Review of Lee Slonimsky’s Pythagore, Amoureux, Pythagoras in Love, Sonnets (translation by Elizabeth J. Coleman)

by Licia Hahn

A Review of Pythagore, Amoureux, Pythagoras in Love, Sonnets by Lee Slonimsky; French translation by Elizabeth J. Coleman, 2015, Folded Word

Pythagore, Amoureux – Pythagoras in Love, Sonnets by Lee Slonimsky with a French translation by Elizabeth J. Coleman, is a remarkable act of translation, recreation, and a noteworthy collaboration of poets.

Much like Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, Slonimsky’s vocation (as an investment executive) informs his poetry. The central persona of Pythagoras is the poet’s alter ego; he, like Slonimsky, was schooled in mathematics.

“Pythagoras, for one, values his name:
he’s faithful always to what math proclaims”

“Marriage Vows”, Pythagore Amoureux, p. 96

Pythagoras was also philosopher and poet. The protagonist Pythagoras takes us on a philosophical quest to understand the elusive mysteries of nature, love and the divine through numbers.

“he longs to make a perfect, mystic sense
of all the numbers earth and mind allow.”

“Watching Day and Night”, Pythagore, Amoureux, p.6

The central tenant of the Pythagoreans was that nature and the cosmos could be best comprehended through mathematics. The poet’s examinations of birds and how sunlight “bisects” a tree, brings a new, elegant, and moving appreciation for this ancient philosophy.

Music was the spark for the Pythagoreans’ philosophical insight. They realized that the structure of musical harmonies was mathematical; they used the language of numbers to explain the universe and nature. Life, nature, and the cosmos were governed by a set of organizing principles—some may call it God.

“…The sun is teaching math, this cool May day,
to every leaf and branch that understands
geometry, the gospel of its rays
this is the only meaning he can find.
Each arrowed ray to earth’s a perfect sign
For angle, number shown to trees and man.”

“Teacher in the Woods”, Pythagore, Amoureux, p.40

As Coleman recounted in an interview, “It was just an intuitive thing.  I really liked the book and the idea of it existing in French. And I fell in love with that first poem in the book.” After translating “The Last Digit of Pi”, the first poem in Slonimsky’s Pythagoras in Love, 2007, Orchises Press, Coleman was hooked.

Coleman’s watercolor “Mediterranean Sea”, graces the cover of the collection. With her diverse creative talents, she amplifies the meaning, sound and experience of Slonimsky’s poems. Her versatility as a poet, musician and artist are always in evidence. The beauty and lyricism of the French language burnishes the text, enriching the reader’s journey into the senses, nature, and the mysteries of life.

Coleman achieves her masterful translation by avoiding the constraints of the sonnet form or a narrow translation. She honors Slonimsky in maintaining the spirit and intent of his work. In the “Loneliness of Exile/La Solitude de L’Exil”, p.76, Coleman takes appropriate liberties to retain the poem’s rhythms and meaning.

“The sky and water have a love affair
At dawn covertly, so the woods won’t know”

“Le ciel et l’eau sont amants
A l’aube, scretement, pour que ces bois l’ignornent”’
Le ciel et l’eau sont amants
à l’aube, secrètement, pour que ces bois l’ignorent,

To translate the translator, Coleman’s French version translated literally back to the English reads:

 “The sky and water are lovers
At dawn, secretly, so that these woods ignore them.”

Her translations frequently gift the reader with rhymes that arise organically and harmoniously.  In “Philosopher in Love/ Le Philosophe, Amoureux”, p.26,  “Un est/le plus parfait” or “rayonnment/brulant” are good examples from the verses below:

“…for him eternity’s in numbers: One
the more perfect, like his great love, bequeaths
a universe benevolent and full
of radiance beyond the physical,
alongside eyes as bright as molten sun.”

 “….pour lui les nombres cachent l’éternité: Un est
le plus parfait, comme son grand amour, lègue
un univers bienveillant et plein de rayonnement
audelà du monde physique,
à côté des yeux aussi clairs qu’un soleil brûlant. ”

The musicality of the French language supersedes the constraints of the poems’ original sonnet form. Much as Slonimsky’s exacting choice of words and the sonnet structure bring us to deep reflection, Coleman’s translation meets the challenge of striking the right balance between structure and autonomy.  She is unfettered in her masterful use of the sound patterns of French language to capture the essence of the poem’s meaning.

The collection can be especially enjoyed as an act of immersion; each poem urges the reader to the next. The refrains of sun, birds, leaves, and ponds and the mathematical structures of geometry, angles, and circles—“sun-math of sharp ray angles” (“Lecturer in the Mirror”, p.52) call the reader to contemplate the central themes again and again. The body of work speaks to nature as man’s instructor, and math as nature’s translator.

“The Crow’s Point of View” p.20, illustrates the poet’s virtuosity in capturing nature as man’s “new academy”:

“And yet, when air is still, the water gleams
With trapezoids and ellipses; sunbeams
Seem shining summaries of all the ways
To measure surfaces. Dangling oak leaves
and pond instruct him well in ray-seamed math:
his new academy, a wooded path”

Coleman pays homage to form with a rhyming couplet at the end. “His new academy” becomes “une nouvelle lecon”– a new lesson to rhyme with “rayons”.

“Les feuilles frémissantes de chênes et l’etang lui enseigne bien
les mathématiques cousues de rayons;
dans le sentier de bois, une nouvelle leçon.”

This poem perfectly typifies the recurrent juxtaposition of geometry and nature.

“a loud crow lectures oak leaves just beyond
his line of sight on how a dappled breeze
confuses light. And yes, he must agree
that shadows lie, that rippling branches tease
false theorems from the axes of sun’s rays.”

Coleman artfully strings “corbeau”, “forte”,  “Pythagore” and “Il est d’accord” to connect in a beautiful alignment of sound and rhyme. 

“un corbeau de voix forte que Pythagore ne voit qu’à peine
enseigne aux feuilles de chêne comment une brise tachetée
embrouille la lumière. Il est d’accord:
les ombres sont menteuses, et les branches onduleuses
tirent des théorèmes faux des rayons de soleil."

The poet wanders along his wooded path; poem follows poem like a flock of birds, beckoning the reader to some distant destination. The timeless themes and spare elegance of Slonimsky’s poetry and Coleman’s beautiful translation resonate long after each reading. Slonimsky’s marvelous collection of poems takes us on a transformative journey and we emerge having touched the divine.