Sunday, April 20, 2008

Yehuda Amichai - Through Two Points Only One Straight Line Can Pass


(Theorem in geometry)

A planet once got married to a star,
and inside, voices talked of future war.
I only know what I was told in class:
through two points only one straight line can pass.

A stray dog chased us down an empty street.
I threw a stone; the dog would not retreat.
The king of Babel stooped to eating grass.
Through two points only one straight line can pass.

Your small sob is enough for many pains,
as locomotive power can pull long trains.
When will we step inside the looking-glass?
Through two points only one straight line can pass.

At times I stands apart, at times it rhymes
with you, at times we’s singular, at times
plural, at times I don’t know what. Alas,
through two points only one straight line can pass.

Our life of joy turns to a life of tears,
our life eternal to a life of years.
Our life of gold became a life of brass.
Through two points only one straight line can pass.

---Yehuda Amichai

Yehuda Amichai’s Through Two Points Only One Straight Line Can Pass

Even though I rocked a B+ in 9th Grade Honors Geometry, I wasn’t much of a geometry student. Students are taught many subjects, exposed to different ways of thinking and diverse skill sets that will prove useful in the ultimate quest to figure out what it is they enjoy and are suited for. Still, students are prone to asking and re-asking viable questions. Will I need to know this in the real world? How will I use these skills? And my personal favorite: Do I need to know math if I’m going to be famous and someone else will handle all my finances for me? To all of these questions I would offer a unified response: yes you will use these skills in the real world, yes they are important, and just stop asking questions and pay attention for once. There are vast portions of me that wish I could go back and study some of the subjects that I treated with vague and pretentious disinterest in high school. I always tried hard and cared supremely about my grades, but I can’t say that I cared as much about mastering these topics and skills so that I could use them in the future.

It’s strange---I don’t utilize the Pythagorean theorem or measure angles on a daily basis, but I notice the principles of geometry in dealings with people. At a party, the group of three folks chatting on the balcony forms a fine equilateral triangle. The boy stocking in the frozen foods section at the grocery store stacks cylindrical tubs of butter. And the line I’ve walked every morning for a month to the subway station includes two points: the front doors of my apartment and the covered station where I stand beside the beautiful woman who listens to God-knows-what upon her Ipod, diligently ignoring me. Other branches of math may be more readily applicable, but geometry is the thinking man’s math because it is consistently with us just waiting to be plucked and put to work.

The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai was blessed with one of the most active and reactive imaginations this world has ever seen. He has the astonishing ability to take happenings, on a personal and historical level, filter them through his imagination, and then reveal them to readers in surprising images, similes, and metaphors. The surprise arrives in how easily these images grow, or sometimes appear fully-grown. If you have not had the chance to sample some of Yehuda Amichai’s poems, I highly recommend starting with The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell. In this fine collection you will find a tapestry of poems focused on love, longing, religion, Judaism, the holocaust, Israel, family, and nature. Amichai’s poems are refreshing; I read them and feel myself overwhelmed by awe and comfort, as if the poems and words are familiar, but that familiarity enhances, rather than weighs down, the poems.

Through Two Points Only One Straight Line Can Pass is a poem that carved its way into my mind and then stomped back and forth for days, like a new soldier learning to march in formation. It is the type of poem that makes sure you will not ignore it and you will not read it just once. The connections between the stanzas and characters in this poem exist, but they are loose at times. The thumbtack that pins them all together is that oddly poetic geometry theorem ending each stanza. I often catch myself describing a poem by looking at its trajectory: how does the poem rise and fall, what causes these undulations, and other metaphorically inclined questions allowing me to act as if I know a thing or two about science and believe it to be useful in poetry. Amichai’s poem follows the theorem, but spends just as much time walking the straight line as it does exposing the peripheries surrounding the line. This poem isn’t just about the road, its about the forest that borders the road, the cottage in the forest, the lumberjack in the cottage, and the memory of his mother’s voice singing him to sleep firmly planted in the lumberjack’s mind. It may be true that only one straight line can pass through two points, but there is much starting, stopping, and zig-zagging before that line straightens out.

The poem begins at the beginning. We have a planet and stars, a strange union that precipitates and presupposes impending war. The speaker washes his hands of the ending point of war by introducing the poem’s refrain: “I only know what I was told in class: / through two points only one straight line can pass.” From the wide lens focus of the world beginning and ending, Amichai narrows the focus to the speaker and a trusted friend, or lover. They are chased by a persistent stray dog, undeterred by stones. He notes the strength of his companions sobs, comparing them to the “locomotive power” that fuels trains. In these instances we see the departure point and the arrival point, but we also miss the filling, and in the omission we realize how deprived a straight line is.

The penultimate stanza introduces some grammar play into the poem. The unexpected is declared true. We know “I” and “you” are far from forming a perfect rhyme, yet Amichai theorizes this. I want to believe him (and I do believe him, on some level) but this is an instance of showing how much can be lost in the unflinching path blazed by a straight line, especially one that is characterized by only two points. We don’t know the circumstances or the word bending that took place to cause these words to rhyme, or to make “we” simultaneously plural and singular. I smile when I read the mock give-up that Amichai includes in this stanza: “at times I don’t know what.” But what the speaker does know is “through two points only one straight line can pass.” The application of geometry to real life hits a thumping stride in the final stanza when the view shifts back to the world in general. Joy and tears; eternal life and a life measured in years; gold and brass; all of these are poles through which the proverbial straight line passes. The math doesn’t lie in this case, but it requires poetry---on behalf of literature and the arts---to illuminate the line’s texture. Unlike geometry, the lines that comprise our lives are defined by the space between the points, by the un-straightness of our lines.

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