by Judith Barisonzi
Quick, what do you think of when you hear the word “whale”? Massive size? A waterspout? Singing? Do you think of statistics, or do you think of metaphor? Let me tell you what two poets have to say about whales—and much else—in recent books that marry science and poetry—or at least bring them into the same room.
Robin Chapman’s book, The Eelgrass Meadow (Tebot Boch, 2011), resulted from a Creative Writing in Science Workshop at the Banff International Research Station, as well as from her background in language acquisition and communication. I don’t know specifically what Chapman studied at the workshop, but Darwinian evolution is the key to how she understands the natural world, and one of her examples of evolution is the development of the whale. In “Breathing” she imagines the forerunners of whales returning to the sea:
How must it have felt, for those mammals
mad with hunger and cold
turning back again to the sea,
walking into the light-laced foam
into the surf
clinking with ice
Note that the question Chapman asks is how the whales felt: she interprets scientific information through the lens of consciousness and emotion. She marvels at how life and consciousness arise from molecules and synapses,
the ponderous spools of DNA begin to turn,
start new proteins spinning, and all the business
of your life shifts—you set the table with stone
ware and silver, sit down to dine on black-eyed
peas and hog jowls to welcome the new year,
offer the bowl of chopped green onions
to the man whom you will love for years.
(“The Second Messengers”)
But scientists, in Chapman’s view, do not concern themselves with these questions. In poem after poem, she focuses on the reductionism of science, its insistence on distancing itself from the subject of study:
I quit the major, wanting to know what fly veer
and sun dazzle, cool muck and frog smog, meant to the frog,
not how to curarize, chloroform, pith, and dissect.
(“The End of Biology”)
For Chapman it’s all about connections, the unity of all carbon-based life, “a hunger to be heard/by a fellow creature“ (“How We Know What We Know”):
geese following and trading leads
down the magnetic flare of sky,
elephant caressing her mother’s skull,
what rises in the apple tree,
the fruitfly feeding on the apple,
the fruitfly’s memory of the tree—
what works in them, at work in me.
(“What Binds the Slime Mold Cells”)
Chapman also decries man’s destruction of nature in the name of science, particularly the development of the atomic bomb and nuclear weapons. As a child she lived in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where her father worked in “Project Sunshine,” and her personal story of the father’s desertion of the family becomes entwined with the impersonal, destructive mindset of modern scientific endeavor:
Which way was right?
The right was science-skewed,
the long miles of buildings
devoted to their task of sorting molecules,
pulling the small handfuls of death
out of the tons of yellowcake.
Chapman’s descriptions of nature are both lovely and keenly specific, such as this portrait of a creature most of us would shudder at (if we noticed it at all):
Black as wet anthracite
in rain-drenched grass,
black deepened to wrinkled,
with the green-flecked shine
of emerald bottle glass . . .
(“Large Black Slug (Arion ater)”)
Many of her personal poems are lovely as well; my favorite is “Portrait of the poet as small ghost,” describing herself as a little girl in a Halloween costume:
standing in light rain
wearing a white pillow case
down to her feet
corners knotted for ears,
cut out for eyes,
larger Os for arms,
holding the handle
of a little red wagon
and her grandfather’s hand—
Halloween, that new word
the ceremony of standing
invisible in plain view.
Despite these highlights, though, I found The Eelgrass Meadow a little preachy and didactic, while at the same time offering nothing controversial, no new way of seeing the world. This is the case especially in the section entitled “Old-Growth Forests.“ For instance, in the poem, “Slender Loris,” Chapman informs us: “and when the thread of the forest goes/vanishing too will be its power/to bring down the rain, to hold the soil” (p 77). Like, I suspect, most readers of poetry, I love whales, hate atomic bombs, and mourn the passing of old-growth forests. The Eelgrass Meadow didn’t make me see things differently.
