilton, and, turning the tables on his subject, the author writes his own account in sonnets.
As a mathematician Hamilton is a super-hero. The biographical sketch of Hamilton in E. T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics, (1937) encourages the stereotypical image of a mathematician so brilliant that his feats are unattainable by ordinary mortals. By the age of ten years, we are told, Hamilton had acquired mastery of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew and was already dipping into Arabic and Sanskrit and a myriad of other obscure languages from the Indian sub-continent.
Hamilton is further set apart by his early achievement in mathematics. He was appointed Astronomer Royal of Ireland and Professor of Astronomy before he graduated, the most brilliant student to ever walk through the doors of Trinity College Dublin.
Hamilton’s achievements in mathematics and mathematical physics were many but there is no doubting his greatest–as he saw it. He kept three birthdays. Two were on the 3 August and 4 August (he was born at midnight) but the most important celebration of the year was reserved for the 16 October, the birthday of the Quaternions. On that day in 1843, as is famously told, he was walking with his wife along the Royal Canal in Dublin, and at Brougham bridge (pronounced and sometimes spelled ‘Broome’), he was hit by a mental thunderbolt and, with his penknife ready, scored into the stonework his famous quaternion formula.
The event has achieved fame. When mathematical conferences are held in Dublin, the walk along the Royal Canal is invariably reenacted and a ceremony held at Brougham bridge, though the original graffiti have long gone. On the anniversary day itself, the mathematics department of the National University of Ireland holds a walk from the Astronomical Observatory at Dunsink along the same path taken by Hamilton. In the year 2014, three hundred and fifty took part. By tradition the youngest pilgrim is offered the opportunity of repeating Hamilton’s vandalism on the bridge.
Hardly a year went by when Hamilton did not think of new angles on his quaternions, and he let the world know about them in two huge tomes. He died in 1865 but his quaternion legacy lived on and by the end of the century there was a Quaternion Society formed to promulgate them. At the time of World War I the society went into decline, unable to maintain the ideal of international cooperation which had been its lifeblood.
In the 1970s Quaternions once again appeared on the active mathematical stage with the rise of computer graphics and the introduction of the all-enveloping geometric algebra. When quaternions were first discovered, their ability to deal with rotations in space was quickly realized, and it is this key property which makes them useful today. Just as the complex numbers can be used to rotate points in the plane, the imaginary part of a quaternion can be used to describe rotations in three dimensions.
Hamilton’s discovery of his quaternions was in line with his poetic temperament. He saw mathematics and poetry as a joint enterprise, and of his journey from ‘threeness’ to ‘fourness’, he wrote:
‘And how the One in Time, of Space the Three// Might, in the Chain of Symbol, girdled be:// And when my eager and reverted ear// Caught some faint echoes of an ancient strain,// Some shadowy outlines of old thoughts sublime,// Gently he smiled to see, revived again,// In later age, and Occidental clime,// A dimly traced Pythagorean lore,//A westward floating, mystic dream of FOUR.
William Wordsworth, who Hamilton visited, thought science strangled the imagination, and though (or because) Hamilton showered him with his sonnets, gently advised the young man to make a career in science. The false thesis that the arts encourage imagination while science is bereft of it was also propounded by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who saw mathematics was a discipline where ‘reason is feasted, but imagination is starved.’ Hamilton is an obvious counterexample to this thesis, though as a philosopher he fell in with much of Coleridge’s philosophical thought.
In seeking three dimensional algebra as a generalization of the two dimensional complex numbers, Hamilton effectively labored for years preparing the ground for the Brougham bridge thunderbolt, but on the eve of his walk had no results to show for all this effort. In producing a poem in a day, Philip Larkin likened the process to laying an egg, and no doubt Hamilton too experienced this in writing his poetry. Mathematically he laid a golden one on 16 October 1843 and immediately recognized it as such.
There are few books which straddle mathematics and poetry, but the book under review is one. And from the life as told in sonnets emerges a less super and more human character. It tells Hamilton’s story voiced by the people who knew him, a kind ofUnder Milk Wood set in Dublin. The voices include his mother, father, Godparent, uncle, sisters, and many others. The Vicar of Trim who endorsed the Shavian maxim of ‘those who cannot do, teach’ saw in Hamilton a boy ‘cut from different cloth’, who ‘read us Greek, the book held upside down.’
