'Not like normal stars'
The impulses that inspire poets to think through science span from the investigative, speculative, conceptual, documentary, and more to impulses that use science as a form of address to and from the notion of the other. Lila Zemborain, in Mauve Sea-Orchids (Belladonna, 2007, trs. Rosa Alcalá and Mónica de la Torre), uses scientific diction as a “subhuman device” to document the sea, which, in Zemborain’s book, represents everything fluid, from eros to human consciousness:
when the flower opens its thoughts to the
restlessness of things a cellular language bursts
from the most distant portions of a chain of
sounds materialized in chemical processes that
in essence do not involve the brain but the
connection between the ends and the tissues;
emotion, like a cable charged in an evening
storm, emits dangerous sparks as the inanimate
suddenly becomes electric eel, phosphorescent
dragon in the cerulean night, whip of light; in that
synaptic process in which the spark renovates the
signals, the sounds of the inorganic fulfill their
reinvigorating function; honeysuckle, water-diviner,
planetary, molecular, entwined, cavernulous;
chains of sounds imprinting the miracle of the
conversion of one substance into another
When I teach Mauve Sea-Orchids, I also ask students to write a poem that attempts to document a subject using language from a discipline that is distinct from that subject. My goal is for students to not only read poetry in translation but to simultaneously consider how poetry and scientific diction can function as novel forms of translation where the writer and reader are asked to perform what Jerome Rothenberg refers to in the context of ethnopoetics and oral poetry as “total translation,” bringing form to that which is ordinarily untranslatable.
Rothenberg’s chapbook, A Book of Concealments (Chax Press, 2004), a follow-up collection to A Book of Witness: Spells & Gris-Gris (New Directions, 2003) that suppresses the first-person singular pronoun, aims to be an “intimation…of an imagined world embedded into the real one.” I met Rothenberg in 2008 at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program when I was chairing a panel in which we both participated on the topic of "Environment.” We talked about going beyond the typical notion of environment as nature or wilderness by including subatomic and cosmological spacetime. During these discussions, we thought about his constraint of suppressing the first-person singular pronoun as an expression of dark matter and dark energy, which comprises approximately 97 percent of the known universe. Like the known universe, humans are also comprised of dark matter and dark energy. So is our poetry, Rothenberg’s A Book of Concealments conceptually and procedurally argues.
Matthew Tierney seems to be illuminating the dark matter. In Tierney’s Probably Inevitable (Coach House Books, 2012), science casually merges with human ontological experience and epistemological questions through realism, or what I think of as consensus reality:
Photons bank off the window frame, fool no one,
mere minutes on a zip line from the sun.
Slowed somewhat, it’s known,
by earth’s duo of nitrogen and oxygen.
Blue waves scatter—that’s the answer
to your offspring’s query; or the tub-thumper on pint four
fresh off of Gauloise and demanding.
‘Who says my green’s yours?’ [….]
Leigh Kotsilidis, in Hypotheticals (Coach House Books, 2011), uses science and science fiction not only as modes for thinking but as narrative settings. In “Orphans 1,” a play of speaking parts between Plato, Mulk Raj Anand, Herodotus, and Stephen Hawking, the setting is not Earth but instead:
The cockpit of a spaceship. Unspecified time. An expansive window faces outer space where a mist-like entity stirs.
Some poets are translating the intersections of poetry and science as a way to consider what emerges in the ordinarily untranslatable spaces. Here I think of the poetry of Marcella Durand, who often works from the subject position of science to create thought experiments about nature and language. In her series, “Apparent Orbits,” from Area (Belladonna, 2008), she writes poems to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune. This is the introductory poem in the series, “The Apparent Orbit”:
When time has allowed the stars to drift apart,
a spectral type O reaches a lower temperature
and along the abscissa of the graph maintains
bursts along seams of circles.
If you think music is harmony of spheres
then absolutes placed in the upper left
please those instigated who set margins
measured in luminosity.
The intrinsic brightness does not represent
magnitude, and in your eyes
a telescope, and the same distance,
all their comparisons. If we journey
through the gates of matter correctly,
we enter through the gates of green familiar
and all composition lies open to us
in spectral constellation orbit, tonal.
Poet, visual artist, and musician Brian Lucas invokes what I think of as the outer limits of science in speculative dreamworlds of image, sound, and thought. This is his poem, “By Air,” from his book, Light House (Meeting Eyes Bindery, 2006):
Our summits are a tangle best approached from above. An exposition of light among what we hear in a branch sewn to the sky. The leaves cancel their ability to darn our love to gravity’s sharp center: an intentional science of ecstasy beyond decay.
Other poets use science as a framework for exploring questions that arise from shifting identity-based poetics and more. Lina Ramona Vitkauskas’ chapbook, Failed Star Spawns Planet/Star (Dancing Girl Press, 2005) can be interpreted as a total translation between poetry and science as well as a non-normative treatise for feminist/non/all-gendered spacefarers. The title poem of Failed Star Spawns Planet/Star invokes the brown dwarf star, 2M1207A, “a peculiar cool star,” and its companion exoplanet, 2M1207B. As an homage to this fascinating work, I used the star and its planet as the featured image for this commentary, which is also titled after the last line in Vitkauskas’ poem:
She, 2M1207A, uninspiring,
five times an absurd mass.
With hydrogen fins.
Weightless and washed,
brown dwarf lifts lithium
collapsing nebula lips.
The crow, the cup,
the snake in the sky.
At the head of Cancer,
emitting x-rays. Interior,
the same, yet no chemical
differentiation by depth.
Exoplanet attics dim
her for the release. Solar
bound. Cools and darkens
steadily over a lifetime. The peaking
cream-filled girl locates Hydra
in the vein orbs of her breasts.
Apollo still against her. Never to return
To the sea. A drink to the failed
star. A peculiar cool star.
Not like normal stars.
- Brian Lucas
- Jerome Rothenberg
- Leigh Kotsilidis
- Lila Zemborain
- Lina Ramona Vitkauskas
- Marcella Durand
- Matthew Tierney