Wednesday, December 21, 2011

An Analysis of Hilary Sideris' Poem "Geometry"

Hilary Sideris's [poem] "Geometry". . .  deploys exceptional poetic economy to engage with the hyphen. A highly ambiguous piece with a multiplicity of semantic nuances, the poem presents hard interpretive challenges, requiring careful reading. I cite "Geometry" below in its entirety:

How can you be the you who called
the table of contents the plate
of compliments, who named the water
bottle baba wayo? Tonight we cram

isosceles, scalene & how the rhombus
differs from a square. I love your
getting-wavy hair, the way your lashes
graze the page, their half-moon curve,

like your father's, when you nod off.
I don't know which I prefer: math
from your mouth or your textbook's
definition of a line, the part where

it goes on in both directions forever.

The poem interrelates two unlikely practices: an explicit reflection on language, most strongly communicated in the speaker's incredulity over a string of incomplete and misplaced translations, and a math tutorial. At the start the reader is also confronted with doubt: who speaks to whom in the poem, who is the speaker and who is the addressee? Is it possible that there is more than one addressee? If so, how can the reader tell? This seeming indeterminacy brings to the fore the question of speaker, audience, and identity. Who speaks incorrect English? Who creates poetry in English? What is the place of Greek in the text? Where is the hyphen located, if in fact it operates at all?

The opening lines pose a puzzle, demanding the reader's careful navigation. The utterances plate of compliments, and baba wayo seem to point to two distinct linguistic registers. The former evokes a semantic slippage from "table of contents," a misplaced translation that might be committed by an adult whose command of the host language is partial. Could it represent a foreigner who inhabits English awkwardly? The latter most certainly points to an infantile effort to grapple with basic rules of phonetics. Could it represent an immigrant's grappling with the fundamentals of pronunciation? Alternatively, is it that it records a baby's incursion into spoken language? Or is it that "you" refers, perhaps, to both? It is difficult to tell. One element, however, is for certain. The incomplete grasp of English refers to a reality in the past. The speaker's incredulity ("How [End Page 284] can you be the you") leaves no doubt that those linguistic inadequacies represent a memory of a situation that has been spectacularly rectified.

To begin unraveling the identity of the addressee, let us note the speaker's objectification of the "you" that she addresses. As I mentioned, the expressed incredulity communicates dramatic transformations in linguistic fluency over time. Could this double reference of the second person pronoun also serve as a playful pun signaling the operation of two different subjects? One character from the pair in the poem represents the recipient of the tutorial, who in all likelihood is a young student, old enough to handle language. The poetic persona's connection with this subject is conveyed through the language of loving intimacy. The language borders on eroticism, but is also a language of affect that a parent might use to fondly address a child, ever attending to transformations in physical features ("your getting-wavy hair"), comparing mannerisms with the father's ("like your father's, when you nod off"), sprinkling adoring compliments ("I love . . . the way your lashes / graze the page"). On the other hand, if indeed there is a second addressee, this might be none other than the speaking subject, the objectified self of the speaker's monologue. But how can we tell? At this juncture I will take a detour, to attend to the poetics of the text before I proceed with the question of the poetic persona's relationship with the hyphen.

A reader with no interest in identifying the operation of the hyphen in "Geometry" could approach the poem as a reflection on language. The text certainly invites analysis on the ways language operates as both a constraining and liberating medium. The opening stanzas, for instance, point to the poetic potential of misnaming. The play of words and meanings is an activity which immigrants or children may unintentionally produce and poets often strive to create. Seen poetically, the bending of rules may delight a poet in the slippage between "table of contents" and "plate of compliments." Once measured against semantic rules, however, misnaming generates incredulity and the immediate impulse for correction. Misplaced poetic license seems to require immersion in rules and rationality, urging for a tutorial in geometry, a science of measuring and logic. The speaker fires in rapid succession images of symmetry, in fact she densely packs images of linear containment (isosceles, scalene, rhombus, square), which could be read as a metaphor of society's power to contain poeticity through socialization in linguistic conventions.