The day the calculating machine Zerah Colburn visited Dublin to be exhibited as a circus act is given the sonnet treatment. Hamilton was put up against him in a competition, and though he lost, we all know there is a critical difference between mathematician and calculator–and Colburn knew it too: ‘I cared naught if I never understood//Exactly how I did it, whereas he//Was interested less in magnitude// And more in finding methodology.’
Hamilton’s wife has her say too and we should not forget she was at Brougham bridge as well: ‘And I was midwife when, against the odds,// He brought forth his canal-bank set of quads.’ We hear from his cousin Arthur Hamilton who tells us about Hamilton entering Trinity: ‘You know he found an error by Laplace?// A book in French! Now that’s what I call class.’ And from his tutor who examined him: ‘His optime for Homer answering// The first I’d given in some twenty years.// followed by ‘His optime in Science at the last//Has nailed his colours firmly to the mast.’
Almost immediately following Brougham bridge, John T. Graves, a classmate of Hamilton’s, discovered an eight-dimensional system–an extension of the quaternions–and he looked to Hamilton to acknowledge his work publicly. Hamilton could not extract himself from his own dream of ‘four’ and Graves saw his one chance of fame evaporate. His sonnet is one of disappointment: ‘That he would manage to procrastinate//Until I had been beaten into print.//And still the thought disturbs too frequent slumbers//My Octaves ever known as Cayley Numbers!’
The great administrator and Astronomer Royal, George Biddell Airy, who never let a document stray, is in sharp contrast to the way Hamilton’s kept his desk. Airy is presented to us as a model of rectitude, while Hamilton is the wayward poet/mathematician who sacrifices all for the artistic creation. Airy is not afraid to be exposed in his sonnet: ‘And in his cups he frequently would say// That how I would react to poetry//Would be to make three copies right away//And file them in close order under ‘P’.’
There are only two absentee voices in the sonnet sequence. One is Hamilton himself and the other Catherine Disney, his first love. During her last illness, her brother wrote: ‘That evening, I returned to him unread// The letters she had hidden in her bed.’ Her husband Rev. William Barlow, writing ‘But on the very night of my wife’s death//I spied him standing in the street below.’
Hamilton wrote his own sonnets in the Italian or Petrarchan form (where a sonnet consists of 8 lines followed by 6). The author composed his sonnets in the Shakespearian style 4: 4: 4: 2 as a nod to Hamilton’s Mystic Dream of 4 referring to the ‘fourness’ of the quaternions. In this collection there are sonnets these divided up into 4 sections (headed GEOMETRY, ALGEBRA, METAPHYSICS AND POETRY) The dividing up of Hamilton’s 60 years, are parceled up neatly in 4 phases, each phase lasting precisely 15 years (and
The quaternions hold a central part in Irish intellectual life. When they were discovered in 1843 Dublin buzzed with excitement on the news from Brougham bridge coupled with the announcement from the Royal Irish Academy. The Dublin intelligentsia knew something was up but had only a faint understanding, leading to one member of the English Ascendancy to ask ‘what the deuce are these quaternions?’ One who knew better was Éamon de Valera. In his early life as a mathematician he was a quaternion addict, and to celebrate this, the author places on the last page of this book de Valera’s own sonnet ‘My Best Girl’ where each line ends with ‘Quaternia’.
This sonnet sequence is a welcome addition to Hamilton studies and the history of mathematics. As the life unfolds, light footnotes explain the historical facts behind each sonnet. If you are a Hamilton fan and want something different, try this book.
(3) Reviewed in Poetry Ireland Trumpet 1, 2014
Iggy McGovern’s A Mystic Dream of 4 is an ambitious sonnet sequence based on the life of mathematician William Rowan Hamilton. Hamilton was one of the foremost scents of his day, was appointed the Chair of Astronomy in Dublin University (Trinity College) while in the final year of his degree, and was knighted in 1835. He was also a poet and corresponded with Wordsworth. The defining relationship in his life would seem to have been his first love, a woman called Catherine Disney; they married other people and the relationship they carried on until her death was, McGovern tells us, ‘just within the bounds of Victorian respectability and occasioned attempts at self-harm on either side’. McGovern’s book tales this rightly as rich territory for the biographer – Hamilton’s precocious talent for mathematics, his relationship with this lost love, his attempts at poetry, all are reflected and examined in the sonnets. The book is in four sections (Geometry, Algebra, Metaphysics, Poetry) – named after what Hamilton referred to as the four ‘parents’ of one of his great mathematical discoveries, the quaternion – and each section includes one sonnet named after (and ‘spoken’ by) the title of the section, fourteen ‘person-sonnets’ (that is, sonnets spoken by people acquainted with Hamilton), and a sixteenth sonnet spoken by Death. This patterning brings to Hamilton’s life something of the shape of his profession.
