Mat Riches reviews The Windmill Proof by Stephen Payne (HappenStance, 2021)
For a book that has branches of mathematics, particularly the work of Euclid, at its heart, to start with a zero – “The goldfishes looked up, open-mouthed” – is, I hope, a deliberate move. Even if it’s not, the maths of it all are still there to be seen from the start.
Stephen Payne’s previous (and first) collection, Pattern Beyond Chance, ends with the poem ‘Pier’ and the last lines of the poem are “I’ll walk the pier’s full length and take / the air toward my father’s shore.” The Windmill Proof opens with a reverse of this, with the same father coming towards him: “For me, you’ll always be mid-air / above the garden pond / you leapt across / from a standing start …”
It’s almost as if the geometric points and lines have been extended out across the two books, perhaps forwards from there as well as backwards in time, and maybe there’s also an echo of the second stanza from Pattern Beyond Chance’s ‘The No-Move Move’:
We liked the sense of continuity
with mathematics and with life.
It reminded us of the invention of zero,
the wisdom of sitting tight.
But – and please forgive the ham-fisted segue here – it’s not a case of sitting tight for Payne.
The Windmill Proof takes its name from a poem towards the end of the collection called ‘Message’, which, on the face of it, discusses Euclid’s proof of Pythagoras’ theorem:
It’s a bit of a stretch,
a visual metaphor –
a gesture more than a picture.
But the poem is more of a look at what we can send to alien life forms to prove our intelligence. In 1974, a message was beamed into space from the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico. It contained amongst other things, a range of information from the numbers one to ten, the formula for DNA and a map of our solar system. It might have been more elegant to send Payne’s poem, with its human worries but also its humane welcome:
We understand scale.
We worry about style,
form and rule.
Friends, our machines
might not work for you but
here is our geometry.
The back of the book describes this as a collection “where fun with an idea (or even a geometrical shape) slips seamlessly into matters of the heart. Stephen Payne is fired by the white-hot joy of language – its sounds, its speed, its spin.” And this is certainly true. There are many examples of this peppered throughout – in ‘Hexagon’ we have “Everybody needs hexagon / in their lexicon”, and Payne revels in the o sounds of ‘Holes’:
porthole pinhole pupil Polo
piss-hole in the snow.
In fact the puns and alliteration in a poem like ‘Triangle’ – “pointy polygon” – are worth the entry fee alone. I would walk many barefoot miles just to shake the hand of someone who came up with “Let trigons be trigons”. What prevents this poem from being more than just a clever recap of GSCE maths, though, is the final stanza. While the preceding stanza talks about the sum of two sides of a triangle always being longer than the third (obviously you remember that), this is brought sharply into focus (and here’s where the matters of the heart kick in) with:
so if Alex loves Blake and Blake loves Chris
it would be easier
if Alex loves Chris.
Just as with mathematics, where there are accepted formulas that can’t be proved, this poem shows that life isn’t straightforward. That second line suggesting “it would be easier” is doing a lot of work here, especially the “would”; it suggests that Alex very much doesn’t love Chris, and that at the pointy end of life someone is going to get hurt. Not for nothing is this poem quoted in full on the back cover. It may not be the best poem in the book, but it is certainly a perfect example of the way Payne’s poetry works.
I would walk many barefoot miles just to shake the hand of someone who came up with “Let trigons be trigons”
There’s also a playfulness of ideas, as seen in ‘Poem’. It’s almost impossible not to quote its three lines in full, but it has a nice take on a line from Don Paterson, “… a poem is just a little machine for remembering itself”. In Payne’s poem were told that a bell on the hat is one of these aforementioned machines “for remembering its elf.”
A further example of this playfulness, and the one that will perhaps ring truest with any writer, is to be found in ‘Typo’.
What the proofs prove
is that there must always exist
more typographical errors
than can be noticed,
even by the most careful scrutiniser.
And among the overlooked
is one that confronts the author
the very first time
he opens the published version.
It would be wrong of me to reveal the typo that leaps out at the end of this poem so I will leave it to you to buy a copy and to find it for yourself, but it’s a good one.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a book that focuses on geometry must be in want of a look at form and structure, and The Windmill Proof doesn’t disappoint, with many of the poems working with strong formal strictures. There are a significant number of tercets, couplets and quatrains deployed as well as less formally constrained structures. I was particularly drawn to the single lined form of ‘Line’ with its spaced out lines about lines and the act of understanding,
Also a model of a real path:
incident light refracting through a lens;
a chain between two hooks;
the reader’s gaze, following an idea.
For all of the wonderful use of maths and geometry to bring ideas to life, there are many poems in this collection that focus on the inner thoughts and mind wanderings – the “following an idea” of the author – and to my mind these are some of the best poems in the collection. A wonderful example of this is ‘Commute’ with its lovely deployment of rhyme to keep bringing things back into focus.
After the tunnel my mind begins to wander
and all my wanderings are so interior
that when I peer out through the carriage window
nothing is even distantly familiar
The poem goes on to describe using a recognisable point that helps bring us back to focus on the here and now, but also “leaving as a different mystery / why things have been initially obscure.”
For all of the shapes and patterns at play here, The Windmill Proof is ultimately a collection that dwells on memory, on recollections and the impact of time as we get older
It’s a device also deployed to great effect in ‘Mind, Wandering’. “Walking this unfamiliar bridleway, / I’m more than usually mindful of / the here and now…” writes Payne. However this very act of being aware and concentrating sees him drift off into a reverie about Ryan O’ Neal in the Kubrick film Barry Lyndon, until his wife’s “innocent call returns me to the path, / identifying a flower I couldn’t name / and birdsong I might not even have noticed.”
For all of the shapes and patterns at play here, The Windmill Proof is ultimately a collection that dwells on memory, on recollections and the impact of time as we get older – that “incident [of] light refracting through a lens”. We see this at work in ‘Switch’, where
At Temple Meads, train front became train back.
Until this midway change of tack
I was considering the here
in terms of what was drawing near.
Now I face what lies behind.
In ‘Cone’, towards the end of the collection, we are told about Euclid’s Optics
What lies beyond the cone
is outside the bounds
and that while this model was flawed it allowed him to work, to hypothesise,
reaching into the dark.
To return to the beginning, like the circles and closed shapes of some of these poems, there’s a phrase at the end of the poem ‘Crown Green Bowls’ where Payne harks back to a game from his youth – “that summer we were young / but played at being old”, where
the bias against the crown, a mark
on the green near the jack for a guide
or else we let
the effects add, sending the wood on an arc
that seemed impossibly wide.
Just as the sails of a windmill keep turning full circle, that impossibly wide gap brings me back to the moment at the start of the collection, Payne’s father “mid-air / above the garden pond” and the kids holding their breath.
Mat Riches is ITV’s poet-in-residence (they don’t know this). His work’s been in a number of journals and magazines, most recently Wild Court, The High Window and Finished Creatures. He co-runs the Rogue Strands poetry evenings, reviews for HappenStance, The High Window and London Grip, and has a pamphlet due out from Red Squirrel Press in 2023. Read Mat Riches’ blog Wear The Fox Hat.