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BUT IS IT SCIENCE?
REVIEW BY JANE ROUTH


OF SCIENCE edited by David Morley and Andy Brown, 43pp, £6.00, Worple Press, 12 Havelock Road, Tonbridge, Kent TN9 1JE
A RESONSIBILITY TO AWE by Rebecca Elson, 159pp, £6.95, Carcanet

There are poems in Of Science which I’ve read and re-read with enormous pleasure. It opens with ‘Audubon Becomes Obsessed with Birds’ – a poem which delights and informs as it leaps in its shapely way from idea to idea:

    
because both birds and whales sing;

    
because both birds and whales migrate – ergo birds are the souls of whales;

    
because you need a compass & a map to migrate accurately;

    
because migrating birds have both

It’s a well put together collection of poems, that moves from birds through trees, sea, ice, cities on to relationships. It’s a book I’m glad I bought, and it’s important to say this at the outset, as I quarrel with much of the thinking behind this anthology. The title Of Science could be taken two ways: writing about science or writing by scientists. Quoting Lyrical Ballads, the introduction promises poems in which

engagement with scientific phenomena, practice and language is…unmisted, personal and celebratory of the idea that ‘poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science.’

My expectations are that I’m going to find something quite distinctive in this collection – new insights, new ideas, new language, a different way of apprehending the world. And I don’t find them. If the collection demonstrates anything, it’s that scientists can make poets. (For all I know so might bookmakers or vets.) But the poems are not as distinctive as the editors wish them to be: if I hadn’t been told in the preface that the collection was written by scientists, I don’t think that I would have realised. Yes, ‘Darwinian’ does open with ‘Two freshwater biologists in a smack, upstream’, but this does not make it ‘of science’; only in the third stanza is a line which goes to the heart of things in a memorable way: ‘The observations: tiny, as essential as daybreak’. There’s a thing: observations tiny.

I can’t say who wrote the poems: they are presented anonymously. Personalities are avoided; the ‘Preface asks us to attend to the poems: ‘Anonymity within the sciences is a common and responsible strategy for ensuring that an original contribution to knowledge gains greater attention than its researcher.’ (Isn’t anonymity about peer review, rather than publication?) Anyway this doesn’t help me find more poems by the writer of that ‘Audubon…’ poem.

We do know, however, that the poems are written by real scientists, who  ‘learned their attitudes of science “in laboratories”’. This is to draw a contrast with non-scientists who write about scientific theories out of context. The book opens with a long quotation from Sokel and Bricmont’s Intellectual Impostures: ‘The natural sciences are not a mere reservoir of metaphors ready to be used in the human sciences…’ and although the ‘Preface’ backs down a little from this position, admitting there are non-scientists who write well of scientific disciplines, nevertheless it is the headline that greets you as you open the book. This is our patch; clear off the rest of you.

So a poem in this collection could be by Rebecca Elson, a research astronomer whose A Responsibility to Awe (another book I’m glad I bought) was published posthumously. Several poems address her discipline, but with so light a touch you’re aware of her humanity not her background: ‘The Expanding Universe’ begins ‘How do they know, he is asking, / He is seven, maybe’.  The poem ‘What if There Were no Moon’ opens ‘There would be no months / A still sea / No spring tides’ and closes with the stunning:

    
No place to stand
    
And watch the Earth rise

Elson’s work took her around the world: the poems swing out, then back to her family. There is little mention of her cancer, except in poems like ‘Radiology South’ and ‘OncoMouse, Kitchen Mouse’: ‘I hear you down there in the dark / When your cousins in my head / Are waking up’.

But the poems are only part: extracts from her notebooks make up almost half of the book. Verse-notes, observations, explorations, the fresh, first-discovered thoughts that might later be worked into a poem…it is a rare privilege to read a writer’s notebook, with it’s crossings-outs and re-workings, and examples (I wish the editors had included more) of what she took through into a finished poem. The notebooks are intimate, wide-ranging, illuminating – and moving: just before she died (at 39), she wrote: ‘Who would have thought / I’d be the first to go / of all of us / The first departure / First death / And ten years to contemplate / The going / Why me to face all this? // Can’t I just go back / to the mountains…’

And as if this were not enough, the book closes with ‘From Stones to Stars’, an essay she wrote in 1998 about her longstanding interest in science from childhood. ‘Poem for my Father’ touches on this too:

    
Following you down a strand line
    

    
You honouring all my questions
    
With your own.

The essay discusses her struggle to be a scientist in a Princeton which was ‘irrefutably male’. ‘In indefinable ways it was alienating.’ (p 157) A gathering of poets on Tuesday evenings kept her afloat. (Cambridge, by contrast, ‘had never really seemed a bastion of male scientists’.) It’s a wonderful piece to show to a young person sitting science A levels, with the prospect of ‘days inside a tent with such a dazzling roof’. Rebecca Elson’s excitement in her discipline is infectious. And that’s not least because she writes as a whole person, openly observing herself and the world she moves through.

          © Jane Routh 2002