The succeeds very well as biography, if the role of biography is to compel greater interest in the subject in question.: certainly Hamilton emerges as a figure of great fascination, his life ‘multilayered’ as McGovern says. The second section, ‘Algebra’, tracing Hamilton’s life from 1820 to 1835, his College days and beyond, is the most poetically and narratively compelling, and captures beautifully the flowering of Hamilton’s intellect, how he dazzled teachers and peers, and comes into the company of the famous – Wordsworth, Maria Edgeworth, and later, Coleridge. Catherine Disney appears also for the first time here, though not in person: one regrets the decision not to write poems in her voice. McGovern explains he would rather the ‘dramatic intersections of her life with Hamilton’s [be] told by others, notably her brothers and her husband’, though one is not convinced: it may have been interesting to imagine Hamilton from the point of view of the woman (in the imagined words of Edward Disney, her brother) whose ‘star / Was the bright nova in his [Hamilton’s] constellation’.
Despite this, A Mystic Dream of 4 succeeds very well both as poetry and as a story of Hamilton’s life. The sonnets are accomplished and the book has an impressive unity. It’s a fascinating addition to the literature on Hamilton and evidence of maturation and development for Iggy McGovern as a writer.
(2) Launched in the Long Room, Old Library, Trinity College, 31st October 2013
Welcome everybody to the Long Room for this unique occasion – a book of sonnets by a Trinity poet-physicist about a Trinity poet-mathematician!
Professor Iggy McGovern is a Fellow Emeritus in Physics, as well as a distinguished poet. His verse is well-known to the College as he has provided poems for special Trinity occasions. For this book he has turned to someone who must be a kindred spirit – the great 19th century mathematician, William Rowan Hamilton.
Hamilton was a prodigy who was made Andrew’s professor of astronomy at the age of 21, before he had even graduated. But he was a prodigy whose first love was poetry. For him, Isaac Newton was an artist whose powers of imagination “caused many ideal words to pass before him”.
Hamilton wrote verse all his life, and two years into his professorship, he was still considering concentrating on poetry and practising science only as an adjunct. He was persuaded otherwise by William Wordsworth.
For Hamilton, science and art were not separate but indivisible. He described his seminal 1843 discovery of the quaternion – which is a kind of four-dimensional number – in poetic terms: “I felt that galvanic circuit of thought close”. Appropriately enough, this discovery happened not in a laboratory but on a walk by the Royal Canal.
Reading about Hamilton’s life, we might pertinently ask: would he have been so remarkable a mathematician had he not also given himself so freely to poetry and imagination? If he had not let himself be galvanised by circuits of artistic and scientific thought, could he have made his great breakthrough?
Hamilton pretty much answered this question himself. He wrote that the quaternion was “born as a curious offspring of a quaternion of parents – say of geometry, algebra, metaphysics and poetry.”
That’s a wonderful quote – which Iggy opens this book with. It gets across elegantly and succinctly the great value of interdisciplinarity. Not just geometry and algebra but poetry and metaphysics set Hamilton on the path to mathematical discovery. Today, we value equally all of Trinity’s academic disciplines, and we celebrate the collaborations increasingly forged between them. To those who might argue for rationalisation, I would point to the example of William Rowan Hamilton, I’d point to Trinity’s continued success as a leading world-class university, and I’d point to Iggy McGovern, who has done so much to keep the link between poetry and science alive and vivid.
Last year Iggy edited a book entitled Twenty Irish Poets respond to Science in Twelve Lines and now comes this book, A Mystic Dream of 4. Iggy has fully researched Hamilton’s life and times, and he, unlike many of us, understands Hamiltonian maths; the result is this elegant series of 64 sonnets in 61 voices, ranging from Hamilton’s parents to Eamon de Valera and Erwin Schrӧdinger. All the voices get one sonnet each, apart from ‘Death’ who gets four, one at the end of each section. Iggy writes in his introduction that: “the historical event which looms largest [in Hamilton’s lifetime] is The Great Famine. For this and other narrative reasons, it has seemed appropriate to leave the task of closure to the supreme ironist, Death.”