The narrative shifts from the practice of logical analysis to the language of emotion through images of linearity to references that turn into arcs and arches. The contrast is brought about through a marvelous economy of expression, as linearity gives way to curvature: "I love your / getting-wavy hair, the way your lashes / graze the page, their half-moon curve." The teaching of logic is superseded by the expression of affect.

Still, the poem evokes duality only to explode it, challenging conceptual dichotomies. Although it initially evokes linearity as a metaphor of logic and containment, it later also recognizes it as a sign of infinity. Math textbooks indeed define a line as an extension without end in two directions. Seen metaphorically, and in the context of my analysis, this geometric infinity aligns with the [End Page 285] potential of language—through the very craft of poetic world making—to create innumerable new realities. If language contains, it is the poet's task to enable flights of imagination. One must command the rules of language, however, in order to move into the realm of the infinite possibilities of poetry.

But the question persists, is there a hyphen in the text? The editor's decision to hyphenate Greek-derived American poetry motivates a reading that insists in excavating the hyphen within the poem.¹ Evidently, the tutorial cramming also crams the poem with Greek-derived English words: geometry, isosceles, scalene, rhombus. Greek certainly inhabits the poem in English, and it does so in cascading abundance. Still, this presence does not necessarily make the poem a Greek-American one, since words like "geometry" and "isosceles" have been naturalized into English. Neither does the Greek in English reveal anything about the speaker's relation with the hyphen. Though there is certainly popular and institutional memory of this historical association, the hyphen in this case is fully embedded in the dominant language. In this respect it is invisible, marking no Greek foreignness (difference) in the text.

If the poem reflects on language via a tutorial in geometry, it is precisely on the uses of language in the poem that one may look to trace the hyphen. The speaker brings generous attention to the Greek language, as I mentioned, packing the poem with Greek-derived terms in English. The marking does not only take place in the title. There is textual attention, in fact, to denote the difference between Greek in English and English, evident in the form and content of the following two lines: "isosceles, scalene & how the rhombus / differs from a square." "Difference" is marked in the clustering of the Greek in English and aligned in a single stanza, further highlighted by the "difference" between the Greek "rhombus" and the non-Greek square, the latter even placed in a different line. The architecture of the two lines functions as a sign differentiating Greek in English from English. As I will explain in fuller detail later, the hyphen appears as difference within sameness.

We can speak here about an inferential presence of ethnicity, a presence that is not announced by literal references to a Greek experience or identity, but implied by allusion and inference. A key to this inferential presence is located in the speaker's relationship with the Greek language in English. The litany of Greek-derived words such as "isosceles" and "scalene" is not neutral; the experience of hearing it spoken during the tutorial generates deep emotions. The speaker's tenderness toward the addressee is extended to include affect toward the sound of Greek in English ("I don't know which I prefer: math / from your mouth or . . ."). The utterance of words approximating Greek sound² generates affect, characteristic of a speaker's attitude towards the mother tongue. The speaker is no stranger to Greek after all. The possibility that the poetic persona herself is the "you" who once was a stranger to English confusing "plate of compliments" with "table of contents," could be now more confidently asserted, based on a poetics of "ethnic" affect.

The speaker is no stranger to English either. In fact, she is at home in this language too, as her admirable command of English, the linguistic plasticity, and the stunning economy of writing, clearly demonstrates. But there is more. [End Page 286] The naturalization of Greek into English enhances the poetic prospects in the host language. Just abbreviate a Greek-derived word, mathematics, and listen to the homonymic potential emerging in the juxtaposition between math and mouth: a mouthful poetics. The sound of spoken Greek in English and the sound of the homonymic pair math / mouth are simultaneously celebrated. The poet craftily showcases poeticity in English in a manner that cannot totally be separated from Greek.

