Head of Eros (Cupid), from the antique. Printed in Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1883).
Note to “The Politicians’ Antic Spoil”
Following Harry Mathews’s death in 2017, his widow, Marie Chaix, provided me with two folders containing drafts and notes for an unfinished poem: “The Politicians’ Antic Spoil.” The notes describe a plan to “double” the traditional sestina form that had long fascinated Mathews, in which six six-line stanzas, plus an envoi of three lines, share the same six end-words in a preordained mathematical arrangement.
To complicate matters, Mathews established the novel constraint that, within the first half of the poem, the end-words would be transformed by subtraction with each repetition. When the end-words from the first stanza “reappear” in the second, they’ve lost a letter, and the surviving letters are rearranged to make a new word. Another letter is excised at each turn, as the words driving the poem forward grow smaller. In the envoi concluding the first half of the poem, just one letter remains. The second half of the poem would reverse this approach, building the end-words back up, one letter at a time.
Unfortunately, Mathews never finished his double sestina. His drafts support a nearly complete first half (four-and-a-half stanzas of the necessary six completed) and an envoi which, as it does not perfectly adhere to the mathematical structure, may only have been a first draft. No evidence has surfaced of the proposed second half. Given Mathews’s love of puzzles, and the hold that this one had on him during the preparation of his collected poems, it seemed fitting to publish the poem in its current state, incomplete though it may be. Readers of Mathews and puzzle solvers will, I hope, enjoy its challenges and possibilities.
—Arlo Haskell is the editor of Harry Mathews’s Collected Poems: 1946-2016 (Sand Paper Press, February 2020).