I know something of Hamilton’s life but this book still comes as a revelation. I didn’t know Hamilton’s links, through his godfather Archibald Rowan, with the United Irishmen and 1798; I didn’t know that Lady Wilde, the poet ‘Speranza’, had asked Hamilton to stand sponsor to her son, Oscar – unfortunately Hamilton declined, if he hadn’t we’d have had a true anointing of Trinity poets.
As we know, when Hamilton brought forth this ‘set of quads’ he immediately scratched the formula for quaternion multiplicationon the wall of Brougham Bridge by the Royal Canal, lest he forget it. Unfortunately that scratching didn’t survive the years, or the weather, and many’s the search that has failed to find it, so now a stone plaque has been put up on the bridge in memory of Hamilton’s eureka moment.
Now the plaque on Brougham bridge makes no mention of Mrs Hamilton, so I was fascinated to learn that on that famous walk by the Royal Canal, Hamilton was not alone. In Iggy’s imagination at least his wife was with him. Somehow that always gets left out in the versions I’ve read! Iggy writes, in the voice of Helen Hamilton:
“But I was witness to his darker days,
A genius, yes, but still a child half-grown;
… And I was midwife when, against the odds,
He brought forth his canal-bank set of quads.”
This book is a sequence of 64 sonnets, a number that has special Hamiltonian significance – it’s four by four by four, or four to the power of three. So a mathematical structure underpins the airy lyricism of the verse here. I congratulate Iggy on this illustration of the indivisibility of science and art. I thank him for furthering the reputation of that great Trinity man, William Rowan Hamilton, and I’d like to end by quoting the opening of one of these sonnets, which is rendered in the voice of Hamilton’s colleague, Professor James MacCullagh. These lines get across Trinity’s democratic approach to admissions – which was true even in the early 19th century, is truer now. And will, I hope, be truer again when we broaden out our new feasibility study on university admissions.
The sonnet begins:
“As long as mathematics still shall rule,
The lawyer’s son and Talbot’s graduate
The farmer’s son and product of hedge school
They both may enter Trinity’s Front Gate.”
As long as mathematics, science, arts, and humanities rule, we welcome all willing and able students through Front Gate!
I congratulate Iggy. This is a book that will be enjoyed by mathematicians, poets, and Trinity people everywhere!
Dr Patrick Prendergast, Provost of Trinity College
(1) Previewed in The Irish Times 21.10.13
Poetry and mathematics are worlds apart. So, at least, it would seem to those of us who struggle to recall even the most basic numerical notions while being quite capable – even in addled old age – of unearthing chunks of Yeats or Shakespeare from the muddy depths of the memory.
However, forms of poetry which depend on regular rhythm are guaranteed to delight anyone who appreciates the elegance of numbers. Take the short lyric poem known as the sonnet. There is an almost infinite number of possible variations, but the definition of a sonnet is a simple, mathematical one: it must have 14 lines. The poem’s internal organisation also pertains to numbers; some sonnets have an eight-plus-six formation, others take the form of three lines of four plus two.
Perhaps that’s why the physicist and poet Iggy McGovern has chosen this particular literary form for his new book. A Mystic Dream of Four brings poetry and maths together by telling the story of Ireland’s best known mathematician, William Rowan Hamilton – who was also a prolific poet – in 64 sonnets.
The book’s title is a quotation from one of Hamilton’s poems. The number 64 also has special Hamiltonian significance. “It’s four by four by four – four to the power of three,” McGovern explains. In order to celebrate Hamilton’s famous discovery of the quaternion – a kind of four-dimensional number – on October 16th 1843, the book is sub-divided into four sections of 16 poems each, many of them in the voices of people who knew the great mathematician.
However you add it up, that’s an awful lot of sonnets. “I think I’ve cured myself of the sonnet,” McGovern admits. Reading the book, however, it’s clear that the poet is having fun with the rhyme-scheme, using it to express the various snipes, gripes and sideswipes of his diverse cast of characters. “There’s a really interesting bunch of people in and around Hamilton,” he says. “They all have something to say, and they all get to move the story on.”
