Review by Katelyn Vause
A Mystic Dream of 4
ISBN: 978 0 992629
Iggy McGovern’s A Mystic Dream of 4 is one of the most unusual poetry books I have read to date. I should clarify that this isn’t meant to detract from the man or the work, and in fact, its uncommon subject is actually one of the things that makes it most appealing to me. Like McGovern, I have a shared interest in both the sciences and humanities, and Mystic is a book of sonnets following the life of the famous Irish mathematician who also wrote poetry, William Rowan Hamilton.
McGovern explains in the preface the deliberate nature of the collection’s setup. Hamilton discovered quaternions, a mathematical notation with its basis in the number four that is used to represent orientation and rotation. As such, the book is divided into four sections named after a “parent” related to that discovery and concept, for a total of 64 sonnets. Because this book doubles as a biography of sorts, there are also a couple of lines at the bottom of almost every page explaining more about the character or situation covered in the sonnet. I am of two minds about these notes. On the one hand, they can be a little distracting and over explain certain features of Hamilton’s story. On the other hand, they provide important historical context that wouldn’t work within the sonnet itself, thus supplementing the pieces in a way that contributes to the book’s purpose.
Each of the voices in McGovern’s book “speak” only once, with the exception of one character who is featured at the end of each of the four sections: Death. Death haunted Hamilton, both on a personal level and as a 19th century Irishman who would be alive during The Great Famine. For example, the opening lines of the first of these sonnets describes the passing of three people from his life,
“You did not think to meet me at this stage,
The ever present uninvited guest,
But, whether of disease or plain old age,
I brought him news of three gone to their rest.”
Clearly, three was not Hamilton’s number. One of the things that I find interesting about this poem is that it comes at the end of the section titled “Geometry”. Geometry, of course, primarily deals with shapes, and it is clear that these deaths “shaped” Hamilton’s life.
One of death’s close relatives, loss, also characterized Hamilton’s life. As a student, he fell in love with Catherine Disney and the feeling was mutual; however, Catherine was already betrothed and unable to convince her father to break the engagement, causing the pair grief for the rest of their lives. Both the tale and the telling have a Shakespearean quality to it; indeed, McGovern uses the Shakespearean sonnet form and cleverly alludes to Romeo and Juliet when talking about the romance at the end of the Algebra section,
“That age-old drama of the star-crossed lovers;
O never was there such a tale of woe…”
One of the things I appreciate about this collection is the strong voices of each of the characters; even the personifications have their own distinct personality, and it is up to the reader whether or not we like them in their view on Hamilton and his life events. Narrative threads are pulled through the collection by appropriate voices that fit with the title of each of the four sections; just as each “parent” lead to Hamilton’s quaternions, they also describe stages of his life. In fact, my favorite poem in the entire collection is the parent poem that opens the final section: “Poetry”.
“From Gilgamesh through Homer to Li Po,
From Chaucer to blind Milton I am proud
To sit and watch my standing army grow,
Yet cast a cold eye on the current crowd.
Whose heart was dancing with the daffodils?
Whose villain of the piece was Ralph The Rover?
Whose gardens that were bright with sinuous rills?
Whose note of sadness on the beach at Dover?
If poetry makes nothing happen might
The other way around also be true?
He countered that when Science bade goodnight
His versifying retired too
He was no Swift, no Donne, nor yet a Pope;
I liked the one about the telescope.”
Poetry engages the brain in a way few other activities can. If Hamilton’s mind was busy thinking of verse, it was also busy thinking of science. I admire this poem because it disputes the false notion that one must be either “scientifically” or “artistically” minded. I also appreciate the implication that one does not have to be a “great” poet to write good poetry that in some way makes an impact, whether it be for oneself or others. McGovern’s book succeeds in not only telling the story of an incredibly important mathematician, but also in getting to the person behind that great mind, one who had failures and triumphs and a love of the art of poetry.