Hypatia’s wake by Susan Andrews Grace

In Hypatia’s Wake, Susan Andrews Grace provides a deeper look at the Egyptian Neo-platonic philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician Hypatia of Alexander. Hypatia, who lived from 355-415 CE, has been credited as being the first female mathematician, and has had many students who admired and respected her. However, she fell victim to political jealousy, and around age 60, she was brutally murdered.

Some of the poems are prefaced by excerpts from letters written to Hypatia from Synesius, one of her students. Others are kicked off with reference to historical writings, like Euclid’s theories, or the philosophies of Hegel and Descartes. Some segments riff off statements about Hypatia’s life and history. In each case, though, Grace uses the introductory bit as a jumping-off point for a poem.

While the bulk of the poetry reflects on Hypatia’s life and significance, Grace sometimes makes a link back to more recent times. For example, she notes:

Hypatia held her own with the mighty of Alexandria.
They’d have said in the 1950s,
she thought like a man
Truth was, men thought like her.

Because of its subject matter, some of the poems deal with difficult topics, including the manner of Hypatia’s death. Yet despite the darkness, there is both beauty and humour in Grace’s poetry. Hypatia, Grace says, “entertained Idea and / reined in stars with her astrolabe.” Grace writes:

If Hypatia were the sea, she would be immense,
no thought could draw a line to erase her
and time would drown, its river swallowed
in estuary . . .

Elsewhere, she comments

ends and depths of existence
are closer than we think
if we could only see
outside the slice of discovery. Our galaxy turns
inside out like an Egyptian pillowcase in Hypatia’s house
feather geometry falls, snow of particles,
hints for the dubious, along a membrane of doubt

A common refrain in the collection is the paradoxical nature of Hypatia’s life—and by extension, the lives of women throughout the ages. Hypatia was caught between competing expectations. Because she chose not to marry and not to have children, she was seen as not fulfilling the typical expectations of a woman. Yet, if she had fulfilled the typical expectations of a woman, she likely would have been denied the opportunity to spend the kind of time she wanted studying and teaching her favourite subjects. She was, in many ways, darned if she did and darned if she didn’t. As Grace puts it,

Paradoxical, Hypatia’s dilemma in Alexandria—
she goes into the streets as a free woman
is killed on the way home because
she goes into the streets as a free woman.

Grace notes that Hypatia’s accomplishments are far less celebrated in history than they might have been had she been a man. This invisibility is a critical point for Grace, who states, in a closing section titled “The Flesh of Invisibility,”

Hypatia lived and the flesh of her invisibility has not stolen her from us forever. We can claim her and wake her loss as we are awakened to her. When we give Hypatia back to the flesh of the world, we claim visibility.

She sees invisibility is a key issue for women:

. . . women’s history is invisible for the most part and yet it exists. If women do not partake in the  history of the world it is because we do not partake of institutions and culture as full beings. If we have no history, it’s because we are not visible beings. If we are not visible, it’s often because we lack rights.

Part lament, part eulogy, part history lesson, part biography, Hypatia’s Wake is much broader than a series of poems and facts about a remarkable woman who, as Grace puts it, “fell into history’s abyss.” It is about women, invisibility, and the way we’ve been ignored and under-valued throughout the centuries. In reclaiming Hypatia’s story, Grace argues, we reclaim our own: “Hypatia’s ghost survives. / Remember.”

About the Author

Susan Andrews Grace lives in Nelson, British Columbia, where she maintains a visual art practice and teaches at Oxygen Art Centre.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Inanna Poetry & Fiction Series (Sept. 13 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 100 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771339098
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771339094
See also  Just Passing By Kamal Parmar

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