One character who has plenty to say is Hamilton’s wife Helen: “I was witness to his darker days,/A genius, yes, but still a child half-grown”. It seems that Chez Hamilton wasn’t the happiest of households, possibly because – as a more contemporary unhappy spouse put it – there were three people involved in the marriage.
As a young man, Hamilton had fallen in love with a woman called Catherine Disney, and she with him; but she was promised elsewhere. Hamilton married Helen on the rebound. The star-crossed lovers, meanwhile, met several times in later life, always carefully chaperoned.
“There was a final getting together on her deathbed,” McGovern says. “He presented her with his life’s work: 700 pages on quaternions.” At which point, poor Catherine’s days were surely numbered – in more ways than one.
Another central character in Hamilton’s life was the poet Wordsworth who, despite being 35 years older than the mathematician, was a great friend. “It was a meeting of minds,” says McGovern. “Hamilton would send Wordsworth his poems, and Wordsworth would comment on them.”
Famously, Wordsworth advised Hamilton to stick to the day job. It turned out to be good advice; but how does Hamilton’s poetry read in the 21st century? “A little bit flowery, a little bit sentimental,” is his verdict. “The poems about the woman – about the misery of not being able to be with her – are pretty rough. You could see people in a creative writing workshop saying, ‘Um, I think you could shorten that’.”
As someone who has spent a lifetime working in the scientific world, being recently retired from his position as a lecturer in the department of physics at Trinity College, Dublin, McGovern has managed to equate the worlds of science and poetry in his own life.
“I don’t know that they’re all that different,” he says. “They’re both very important parts of culture. You have to graduate into each of them; whether it’s the reading of poetry or the reading of science, it’s a language to be learned.”
When critics talk breezily about the cultural differences between north and south of Ireland – to either discount such as being no longer relevant, or, to bang on about how fundamental they still are, like a lot of people I get a bit queasy. Because you know that behind the ex-cathedra worldview there is a little bit of politics working its way into the picture and generally not for the good of our health, but for the edification of the speaker or writer.
Well, I have something to say here about Iggy McGovern that I don’t want to be misunderstood in this way. For quite simply, Iggy is the first poet I know of who hails from Coleraine, Co.Derry: a much overlooked, much mistaken northern market town on the glorious river Bann, which links north-east Ulster with its westerly counties. The town and river hold a particular spot in the hearts and minds of many thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of ordinary folk, as part of what was called ‘The Triangle’ – Coleraine, Portstewart and Portrush.
I’m not sure if people still refer to ‘The Triangle’ anymore but if they do I’m glad because to my faltering memory The Triangle calls up very definite, if at times, elusive meanings. There is the speech of the Triangle; there is the complex geography of the Triangle, and there is the actual place of the Triangle, or places. Iggy McGovern’s poetry embodies all the sides of this spectrum, without exaggeration or knowing self-regard.
The sound of his voice in the poems collected in his first volume, The King of Suburbia, was clear and playful and poignant. ‘’The Bony’, a poem about his father and his father’s people, is magical:
Now with the same bony crew,
Light as a feathery ton:
O they have a job to do.
But not a word to my son.
The King of Suburbia was an impressive debut. Now five years on Iggy has published his second collection, Safe House, a confirmation, if ever it was needed, of his distinctive voice and poetic intelligence.
In the new collection the poet’s order and construction in three accumulating sections, takes the reader from familial beginnings to the internal sequences of ‘Sacraments’ and ‘The Five Day Break’, leading into the commanding middle section, ‘Letters from the Captain’, and the shift in gear of the spirited curiosity of the final section. Throughout there is a marked increase of ambition in retracing past lives while the ever-pressing present converges convincingly upon such crackers as ‘The Scientific Question’, ‘Proverbs for the Computer Age’ and ‘A Measured Response’.
Iggy Mc Govern’s poems marry the great Czech poet and scientist’s doubtful rationality, Miroslov Holub, with the remaining instincts of his [Iggy’s] own Catholicism; the cagey inflections of his northern home and upbringing with its joy in, and playfulness with, ordinary language; respect for the intellect (Iggy is, after all, a brainy boy) and eye for the absurd. All can be heard in the site-specific sound system of Safe House.
I love the things that Iggy’s poems remember and the non-indulgent way of his with saying things, for example, in ‘Amber’s Epiphany’, the first stanza of which reads:
Was it Christmas Eve you came,
“the worst time of the year”
and nobody speaking of snow?