But let us not mistake this reading as a final one, bringing closure to the poem. As my analysis demonstrates, the text is open-ended, hospitable to multiple interpretations. This is indeterminate poetry whose ambiguity in fact must be seen as its defining feature that serves a key purpose: it resists being contained within any single interpretation, being squeezed within a single category. To the question, "is this hyphenated poetry?" the poem may consent to an interpretive strategy that decodes the hyphen within its lines, but also to a reading that neglects to pay attention to the hyphen. Actually the speaker's unresolved dilemma ("I don't know which I prefer") only highlights the multiplicities of her affiliation. The poetic persona may cherish both Greek in English (the sound of "rhombus"), the poetic potential of combining Greek in English with English (math-mouth), and creating poetry in English (the metaphorical association of the infinite part of a line with the infinite possibilities of poetry I identified earlier). The poem, moreover, intimates the historical and cultural link between English and Greek. Thus the text explodes any attempt to contain it within a single ethnic or national category. In my reading, this is American poetry, and Greek-American poetry, and American-Greek poetry, and transnational poetry, all at once.

What does the poem tell us about the hyphen? In her double inhabitation in Greek and English, the speaker experiences a sense of "doubleness," of similarity and difference.³ She relates to Greek-derived words both as naturalized words in English—because she is at home in English; and as an affective site—because of her particular cultural affiliation with Greek. In this respect, ethnic identity is not experienced in terms of an absolute binary opposition (American/Greek). It does not signal pure otherness. Instead, Greek identity ("difference") is generated in relation to the dominant language (naturalized Greek in English). In this configuration the hyphen entails the production of new meanings—the experience of affect toward terms that others may read neutrally—within the dominant system of representation. It produces difference within sameness.

This particular construction of the hyphen underlines the power of an "ethnic" subject to attach new meanings to an object; to multiply the meaning of a sign, and as a result denaturalize it. In this manner, the poem posits difference as a constructed entity, always experienced or spoken about from a situated perspective. "Difference" is not naturally available; it is contingent instead upon historically and culturally situated subjects. Greek in English becomes a sign marking difference only from the point of view of the speaker, whose particular cultural biography turns Greek in English into an affective site. For the poetic persona, "isosceles" no longer points to a mere triangle with equal sites, but additionally as a location of emotive identification. Greek readers of the poem may feel this way too, and perhaps venture into discovering other situations to [End Page 287] apply this meaning-making process. The social implications of this insight are worth noting: encountering the host language and culture does not necessarily equal alienation. One could always resignify (translate) a "foreign" reality into one resembling the familiar, making life in the host society more spacious.* "Geometry" brings this point home. Poetry and ethnicity in the poem intersect to produce new sites for the hyphen to assert itself.

1. A caveat is in order here. One must resist confusing the poet, one with a Greek surname, and the poetic persona, and assume that the latter, the speaker, is Greek. As contemporary literary criticism instructs, the operation of the hyphen must come into play within the text itself, not outside of it.

2. This situation presents of course an imperfect equivalence, as the sound of isosceles in Greek and English is not identical. Once again, inhabiting two languages at once brings about the issue of translation (see Van Dyck, Karen. 2000. "Greek Poetry Elsewhere." Gramma: Journal of Theory and Criticism. Special Issue on Contemporary Greek Poetry, edited by Michalis Chryssanthopoulos, Ekaterini Douka-Kabitoglou, Lizy Tsirimokou. 8:81-98).

3. On the notion of "doubleness" see Hall, Stuart. 1996. "Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation." In Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader, edited by Houston A. Baker, Jr., Manthia Diawara, and Ruth H. Lindeborg, 210-222. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

*. Pioneer Cretan immigrants in Utah and Colorado, for instance, likened the regional mountain ranges with those in the ancestral island, producing affinity with the new place and thus alleviating the shock of their migration displacement. The meaning of place is denaturalized in the process of turning an American landscape into a point of reference for diaspora Cretan identity.

[Excerpts from my essay "Reading the Hyphen in Poetry," Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Vol. 29(2), 2011: 279–290.] (

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