I did see things differently when I read the second book, The Scientific Method, by Mary Alexandra Agner. It’s a smaller book—a chapbook, actually—but a more challenging read. Agner’s book is based on metaphor, on the correspondence between inner and outer, though I wasn’t always sure whether science was a metaphor for self or vice versa.
While Chapman meditates on how whales felt, Agner (whose book even has a breaching whale on the cover) becomes a whale. I can best explain this by analyzing one poem in some detail: “Duet for Leviathan and Glass.” The glass is a telescope through which the “I” of the poem (let’s go ahead and call her Agner) seeks to connect with the stars. The telescope case,
blue and grey at twilight,
shivers its length under my hands,
large and cold and clumsy as a baby whale,
The case squeaks, sounding like a whale’s song. Whales find each other through song, through echolocation; similarly, “The stars reach out from pockets of light: echolocation.” Like a whale,
the telescope bucks up,
rolls over, pectoral fins pin wheeling, flukes
spraying reflected photons up in arcs
in the kelp tresses of the Milky Way.
Agner describes the telescope as a whale, but once up in the sky, among the stars. Sea becomes sky, and a connection is made: “a star breaches above the glow: response,” until finally Agner swims, breathes, and swims like a whale:
Upward with the telescope I sing,
swimming my one song of constellation names
and heaving breaths in the ancient language of light.
Agner doesn’t tell us about the unity of being; through metaphor, her poem becomes that unity.
In Agner’s poems, this metaphoric identification of the personal with the cosmic is both serious and playful. In “Mother Underfoot,” her theme is the pulling away and together of a mother and daughter—a human theme, maybe, but the mother is also Mother Earth—a coastline, the aurora borealis, ice growing, asteroids, fault lines in the earth, and molten metal. The mother’s voice, addressing her daughter, is at once cosmic—
it‘s true you‘ve had nice things to say
about my jeweled aurora borealis and australis—
Haven’t I paid enough
attention? Why do you try so hard to leave?
In addition to playing with metaphor that links inner and outer worlds, Agner is fond of experimenting with forms and rhythms. For example, one long poem, “What Light I Can Conjure,” has five-line stanzas with repeated first and last lines, the middle three lines rhyming—hard to sustain for twenty stanzas, especially since they‘re also in anapestic tetrameter.
The playful tone extends to Agner’s portrayals of our scientist fore-mothers. Chapman tends to depict scientists as emotionally distant; Agner portrays these women as fascinated by the “finite mystery“ (“Perception Test") of the world science reveals to us, and as motivated by humanitarian zeal. She admires women such as Florence Nightingale:
Nightingale, sing with sweet song
of statistics, math made
to improve man‘s lot
To Agner, science is a a human enterprise that reveals knowledge of self as well as of the outer world. She imagines the voice of Nobel-prize-winning Barbara McClintock:
What twists of self, what sister strands,
remain inside my rings, never expressed? (“Jump the Chromosome")
It is a story of heroism, of inspiration. Of Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray pictures of DNA became the basis of modern molecular biology, she writes
Mirror, mirror, made by spinster’s hands
to map the human universe …
Break the glass
ceiling and hike back up the sugar trail
so we might make a fable of you,
earworm for a thousand thousand nights
(“Ros’ Final Hike”).
Perhaps you haven’t thought of Nightingale as a scientist? And perhaps you haven’t heard of women like Grace Hopper (“Grace Hopper Sneers at the Feminist Reporter”) or Mary Sears (“Ebb”), or Mary Somerville, whom Agner calls “my Virgil … my guide/ to the gears of the globe and the laws of the void“ (“What Light I Can Conjure")? Read the book. It’s tough going, it’s fun, and you’ll rethink what you thought you knew. After all, isn’t that what science is all about? And poetry too?
Judy Barisonzi has been a Wisconsin resident since 1966, and she now lives among the lakes and woods of northwest Wisconsin. Semi-retired from teaching English at the University of Wisconsin Colleges, she gives workshops in creative writing and memoir writing, participates in several local writing groups, and publishes poems in local and national magazines.