We were all on our best behaviour,
trying to live up to your name,
Amber – between ‘stop’ and ‘go’.
Or in the witty inventory of what ‘The Irish Poem Is’, which sounds like a neat and fitting place to end in praise of Safe House, where it not for an image I can’t quite leave behind of (I imagine) John McKernan, in Iggy’s poem, ‘The Mower’:
My good uncle’s caustic
Bent over the task
Of replacing a bolt
Newly-fashioned in brass.
Rushlight among rust,
A faith-keeping beacon
Resurrecting the Just.
Look, he’s back in the seat,
Trailing clouds of Sweet Afton;
For the second, sweet cut.
‘Poet-mechanic’ is what Iggy Mc Govern is; or, if you prefer, a poet-physicist; and one of the very best at the job too. His poems sit within the traditional workings of the land and the play of the intellect; a smart micro-economy of the word that has been part and parcel of this country for ages and is present in Safe House ; a special code for laughter and wit and mirth as well as for ‘heart mysteries’.
You should buy Safe House and read it aloud to yourself. It’s a splendid book that will make you laugh, and make you think, but mostly, it will make you want to read it all over again because, quite simply, you’ve enjoyed it.
Review of Safe House in The Irish Times
WIDELY PRAISED for the witty, engaged, humorous qualities of his first book, Iggy McGovern extends his lightness of touch in this second collection, Safe House (Dedalus Press, 86pp, €11.50), to decisively serious matters. Celebrant of his own serio-comic “sacraments” (composing not only an ode to a green shopping bag but also many riffs on remembered moments), he can also edge into a darker, more elegiac, meditative zone – in affecting poems about his parents as well as in a series called “Letters from the Captain” (which in skilful bursts becomes a late big-house novel in miniature). This seriousness can take a political turn, too, touching the complexities of his growing up in the North. Child of Prague, for example, remembers a statue on a window sill, and the collusion of religion and violence:
Patron saint of the safe house
you turned a deaf ear to the screech
of tyres late into the night,
vestments cloaking armalite,
orb, a hand grenade.
I like such encounters with the darker side, as well as those moments where the verse achieves lyrical lift-off, as in an elegy called The Mower(“Look, he’s back in the seat, / trailing clouds of Sweet Afton; / for the second, sweet cut”). And I relish a poem called The Irish Poem Is – a tour de force making good allusive fun of a category that’s been used and abused in various critical posturing.
Throughout Safe House McGovern is a light-fingered formalist, as his many well-tempered variations on the sonnet demonstrate. But the colloquial ease with which he handles his subjects insists that this formality is never too “poetical”, never an attempt to elevate the importance of himself or his particular take on the world.
Sometimes the poems seem too mild or merely playful for their own good, and the book would have a sharper point without the near-formulaic competence of certain pieces. Yet there’s an undeniable generosity about McGovern’s imaginative world that allows even his few damp squibs to find their place. Light, rarely lightweight, McGovern’s voice is very much his own, and his take on his present and remembered worlds is, at its best, unaffectedly honest, instructive and entertaining.
Review of Safe House in Poetry Ireland Review 103
Somewhat in contrast, Iggy McGovern shows himself a poet very much in control. Safe House, his second collection, is a formally adept and well-rounded book and a pleasure to read. ‘The Women in the Moon’ is a fine poem, in its achievement typical of the collection, charting a life through the women that, at various times, form its centre – the first ‘must put / the food on plates, the clothes on backs’; the second is ahead of you / in everything … But she minds you in the backlane’; the third ‘redeems you from the thrum / of city bars and one-night stands’; the fourth,
is merely waiting to
complete the quartet that the heavens
fling into your orbit: she
will always be your little girl,
red apple cheeks and bluebell eyes,
and when she grows you’ll be the one
to sit up till the cows come home,
complaining, watching for the goose-
drawn chariots that ferry her
The first section of the book, loosely autobiographical, offers many strong lyric performances such as this one, including a number of very fine sonnets. ‘Sacraments’ is a sequence (mostly) of sonnets informed by the experience of growing up Catholic in the North. Some of these poems are charming and memorable, like ‘Melchizedek’, where the photograph of a priest in the family disappears, with the young speaker later finding the picture face down in a drawer:
He came to visit, brought photographs:
a wife and family, somewhere foreign.
marking orders old and new,
we name him Father Pat-That-Was.
The book’s second, short section develops the autobiographical theme and is again formally ambitious. In the sonnet sequence, ‘Letters from the Captain’ the poems take as their basis correspondence between McGovern’s grandfather, who was the gardener of a Big House in Tyrone in the 1930s, and his employer, a Captain Joynson-Wreford. The Captain, dying from TB, wrote to Andy McHugh from Davos, advising on and seeking help with the affairs of his estate and, as McGovern writes in a brief note, ‘providing a moving remembrance of his abandoned home’. The sequence is marvelous, a wonderful imagining of the Captain’s loneliness (in ‘The Umbrella’ he asks, ‘Be with me now in all that lies ahead – /my boon companion, when all hope is fled’), and his sense of loss (in ‘War’ he speculates that ‘some things will not remain: / small courtesies of life, my lost demesne’). The sequence ends with two brilliant poems that bring McGovern himself into the story. In the first, ’Two Cars’, his childhood self finds the Captain’s daughter’s pedal car in a turf shed and steers it down the road, an echo of the Captain’s own (last) departure from the estate in his ‘SS’, ’the touring vehicle consummate’. And in ‘The Pheasants’, McGovern considers the stuffed birds ‘bought for ten shillings at the closing sale’, all that remains of the house.
The third section of Safe House is made up of more occasional verse. It retains McGovern’s wit and style, though some of the poems (‘Proverbs for the Computer Age’, for instance) are rather throwaway. Alone these poems would be of passing interest; here, they pale beside the greater achievements of the earlier sections in the book. The centre of gravity inSafe House is in ‘Letters from the Captain’, worth the cover price alone. But there are many very strong poems in this excellent collection.
Awarding Iggy McGovern the Glen Dimplex New Writers Award for Poetry, Ciaran Carson began by invoking the spirit and achievement of Kavanagh. ‘“A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward / Of a chest hospital,” says Patrick Kavanagh in “The Hospital”, a poem which directs us towards “the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard”. Kavanagh suggests that poetry can be made from the most ordinary of circumstances, so long as they are focused on with love, honesty and humour. These are qualities which announce themselves in the title of the winning book of poems. The author’s realm includes the DIY store, ping-pong, bottle banks, dance halls, skips, the new Luas bridge in Dundrum. It was a pleasure to read this book. It is an adventure.’
Review of The King of Suburbia in The Irish Times 2006
No doubt about it, the short lyric has come to be the predominant form of verse in this world of the sound-bite, the slogan, the e-mail and the text message; though it was long before the advent of high-speed communications that Richard Eberhart complained about “the tyranny of the one-page poem”.
All the same, so long as the poems are as snazzy, and sharply focused, and ingeniously rhymed as Iggy McGovern’s one-pagers in The King of Suburbia, we can’t complain. This first collection, from one whose reputation has preceded it, consists mainly of umpteen variations on the sonnet, one sestina at the end, and nonce-forms that read like resurrections of long-lost rhyme schemes. The Bony, for example, combines a spine of short-lined vertebraic stanzas cunningly connected by a spinal cord of rhyme.
These assured formal techniques serve Prof McGovern’s purpose very well, for he’s a master of the ironic, the pun, the innuendo, and such feats of word-play as will keep a smile on any visage but that of the incorrigible cynic. We could do with a whole lot more of this kind of well-turned verse and sharply-observed ironies:
Getting everything off our chests
A kitchen knife removed for tests
And neither of us ultra vires
Two people helping with enquiries
(from Breaking up with Inspector Morse)
James J McAuley
20|12: Twenty Irish Poets Respond to Science in 12 Lines ed: Iggy McGovern (Dedalus Press 2012). This anthology was prepared for the 2012 meeting of the European Science Open Forum (ESOF 2012) held in Dublin. Each of the 4000+ delegates to the meeting received a copy of the anthology, courtesy of funding from CRH.
Science Meets Poetry 3 ed: Jean- Patrick Connerade & Iggy McGovern is the proceedings of the third such seminar in the series as part of ESOF 2012. It contains the papers and poems presented during the seminar, which was attended by President Michael D Higgins and included a reading by the late Seamus Heaney of his poem St Kevin and The Blackbird.